As the evening gradually flowed into the night, earthen lamps were burned and fairy lights bedecked buildings just like stars adorn the night sky. As the flames flickered in the wind, echoes of laughter and excited voices filled the air already laden with the smell of freshly made halwa-roti. The streets of Dhaka were getting ready to celebrate Shab-e-barat, the fabled night of fortune and forgiveness.
Nausheen Rahman, a sexagenarian, now a resident of Baridhara, reminisces about how she celebrated Shab-e-barat in Dhaka as a child.
“In those days my entire family used to live in four houses within a compound. As children my cousins and I were always very excited about Shab-e-barat. Each of us used to get new clothes for that day. We would wear them and gather in the compound, and we would gorge down as much halwa-roti as our tummies allowed.
I remember the Puran Dhaka roti as being the high point for us. These rotis came in different shapes and sizes. The one that excited me the most was the fish-shaped with coloured eyes. Shab-e-barat used to be a well observed function in those days.”
As socially relevant Shab-e-barats of her memory were, she remembers it as religiously important too. “My grandmother used to tell us to behave well on Shab-e-barat so that our destiny remained good the rest of the year. We used to visit the graveyard believing that souls descended on earth on this day. Our elders would fast during the day and say special prayers. Once every one broke their fast, around 15-20 street children used to line up in our compound and we used to distribute halwa-roti to them.”
Another vivid memory of Shab-e-barat that she recalled is that of playing with fire crackers.
“We had a very nice terrace, so once the moon was up we would run up to see the new moon and then light fireworks and play with tarabati. Relatives would come over with tasty food and we would all celebrate together. It used to be like a mini-Eid for us.”
Until it stopped being one.
Nausheen Rahman says Shab-e-barat is now a mellowed affair in the family where they fast during the day and make halwa-roti to distribute to a few neighbours. The excitement and festivities of her growing years are lost forever. This sentiment holds true for the rest of the country too.
The 15th night of Shabaan i.e. Shab-e-barat is plagued with a huge difference of opinion about whether or not it should be celebrated as it has been in the sub-continent traditionally. The primary reason because of which the tradition of fireworks and festivities on Shab-e-barat is tapering to an end is the school of thought that says there is no proof in the Hadith of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) or in the Quran of the existence of Shab-e-barat, hence celebrating it is a “Bidah” or an innovation.
They believe that the verse in the Quran that is claimed to have spoken about this holy night is taken out of context as that verse is actually about Shab-e-Qadr. It is also said that any references that are cited in the Quran or the Hadith are weak and their authenticity cannot be relied upon.
The one point that stands in the favour of this argument is that Shab-e-barat is not celebrated by Muslims in other nations with as much fervour as it is celebrated in our sub-continent, leading one to believe that its social and cultural significance outweigh its religious one.
Where many Islamic scholars vehemently oppose any kind of religious practice on Shab-e-barat like fasting or praying the entire night, there are some who are opposed to just the celebration of it. That is to say, they recommend adhering to the religious practices of fasting and praying during the night but are opposed to the festivities of firecrackers and lighting up houses and mosques. Even making halwa-roti is an unnecessary practice in their eyes.
Untouched by all this debate and controversy are the streets of Puran Dhaka that gear up to celebrate Shab-e-barat, although a little toned down than before, but still festive enough. The famous bakeries of old town dole out delicious spreads of halwa and a variety of roti to sell throughout the day. The ambience in Chowk Bazar is definitely spirited.
Shab-e-barat may be just a cultural and social occasion, with little or no religious significance. But in a world constantly divided by strife, any reason for celebration that brings people together should be reason enough.