The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Forming Spiritual Habits Through Forty Day Retreats

cave&lightIn 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.

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15 thoughts on “Forming Spiritual Habits Through Forty Day Retreats

  1. Are there stories of the types of miracles some of these pious people have experienced after going into seclusion for 40 days?

    If so, what are they?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am sure there are such accounts, Ali. One could, I imagine, find such reports in al-Qushayri’s Risalah, Abu Nu’aym’s Hilyat al-Awliya, al-Dhahabi’s Siyar and other such authoritative hagiographical works.

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  2. AS WR WB, I pray you are well, I was just wondering if there is any value in the point that is raised in terms of the linguistic value of the number 40 or other numbers that show a repetitiveness in the sacred law. As is shown in Imam An Nawawis 40 Ahadeeth (there being 42 in the collection) There is a consistent emphatasism encircling certain numbers and it is potentially a viable discussion or argument that the numbers equate to a certain importance and that the numbers themselves point to an importance or understanding known at certain times and lost at others.

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    • Though various scholars have pointed out the significance of a few numbers in Islam and the Qur’an (e.g. 1, 40, 7, 70, 70,000), this ‘numerology’ is a very hazy subject. If one were to look into the matter, two things should be kept in mind: (i) such inquiry should not distract us for learning obligatory knowledge and fulfilling our obligatory duties and responsibilities. (ii) Dipping one’s toes into the subject must be done under a qualified scholar of tafsir, known for his/her orthodoxy.

      That our Prophet ﷺ left us ‘on a clear path, its night is like its day, no one swerves from it without being destroyed’; and that our salaf left delving greatly into this matter, should be sufficient for the seeker of Allah.

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  3. Asalamu wa ‘alaykum wa Rahmatullahi ta ‘ala !! My name is Sidi Yahya (Shawn) Skifton. I am an American revert to Islam. I live in Montgomery Alabama where I have spent most of life. It is also here where I embraced Islam. I took shahada to the tone of a message that wasn’t very tolerable to anything other than the “truth”. This truth of course having it’s root in Neo-Salafism. Without getting into he said she said (rather I’m probably the worst of us anyway Salafi or not) I certainly have a yurn to want to study traditional Hanbali Fiqha. Is there anything online you recommend where I can at least learn Fard ayn in Hanbali Fiqh? Shukran JazakumAllahu Khyran!!

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    • Waalaikumusalaam Sidi Yayha. If you are unable to find any classes in your area, I would recommend taking the online classes by Seekershub. There are several modules on the Hanbali Fiqh, along with other beneficial classes. Hope that helps!

      http://seekershub.org/home/course-catalog

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    • Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah wa barakatuhu.

      Thank you for your question Sidi Yahya. May Allah guide you and I to the best of our intentions and aspirations. I am sure you have considered it, but learning Hanbali fiqh is probably the most difficult fiqh to study. Not because of its innate nature, but because of there being very few scholars and texts available in English. Please do read the article on this blog: Practical Steps for Learning Fiqh. That said, there is a very short Hanbali text translated into English, called: Qaddumi’s Elementary Hanbali Primer (trans. Joe Bradford). I believe it is available to purchase online and as an e-book.

      I am not sure if Shaykh Faraz and Co. teach Hanbali fiqh over at Seekers Hubb, as kindly suggested by Sr Fadhilah. But they do teach the other three schools by qualified instructors. Perhaps that may be a better course of study than Hanbali fiqh. Please do consider your options thoroughly.

      Your brother, and at your service,
      Surkheel Abu Aaliyah.

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  4. Syed Nayeem on said:

    If these forty days are considered to be as Sunnah and ask the muslim ummah to follow by considering it as Sunnah…. then surely it should be avoided. But, if some people are doing as only to make themselves Allah Consciuos and doing it as a course to get much closer to Allah and make there life more as per Allah and his Nabi’s wish then it should not have any problem. It would be same as people doing Aalim or Mufti course to become scholars and there will be some time span to complete these courses as well.

    The forty days is not only specific to Moses but for also Ibrahim (40 days in fire), one Nabi was (40 days inside fish) etc…

    The growth of a fetus in the mothers womb are also with 40-40 days of stages. (one stage to another).

    Again it is only ones personal decison but should not be asked the muslim ummah to considered this as Sunnah…

    Allah and Rasoolullah knows best.

    May Allah prevent us to add or delete anything in deen.

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  5. charlotten2 on said:

    40 days with self and God would be like an archeological dig…churning out the good and the bad, as if being released from a mental asylum…..and discovering self, time being short…….along with other…..discovering the truth so longed for…….these are where miracles are discovered….

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  6. Thank you for an interesting article.

    I have also read or heard from one of my teachers that it takes forty days to break a bad habit or instill a new one. We ask Allah for tawfiq and taysir.
    As for myself, to start with, I would be happy with forty minutes of seclusion and meditation.

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