What is Sha‘ban?
The short answer
Sha‘ban is the eighth lunar month of the Islamic calendar, which is properly called the Hijri year.
Why is this month named Sha’ban?
It is said that historically “the people” (sha‘b in Arabic) used to ‘scatter’ or ‘disperse’ (tasha‘aba) in this month in search of water or provision. It may also be that this month ‘branches’ out, or ‘extends’ (sha‘aba) to bridge two significant months in the calendar, from the sacred month of Rajab to the month of Divine Revelation, Ramadan. When referring to multiple months of Sha‘ban, one says Sha‘banat or Sha‘abin.
What is special about the month of Sha‘ban?
- Sha‘ban falls between the sacred month of Rajab and the fasting month of Ramadan, which marks the commencement of God’s revelation of the Quran, the Last of the divine dispensations and the Heavenly Scripture of Muslims. Ramadan also hosted the earthly entry of all the preceding Heavenly Books from God to their messengers, including the scripture of Abraham, the Torah (Tawrah) of Moses, the Psalms of David (Zabur), and the Evangel (Injil) of Jesus, on them be peace.
- Sha‘ban marks the month in which God first enjoined Muslims to fast the entire month of Ramadan (the Fourth Rite of Islam’s Five Pillars) as a community. This happened in the second Hijri year. The Hijrah, the migration of the Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace, and his Companions to Madinah after 13 years of calling to Islam in Makkah inaugurates the Islamic calendar.
- Sha‘ban was “of all the months the one God’s Messenger most preferred as to his fasting, which he would then connect to Ramadan,” according to his wife Aisha, God be pleased with her (Abu Dawud).
- Sha‘ban is likely the month in which God commanded the Prophet, on him be peace, and the Muslims to change their ‘qiblah,’ that is, their direction of ritual prayer (salah, the Second Rite of Islam’s Five Pillars) from Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to the Ka‘bah in Makkah.
Why did the Prophet, on him be peace, favor fasting in Sha‘ban?
He himself, on him be peace, cited two reasons to the young Companion Usamah ibn Zayd, who was considered part of the Prophet’s household. Usamah reports:
I said: O Messenger of God! I do not see you fasting [as much] in any other month like you fast in Sha‘ban. He said: ‘That is a month – between Rajab and Ramadan – that people overlook. It is a month, moreover, wherein deeds go up to the Lord of the Worlds, and I like for my deeds to go up while I am fasting.’
The people “overlooking” Sha‘ban are Muslim worshippers. It means we may tend to focus our striving in extra devotions on the preceding month of Rajab, because it is one of the four months God declared sacred; and on month coming after, Ramadan, in which God obliges fasting and exhorts and entices the believers to all kinds of meritorious actions besides – including offering supererogatory prayers, both individually and communally in tarawih; giving much in voluntary charity and paying the due alms of Zakat; and committing to utmost recitation of the Quran and to ritual retreat [see here] in the mosques, especially in Ramadan’s last 10 days, seeking out the Night of Empowering Decree, Laylat Al-Qadr [see here].
The implication of what the Prophet, on him be peace, has said to Usamah, God be pleased with him, is that in relation to the merit of observing voluntary fasts, not even the sacred months match the ones closest to Ramadan, meaning Sha‘ban, which comes directly before it, and Shawwal, the 10th lunar month, which immediately follows Ramadan, and harbors the Six White Days for fasting, which when fasted in addition to the fast of Ramadan equate in divine reward to one’s fasting that entire year. The two months straddling the obligatory fast of Ramadan, then, comprise the best preparatory and augmenting months, respectively, for one’s additional fasts.
The scholars liken these months for fasting to one’s ‘Sunnah’ Salat-prayers offered before and after one’s obligatory (fard) Salat-prayers, so called because one emulates the ‘Way’ of the Prophet, on him be peace, in performing these “extra prophetic devotions,” or al-sunan al- rawatib. Notably, these established voluntary prayers make up for the shortcomings in our obligatory prayers. Then what of our added fasts of Sha‘ban and Shawwal, in relation to our required fasting of Ramadan?
So voluntary fasting in Sha‘ban before Ramadan’s obligatory fast ranks in excellence, in this form of worship, even over fasting in the four Sacred Months, except for days in those months or others that the Prophet, on him be peace, particularly specified, like the Tenth (‘Ashura) of in Muharram (which used to be obligatory on Muslims before the command to fast Ramadan); the Day of the Standing (‘Arafah) during the Hajj-Pilgrimage (for those not making Hajj); Shawwal’s Six White Days, and so forth.
Did the Prophet, on him be peace, fast all of Sha‘ban?
No, according to Aisha, God be pleased with her, and others of his Companions, like Ibn Abbas.
God’s Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace, would fast [successive days] until we’d say: He’ll not break his [daily] fasting. And he did not fast [for days] until we’d say: He’ll not fast [again]. Yet never did I see God’s Messenger, God bless him and grant him peace, complete a full month of fasting but in Ramadan. Apart from this, never did I see him fasting more than he did in Sha‘ban. (Bukhari and Muslim)
She did say, also, in another narration of this report, that “he’d fast Sha‘ban then join it to Ramadan.”
This resembles a report from his wife Umm Salamah, God be pleased with her. “I did not see the Prophet, God bless him and grant him peace, fast two consecutive months except Sha‘ban and Ramadan” (Tirmidhi).
It’s possible the Prophet fasted all of Sha‘ban, but more than likely this is a figure of speech in Arabic, meaning that he fasted all but a few of that month’s days. English also allows for such expression. One who fasts, say, 27 days of Sha‘ban can acceptably say, ‘I fasted Sha‘ban.”
Other strong reports support this. Aisha, God be pleased with her, said: “I know not of God’s Messenger, on him be peace, ever reciting the whole of the Quran in a night, or praying the nightlong until dawn, or fasting a complete month but Ramadan (Muslim).
Ibn Abbas, God be pleased with him, said: “Never did the Messenger of God, God bless him and grant him peace, fast a month in full but Ramadan” (Muslim).
The renown hadith commentator Ibn Hajar comments that the Prophet, on him be peace, “fasted more in Sha‘ban than in other months” excepting Ramadan.
So, it is high desirable (mustahabb) to fast much of Sha‘ban. At the least, one should fast something of it, as it is the Sunnah (Way) of the Prophet, on him be peace. This is, of course, provided it will not deplete one’s ability to fast Ramadan, which is an obligation.
Can a person fast the last days of Sha‘ban connected to Ramadan?
The Prophet, on him be peace, said regarding the crescent that shows the beginning of the lunar month of Ramadan (and so the end of Sha‘ban): “Fast, all of you, at its sighting and break fast, all of you, at its sighting. And should it appear overcast to you, then complete Sha‘ban’s count at thirty” (Bukhari).
Based on this hadith, or statement of the Prophet, on him be peace, it is forbidden (haram) for Muslims to fast on what Muslim scholars term a Day of Doubt.
The issue is determining whether the 29th or 30th day of any a lunar month is its last. No lunar month may be more than 30 days. Some are only 29, whereupon at sunset the new moon appears. If it does, then the next day is the first day of the next lunar month. If it does not, then the waning lunar month will complete at 30 days. A Day of Doubt occurs when the condition of the sky prevents the new crescent’s sighting?
In Sha‘ban, this becomes a critical ascertainment as the fast of Ramadan follows its last day? (Similarly, it is forbidden to fast the Day of Eid, the first day of Shawwal, after the completion of the month of Ramadan.)
The Companion Ammar ibn Yasir, God be pleased with him, said: “Whoever fasts a Day of Doubt has disobeyed the Father of Qasim, God’s blessings and peace be upon him” [Qasim was the first son of the Prophet, on him be peace], (Tirmidhi).
The renowned hadith commentator Ibn Hajar concurs that fasting a Day of Doubt is forbidden, for such a statement from a Companion is not personal opinion but like an open- ended report attributable to the Prophet, on him be peace.
This is the prevailing view regarding a Day of Doubt. However, if one is following a legitimately different ruling regarding the last day of Sha‘ban versus the occurrence of Ramadan’s first day, one may not fast that day, but not go openly against the prevalent determination of Ramadan by a recognized authority.
Are there any justifications for fasting the last days of Sha‘ban?
The Companion Abu Hurayrah, God be pleased with him, whose name has become synonymous with reporting hadith, said: “The Messenger of God, God’s blessings and peace be upon him, said: ‘Do not preempt Ramadan by fasting one or two days before it, save those who habitually fast [on days that coincide with them], who may fast’ ” (Bukhari and Muslim).
One who fears missing Ramadan’s first fasting day and knowingly fasts the last day(s) of Sha‘ban has violated the prophetic prohibition that such fasting is haram, forbidden.
One fulfilling an obligatory fast, either of a Ramadan day missed, a vow broken, or for mandatory penitence (kaffarah) may fast the last day(s) of Sha‘ban, according to most scholars.
One offering a merely voluntary fast on the last days of Sha‘ban commits a reprehensible (makruh) act, unless the individual has an established habit of fasting based on the Prophet’s Sunnah, on him be peace, for example fasting Mondays and Thursdays, three days in every month, and the like, according to Imam Malik, among others.
The point, however, is to preserve the ritual fast of Ramadan as God has prescribed it and not to add, subtract, or blur its defined time of obligation, as happened with the fasting of faith- communities before Muslims.
Are there practical reasons to fast much in Sha‘ban?
Yes. Fasting has (intended) physiological impacts. It weakens a person physically not to eat, when it is not one’s habit to abstain from food for a lengthy period. It depletes one’s energy. It makes one mentally sluggish. And It makes a faster much more easily irritable. But the body adjusts after some days.
So fasting Sha‘ban builds one’s capacity to fast. The more one fasts in it, the greater one’s “fast-ability” and function in Ramadan will be. This means a person will be ready from the first day of Ramadan to strive in performing its commendable deeds in a time of highest possible divine reward: fasting itself, praying more and in the night, and reading Quran – all of which brings the heart back to life, returning it to its natural state of tenderness. We think of others and give generously of ourselves and our wealth to them in charity.
How else should one prepare for Ramadan in Sha‘ban?
Ramadan is the time to pay Zakat and to give much sadaqah, for God’s blessings in it are beyond compare. To do this, a person ought to begin offering voluntary charity in Sha‘ban in preparation and use this favored month to organize resolving his or her debts so nothing will encumber the payment of Zakat in Ramadan.
The noble Companion and third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, God be pleased with him, used to say, about Ramadan: “Here is the month for you to pay your Zakat. If you have debts, thenpay them off so that you can sort out your wealth and take Zakat from it” (Malik’s Muwatta).