There is a statement that is attributed to the Apostle of God, may the light of God continue to nourish his soul and our connection to him, that says:
“Rajab is the month of God, Shaaban is my month, and Ramadan is the month of all humanity, my community (my Ummah).*”
What does this mean?
The Apostle of God has given us a keystone Teaching that can help us understand the meaning of the above guidance:
He said: “Religion is the art of relating” (“ad-deen muaamalaat”).
In this succinct statement, the Noble Messenger — may his word always be heard — is placing the entire focus of religion on interactions and the art of relationships. If religion is something we are meant to improve in each day, by deduction we can understand that the art of relationships and relating to one another is a dynamic one, and something we can improve upon with each passing year.
In other words, religion is a continuous exercise of reconciliation — of deepening our relating to ourselves, to God, to others — of achieving the correct alignment with those whom God has called us to relate to in this life. Even in English, the root of the word “religion” is how you relate to God.
We can take this keystone Teaching (Hadith) about what religion means as a lens through which to understand everything to do with the religion of Islam. Re-reading the guidance of the Apostle, may God continue to nourish his soul and our bond to him, regarding the months of Rajab, Shaaban and Ramadan with this insight, we get this meaning:
Rajab is the month of reconciliation with God, Shaaban is the month to reconcile with me, and Ramadan is the month to reconcile with all humanity, my community (my “Ummah”).
In other words, Rajab is the month of leaning into our relationship with God and coming to a deeper at-home-ness in our servitude to Him; Shaaban is the month of connecting to and embracing our followership and love of the Guide and Teacher Muhammad, may his light continue to shine; and Ramadan is the month of making peace with the rest of humanity and coming into a state of loving and caring for all creatures.
And what are these three stages other than the three stages that encompass the entire journey towards consciousness? This is the journey of the human being, summed up.
Rajab, Shaaban, and Ramadan are special opportunities to focus on our spiritual journey and take special care to restore, repair, and rejuvenate our relationships with God, the Messenger, and the human community of which we are a part.
IMAGINING WHAT IT MEANS
The people of God, the scholars, are the engineers of the art of consciousness development. They have the role of reminding us of the importance of time, and of certain moments in time; of the importance of space, and of certain blessed places; and of the importance of the human being, and of certain human beings in particular.
With relation to the importance of time, the time of Rajab, Shaaban, and Ramadan, one of our spiritual ancestors, Imam ibn Rajab al Hanbali,** said:
The month of Rajab is the entranceway to the months of goodness, blessing, increase and growth.
Another scholar, Abu Bakr al Warraq al Bilkhi, described these special months with this beautiful image of growth:
Rajab is the month of sowing, seeding, and planting; Shaaban is the month of watering the seeds so they become plants; and Ramadan is the month of harvesting the fruits of those plants.
Similarly, another man of God said: the year is like the life of a tree. Rajab is the month of its leaves growing and unfurling. Shaaban is the month of new branches growing. Ramadan is the month of the tree’s blossoming and giving fruits. The believers are the ones who are plucking and delighting in these fruits in Ramadan.
In yet another image, to highlight the idea of the connection amongst these months, and the need to start to prepare for Ramadan in Rajab, Abu Bakr al Warraq says:
Rajab is the wind that creates the clouds
Shaaban is the gathering of those clouds in the sky and their becoming heavy with precipitation
and Ramadan is the downpour that is released from those clouds at the blessed moment.
This metaphor reminds us that there is a build-up to Ramadan that we want to be part of. We should not wait in a passive mode for the sweet fruit of Ramadan to fall upon us. Rather, we should opt to be of those who create the upwind that will gather clouds that will eventually rain upon humanity a downpour of relief. This is the role of the awakened human being…to join the movement with a full commitment — early in the process, not at the last minute. We can choose in Rajab to be creators of the positive winds of change, winds that are so powerful they gather clouds of rain for the coming month, and are what will result in blessings for everyone in Ramadan. Or we can choose to be mere consumers of a sweet state that we expect to receive with Ramadan. But the first of the two options is the nobler.
BORN OF EXPERIENCE
You see how the words of the heirs of the Apostle of God become ornaments around his statement about Rajab, Shaaban and Ramadan…they are like the dainty designs one finds in illuminated texts of the middle ages. They highlight the theme of growth, increase, new life, and blessing.
These people of God were drawing out the meaning of the Prophetic guidance, and were able to do this because they followed his guidance about honouring these months in the way he said we should. They experienced this:
When you reconcile with God and with the Apostle of God, you are planting seeds and nurturing growth within you — towards maturity — that will lead you to be able to become of benefit — like a fruit-bearing plant — to all of humanity. Ie. by the time you reach Ramadan, by the time you reach the third stage of your spiritual growth, you should be bearing fruits — offering goodness — to all of humanity.
In Arabic, we call reconciliation with God “Tawbah” — atonement. It is not just a mental process of coming to acknowledge that you have a Lord. It is a much deeper process of recognizing your essence as a slave who makes mistakes, but who is in the service of a Lord and Master who forgives and restores you.
Those who have gone through this process of Tawbah can relate to the notion of it being a a rejuvenation of seemingly-dead earth. As Muslims, we have been given a tool for Tawbah, and that is the consciousness development exercise of meditating with the phrase “AstaghfirAllah” which means: O Lord, cover for me, and cover my errors, with Your forgiving Grace, and neutralize their negative effects.
This tool of AstaghfirAllah is the hoe that digs up the rocks and weeds, and turns the soil of the heart. As you toil through through the practice of atonement during Rajab, you start to feel the clearing away of whatever has clogged the soil of your heart all year. According to the Apostle of God, may his light continue to illuminate us, the process of your acheiving atonement is not complete unless you do three things: acknowledge your wrongdoing; experience true regret and remorse; and resolve to not repeat the error. This is indeed an art. We know of people who engaged in this process so deeply that the impact of their acheiving it affected not just them, but people all around them — like the wind in the metaphor of Abu Bakr al Warraq.
The last part of the process — the resolution to not return to one’s error — is the planting of new seeds that Abu Bakr al Warraq al Bilkhi speaks of. To resolve to not repeat a mistake is a form of intention. Usually, as you start to feel new life during a practice of Tawbah, you will find yourself being inspired with noble intentions for how to live a better life with God. This is turning one’s heart completely in to God. In Arabic, the root word for intention is “nawa” which actually means seed. Thus, making Tawbah, or engaging in atonement, or reconciling with God (and they are all the same thing) — is the planting of new seeds. This is what Rajab should be all about.
In Shaaban, the month of the Apostle of God, our teachers advise us to continuously seek a connection to him— through the development of consciousness practice which is reciting over and over: “Allahumma salli ala Sayyidna Muhammad wa Aalih.” It means: “O my Lord, grant me a deep connection of alignment with the Apostle Muhammad and his Family.”
The Apostle of God is the manifestation of Divine Love and Grace (in Arabic: Rahma). Rahma in the Islamic texts is symbolized by rain — that heavenly gift that comes to bring life back to the earth.
By cultivating a connection to God’s Rahmah, the Apostle Muhammad, we invite the rain (Rahma) to come and nourish the seeds — the intentions planted with hope in Rajab. Indeed, without hope, seeds would never be planted in the earth. Yet there are moments when we falter and wonder if our intentions/seeds will ever grow…by clinging to the rope of God, which is the Guide Muhammad, we are able to stay the course and in due time, our hope is actualized in the form of the Grace that comes to us by way of our connection to him.
This is the most profound manner of reconciling with the Messenger. It goes far beyond an intellectual acceptance of him — and takes us into the deep realm of recognizing that he is the intercessor, he is the means by which God has chosen to honour us, help us, and save us from inevitable doom. It is he who guides us from the position of our intiial intention to be good with God, to being able to stick to that intention and fulfil it in our daily lives. And that is the way to relate to the Messenger of God: as the one who was sent to you to help you stay the course, to encourage you, to water the seeds of goodness in you, to help you keep to your resolve, to inspire your hope and trust in God, and to raise you up so you can become a benefit to others and pleasing to your Lord.
Finally, in Ramadan, it is the month of harvesting the fruits of these spiritual labours. In Ramadan, we recite the universal declaration of “la ilaha il Allah” as our exercise of consciousness development. It means: nothing is worth my focus and passion but You, Lord. This statement connects us to all of humanity because it reminds us that we are all creatures made by the same Creator — we all came from Him and are returning to Him. We are one community, created and governed by One Lord. During this month of Ramadan, all who seek reconciliation with their Lord are fasting, united in this experience for a full thirty days. It is an experience of solidarity with one another, if we let it be.
And if we focus on our Creator and make Him our purpose, as is expressed in “la ilaha il Allah,” we can actually become better to one another and a benefit to humanity — which is the ultimate goal of all consciousness development. If we focus on ourselves or one another, we can get lost. But if we set our internal compass towards Him, then we will be able to relate to one another through Him, and treat one another with the highest level of morality, goodness, and kindness. Indeed, over the centuries Ramadan has always brought out in people the courage forgive one another, to share, to be generous, and to reach out to one another. It is truly the month of charity.
SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY
These three months of Rajab, Shaaban and Ramadan are opportunities. They represent the three stages of the development of consciousness:
reconciliation with one’s Lord
reconciliation with the Messenger of the Lord
reconciliation with humanity.
What we should be aiming for is not a mere intellectual reconciliation — it’s not just saying: yes, there is a God, yes there is a Prophet. Rather, it’s something deeper. It’s truly focusing on the relationships, mending the parts that have become frayed, addressing the parts of ourselves that are resistant to complete reconciliation, and bringing them into alignment through consciousness development practices (“dhikr”) until there is a deep sense of peace and a newfound closeness and appreciation in each relationship.
Finally, we can imagine this three part process in the image of the letters alif lam meem.
Alif is the seed coming down from the Divine Presence
Lam is the water running into the ground and irrigating the seed
Meem is the fruit of the seed
In other words:
Alif is our line to God
Lam is the connector between us and God, who makes it easy to relate to Him, approach Him, and be nourished by Him — and that is the Messenger of God and all those who continue his work by helping us come to know our Lord.
Meem is the human circle of consciousness that opens itself to receive and contain what comes from the Connector, and ultimately from God.
MAY WE START THE PROCESS NOW
The Apostle of God, may the light of God continue to nourish his soul and our connection to him is teaching us
to plant the seed by reconciling with our Lord in Rajab
to water the plant by reconciling with the Messenger — the Love of God — in Shaaban
and to reap the sweet fruits of this magnificent process of raising our consciousness, in the month of Ramadan which should be a month of reconciling with our fellow human beings through an outpouring of forgiveness, kindness, generosity, and goodwill.
May we start the process now.
*Hasan al Basri said that the Apostle of God said this, but we know that Hasan al Basri did not meet the Apostle of God as he was in the generation that came after (the Tabi’i generation). This kind of narration (Hadith) is called “mursal” which means that we have one generation in the chain of transmission that is not known — in this case the generation of the Companion.
**you notice that in this scholar’s name, is the word “Rajab” — his name is actually “son of Rajab” because his father had this name. This is because these months are so celebrated that people would even name their children after these months. Rabeea is also one of the months that is celebrated because of the birth of the Messenger of God being in Rabeea al Awwal.