– Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Vol. 1, P. 99
When rigthteousness is weak and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth for the salvation of the good and destruction of evil in men….
– Shri Krishna in the Geeta
Yesterday was Shab-e-Baraat and by a strange coincidence there was power cut in our locality. As dusk and darkness approached and the time for the ceremonial nazr drew close, numerous candles were lit. The soft glow of the candles and the fragrance from the incense sticks filled all corners of our house which had been immersed in darkness. Perhaps this was symbolic of what the Shia Muslims of the world expect once their ‘Mehdi’ (a.s.), their savior – their twelfth Imam reappears.
Nazr, in form of halwa, made from chana dal, was offered and Sur-e- Fahteha and Sur-e- Qul were recited, first, in the honor of Amir Hamzaa (the uncle of Prophet Mohammad s.a.v.), followed by all our ancestors and departed relatives. We prayed to God asking for forgiveness for the sins of our departed relatives and prayed for the safe journey of their souls to the here-after. It reminded me of ‘Pind Daan’ or ‘Shraadh,’ performed by many Hindus believing this will relieve their ancestors of all sins and help their souls attain salvation.
Later in the night, as there was a fire-work display to celebrate the birth anniversary of the twelfth Imam – Muhammad al-Mehdi (a.s). The halwa was then distributed among our neighbors and the poor.
Shab-e-Baraat also known as Lailatul Bara’at, falls on the 14th/15th of Shaban, the eighth month of Muslim calendar. It is variously known to mean, ‘the night of commission’, or ‘the night of emancipation, forgiveness or atonement’. There are various beliefs and traditions regarding this night among Muslims. Many Muslims believe that on this night God writes the destinies of all humans for the coming year by taking into account the deeds committed by them in the past year. People pray to God both in preparation for Ramazaan and for the forgiveness of the sins committed by them. Some believe this night to be the night of good fortune and a popular legend says that on this night the Prophet (s.a.v.) visits each house and relieves the pain of suffering humanity. Shia Muslims believe that the souls of their ancestors and deceased relatives visit them on this night.
While there is no mention of Shab-e-Baraat in the holy Quran, Sura Dukhan does mention about Laila Mubaraka, which, according to some Islamic scholars is Shab-e-Baraat. It is believed that, on this day, the Prophet (s.a.v.) paid a visit to the Jannatul Bak’i graveyard to pray for the salvation of the souls of the departed including his martyred uncle – Amir Hamza, who had embraced Islam and had become one of its bravest champions. Many observe fasting during the day and perform nafal (optional) namaz at night.
The Shia Muslims associate this night with the birth of their last Imam – Mohammad al-Mehdi and pray for his reappearance. In the Indian subcontinent, candles and fire-work displays light up Shia neighborhoods. The parallels between the Hindu festival of Diwali and Shab-e-Baraat are apparent. Diwali commemorates the home coming of Lord Ram after 15 years of vanvaasa, on Shab-e-Baraat the Shias pray for the home coming of their Mehdi (a.s) since he disappeared or went into vanvaasa several hundred years ago. Diwali symbolizes the victory of Good over Evil. The Mehdi (a.s.) is expected to do the same –vanquish evil and oppression from this world.
Shias consider Hazrat Ali (a.s), who was indicated by Prophet (s.a.v.) as his successor, as the first rightful Caliph and Imam of the Muslims, and that after his assassination the spiritual headship descended in succession to his and Fatima’s posterity in ‘the direct male line’ until it came to Imam Hassan al’Askari (a.s.), eleventh in descent from Ali, who died in 874 A.C. or 260 Hegira. Upon his death the Imamat passed on to his son Mohammad al-Mehdi – ‘the Guide’, the last and twelfth Imam. The story of the Imam’s of the house of the Prophet(s.a.v.) are rather tragic. The father of Hassan al’Askari (a.s.) was deported from Medina to Samarra by the tyrant Mutawakkil and detained there until his death. Similarly Hasan (a.s.) was kept a prisoner by the jealousy of Mutawakkil’s successors. His infant son, Mohammad al-Mehdi (a.s.), barely five years of age, pining for his father, wandered about in his search and entered a cave from which he is believed to have disappeared. This tragic story ends with hope and expectation in the hearts of the Shias that the child will return to relieve a sorrowful and sinful world of its burden of sin and oppression. This Imam bears, among the Shias, titles of the Muntazar– the Expected, the Hujja – the Proof (of the Truth), the Kaim – the Living. Great sufi’s and Islamic theologists like Attar, Rumi, Jami and ibn-Arabi have referred variously to the twelfth Imam as the ‘Seal of Sainthood, ‘the Hidden Imam’, or the ‘Imam of the Time’.
The belief in the appearance of a savior or avataar in not too distant future is common to almost all religious traditions and cultures. There are over 700 prophecies from around the world which promise the advent of a world savior pledging spiritual revolution and redemption. The Hindus await the incarnation of Vishnu in the avatar of Kalki, the Buddhists wait for the reincarnation of Lord Buddha as Lord Maitreya, the Zoroastrians foretell the second coming of Zoroaster as Saoshynt, the Jews wait for their Immanuel, and the Christians wait for the return of Christ. However the interpretation of all the prophecies suffers from ‘religious myopia’. All religious follower believe that there can be only one savior – theirs. The savior from their particular faith is the only true redeemer. But perhaps the hallowed concepts of organized religions and messianic traditions themselves need to undergo death and resurrection before this world can be saved from itself.