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The Genre of Love and Beauty: al-Shama’il – Tarek Ghanem

What is the Shama’il? Is it a book or a genre? And is it an established Islamic tradition? Tarek Ghanem gives a detailed overview of what the Shama’il is and how it can benefit us.

Allah has revealed in the Qur’an:shama'il

And each [story] We relate to you from the news of the messengers is that by which We make firm your heart. (Sura Hud 11:120)

If God, all-Wise, narrated the stories of other prophets to our beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, to strengthen his heart, then what about our hearts? What about our need for spiritual strength? What about our need for spiritual strength, caught up as we are in our spiritually-suffocating worldly lives? And what’s more; without the Prophet  amongst us?

“One doesn’t truly believe until I am more beloved to him than his parents, children, and all of humanity,” we are told by the Prophet (Bukhari, 15). This is the true quintessence and prerequisite of religion and love, correctly conceived. Now, how can this love be actualised and realised, with all due rigour? With regard to the character traits of the Prophet ; they are an evident source of infatuation. But how are we supposed to first know and then love the physical description of the Prophet? This article will discuss these questions through an introduction of the Shama’il genre and the physiognomy and characterisation of the Prophet.

Firstly, we are faced with contradictory principles when approaching Allah, Majestic in His praise, on the one hand, and the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him, on the other. According to the profound understanding of many scholars, our perception of Allah and our perception of the Prophet, in spite of some similarities and overlap, are opposing. The most essential and, at the same time, most comprehensive knowledge we can acquire of Allah is our realisation of our inability to know Him; “There is nothing like unto Him” (42:11). Knowledge of Allah is a genuine realisation of His “absoluteness”. This is what the following approved theological maxim stresses; “Whatever comes to one’s mind, Allah is otherwise”.

Other than our love of Allah, our expression of love for the Prophet is entirely based on his relativity, closeness, and even personal relevance. He is the exemplar to be emulated. He is the person whose life is narrated in a more meticulous, detailed, and comprehensive manner than any other historical figure, but also down to the minutest, most personal feature and detail. In fact, emulating his example, in all these details, even in the most personal practices, is not just a praiseworthy religious practice, sunna, or a sign of love; it is a wise and illuminated way of living.  Look how Ibn ‘Abbas, for example, used to stop his camel while performing the minor pilgrimage (‘umra) in the exact same spots where the Prophet did!

Love for and admiration of the Prophet  is most touchingly manifested in its extension to anything he owned or touched. Love and seeking grace has always been the way of dealing with the belongings our beloved Prophet ﷺ; Umm Anas related: “The Prophet came to us in a room with a waterskin filled with water. The Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him, drank from it while standing. Umm Salim then cut it off the mouth of the waterskin [i.e. she kept it for herself]” (Bukhari, 5673). In the same vein it is related that after the Prophet passed away, the Companions never stopped the Prophet’s mule from eating and let it graze their land as it pleased. They used to stand up in respect for it.

So who is he whom we love and how can his beauty be conceptualised?

Beauty is ultimately the object of poets. Poets possess a higher authoritative insight and the tools with which to gracefully sculpt the beautiful in verse. The following anecdote illustrates this point: Although the Prophet subtly objected that people should not rise for him the way they used to rise for kings, Hassan ibn Thabit, the celebrated poet, struck by the Messenger’s beauty, rose and recited the following lines:

My rising for the beloved is upon me a mandate,

deserting a mandate is not upright.  

I wonder about the one with insight and wit;

who sets eyes on such beauty and rises not!

Rising for the Beauty

The many physical descriptions of the Prophet that are related and authenticated, mysteriously and without exception, have two fascinating aspects in common. First, the many reporters who recounted the way the Prophet looked—both the ones that have described him closely and extensively like Hind bin Halah or Imam ‘Ali and those who described him only superficially —all suddenly proclaiming in mid-sentence in a baffled manner: “I have never seen anything more beautiful than he is,” as al-Baraa’ bin `Azib says in one account (Bukhari 3591, Muslim 6210). Some of them would suddenly exclaim “…the most beautiful of all people!” or “…like the moon!” (al-Bukhari 3589, Muslim 6212) or “He is for me more beautiful than the moon,” as Jabir ibn Sumra said (Bukhari 3592, Tirmidhi 11), or “pretty, beautifully proportioned!” as Abi al-Tufayl cried when he was the only person left on earth who saw the Prophet alive (Bukhari 3041, Tirmidhi 10); and, finally, the lyrical “beautifully faced, I have never seen anything [like him] before him or after him” as proclaimed by Anas ibn Malik (Muslim 6218).

That the description and infatuation with the physical description of the Prophet is an essential element of Islam is testified by its very scripture.  In his eminent al-Khasā’is al-Nabuwia al-Kubra (The Grand Prophetic Attributes) Imam al-Suyuti mentions that many physical features of the Prophet were mentioned in the Qur’an: face (2:144), ears (61:9), eyes (17:53, 18:28, 20:131), tongue (94:3), heart (94:1, 3:159, 26:192-194, 11:120, 25:32, 53:11, hand (48:29, 69:41-45, and chest (94:1).

The Hadith Master : Opening the Eyes of Insight

The inner and outer depiction of the Prophet naturally came to form a genre, pioneered by the celebrated hafidh and author of one of the six canonical Hadith collections, Abu ‘Isa Muhammed bin Isa al-Tirmidhi (his birth date is not agreed upon, d. 297H.). He was known to be a meticulous Hadith-master, an astute scholar, and an austere mystic who lost his sight from weeping in worship. Al-Hafidh al-Muzii described him as “A superior Hadith-master and imam, through whom Allah benefited all Muslims.” Al-Hakem, another celebrated Hadith master, narrated “…Al-Bukhari died, leaving no one like Abu ‘Isa in knowledge, memorisation, scrupulousness, and asceticism.”

Al-Tirmidhi’s opus Al-Shamai’l al-Muhammadiya (The Muhammadan Attributes), an anthology of 412 traditions, inaugurated this genre and is still considered by many scholars—even the ones who wrote commentaries on it — to be unmatched. “It is the only book in its genre, unique in its arrangement and content, so much so that it is considered divinely gifted and has been disseminated in the East and the West,” asserts Sheikh al-Islam Ibrahim al-Bajuri in his commentary on the work. Other commentators include Sheikh ‘Abdel Ra’uf al-Manawi, Sheikh `Ali al-Qari, and the celebrated Hadith master, commentator on Sahih al-Bukhari, and scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani.

The work, a straightforward compilation of hadith without any commentary, narrates traditions related to the Prophet following a logical order. It starts with “A section on what is narrated concerning the Physical description of the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him”. The most celebrated of these traditions is ‘number five’ which was related by `Ali ibn Abi Talib, and later came to form the substance of the artistic genre of writing the Hilya, or the ‘description of the Prophet’; a standard practice for Arabic calligraphy masters. A beautiful translation of the tradition is the one by the American calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya in his work the Hilye of the Prophet Mohammed.

Transmitted from Ali , may God be pleased with him, who, when asked to describe the Prophet, peace be upon him, would say, “He was not too tall nor too short. He was medium sized. His hair was not short and curly, nor was it lank but in between. His face was not narrow, nor was it fully round, but there was a roundness to it. His skin was white. His eyes were black. He had long eyelashes. He was big-boned and had wide shoulders. He had no body hair except in the middle of his chest. He had thick hands and feet. When he walked, he walked inclined, as if descending a slope. When he looked at someone, he looked at them in full face. Between his shoulders was the seal of prophecy, the sign that he was the last of the prophets. He was the most generous-hearted of men, the most truthful of them in speech, the most mild-tempered of them, and the noblest of them in lineage. Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him. And whoever associated with him familiarly loved him. Anyone who would describe him would say, ‘I never saw, before him or after him, the like of him.’ Peace be upon him.”

A skim through the subdivisions of the work leads from his physical portrayal, dress, belongings, depiction of his mannerisms, habits, diet and speech, to his acts of worship, virtues, greying and passing away. The concluding section of the work reveals the intention of the work and the emotional and, above all, spiritual influence that Imam al-Tirmidhi brilliantly exercises over the reader; “Abu Hurayra said: The Prophet of Allah, Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him said: ‘Whoever sees me in dream has truly seen me, for the Satan doesn’t embody my shape’. A similar hadith, also narrated on the authority of Abu Hurayra in al-Bukhari (7079) and Muslim (6057), is “Whoever sees me in his dream will see me when awake and Satan does not embody my shape.” With this Imam al-Tirmidhi introduced a lasting tradition, as all books that were later written about the Prophet end with the topic of dreaming of him.

The last two traditions related by the work are the following two non-prophetic ones;

411- “`Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak said: ‘If one is tested by destiny, then he should seek the traditions [of the Prophet]’.”

412- “Ibn Sirin said: ‘This Hadith [science] is [of] religion; then see who you take your religion from’.”

Insights on Beauty

Having had the honour of studying the Shama’il with two living classical scholars, I came to the realisation that a true understanding of the attributes of the Prophet can only be attained from those who embody them and are his rightful heirs through a perpetual handing down of the sacred sciences.

The first scholar is Sheikh Ibrahim ‘Abdel Ba’ith al-Kitani, who comes from a al-Kitani family which produced generations of Hadith masters. The second is Sheikh Dr. Yusri Gabr, a Hadith scholar, who was a student of the late eminent Hadith master Sheikh ‘Abd Allah Siddiq al-Ghumari, and a teacher of Tasawwuf in the halaqat (classic teaching circles) of al-Azhar Mosque. Dr. Gabr asserts that there is a reason why all the people who describes the features of the Prophet are of one of two categories; either people who grew up in his household, such as Imam `Ali, his two sons al-Hasan and al-Hussayn, the Prophet’s stepson from Sayyida Khadija, Hind ibn Hilala, and his servant Anas ibn Malil, or Companions who saw him during their childhood, such as al-Saib ibn Yazid, Rumaytha,  or non-Muslims such as Umm Ma’bad (the owner of the eatery by which the Prophet stopped on his Emigration, before she became a Muslim.)

The reason for this, explains Sheikh Yusri, is that these people grew up in the house of the Prophet and saw him before the completed incorporation of the metaphysical reality into their beings by virtue of reaching puberty. What happens at that age is that a believer, when he meets the Prophet in person, will not only encounter his beauty—he will also encounter his majesty—which Imam ‘Ali described as follows: “Whoever saw him unexpectedly was in awe of him.”

This is also why no description of the Prophet was ever given by his closest and mature Companions. There is a tradition in Sahih Muslim that relates from ‘Amr ibn al-‘As: “I couldn’t bear to take in his image because I considered him too exalted. If I were to be asked to describe him I couldn’t bear it, for my eyes never fully took him in.” It is reported in Al-Shifa that the Companion al-Bara’ ibn `Azib said: “I used to want to ask the Messenger of Allah about a matter and postpone it for years because of his majesty.”

Another understanding of the physical beauty of the Prophet that is related is that he is the most beautiful of all creation; transcending that of Prophet Joseph (Yusuf), who was known to possess half of the all created beauty. Imam al-Qurtubi in his book al-Salah explicates: “The perfection of the beauty of the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, was not manifested to us fully; for, if it would have appeared in its entirety, our eyes wouldn’t have been able to observe him.” To that end, and in relation to Prophet Joseph, Imam al-Busiri in his renowned eulogy of the Prophet, al-Burda (the Cloak), pertinently versifies:

He has no equal in his beauties

The gem of beauty in him is indivisible.

To the same end, the Prophet’s wife Aisha, is reported to have quoted the following two lines of poetry about the Prophet’s beauty, based on the Qur’anic story of Joseph and the vizier’s wife, Zulaykha, whose friends cut their hands because they were mesmerised by his beauty:

If only the friends of Zulaykha would see his forehead

They would cut their necks rather than their hands

Likewise, taken by the poetic, the Prophet’s closest companion Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, eulogised the Prophetic beauty:

Trustworthy, Elected, for goodness he called

Like moonlight in a cloudless night     

Remedying the Heart

After al-Tirmidhi’s al-Shama’il, many early and later scholars followed the endeavor. The person whose name comes only second after Imam al-Tirmidhi’s in the Shama’il genre is the famous Maliki Jurist (al-Qadi) `Iyad al-Yahsabi (d. 544 AH), who also excelled in other Islamic disciplines, most notably Hadith and Qur’anic exegesis. Moreover, he was known for his linguistic and superior literary gifts. Amongst his works are a brilliant commentary on Sahih Muslim and numerous other books on Hadith and jurisprudence. His articulate and scholarly al-Shifa’ bi-Ta`rif Huquq al-Mustafa (The Remedy in Identifying the Rights of the Chosen One) became an unparalleled classic, accepted by all Islamic scholars.

Since at-Tirmidhi ‘the Wise’ the Sham’ail genre has extended both horizontally and vertically, i.e. both thematically and in terms of depth. Many other additions to the descriptions given in al-Shamai’l al-Muhammadiya have flourished. Not only has the number of hadith narrations increased; the mention of the Prophet in the Qur’an, his miracles, the importance of loving him, visiting his tomb, loving his Family, and rulings on the one who slanders him also became part and parcel of the genre. Also, scholarly examinations related to his rank and exaltation by Allah as well as traditions about the Companions invoking peace and blessings upon him have become part of the Shama’il corpus.

Sheikh Yusri is the first one to commentate on al-Shifa’ in Cairo, home of the respected Jamia al-Azhar, since the past two hundred years.

The book is considered to be so blessed that scholars state, “no house that contains al-Shifa’ can burn down”, due to the grace of its content.

As the jurist ‘Iyad elucidates in his preamble to al-Shifa’, he wrote it because of persistent requests by others to author a book on the rights of the Prophet:

A discourse about that demands the evaluation of principles, the authoring of [lengthy] chapters, the revelation of mysteries and subtleties from the science of [the realisation of higher] realities, regarding that which is due or ascribed to him; or regarding that which is rejected or lawful in relation to him. It also demands knowledge of the Prophet and Messenger; ‘messengership’ and prophethood; [the state(s) of] love, friendship, and the attributes of this sublime rank. Surely the likeness of this [mission] is a vast desert, in which even the sand grouse [bird known for its infallible sense of direction] gets lost and where steps fall short; unexplored territories in which one’s discernment is misguided, unless steered by the banner of knowledge and a penetrating perspective; slippery slopes on which feet slip, unless depending on divine success and support… (p. 5)

In relation to Prophetic features, he brilliantly writes:

Know—may Allah enlighten your heart and multiply your and my love of this noble Prophet—that if you look for the qualities of beauty that are innate, you will find that he [the Prophet]—Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him—acquired them fully, encompassing all aspects of beauty, as has been definitively established in all narrations (p. 58).

A New Generation of Lovers

One of the later contributors to the genre is Imam al-Hasan al-Ansari. Unfortunately, his Muntaha al-Su’ul fi Madh al-Rasul (Ultimate Inquiries into Commending the Messenger) has not survived the vagaries of time. Likewise, the Azhari Imam Ahmed Shehab ad-Din al-Qastalani (d. 932 AH), after teaching and commenting on the al-Shifa‘ in the al-Maqsura area (between the Prophet’s resting place and the pulpit), returned home to Cairo to write a large tome entitled al-Mawahib al-Ladunia bil-Minah al-Muhammadiya (Mystically Inspired Mohamedan Gifts) which became widely circulated. This work includes chapters on the Divine selection of the Messenger’s prophethood and genealogy in pre-existence, the prophetic biography, the Prophet’s names and titles, a description of his physiognomy and character, his miracles, his Nightly Ascendance, the injunction to love and exalt him, and even his medicine. Finally it discusses his departure.

The accomplished jurist, Hadith master, and poet Imam Yusuf al-Nabhani (1265-1350 AH), became the star in the sky of this genre in our modern times. In his opinion al-Mawahib is a highly beneficial and inclusive work. Still, he judged it too lengthy, because it goes into deeply detailed and protracted theological and jurisprudential discussions, which made it “inaccessible” to many. He thus abridged this work under the brilliant title Al-Anwar al-Muhammadia min al-Mawahib al-Ladunia (Muhammadan Lights [Derived] from Mystical Inspirations).

“Know that it is part of perfecting faith in him [the Prophet] —Allah’s peace and blessing be upon him—that Allah, most-Sublime, has created the Prophet’s body in a way unsurpassed before or after in human creation,” Imam al-Nabahani asserts in Al-Nawar with regard to the Prophet’s exquisiteness (p.194).

He contributed to the genre with many other works, varying from poetry to related compilations of prayers by Muslim saints and scholars. His most famous work is Was’il al-Wusul ila Shamai’l al-Rasul (The Means of Attainment to the Characteristics of the Messenger). Nabhani’s work yet again illustrates the close relationship between Hadith scholarship and the Shama’il genre.

The Undying Beauty

One of the most fascinating aspects of this genre is the way its subject matter has expanded while simultaneously fragmenting. Many works came to specialise in a certain aspect of Shama’il. The most famous of these early works is the lengthy Dala’il al-Nubuwwa (Proofs of Prophethood) by Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458AH), a title and a theme which was taken up by numerous other scholars and under which they covered all the narrations related to the miracles and attributes of the Prophet.

The prominent and ultra prolific Hadith master, Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (849-911 AH.), produced many books which deal with certain parts of the genre. Among these is al-Riyad al-Aniqa fi Sharh Asma’ Sayyid al-Khaliqa (The Pretty Meadows of Explaining the Names of the Master of Creation). He also authored the previously mentioned al-Khasa’is al-Nabawiyya al-Kubra, which focuses on the miracles and privileges of the Prophet. This is an excellent commentary on the numerous names, designations, and titles which were attributed to the Prophet. One of his greatest works deals with seeing the Prophet in a dream: Tanwir al-Huluk fi Jawaz Ru’ya al-Nabi’ wa al-Malak (Lightening the Darkness with Regard to Seeing the Prophet and Angels).

A truly interesting aspect of the genre which has attracted much attention and is a further illustration of its increasing fragmentation is the Prophet’s slippers.  Works focusing on this theme are Fath al-Mut`al fi Madh al-Ni`al (The Illumination of the Sublime in Praising the Slippers [of the Prophet]) by Shehab al-Din Ahmed al-Muqri and Nayl al-Shifa’ bi Na`l (Attaining to a Cure through the Slippers) by the Deobandi Sheikh Ashraf `Ali al-Tahanawi.

One of the most significant contemporary Shamai’l works is that by the late scholar, Hadith master and jurist, al-Sayyid Muhammad `Alawi al-Maliki’s Muhammad al-Insan al-Kamil (Muhammed, the Perfect Human Being). The work, which is written in very accessible language, is based on the idea that the perfection of Islam necessitates the perfection of its emissary; hence, all aspects of the Prophet are a manifestation of perfection, including his physical shape. Al-Maliki writes, “It has been confirmed that he—Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him—was the epitome of beauty. This beauty is crowned by two matters: First, inspiring majestic awe; second, illuminating radiance. This is why whoever saw him was not stunned by him, unlike those who saw Prophet Joseph—peace be upon him—who, although he possessed only half of created beauty, women exalted him and cut their hands when they saw him, exclaiming: “How perfect is Allah! This is not a human being. This is not other than some gracious angel” (12:31) (p. 17).

One of the most momentous contemporary services to the Shama’il is the compilation and authentication of all sahih Hadith related to the Shama’il by the Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation in an annotated volume titled: Shama’il al-Nabi Sala Allah `Alayh was Sallam. It is a compendium of 1373 traditions from the six canonical Hadith books in addition to hadith from al-Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, al-Musnad of Imam Ahmed, Al-Musnad of al-Hamidi, al-Sunan of Al-Darimi and al-Sunan al-Daraqutni. The book’s inner beauty is reflected in its exquisite script, design, illumination, and the classical layout of the sectioning and marginalia. It was submitted to the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ prestigious 50/50 best designed books and dust jackets competition for books published in 2005, and was selected as one of the fifty winners. The exhibition of the winning entries was held at the AIGA’s gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York from September to November 2006.

The last two Hadiths in this work read:

On the authority of al-Tafyal bin Abi Ka`b, who narrated from his father said “When two thirds of the night had elapsed, The Messenger of Allah—Allah’s peace and blessing be upon Him—used to rise [for night vigil prayer] and say: ‘O people! Remember Allah! Remember Allah! The Trumpet blast has come, followed by the second! Death has come with what is in it! Death has come with what is in it!’ I said: ‘O Messenger of Allah. I pray for many blessings upon you. How much should I reserve for you in my prayer?’ He said: ‘What you wish.’ I said: ‘A quarter’. He said: ‘If you wish. If you add more it is better for you.’ I said: ‘Half.’ He said: ‘If you wish. If you add more it is better for you.’ I said: ‘Two thirds then.’ He said: ‘If you wish. If you add more it is better for you.’ I said: ‘Should I reserve all of my prayer for you?’ He said: ‘Then you will be spared from your worries and your sins will be forgiven.’”(al-Tirmidhi, 2645).

The very last tradition reads: “Allah has wandering angels that convey to me the prayers of peace invoked by my nation.” (al-Nasa’i, 1290).

Another scholar who contributed with tremendous work to this genre is the late sheikh Abd Allah Siraj al-Din, whose books on demonstrating prophetic virtues and analysing different elements of prophetic behaviour stand unparalleled. The authors of the Shama’il genre were moved by several objectives; informing people about the rank and beauty of the Prophet, reporting his exemplary life, and inspiring closeness to him through creating a spiritual as well emotional link to his person.

Imam al-Nabhani mentions another reason in the preface of Was’il al-Wusul ila Shamai’l al-Rasul with which the author of this article identifies: “…I looked at my lack of knowledge, my feebleness of understanding, the greatness of my sins, and the abundance of my deficiencies, so I restrained myself [from writing about the Prophet] as befits someone who knows his rank and thus restricts himself. I then pondered being a member of the nation of this distinguished Prophet and [his] bounteous generosity. Like a little child advances towards a compassionate, benevolent father, I proceeded [to write] after hearing the words of Allah: “Now there has come to you a Messenger from among yourselves; grievous to him is your suffering; anxious is he over you, gentle to the believers, compassionate” (9:128) (p. 28).

Work Cited

Al-Tirmidhi, Muhammed bin `Isa, Al-Shamail Al-Muhammadiya. Dar Ibn Hazm, Beirut, Lebanon, 1997.

Al-Yahsabi, Abi al-Fadl `Eyad, al-Shifa’ bi-Ta`rif Huquq al-Mustafa. Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiya, Beirut, Lebanon, undated .

Al-Nabahani, Yusuf bin Ismail, Al-Anwar al-Muhammadia min al-Mawahib al-Ladunia. Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, Cairo, Egypt

Al-Nabahani, Yusuf bin Ismail, Was’il al-Wusul ila Shamai’l al-Rasul. Dar al-Minhaj, Beirut, Lebanon, 2004.

Shama’il al-Nabi Sala Allah `Alayh was Sallam. Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, Cairo, Egypt, Germany, Stuttgart, 2004


Tarek Ghanem is a student of Islamic sciences and a dedicated father. He works as the Online Services Lead at SeekersHub Global Islamic Seminary.  This article was first published on masud.co.uk, a leading resource of traditional Islam since 1996. Consider making a donation to masud.co.uk to support its important work. 


 

The Prophet’s ﷺ Reminder to Allah of His Promise


Ibrahim-Osi-EfaThe Virtues Tour has over the years become a highlight in the calendar of British Islamic events. It’s led by Shaykh Ibrahim Osi-Efa, who is joined by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus, Shaykh Abdul Karim Yahya, Sidi Amir Sulaiman and Sidi Nader Khan.
In 2015, the tour was focused on the ethics and moral practice of prophecy. In the above recording, Shaykh Ibrahim Osi-Efa reminds us how much love the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, has for those who believe in him. He has our back, as the saying goes – so much so that he, peace upon him, reminded Allah, Lord of the Worlds, of His Promise that He would not punish anyone who seeks forgiveness from Allah through the Prophet. SubhanAllah!

Do You Want to Learn More?

Consider taking an online course with SeekersHub. It’s free to anyone, anywhere in the world. There are over 30 titles to choose from, including Meccan Dawn: The Life of the Beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (Part I), Medinan Nights: The Life of the Beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (Part II) and Understanding the Prophetic Way: Imam Nawawi’s 40 Hadith Explained. Shaykh Yahya Rhodus himself teaches Principles of Islamic Spirituality, The Marvels of the Heart and Essentials of Spirituality: Ghazali’s Beginning of Guidance Explained.

Resources for seekers:

Muadh ibn Jabal and the Night of Mid-Sha’ban by Sidi Samer Dajani

“As for the Night of Mid-Sha’ban, the Tabi’een in Shām, like Khalid ibn Ma’dan, Makhul, Luqman ibn ‘Amir, and others, used to honor this night and strive hard in their worship in it. It is from them that the people learned the virtue of this night and learned to honor it.”
– Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Lata’if al-Ma’arif (1)

“As for the Night of Mid-Sha’ban, hadiths and early reports have been transmitted about its virtue, and it has been transmitted that a group of the salaf (righteous predecessors) used to do extra prayers in it.”
– Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu’ al-Fatawa (2)

The passages above show us that in the first century of Islam, it was the people of Shām who were known to celebrate the the Night of Mid-Sha’ban. Those who taught them that the Night of Mid-Sha’ban was a special night, and taught them to do extra prayers in this night, were scholars from the generation of the Tabi’een, those who studied under the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace).
Now the question is, why was it in particular the Tabi’een of Shām that taught this?
Because they took it from the great Companion Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) who used to teach in Damascus. The Companions of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) spread to different parts of the world, and took with them the teachings that they heard from the Messenger of Allah. Because of this, in the first century of Islam, different regions within the Muslim world had different practices and fiqh, based on the different Companions that they learned from.
When the caliph Harun al-Rashid asked Imam Malik if he may force all the people of Islam to follow Malik’s book the Muwatta, Imam Malik refused this strongly, telling him that the different Companions of the Messenger of Allah had dispersed to different lands, each carrying different hadiths and different teachings; the people of each region followed the way of the Companions who went to them, and they were all correct. After some while, the hadiths of all the different regions would be brought together and shared with the entire Muslim community.
Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him)
The most prominent Companion to teach in Damascus was Mu’adh ibn Jabal. The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “The most knowledgeable person in my Ummah of what is Halal and what is Haram is Mu’adh ibn Jabal.” He (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) also said, “Muadh will be at the forefront of all the scholars on the Day of Judgment.” Many hadiths describe Muadh as the leader of the scholars of Islam on the Day of Judgement.
When he came to Shām, the other Companions there used to have such respect for him that they would always turn to him to solve any problem. Even though he was the youngest of the Companions there, they would all look at him with awe. He always sat quietly and silently, but stood out with his radiant face. When a disagreement arose they would go ask him, and hover around him. People said that a love for him would fall on their hearts upon seeing him and they said that when he spoke it was as if light and pearls were coming out of his mouth. The other Companions likened him to the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him).
It was Muadh, this most outstanding of scholars from among the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), who taught to the people of Shām the sayings of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) about the virtues of the Night of Mid-Sha’ban.
There, in Shām, Mu’adh ibn Jabal narrated that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said:

‘God looks at His creation during the Night of Mid-Sha‘ban and forgives all of them, except an idolator and one who harbours rancour.’

This above hadith was narrated on the authority of Mu’adh by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih. It was also narrated by Ibn Abi Asim in al-Sunna and al-Tabarani in al-Kabir and al-Awsat. (3)
If we look at the chain of this hadith, we see that the Syrian Malik b. Yukhamir (from the city of Homs) took this hadith from Mu’adh ibn Jabal, and through him it reached Makhul. As we saw above, Ibn Rajab stated that Makhul was one of those who taught people the virtue of this blessed night and used to strive to do extra worship on this night.
According to Imam Zuhri and other great scholars of that age, Makhul was the greatest scholar of Shām in his age, and one of the four greatest scholars amongst that entire blessed generation of young Tabi’een. Makhul taught this hadith to the Damascene Thawban, who taught it to two people mentioned in this chain: his son Ibn Thawban, and the Imam of Shām, al-Awza’i. Al-Awza’i was the imam of Shām of his time in terms of Jurisprudence, like Malik in Medina, Abu Hanifa in Kufa, or Ibn Hanbal in Baghdad. The Awza’i school of jurisprudence became the main school of jurisprudence in Shām and spread from there to the Andalus, where it was the most widespread school of jurisprudence there for a time.
As you can see, the people in this chain are all from Shām. That is why the hadith master al-Tabarani, himself from Palestine in Shām, narrated this hadith in his book Musnad al-Shāmiyyeen, a collection of hadiths narrated by Tabi’een who lived in Shām and their students. Al-Tabarani took the hadith from Muhammad ibn Abi Zur’a of Damascus, with his chain back to Imam Awza’i and Ibn Thawban. (4)
Makhul also received this same hadith from Kathir ibn Murra al-Hadrami, a Tabi’i who lived in Homs. Kathir reported the hadith as a mursal report directly from the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), meaning that he did not specify which Companion he took it from. Al-Bayhaqi narrated the hadith through this chain in Shu’ab al-Iman and stated that it was a mursal jayyid (strong hadith, despite being mursal). (5) Kathir was known for often leaving out the name of the Companion from whom he took prophetic traditions, but we do know that one of his main teachers was Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him).
Others Who Brought Hadiths About this Night to Shām

The people of Shām did not only learn this hadith from Muadh ibn Jabal, but from another Companion: Abu Musa al-Ash’ari. Who narrated this hadith from him? Al-Dahhak ibn Abd al-Rahman, from Shām. This chain continues being narrated by scholars from Shām until Rashid b. Sa’id al-Ramli of Palestine, Shām, who taught this hadith to Ibn Majah, who narrated it in his Sunan. (6)
Ibn Majah also narrated the following hadith on the authority of Ali ibn Abu Talib:

“If it is the Night of Mid-Shaʿbān then stand in prayer during its night and fast its day. For God descends to the heavens of the earth when the sun sets and says, ‘Is there anyone who seeks forgiveness so that I may forgive him? Is there anyone who seeks provision so that I may grant him provision? Is there anyone afflicted so that I may remove his affliction? Is there not such and such,’ until the dawn breaks.”

Who narrated this hadith from Ali? His nephew Abdullah ibn Ja’far, who used to travel every year to Damascus. He passed on the hadith to his son Mu’awiya, who was born in Damascus. (7)

As you can see, the people of Shām gave great importance to this night and paid special attention to narrating the hadiths about it, and it all would have started with the Prophet’s great Companion Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him). There were other hadiths of course about this night that were spread by people of different lands. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, for example, narrated a hadith similar to that of Mu’adh ibn Jabal about the virtue of that night (with some difference in wording) through a chain made up of Egyptians, on the authority of Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-As (may Allah be pleased with him), the Companion whose father opened Egypt to Islam. (8)

The Early Scholars of Shām

Now if we return to the hadith of Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him) and the scholars of Shām who narrated it, we see those very same narrators are the ones from whom we have received explanations of this hadith. Thus these scholars used to not only narrate this hadith but comment upon it and explain it.

Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak said:
I heard al-Awza’i explain the mushāhin (one who harbours rancour) as: every person of innovation, who has left the jamā’a (majority) and the Ummah. (9)
Umar ibn Hani’ said: I asked Ibn Thawban about the meaning of mushāhin (one who harbours rancour).  He said,

“He is the one who has left the Sunna of his Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), who speaks ill of his Ummah, and spills their blood.” (10)

As we have seen above, those two figures, Imam Awza’i and Ibn Thawban, are the ones who narrated the hadith of Muadh from Thawban, and passed it on to other scholars of Shām.
Conclusion

We learn from the above the importance that the people of the blessed land of Shām gave to the Night of Mid-Sha’ban and its day, and we learn that its origin is with the great Companion, the leader of all the scholars of Islam, Muadh ibn Jabal (may Allah be pleased with him). The people of Shām took this hadith from him and taught it to others and explained it. We also know that they learned from this hadith (and others) that one should strive to do extra worship on this night. This was the guidance of the Tabi’een which they took from the Companions who came to Shām and instilled in them the love and veneration of this blessed night.
To repeat the words of Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali:

“The Tabi’een in Shām, like Khalid ibn Ma’dan, Makhul, Luqman ibn ‘Amir, and others, used to honor this night and strive hard in their worship in it. It is from them that the people learned the virtue of this night and learned to honor it.”

According to Ibn Rajab, Khalid ibn Ma’dan, Luqman ibn ‘Amir and other notable Tabi’een from Shām recommended for people to congregate in the mosques in this night to perform extra worship together. They would wear their best clothes, put kohl on their eyes, perfume themselves using incense and then spend that night in the mosque. He further stated that the great Imam in Khorasan, Ishaq ibn Rahwayh was asked about this practice of the people of Shām. Ibn Rahwayh was known as the “Imam of the East” and the “Master of Hadith Memorizers.” He was a colleague of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal who called Ibn Rahwayh one of the imams of the Muslims. He was a teacher of Imam Bukhari and was one of the leading figures of the Ahl al-Hadith movement. Imam Ibn Rahwayh supported the practice and responded that praying extra prayers in the mosque in congregation on that night is not an innovation. Imam al-Awza’i on the other hand, while also advocating spending that night in extra worship, was of the opinion that it was preferable not to do it in the mosque. (11)
May Allah bless and reward all the Companions and their Followers, and all those hadith narrators and scholars who have preserved for us the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), so that it could reach us centuries later, in all corners of the world, in order for us to be able to implement it and act upon it.
1) Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Lata’if al-Ma’arif, Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2004, p. 137.
2) He continues to say: “If a person performs extra prayers on the night of the middle of Sha’ban on his own or in a private congregation, as groups of the salaf used to do, that is best.” However, he disapproved of a congregation of an entire town in the main mosque praying an innovated prayer with a set number, for example, one hundred cycles with one thousand Sura Ikhlas, calling that an innovation. (See Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu’ al-Fatawa, vol. 23, p. 132). An almost identical statement is repeated in his workIqtida’ al-sirat al-mustaqim where he added that despite the fact that some scholars from Hijaz denied the virtue of this night, the majority of the people of knowledge from among the Hanbali scholars and others believe in its special virtues, and the texts of Ahmad ibn Hanbal are evidence for that, as well as the many prophetic traditions and practices of the salaf (See Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtida’ al-sirat al-mustaqim, Beirut: Dar ‘Alam al-Kitab, 1999, vol. 2, pp. 136-7). It should be noted in this regard that Shām was always one of the main centers of the Hanbali school.
(3) Sahih Ibn Hibban, vol. 12, p. 481. Its men are all trustworthy.
After evaluating eight different chains for this hadith, al-Albani concludes: ‘The hadith, with its collective chains of transmission, is authentic (sahih) without doubt.’ Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah,Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1979, vol. 3, p. 138.
(4) Al-Tabarani, Musnad al-Shāmiyyeen, Beirut: Mu’assassat al-Risala, 1984, vol. 1, p. 128.
(5) Al-Bayhaqi, Shu’ab al-Iman, Riyadh: Maktabat al-Rushd, 2003, vol. 5, p. 349.
(6) Sunan Ibn Majah, Cairo: Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub al-Arabiyya, Vol. 1, p. 445.
(7) Sunan Ibn Majah, Cairo: Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub al-Arabiyya, Vol. 1, p. 444. However it should be noted that the chain of this particular narration contains one person who is considered weak. Though Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali considered this tradition to be weak, he narrated it in Lata’if al-Ma’arif in support of fasting the day of the 15th of Sha’ban. He further stated that in either case, it is one of the three middle days of every month known as the ‘Days of the White Nights’ in which fasting is recommended. These are the 13th, 14th, and 15th of every lunar month (see Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Lata’if al-Ma’arif, Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2004, p. 136).
(8) Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Beirut: Mu’assassat al-Risala, 2001, vol. 11, pp. 216-7.
(9), (10) Shaykh Salih al-Ja’fari (ed.), Risalat al-Kashf wal Bayaan ‘an Fadaail Laylat an-Nisf min Sha’banby al-hafiz Shaykh Salim al-Sanhouri, who was summarizing the teachings of his teacher, the Seal of the Hadith Masters of his age, Shaykh Najm al-Din al-Ghayti. Cairo: Dar Jawami’ al-Kalim, pp. 14-5.
Ishaq ibn Rahwayh likewise said in his Musnad: Al-Awza’i explained the word mushāhin (in this hadith) as the innovator who parts ways with the rest of the ummah.
(11) Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Lata’if al-Ma’arif, Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2004, p. 137.
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Sidi Samer Dajani is the author of Reassurance for the Seeker: A Biography and Translation of Salih al-Ja’fari’s al-Fawa’id al-Ja’fariyya, A Commentary on Forty Prophetic Traditions. See the original link and buy the book.

Resources for Seekers:
Merits of Sha’ban – Muwasala

Welcoming the Month of Sha’ban – Interpreter’s Path Blog

The Blessings of the Night of Mid-Sha’ban | Nur Sacred Sciences
It is Recommended to Perform Extra Worship on the Night of the 15th of Sha’ban?
Dhikr for the Month of Sha’ban – Habib Umar bin Hafiz
Preparing For Ramadan Advice from Habib Umar bin Hafiz