Answering Some Objections: On Holding the Beard and Swaying the Finger in the Supplication of Rajab (2)

Originally posted on Mind In Momentum

بسمه تعالى

My good friend, Sayyid Ali Imran, produced an article providing new insights into the supplication of Rajab as well comments and observations on some of the arguments I made in my earlier writing about this matter. In this piece – with the help of God – I will cover his comments and try to defend my earlier positions while adding new points. You can read my original article here and his here.

Before I begin, I would like to point out the following:

  • There are many points of agreement which will stand out to the reader of the previous two articles; I will be mainly addressing the areas of disagreement
  • I will be referring to the dear Sayyid with his last name only for the sake of brevity not out of disrespect

Did ʿAllāmah Majlisī make a mistake in his transmission?

Imran argues that the current order of performing the gestures in the latter section of the supplication is due to a mistake in the recording of ʿAllāmah Majlisī in Zād al-Maʿād as compared to his records of it in two of his other books. The record in question has the following modification:

ثُمَّ قَبَضَ عَلَيْهِ اَلسَّلاَمُ عَلَى لِحْيَتِهِ اَلْكَرِيمَةِ بِيَدِهِ اَلْيُسْرَى وَ كَانَ يُحَرِّكُ سَبَّابَةَ يَدِهِ اَلْيُمْنَى يَمِيناً وَ شِمَالاً وَ يَقْرَأُ هَذَا اَلدُّعَاءَ: «يَا ذَا اَلْجَلاَلِ وَ اَلْإِكْرَامِ…

He (a) held his respected beard with his left hand and was moving the index finger of his right hand right and left while he was reciting this supplication: “Oh the possessor of majesty and sublimeness ,etc…”[1]

If by mistake he means a scribal error, the alteration appears too intentional and specific in the description of the movement of hand for it to be a mistake. And if he means al-Majlisī’s interpretation of the original report is mistaken, then let’s briefly review the reasons why such a reading would be plausible:

There are two ways performing of the gestures can be understood from the text of the report in Iqbāl:

  1. i) Performing them from the beginning of the supplication.
  2. ii) Performing them with the second segment.

Imran’s wording in the article suggests that I prefer order (i), whereas I argued for both understandings and finally sided with the latter for two main reasons:

  1. Its compatibility with the meaning of the second segment.
  2. The visible and inherited nature of these gestures. That is, they are actions which each generation would have to observe to learn, not follow textual instructions.

Here I add another supporting observation to this cause:

The presence of the first segment independently in other reports without the mentioning of the gestures, demonstrates that only with the introduction of the second segment the gestures become relevant.

ʿAllāmah Majlisī would have also accepted this reading and given Zād al-Maʿād was written for the laymen, it is more likely he was explaining the more ambiguous phrase:

(هُوَ يَلُوذُ بسباحته [بِسَبَّابَتِهِ] اَلْيُمْنَى).

“and he was seeking refuge with his right index finger.”

with what he considered to be its meaning:

كَانَ يُحَرِّكُ سَبَّابَةَ يَدِهِ اَلْيُمْنَى يَمِيناً وَ شِمَالاً.

“and was moving the index finger of his right hand right and left.”

I do not support his transposition and alteration of the text of a report to this degree and in the manner he has done. But having considered his target audience was the lay reader and he was intending to instruct them as visually as he could, benefit of doubt can be granted.

This is especially true because the verb يلوذ carries no description on how this particular finger movement is supposed to be carried out. That is, upon hearing “seeking refuge with the index finger”, one does not automatically imagine their fingers swaying; it would require previous knowledge of what it represents. This aids my reasoning that it was a visual and well understood gesture by the contemporaries of the Imam which would be learnt by the next generation via observation. This makes it more likely that al-Majlisī has attempted to describe this to his (most likely Persian) audience who may not be familiar with the meaning and form of these gestures.

Are the reports in Iqbāl and Kashshī the same?

In the report in Iqbāl (call it R1), which has specific mentioning of Rajab, the narrator is Muhammad b. Dkhawān al-Sajjād and in Kashshī (R2)¸which has no mentioning of Rajab, the narrator is Muhammad b. Zayd al-Shaḥḥām.

Imran argues they are the same person (as the similarity in al-Sajjād and al-Shaḥḥām attests) and the different recordings are due to scribal errors. He notes that R1 is an excised version of a lengthier one, which he believes to be R2, the one in al-Kashshī.

This analysis is noteworthy and although this possibility could not be fully ruled, I would like to point out some potential problems:

If R2 is the complete and lengthy version, then all that we find in the shortened version, R1, we should find in R2. But this is not the case. Ibn Tawus mentions extensive details about its performance in Rajab that is clearly not present in R2.

Imran present far-fetched speculations on how and why this could have happened. He does not believe in these speculations, however, and contends that “the possibility of transmission through meaning is far more likely than the theory of someone assuming it must have been a Kufan being present in Medina during Rajab and adding those details to the text.”

I say, even transmission through meaning is unlikely here, given that extensive new meaning has been added in R1. Further to the addition of details about Rajab, the addition and modification of the report to include the finger swaying and instructions on its execution also makes it very difficult to accept they are the same. Ultimately, this heavy textual alteration is hard to ignore.

We could suppose that the original report is another, and both Ibn Tawus and al-Kashshī have produced versions of it they seemed fit. This could hold for Ibn Tawus because he explicitly mentions that he extracts this report from a lengthier one but there is no evidence that this is true for R2.

In light of this, Sayyid al-Khū’ī in his Muʿjam under the entry for al-Sajjād, writes:

يأتي هذا الدعاء بتفاوت عن محمد بن سنان، عن محمد بن زيد الشحام، ولا يبعد تعدد القضية، وإن اتحد الراوي، وهو محمد بن سنان.

This supplication has been received with a difference from Muhammad b. Sinān from Muhammad b. Zayd al-Sajjād. It is not unlikely that this event (receiving of the supplication) happened multiple times, even if the narrator is the same individual, Muhammad b. Sinān.[2]

Is the second segment not part of the supplication (a)?

Even if we accept that the reports are the same, Imran’s inference from al-Kashshī’s report can be disputed. His main argument is that in this version, there is a clear(er) distinction between the command of the Imām to write the requested supplication and his recital of the second segment. This distinction would imply that the second segment is not part of the supplication at all.

The excerpt in discussion is:

ثُمَّ رَفَعَ یَدَیْهِ فَقَالَ: یَا ذَا الْمَنِّ وَ الطَّوْلِ یَا ذَا الْجَلَالِ وَ الْإِکْرَامِ یَا ذَا النَّعْمَاءِ وَ الْجُودِ ارْحَمْ شَیْبَتِی مِنَ النَّارِ. ثُمَّ وَضَعَ یَدَهُ عَلَى لِحْیَتِهِ وَ لَمْ یَرْفَعْهَا إِلَّا وَ قَدِ امْتَلَأَ ظَهْرُ کَفِّهِ دُمُوعاً.

Then he raised his hands and said: O the Gracious and the Mighty, O the Sublime and the Distinguished, O the Bountiful and the Magnanimous, have mercy on my grey hair from the Fire. Then he put his hand to his beard and did not remove them until his outer palm was filled with tears.

It is true that here the narrator has separated the two segments such that the former is understood to be dictated and the latter as recited (a fact that is also present in R1). But this separation (which is understood from the phrase “then he raised his hands and said”) is neither distant enough (as would have been the case if some other event happened between the two segments) and neither distinct enough to consider it as separate. The context simply does not favour it. It is not distinct enough because both of these supplicatory words are communicated by the Imam per the request of the narrator to “teach him a supplication”, not multiple supplications.

Is the second segment not part of the supplication (b)?

The author of the article then neatly presents other records of the first segment in our duʿā literature which do not have consequent mentioning of the second segment. This is to demonstrate that the taught supplication for Rajab to al-Sajjād was only the first and the second was an inspired moment of the Imam given the spiritual state he was enjoying.

This argument ignores how often in our supplications we encounter repeated/similar wordings, phrases and lines found in other supplications – a fact Imran points out as well. Does this mean we consider the repeated fragments as separate when they are part of a larger supplication?

I agree with Imran that the former’s independent mentioning in the references cited is a good sign that it is a separate supplication. But this does not necessitate that it is always to be recited independently. As in our case, one could simply argue that for Rajab, these two segments have been instructed to read in a combined fashion.

More than using al-Kashshī’s report to argue for separation, I think the more valuable takeaway is the absence of the finger gesture and the late holding of the beard. This can strongly aid the claim that these gestures are complimentary to the supplication and not necessarily a part of it.

Is the second segment meant only for the elderly?

Imran argues that “given the second segment is not part of the supplication, there is no reason to assume this line is relevant for everyone”. He adds, rightfully, that the Prophetic narration proves there is special consideration for the elderly and hence “such a supplication would have no meaning if the young were to utter this phrase [they are not old]”.

In the previous section, I pointed out problems in omitting the second segment from the supplication. Therefore, the first point is not convincing in wanting to disprove its relevance for all groups of people.

His second point, which is mainly pivoted around the word shaybatī, is worth the exploration. In Lisān al-ʿArab, under the entry for شيب, we read:

الشَّيْبُ: مَعْرُوفٌ، قَلِـيلُه وكَثِـيرُه بَياضُ الشَّعَر، والـمَشِـيبُ مِثْلُه، ورُبَّـما سُمِّيَ الشَّعَرُ نَفْسُه شيْباً.

Ibn Manẓur extends the meaning of shayb beyond grey/white hair to include all hair regardless of colour. Although Lisān is a linguistic authority itself, I personally did not find a piece of text to support its claim. Predominantly the word is used to speak about grey hair and can be figuratively used to refer to old age, as has been done in the supplication.

Imran argues this is sufficient indication that this second segment is meant only for the elderly. I reasoned that due to the metaphorical and symbolic nature of the wording, it is unlikely this is case. I will present some further points to aid my reasoning:

From the Prophetic tradition which speaks about the special status an elderly believer entertains in the eyes of God, we notice two main traits the report focuses on: a lifetime of servitude to Him and the weakness of the old individual. God is embarrassed to punish this believer for these two traits.

If we strictly follow Imran’s line of thinking, old believers who have not spent their lifetime in servitude and worship of God, whether that be due to inattentiveness to religion or not being a person of faith, they should also not read this segment. This is because the consideration and special mercy God shows the old person is due to his history of obedience and his frail body. And the first of these would be missing in this individual. I highly doubt this is a conclusion Imran would accept and thus it is more sensible that it is the weakness of the body that deserves more attention.

This second trait, weakness of the body, is clearly not an exclusive characteristic of the elderly, even if they experience it more frequently and fully. In many supplications, we ask God to have mercy on our weak bodies; both the old and the young. Some of the excerpts Imran cites, tie together the meaning of shayb with weakness of the body:

ارْحَمْ ضَعْفِي وَ شَيْبَتِي مِنَ النَّارِ يَا كَرِيم‏.

Have mercy on my weakness and my white hair from the fire, O Noble One[3]

In another:

ارحم شيبتي ونفاد أيامي، واقتراب أجلي، وضعفي ومسكنتي.

Have mercy on white hair, the depletion of my days, the closing of my time, my weakness and destitution.[4]

This shows that the symbolism that behind shaybati and old age is generally one to denote weakness of the body and nearness to death. These notions are clearly not exclusive to the elderly, even if they manifest more apparently in them. Therefore, if the meanings behind shaybati are to be taken as figuratively and symbolically, there is no reason to stop with the elderly.

This does not only apply to physical traits but more evidently in spiritual stations mentioned in supplications. Many of the words we recite in these lofty supplications do not always resemble our spiritual state. We may be far from their meanings. Does that mean we entirely avoid such supplications or omit sections which we feel do not apply to us? Or do we recite them in hope of attainment of such states and stations? There are many examples of this, including phrases in the supplication of Kumayl[5] and the 15 Whispered Prayers of Imam al-Sajjād (a).[6]

Having said all that, I partially contend with Imran’s point here and believe there is a middle-ground. I suggest that the non-elderly replace the term shaybatī with more relevant terms we can extract from the supplications. We encountered phrases such as my weakness ضعفي (ḍaʿfī) and my destitution مسكنتي (maskantī) which are meaningful replacements. The best suggestion perhaps would be to replace it with شبابي (lit: my youth) especially given the youth also enjoy a high station in the eyes of God as do the old.  It is reported in al-Kāfī from Imam al-Ṣādiq (a) from the Prophet (s):

أَنَّ اَللَّهَ تَعَالَى يُكْرِمُ اَلشَّبَابَ مِنْكُمْ وَ يَسْتَحْيِي مِنَ اَلْكُهُولِ قَالَ قُلْتُ جُعِلْتُ فِدَاكَ فَكَيْفَ يُكْرِمُ اَلشَّبَابَ وَ يَسْتَحْيِي مِنَ اَلْكُهُولِ فَقَالَ يُكْرِمُ اَللَّهُ اَلشَّبَابَ أَنْ يُعَذِّبَهُمْ وَ يَسْتَحْيِي مِنَ اَلْكُهُولِ أَنْ يُحَاسِبَهُمْ.

Allah (s) has respected the youth from amongst you and is embarrassed from your elderly…He has respected the youth by not punishing them and is embarrassed from the elderly to judge them.[7]

Interestingly, as I was revisiting Iqbāl, in an older print of the book this particular wording is mentioned in parenthesis. This usually means the word in parenthesis is found in a different manuscript of the text. Unfortunately, I could not verify whether this was the scribe’s own addition or sourced from another manuscript:

 ثُمَّ قَالَ بَعْدَ ذَلِكَ يَا ذَا الْجَلَالِ وَ الْإِكْرَامِ يَا ذَا النَّعْمَاءِ وَ الْجُودِ يَا ذَا الْمَنِّ وَ الطَّوْلِ حَرِّمْ [شبابي و] شَيْبَتِي عَلَى النَّارِ 

Prohibit [my youth and] my old age for the Fire.[8]

Of course, this rests on the permissibility of making minor alterations in the recitation of supplications to appropriate them to one’s context[9]. Sayyid Imran, however, should not have a problem with this given he asserts that the “second segment was said by the Imam (a) on his own accord while being overwhelmed in the moment and he (a) recited words that were appropriate for his (a) own context”.

On the meaning of these gestures and performing them

The Sayyid correctly mentions that the gesture of holding the beard and swaying the finger have been described in the narration of the Imams as imploring God. I agree with this and mention this in my paper – although without reference to the supporting narrations he cites.

He assumes I consider these gestures are specific to Rajab. I believe this is a misunderstanding. I present a third-party argument who could claim that Rajab could have specific relevance to the way the gestures are performed not that they are specific to it. In other words, the premise that these gestures are to be performed in a particular format in Rajab does not negate their general use in other supplications.

He adds: “for this reason, [Safdari] has resorted to explaining a preliminary regarding the nature of worship, their submissive aspect, and their symbolic nature.”

I clarified at least twice in the paper that avoiding these gestures will not harm the supplication. The introduction to my article is not a preliminary to restrict our ability to critically examine reports about acts of worship. Instead, it serves as a reply to individuals who consider these gestures, in general, as superstitiously tribalistic and primal, or to individuals who exhibit hypersensitivity in the realm of taʿabudiyāt in wanting to rationalise every aspect of it. I argued the pivot of worship is submission, but “reflective and critical readings of our reports is always valuable and needed” – hence the purpose behind writing the article in the first place.

I did, however, use the submissive aspect of the supplication to assert that despite the non-obligatory nature of these gestures and the supplication itself, practicing these rituals in the way Imams (a) did would be cherishing their tradition. This is besides the fact that in acts of worship physical form plays an important role in the eyes of God – as the plethora of traditions that speak about etiquettes (adāb) of worshipping indicate.[10] It would thus be reasonable for believers to imitate the Imams in these domains if they find convincing evidence for it.

I must emphasise, however, all of this would be contingent on the gestures adding spiritual quality and depth for the person performing it. It would be completely understandable that believers today will not have the same connection with these gestures as the contemporaries of the Imams did and consequently do not desire to carry them out. I believe this is a point Imran also tries to communicate.

Final remarks

This article exchange has been a delight. During these desperate times with the pandemic forcing many students like myself to endure distance from the holy city of Qom, this has been the closest thing to the mubāhātha tradition students of the seminary are accustomed to. Engagement in this ʿilmī exercise has been of great benefit to myself and I pray the same is true for whoever reads it. Of course, I do not have comprehensive knowledge over these matters and have only presented my limited understanding.

و الحمد لله


[1] Zād al-Ma‘ād, p. 16.

[2] Muʿjam Rijāl al-Ḥadīth, v. 17 p. 84.

[3] Fiqh al-Riḍā, p. 141

[4] Supplication  no. 53 of Imam al-Sajjād (a).

[5] الهي هب لي صبرت على حر نارك فكيف اصبر علي فراقك

My God, let’s assume I can be patient to the heat of your Fire, but how can I endure distance from You?

[6] Such as the last whispered prayer of the abstainers مناجاة الزاهدين.

[7] Al-Kāfī, vol. 8 p. 33.


[9] Such as changing pronouns which is considered permissible.

[10] Refer to any mustaḥabbāt with regards to the form of the body in ṣalāh for example.