One would agree that from the most unfortunate things possible is to be the rightful recipient of some good news – a present maybe, a gift of money, a bequest etc – but then one remains unaware of this fact, or doesn't pay attention to all the phone calls informing him of such glad tidings.
So there's your present waiting for you, and you're not really aware to its full worth or value – no-one else is going to claim it on your behalf and if you knew its real significance, you'd never leave it to waste!
Yet the Prophet, peace be upon him, told us, as narrated by Al-Imam al-Bayhaqi, that:
"Sha'ban is a month between Rajab and Ramadhan, much neglected by people. In it, the actions of all servants are raised to the Lord of the Worlds; I love that my actions are not presented except that I am fasting."
Here is a man, the wisest and most eager of creation to obtain all possible good, who saw this blessed month of Sha'ban very differently to many of us. He, peace be upon him, would never leave it to waste, rather he would be seen fasting almost the entire month of Sha'ban, only ever surpassed by the fasting of the whole of Ramadhan.
So why exactly is that?
There are numerous authentic reports that detail how the majority of Sha'ban was spent by our beloved Prophet in a state of fasting; a state which heightens our God-consciousness, makes us aware of our desires and the need for their control, makes us aware of the problems and difficulties of so many poor people around the world when we feel those pangs of hunger. The fasting one becomes very mindful of their tongue and how they abuse by it, their eyes and how they deviate from purity, their hearts and how much filth enters it without wilful control.
All in all, there is nothing more conducive to sincerely worshipping our Master, the Lord of the Worlds than doing so whilst fasting.
But doesn't that occur whenever someone is fasting? Why then the month of Sha'ban?
With Ramadhan just around the corner, where many of us really do 'make it or break it' for the rest of the year due to the quality of our 'ibadah (worship) in it, it becomes paramount to prepare properly for this once in a lifetime opportunity. After all, do you know whether you'll ever be lucky enough to greet another one? Weren't the Sahabah (Companions) described by Ma'la ibn Fadhl as those people who spent six months of the year asking Allah to accept their 'ibadah of their previous Ramadhan and the next six months asking just to be allowed to reach the next one?
So often do many of us think we can just turn up to the show in Ramadhan, take a seat and watch the game, see the team win and go home happy at the end. What a huge mistake.
Spending thirty odd days of Ramadhan refraining from food and drink from morning to night isn't the second pillar of Islam known as siyam. No – I think people might be getting a bit confused there don't you. That's just a hungry and thirsty person, someone who in reality, has just wasted his time.
Rather as the Prophet, peace be upon him, advised us, we need to avoid all the well-known slips of the tongue, eyes, heart and really just our desires in general in order to be one who fulfils the conditions of Ramadhan. We need to make sure that we adorn our fasting with all other possible extra good actions such as praying extra nawafil (voluntary prayers), giving charity, re-establishing family ties, increasing our social and da'wah (presenting Islam to non-Muslims) work, displaying generosity to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, extra dhikr (remembrance), memorisation of the Qur'an etc. Surely that is the whole point here – that we fast so as to be more aware of our actions and that they are presented to Allah, the Most High, in their best possible light.
Only with such a high quality day of fasting can we really have hoped to achieve the desired consequence – that all our previous sins are forgiven and that we enter His Garden with His pleasure, if Allah wills it.
But don't think such a day is easy to come by. Rather it is the exception although it shouldn't be like that. Hence the greatness of Sha'ban, that blessed opportunity to see whether we can make the mark, the mock exam before the impending finals, the last practice in front of the mirror before the key interview – although each practice is important itself, mistakes that are made here are blessed ones if they are learned from and not repeated at the key moment.
This has to be our aim in the remaining days of Sha'ban. Try and make it a real and sincere practice effort for Ramadhan which is only a few weeks away – keep a note of all your external and internal actions during the day whilst you refrain from food and drink and be horrified at the amount of rubbish we espouse from our bodies on a daily basis. It's going to be a major wake-up call and all praise if due to Allah for that – I would rather that I'm rudely awoken today than be found in a drunken stupor during Laylatul-Qadr (the Night of Power) ...
Don't you want to take full advantage of Ramadhan when it comes? Don't you want to profit whilst the doors of Heaven are thrown wide open, the doors of Hell are slammed shut and our greatest detractors of all, the devils, are firmly chained up? Which believer doesn't welcome those open doors and which sinner of us doesn't sigh with relief at the taming of the Fire – if but just for a small moment?
For as the poet said:
"Whoever is shown mercy in Ramadhan is marhum (blessed, receiver of mercy), whoever prohibits for himself its good is mahrum (devoid of blessing and good) and whoever doesn't take provision and sustenance from it is malum (has no-one to blame but himself)."
So at this 'neglected time', when the majority of our friends, family and community are not paying attention to what could be gained, the environment is not conducive to steeling one's resolve and focus on that which is good, where people are concentrating on 'enjoying' themselves as much as possible before the 'hardships' of Ramadhan – during this time, let us strive to perfect ourselves now and learn from our mistakes whilst we prepare for the 'Big One', so as to really achieve the objective behind fasting and indeed life itself – to become those who are constantly aware of Allah (al-Muttaqun). How on Earth can we possibly achieve this if we just dive into Ramadhan without a care in the world, not having conditioned our bodies, physically and spiritually in Sha'ban? How can we work on preserving our energy during Ramadhan, not simply to last till Sunset, but to pray all the extra sunnah available if we don't try and test ourselves now? How will we know the looseness of our eyes if we don't catch the eyes out now? How will we ever realise how much we gossip and backbite during Ramadhan when we don't try refraining ourselves from the rafath and fisq during our fasts today?
Surely, the fact that we can perfect ourselves and reach the true goal during Ramadhan simply by exerting ourselves now during Sha'ban is a compelling argument for why the Companions observed that when they saw the Prophet, peace be upon him, fasting at this time, they thought he'd never eat again - may Allah bless him, give him eternal peace and reward him with the very greatest of rewards!
Last, but certainly not least, for those who look for bargains and the like at such times (and who wouldn't considering how miskin to our Lord we all are!), there is another super jackpot moment in this blessed month. If all the obvious benefits were not enough, we also have a special night in which forgiveness is on a unique limited offer for the Believers.
In a much disputed hasan narration collected by Ibn Hibban, one of many other weak ahadith, it is reported that on the authority of Mu'adh ibn Jabal, may Allah be pleased with him, that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
"Allah looks to His creation on the middle night of Sha'ban and forgives all of His creation, except for the one who ascribes partners to Him and the one who holds malice against others."
Which one of us isn't in need of this special moment of forgiveness? Yes, Allah, the Most High, descends in the last third of every night offering salvation to us but here is another special moment for us to profit from, not restricted by the length of the night and specifically chosen by Sayyidina Mustapha, peace be upon him, to strive for.
Let us use this night to beseech our Lord for His bounty and pardon, prioritising our good deeds. After all, this is a night of forgiveness so what else better to do but to seek it!
Al-Imam Ibn al-Jawzi, may Allah have mercy upon him, was once asked, "Is it better for me to make tasbih or to make istighfar?" He replied:
"The dirty robe is more in need of soap than perfume."
Hasan, may Allah be pleased with him, once said:
"Increase in making istighfar for you'll never know when His Mercy will next descend."
Indeed. So let us be aware of these blessed times in our times of need – let us pay attention to that which is neglected and make our Sha'ban and Ramadhan our sources of salvation.