On holding the beard and swaying the finger in the supplication of Rajab

In this writing, I will discuss:

  1. whether swaying the finger is part of the supplication of Rajab
  2. whether the gestures should be performed from the beginning or only at the end
  3. provide explanations for these symbolic gestures

Before the above, I present a short introduction on the nature of taʿabbudiyāt[1] in religion and our interaction with them. 

Introduction

Certain aspects of our acts of worships can be difficult for some to digest. Performing the final takbir three times at the end of daily prayers while raising the hands behind the ears, hitting the thighs at the end of the supplication of ʿAḥd and holding one’s beard while swaying the index finger in the supplication of Rajab is some of these examples. Some feel uncomfortable performing these gestures, perchance thinking it resembles tribalistic and ancient human primal habits. Some will try with a more softer approach, pointing out that it is the meanings of the supplications that contain their core purpose not these movements of the body. Although all of the aforementioned gestures are recommended and avoiding them do not affect the validity of one’s prayer or supplication, but I feel weary about this type of thinking.

I agree that these are not the defining aspects of supplications and in general, in our acts of worship, it is the inner presence and spiritual connection that matter most. Having said that, this sensitivity to bodily movements, formations and position is out of context. This is simply because the essence and spirit of worship is submission.

One has to analyse the most repeated ritual any Muslims carries out daily, the ṣalāh, and all of its body movements and positions to realise that when it comes to worshipping God, your main goal is to carry out what He has wished you to do; not what you think looks appropriate. Surely behind every movement carried out in ṣalāh an esoteric symbolism resides. Our scholars have written works analysing and explaining these symbolisms.[2] But can we be sure these explanations are the exact reasons God had intended? Of course not. Sometimes their meanings are evidently obvious and difficult to ignore. The rukūʿ, for example, could be said to represents one’s obedience to God Almighty and the prostration displays our highest level of submission to Him. Sometimes, there will be textual support for these explanations. But many a time, we are left to our limited minds when it comes to these matters. We may arrive at some potential explanation to rationalize the ritual, we may not. It is a worthwhile and much needed endeavor but without it do we abandon and criticize the ritual? I judge it as spiritual and religious immaturity to do so.

To illustrate my argument further, let’s speak about an even more un-rationalizableritual: ḥajj. This glorious pilgrimage which is a collection of repeated rituals resides at the summit oftotal submission. The entirety of Ḥajj is a display of symbolic submission. The most inanimate of objects, rocks and stones, are placed at the highest level of respect and reverence. The Holy House of Kaʿba is its most prime example at this but is not limited to it. Indeed, there are esoteric meanings behind these rituals; there are a great lessons that

lie beneath these movements and there are philosophies written in every step of this journey. Yet, the most valuable item to carry in one’s internal state in this pilgrimage is mindfulness about your total submission to God. A believer in God does not carry out these rituals because he was able to intellectualize and rationalize every move, no, it is because his end goal was to please the Almighty and do exactly as He wished. 

I present these two examples which are tangible to most Muslims, the prayer and the pilgrimage, to illustrate my argument. Acts of worship carry symbolisms which at times can be understood and at others cannot; but our obedience to them is not a function of our rationalization of them. Rather; it is function of our certainty that this is what God wishes us to perform. Acts of worship are about submission; they are not a debate with the Divine as to whether they appear tribal or unintellectual. With the same intensity that intellection and intentional reflection builds submission to Him; so does submission allow for divine light to illuminate our intellects, minds and hearts.

Having given this elaborate introduction about our attitudes towards worship and the acts it consists of, I wish to – with God’s help – present some notes on the gesture of holding the beard while moving the index finger during the supplication of Rajab. On a detailed explanation of the words and meanings of this duʿā, read here.[3]

The supplication and moving the right index finger

The supplication is divided into two parts:

يَا مَنْ أَرْجُوهُ لِكُلِّ خَيْرٍ وَ آمَنُ سَخَطَهُ من [عِنْدَ] كُلِّ شَرٍّ يَا مَنْ يُعْطِي الْكَثِيرَ بِالْقَلِيلِ يَا مَنْ يُعْطِي مَنْ سَأَلَهُ يَا مَنْ يُعْطِي مَنْ لَمْ يَسْأَلْهُ وَ مَنْ لَمْ يَعْرِفْهُ تُحَنُّناً مِنْهُ وَ رَحْمَةً أَعْطِنِي بِمَسْأَلَتِي إِيَّاكَ جَمِيعَ [الخيرات‏] خَيْرِ الدُّنْيَا وَ جَمِيعَ خَيْرِ الْآخِرَةِ وَ اصْرِفْ عَنِّي بِمَسْأَلَتِي إِيَّاكَ جَمِيعَ شَرِّ الدُّنْيَا وَ [جميع‏] شَرِّ الْآخِرَةِ فَإِنَّهُ غَيْرُ مَنْقُوصٍ مَا أَعْطَيْتَ وَ زِدْنِي مِنْ فَضْلِكَ يَا كَرِيمُ

“O He Whom alone I hope for all good things; and I am safe from His displeasure at every instance of evil. O one who gives abundance in return to very little. O one who always bestows on whosoever asks Him. O one who bestows on one who does not ask Him, nor does he know Him, out of kindness and mercy. Give me, for my request is only to You alone, All the good of this world and all the good of the Hereafter. Keep away from me, for my request is only to You alone, All the evil of this world and the evil of the Hereafter. For indeed it is not diminishing what is given by You. Increase (for) me from Your bounty, O The Generous.”

This segment is found in many sources[4]. In some sources it has been recommended to recite supplication outside of Rajab as well including Fridays[5] and when asking for a child[6].

The second segment which mentions holding of the beard and movement of the right index finger has some variations.

Sayyid b. Ṭawūs mentions both variations in Iqbāl:

ثُمَّ مَدَّ أَبُو عَبْدِ اَللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ يَدَهُ اَلْيُسْرَى فَقَبَضَ عَلَى لِحْيَتِهِ وَ دَعَا بِهَذَا اَلدُّعَاءِ وَ هُوَ يَلُوذُ بسباحته [بِسَبَّابَتِهِ] اَلْيُمْنَى ثُمَّ قَالَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ يَا ذَا اَلْجَلاَلِ وَ اَلْإِكْرَامِ يَا ذَا اَلنَّعْمَاءِ وَ اَلْجُودِ يَا ذَا اَلْمَنِّ وَ اَلطَّوْلِ حَرِّمْ [شبابي و] شَيْبَتِي عَلَى اَلنَّارِ وَ فِي حَدِيثٍ آخَرَ ثُمَّ وَضَعَ يَدَهُ عَلَى لِحْيَتِهِ وَ لَمْ يَرْفَعْهَا إِلاَّ وَ قَدِ اِمْتَلَأَ ظَهْرُ كَفِّهِ دُمُوعاً .

“Then the Imam extended his left hand and held his beard and prayed with this duʿā while he was seeking refuge with his right index finger and thereafter he said: O Possessor of Majesty & Honor, O The Possessor of Blessings & Generosity, O the Possessor of Favour & Might, Prohibit my grey beard for the fire of Hell. And in another hadith ‘He placed his hands on his beard and did not lift it except that the palm of his hand had been filled with tears’”.

The second variation does not include the movement of the hand. In the version narrated in the Rijāl of al-Kashshī, we are given a better picture of this version:

ثُمَّ رَفَعَ يَدَيْهِ فَقَالَ يَا ذَا اَلْمَنِّ وَ اَلطَّوْلِ يَا ذَا اَلْجَلاَلِ وَ اَلْإِكْرَامِ يَا ذَا اَلنَّعْمَاءِ وَ اَلْجُودِ اِرْحَمْ شَيْبَتِي مِنَ اَلنَّارِ ثُمَّ وَضَعَ يَدَيْهِ عَلَى لِحْيَتِهِ وَ لَمْ يَرْفَعْهُمَا إِلاَّ وَ قَدِ اِمْتَلَأَ ظَهْرُ كَفَّيْهِ دُمُوعاً .

“After [the first segment] he raised his hands [in supplication] and said: O Possessor of Majesty & Honor..[to the end]…then he placed his hand on his beard and did not bring both of his hands down until his palms were filled with tears.”

In this version, there is no mention of the right index finger but rather the usual raising of the hand for supplicating and only after the completion of the supplication, the Imam holds his beard.

The version in al-Kashshī has no mentioning of Rajab and is a general supplication the Imam has taught the narrator. Hence, one could argue that there must be some underlying wisdom and relevance (موضوعيت) as to why the version in Rajab includes the gestures in the way it does.

The other possibility is that the narrator had mistaken or overanalyzed the Imam’s natural body movements while crying as a part of the supplication. This makes sense for the likes of the Ahlulbayt who, out of humility for the Almighty, shed tears with intensity and deep emotion. On the other hand, the movement is too specific and intentional to be confused for a natural bodily reaction.

The alternative order of the ritual versus the commonly practiced order

It is common practice for the  believers to perform this ritual during the second segment of the supplication. However, when we read the report in its entirety, it appears the order could be understood differently:

قَالَ: قُلْتُ لِأَبِي عَبْدِ اَللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ جُعِلْتُ فِدَاكَ هَذَا رَجَبٌ عَلِّمْنِي [فِيهِ] دُعَاءً يَنْفَعُنِي اَللَّهُ بِهِ قَالَ فَقَالَ لِي أَبُو عَبْدِ اَللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ اُكْتُبْ بِسْمِ اَللّٰهِ اَلرَّحْمٰنِ اَلرَّحِيمِ  وَ قُلْ فِي كُلِّ يَوْمٍ مِنْ رَجَبٍ صَبَاحاً وَ مَسَاءً وَ فِي أَعْقَابِ صَلَوَاتِكَ فِي يَوْمِكَ وَ لَيْلَتِكَ يَا مَنْ أَرْجُوهُ لِكُلِّ خَيْرٍ … ثُمَّ مَدَّ أَبُو عَبْدِ اَللَّهِ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ يَدَهُ اَلْيُسْرَى فَقَبَضَ عَلَى لِحْيَتِهِ وَ دَعَا بِهَذَا اَلدُّعَاءِ وَ هُوَ يَلُوذُ بسباحته [بِسَبَّابَتِهِ] اَلْيُمْنَى ثُمَّ قَالَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ يَا ذَا اَلْجَلاَلِ وَ اَلْإِكْرَامِ

“I told the Imam, may I be sacrificed for you, this is [the month] of Rajab; teach me a supplication that Allah will benefit me with. The Imam replied: ‘Write: In the name of Allah the Most Merciful the Most Beneficent and recite this every day of Rajab in the morning and night and after each of your daily prayers in your day and night: ‘Oh Whom I hope for all good thing…[to the end]’… then the Imam extended his left hand and held his beard and supplicated to God with this supplication while he was seeking refuge with his right index finger and thereafter he said: O Possessor of Majesty & Honor…[to the end]”

I have bolded some terms in the above translation which will be important for comprehending the report:

If the first conjunction “then” (ثم) is connecting the verb “write” (اكتب) with the verb “extended” (مد) then the meaning would be: He asked me to write these words (the first segment of the duʿā) then he extended his hand and recited with this duʿā and thereafter recited the second segment. It appears that in the beginning, the Imām was not reciting the first segment but merely dictating it. After the dictation he holds his beard and sway his finger and only then narrator then records him as having begun to read the duʿā.

This means the gestures are to be carried from the beginning of the supplication not exclusive to the second segment. This is reinforced with the second conjunction making it clear that second segment came after a supplication was already recited: “thereafter he said: [second segment]” ثُمَّ قَالَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ يَا ذَا اَلْجَلاَلِ وَ اَلْإِكْرَامِ. In summary, the order of the report would be understood as:

  1. The Imam commands the narrator to write the first segment and dictates it to him
  2. After the dictation he holds his beard and moves his finger reciting the first segment
  3. After supplicating with the first segment in that condition he recites the second segment

The compatibility of the words of the second segment with the holding of the beard while seeking refuge with the hand gesture is perhaps the main reason why the commonly practiced order could be plausible. “Prohibit my grey beard to the Fire” while holding one’s beard seems natural.

In addition, it could be argued that the phrase “and he supplicated with this duʿā” (وَ دَعَا بِهَذَا اَلدُّعَاءِ) is in reference to the forthcoming segment not what was just dictated. Lastly, the phrases “thereafter he said: [second segment]”  (ثُمَّ قَالَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ يَا ذَا اَلْجَلاَلِ وَ اَلْإِكْرَامِ) can be thought of as explaining the phrase “and he supplicated with this duʿā” (وَ دَعَا بِهَذَا اَلدُّعَاءِ); not intending two separate recitations.

Both understanding seems possible. The first is more readily understood from and coherent with the Arabic, whereas the latter is more compatible with the meaning of the second segment and can also be justified with the Arabic. The responsibility for this vagueness falls on the shoulders of the narrator who has exhibited inaccuracy in his transmission. Keeping in mind the inherited nature of these rituals over the course of many  generations, staying with the commonly practiced form seems more reasonable.

The meanings behind the gestures

We can only guess what is intended by these symbolic movements. However, as previously mentioned, holding of the beard while reciting the words “Prohibit my grey beard from the Fire” adds sufficient context. It is a form of humble presentation of one’s needs. It is alike to a wounded patient carefully holding his injured hand and presenting it to the doctor for his examination. In addition, God’s respect for the grey beard of a believer who has spent his days worshipping Him is also a fact mentioned in our reports:

قَالَ رَسُولُ اَللَّهِ صَلَّى اَللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَ آلِهِ : إِنَّ اَللَّهَ يَنْظُرُ فِي وَجْهِ اَلشَّيْخِ اَلْمُؤْمِنِ صَبَاحاً وَ مَسَاءً فَيَقُولُ يَا عَبْدِي كَبِرَ سِنُّكَ وَ دَقَّ عَظْمُكَ وَ رَقَّ جِلْدُكَ وَ قَرُبَ أَجَلُكَ وَ حَانَ قُدُومُكَ عَلَيَّ فَاسْتَحْيِ مِنِّي فَأَنَا أَسْتَحْيِي مِنْ شَيْبَتِكَ أَنْ أُعَذِّبَكَ فِي اَلنَّارِ[7]

It has been reported that the Holy Prophet (s) has said:

“Allah (s) will gaze upon the face of an old believer in the morning and at night and will say: ‘My servant, your age has increased, your bones have become feeble, your skin has softened, your time of death approaches, and your entry unto me has come; so I am embarrassed from your grey beard to punish you in the fire’”.

Does this imply only the bearded elderly from the believers can read this segment? What about women, the young and old men without beards or men with non-grey beards? Given the symbolic nature of the gestures, it is unlikely they should be left out.

The movement of the finger is best understood with the verb it is used in conjunction with. As numerously used above, the term يلوذ لاذ generally means to seek refuge or escape. If we suppose that blessed hands of the Imām are facing upwards towards the sky with his index finger pointing out, this would closely resemble the well-known gesture of plea, common amongst all societies and cultures. If the Imam’s hands is in some other orientation, the best we can contend is that perhaps this gesture was understood as a form of plea in the cultural norms of that time. Either way, it is clear that the Imam intended to symbolically illustrate his deep desire for refuge in God’s mercy with these gestures.

Conclusion

In this short writing, it was discussed whether moving the right index finger is part of the famous supplication of Rajab or not. Secondly, we explored two readings of the order in which the gestures should be performed and eventually conceded with the commonly accepted version. Lastly, we pointed out that both of these gestures represent the servant’s humility and refuge in the kindness of His Lord. We are blessed to have received these heart-trembling supplications from our Imāms and we should cherish these treasures by practicing them as those noble souls did. We should not forget that the realm of worship is a realm of submission and symbolism plays an important role in its rituals and rites. Although avoiding these gestures does not void one’s worship, but being obsessively sensitive to these matters only affect one’s sincerity and presence of the heart. Reflective and critical readings of our reports, however, is always valuable and needed.

و الحمد لله


[1] This refers to ideological facts we believe and worship acts we perform on the basis of revelation and instructions from God. This is a domain in religion where the intellect and the senses cannot independently arrive at the answers. An example of the first would be belief about the details of heaven and hell which we can only accept via our submission to God’s words given we have not been to the afterlife yet. An example of the latter would be performing our acts of worship the way God has intended, not in the manner we see desire.

[2] Ādāb al-Ṣalāt of Imam Khomeini is a popular example

[3] http://www.iqraonline.net/reflections-on-the-daily-dua-of-rajab-part-1/

[4] Iqbāl al-Aʿmāl Vol2 P644

[5] Miṣbāḥ al-Mujtahid Vol1 P347

[6] Miṣbāḥ al-Mujtahid Vol1 P387

[7] Jāmiʿ al-Akhbār, V1 P92

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