All Ye Who Sleep Tonight, Remember...
As I walk into my mother's home, I am assailed by the wonderfully nutty aroma of semolina (sooji) being roasted on a slow fire. She is busy stirring the contents of a large wok (karahi). All around her lie evidence of a Work In Progress: chopped raisins and cashewnuts, flaked almonds and slivers of pistachios as well as shavings of coconut. I can smell the cardamom-scentedqimam simmering away on a back burner. On a side table, piles of big and small dishes and trays have been washed and stacked. Soojikahalwa is being prepared in sufficiently large quantities to be distributed among friends, neighbours, the poor and indigent. Tonight, she will have an early dinner and prepare for long night of prayer. For, tonight is a very special night.
For the faithful, tonight is a night of prayer and repentance, of asking forgiveness and seeking barakaat or blessings. Tonight is the 15th night of the month of Shabaanwhich, according to the Muslim lunar calendar, is Shab-e-Baraat, or the Night of Forgiveness. Attempting to fully capture its importance for my teenage daughters in a language they might best understand, my mother describes it thus: 'Imagine it as the Budget Session of your personal Parliament, when your budget is prepared, when the previous year's accounts are totalled up and what lies ahead is allocated for you.'
And, indeed, Shab-e-Baraat, also known as Lailat-ulDua, is the Night of Records when our past catches up with us and our future can be corrected by only repentance and prayer. The night spent in prayer and asking for forgiveness, is followed by a day of fasting. Graveyards wear a festive look with candles lit and flower petals scattered on many graves and more visitors even than Eid as people flock to offer fateha at the graves of their loved ones, though such a practice is questioned by many as bida'at or innovation. However, even those who would scoff at the mingling of ritual with religion cannot undermine the historic significance of this day during the eighth month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
The Islamic calendar which commenced in the year 622 AD, the year of Prophet Muhammad's hijrat or migration from Mecca to Medina, marks the daily rhythms of the lives of countless Muslims as they simultaneously straddle two worlds - in many cases, the 'outer' one governed by the Gregorian calendar and their often hidden, 'inner' world where days and occasions are ticked off against the Hijri calendar. And, the Hijri calendar is not just a sentimental system of time reckoning and dating important religious events, such as Siyaam (fasting) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). It has a much deeper religious and historical significance. According to the scholar of Islam, Abul Hassan al-Nadvi:
'It (the advent of the 15th century) is indeed, a unique occasion to ponder that the Islamic Era did not start with the victories of Islamic wars, nor with the birth or death of the prophet (PBUH), nor with the Revelation itself. It starts with Hijra, or the sacrifice for the cause of Truth and for the preservation of the Revelation. It was a divinely inspired selection. God wanted to teach man that struggle between Truth and Evil is eternal. The Islamic year reminds Muslims every year not of the pomp and glory of Islam but of its sacrifice and prepares them to do the same.'
For the historians of Islam there are the numerous battles fought in the early years, the birth of members of the Prophet's family, the deaths of the sahabior the Prophet's companions, as also the matrimonial alliances forged, the oaths of allegiance taken, and the declaration of truce among warring tribes. Certain irrevocable decisions pertaining to Islamic ritual and practice can also be affixed - such as the decision to adopt the qibla or direction towards the Kaaba which was taken on the 15th of Shabaan two years after Hijrat. On the 25th of Shabaan in the same year fasting during the month of Ramazan was made compulsory.
But for people like my mother, devout Muslims who wear their religion like a second skin, the occasion of Shab-e-Baraat affords an opportunity to teach successive generations about the wonderful gift that came through the Messenger of God: the gift of prayer and penitence. Through word and deed, she teaches my children -- just as she taught me - that forgiveness and blessings are ours for the asking. We only need to ask and we shall receive.
More about Rakhshanda JalilRakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.
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