Forming Spiritual Habits Through Forty Day Retreats
In Islam, is there any significance to the period of forty days? Why do certain people insist on going into spiritual retreats for this length of time? Some allude to the verse: And when We appointed for Moses forty nights [Qur’an 2:51], saying that it points to the importance and justification of a forty day spiritual retreat. What, then, is the reality of this claim; and what is the ruling (hukm) of such retreats of solitude and seclusion in Islam?
Undeniably, this forty day retreat of seclusion (khalwah, ‘uzlah) prepared Moses, peace be upon him, for the august meeting with his Lord and the lordly gift he was about to receive.1 Moreover, the Bible has it that Jesus, peace be upon him, also retreated into the wilderness, fasting for forty day. It was after this that his ministry began.
As for in Islam, a forty day retreat (khalwah) seems to have no specific mention in our Sacred Law. Besides his retreats to the cave of Hira before prophethood, there is no hadith to show that the Prophet ﷺ ever entered into this type of retreat after he was commissioned as a prophet; nor did he legislate it for others. Ibn Taymiyyah insists that forty day retreats are not part of the Prophet’s Sacred Law ﷺ, but rather the Law of Moses – which is now abrogated by the Muhammadan shari‘ah.2
There is a hadith which says: ‘Whoever dedicates to God forty days, the wellspring of wisdom shall manifest itself from his heart to his tongue.’3 This hadith, however, is weak (da‘if); though not fabricated.4 Something resembling this was echoed by Imam Malik who said: ‘It has reached me that none renounces the world and is God-fearing, except that he shall speak wisdom.’5
The famous pietist, Sahl al-Tustari, also has similar words: ‘Whoever renounces the world for forty days with sincere devotion, miracles shall emanate from him. If they do not, there is an absence of truthfulness in his renunciation.’6
All in all, then, nothing sound and concrete seems to be legislated in the Sunnah with regards to retreating from the world specifically for forty days. Certain words have been recorded from some of the early pietists based on their experience (tajribah) in this matter, and rooted in the generally accepted wisdom that habits can be forged in forty days. Imam al-Munawi has said that, ‘The wisdom in specifying forty days is that this is the time needed to persist in changing or forming basic habits; as is known by experience.’7
As for seeking seclusion so as to worship Allah through personal acts of devotion – in other words, taking some spiritual ‘time-out’ – Ibn Taymiyyah remarks: ‘It is vital for a person to set aside some time for themselves so as to engage in earnest supplication, remembrance, prayer, contemplation, introspection, setting the heart right and other spiritual practices that require solitude and seclusion.’8 For it is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator. Ibn ‘Ata’illah offered us this piece of spiritual wisdom: ‘Nothing benefits the heart more than a spiritual retreat wherein it enters the domains of meditation.’9
If someone specifies forty days (or, for that matter, any length of time) for a personal retreat, or to try and nurture spiritual habits – then provided the specific period is not believed to be an established Sunnah, and provided that one’s other religious duties or worldly responsibilities are not neglected – this would be in keeping with the overall spirit of the faith and the received wisdoms of some of our predecessors. Of course, intending to engage in any lengthy period of seclusion and solitude must be done so under the guidance of those learned in shari’ah; the sacred law, and versed in tariqah; the method or path of inward purification. Indeed, going it alone in such a prolonged spiritual practice can be fraught with great danger to mind, body and soul.
And Allah knows best.
1. As per: al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 1:257; Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa’l-Tanwir (Tunis: Dar al-Tunisiyyah, 1984), 1:497.
2. See: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:393-95.
3. Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya, 5:189; Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, 13:231; Hannad, al-Zuhd, no.678.
4. Al-Qari says that Ibn al-Jawzi cites it in his anthology of fabricated reports, Kitab al-Mawdu‘at, but believes it to be an error in judgement. For the chain is merely weak, not fabricated. Cf. al-Israr al-Marfu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), 315; no.454. Its chain being weak is also the grading given it by al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.1052. Al-Albani declared it weak in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma’arif, 1992), no.38.
5. As was recorded in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:109.
6. Recorded in al-Qushayri, al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah (no info., n.d.), 190. Also refer to its English translation by A. Kynsh, al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism (Reading: Garnet Publishing, 2007), 367.
7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:44.
8. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 10:426.
9. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.12.