Hizbul Bahr (Arabic: حِزْبُ الْبَحْرِ), translated as the ‘Litany of the Sea’ is an invocation related by Imam Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili X. The great Imam, on his way to perform the pilgrimage, was taught the litany by the Prophet ﷺ in a dream after his voyage had been delayed by poor winds. It has a number of benefits and is used for warding off harm as well as other purposes, dependent on intention and spiritual aspiration.
The Hizbul Bahr itself consists mostly of Quranic verses and Prophetic invocations to be found in the various authentic collection of hadith. It is clear that it has found acceptance in the Ummah due to huge popularity that it has achieved. But the Shadhili shaykhs are keen to point out that the Hizbul Bahr ‘Is not a magic wand, but an expression of slavehood and poverty’.
Origin of Hizbul Bahr
Muhammad Ibn Abi Al-Qasim Ibn al-Sabbagh in Durrat al-Asrar wa Tuhfat al-Abrar relates how Hizbul Bahr came into existence:
The righteous Shaykh Abu al-Aza’im Madi ibn Sultan (may Allah have mercy on him) told us in the city of Tunis (may Allah watch over it), as did the righteous and blessed Shaykh Sharaf al-Din, the Shaykh’s son, in the city of Damanhur al-Wahsh in Egypt, in the year 715 AH:
The Shaykh [Abul Hasan al-Shadhili] decided to set out from Cairo to perform the pilgrimage, a little while after the main pilgrimage party had set out. He said, ‘I have been commanded to perform the pilgrimage this year, so find me a vessel on the Nile to take me across Upper Egypt.’ They searched for a vessel and found only a ship belonging to Christians on which was an elderly Christian man and his sons. He said, ‘We shall board it.’ So we boarded it and set out from Cairo. After two or three days the wind changed so that it was blowing against us, so we made berth on the Nile shore in an uninhabited place. We remained there for around a week, the hills of Cairo still within our sights. One of the pilgrims with us said, ‘How could the Shaykh say he was commanded to perform the pilgrimage this year, when it is already too late? When is this journey going to end?’
The Shaykh slept through the middle of the day, and then rose and recited this Litany. Then he asked for the captain of the ship, and asked him his name. He said his name was Mismar. The Shaykh said, ‘O blessed Mismar, unfurl the sails.’ He said, Are we going back to Cairo, sir?’ He replied, ‘We are continuing on our way, Allah willing.’ The captain said, ‘This wind will only bear us back to Cairo before the day is out, and in any case is too strong to sail in.’ The Shaykh said, ‘Unfurl the sails with the blessing of Allah.’
So we opened the sails, and Allah commanded the wind to change, and the sails were filled so suddenly that the crew had no time to untie the rope from the stake and had to chop it off instead; and we set off with a goodly wind. The captain and his brother announced that they had embraced Islam. Their father began to weep, saying, ‘I have lost my sons on this voyage!’ The Shaykh said to him, ‘Nay, you have gained them.’
That night, the elderly Christian man dreamed it was the Day of Resurrection. He saw Paradise and Hell, and saw the Shaykh leading a great throng into Paradise, his sons among them. He wanted to follow them, but was not allowed to do so, and a voice said to him, ‘You are not one of them until you enter their religion.’ He told the Shaykh about this dream and embraced Islam. The Shaykh said to him, ‘The people you saw with me are my followers until the Day of Resurrection.’
We travelled on, and the journey was made easy for us by many events which would be long in the telling, and all of us performed the pilgrimage that year.
Sidi Madi (may Allah have mercy on him) added: The elderly Christian man became a great Friend of Allah. He sold his ship and performed the pilgrimage with us along with his sons, and established a zawiya in Upper Egypt. Many miracles were granted to him, and this journey itself was one of them. May Allah have mercy on him, and be well pleased with him.
The Shaykh said, ‘By Allah, I received [this Litany] from none other than the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, who dictated it to me directly. He said to me, “Guard it, for it contains the Supreme Name of Allah.” Wherever it is recited, there is security. Had the people of Baghdad known it, the Tartars would not have taken the city.’
Recitation of Hizbul Bahr
It is related by Ibn ‘Ayyad in al-Mafakhir al-‘aliyya fi ma’athir al-Shadiliyya that:
Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Bistami said about Hizbul Bahr, ‘It has spread out in the land and become renowned and esteemed, and has been recited in many mosques and proclaimed in all kinds of places.’ The scholars have said that it contains the Supreme Name and the Great Universal Secret, to the point where it is related that Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili himself said, ‘Had my Litany been invoked in Baghdad, it would not have been conquered.’ It is the ample provision and the invincible shield, and through it all woes can be relieved by the subtlest unseen means. Wherever it is recited, that place is safe from blights and protected from calamities. To beginners on the spiritual path it gives curative secrets, and to those at the end of the path it gives dazzling illuminations. Whoever invokes it every day after sunrise, Allah hears his call, relieves his distress, raises his rank among the people, expands his breast with knowledge of the divine Oneness, gives him ease in his affairs, lightens his difficulties, protects him from the evil of men and jinn, and keeps him safe from the mishaps of night and day. Anyone who looks upon him will love him. If he recites it in the presence of a tyrant, he will be safe from his evil. Whoever invokes it after every prayer, Allah Almighty enriches him from having need for His creatures, keeps him safe from the vicissitudes of time, and eases him towards happiness in every movement and rest. Whoever invokes it in the first hour of Friday, Allah puts love for him in the hearts of the people. One scholar said that whoever writes it on something, that thing will be protected by Allah’s power and might. Whoever continues to recite it regularly will not die by choking, drowning, burning or being struck by lightning. If the wind fails for people in a ship and they invoke it, a goodly wind will come to them, by Allah’s leave. Whoever writes it on the wall of a city or house, Allah will protect that city or house from the evil of sudden mishaps and blights. It has powerful benefits at times of war. It is a prayer of succour and victory against all foes, whether jinn or men. We have only briefly touched upon its benefits here, and may Allah bless the one who said:
Invoke the Litany of the Sea and it will show you wonders,
Give you ease in your affairs, and lend you strength.
You will find the sea obedient and the wind submissive;
You will find gentleness quickly, and your time will be joyful.
It is recited individually as well as in a group, for general benefit or for specific aims. The following advice is found in Sea Without Shore – A Manual of the Sufi Path by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller:
Hizb al-Bahr or ‘The Litany of the Sea’ is recited after the mid-afternoon prayer (‘asr). Some read it at sunrise, at which time it possesses particular properties, and it is also read whenever one is in particular need of something, in which case one makes one’s intention at the words wa sakhkhir lana hadha l-bahr (“and subject to us this sea”). Like all of the hizbs of the tariqa, it should be memorised and recited from one’s heart as if it were one’s own words, with complete attention to whom one is addressing it. It is not a magic wand, but an expression of slavehood and poverty. In a general way, the purpose of these wirds is not only to train the heart in dua but to eventually eliminate one’s absentmindedness from Allah, and one must strive in them to have presence of heart. Though memorised, they are not rote.
Sidi Ahmad Zarruq wrote the following about Hizbul Bahr in his commentary:
As for how to use the Litany, it differs according to intention and spiritual aspiration. It is used for the purpose of bringing benefit and warding off harm, and the specific intention should be made at the words and subject to us this sea. This is what Ibn ‘Abbad (may Allah have mercy on him) said, as I have seen in his own handwriting, and it is correct. Ibn Ata’Allah said in Lata’if al-Minan, ‘It is a wird for after the afternoon [‘asr] prayer, while the Great Litany is for after the dawn prayer.’ I might add to this that the Munajat [concluding prayers] of the Hikam of Ibn Ata’Allah should be read in the final part of the night before dawn. Each of them has its own secret, as the one who sticks to them will discover in no short time if he holds to piety and righteousness without taking on too much; and Allah knows best.
Hizb al-Bahr Commentaries
Aside from the popular reading among the masses, the Hizb al-Bahr also received keen interest from Muslim scholars who have focused their attention and written commentaries on it. Below is a list of just ten such commentaries – it is interesting to note that the commentators come from all the different Sunni schools of law and encompass the whole of the Muslim world from Turkey to India, to various parts of Africa. Many of them were experts in hadith as well.
- Dawud ibn Umar ibn Bakhili (d. 733 AH/1332 CE) al-Latifa al-Mardiya
- Abul Huda Muhammad al-Rifa’i (d. 728 AH/1328 CE) Qiladat al-Nahr fi Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Ibn Duqmaq (d. 809 AH)/1406 CE) Qatf al-Zahr min Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Sidi Ahmad Zarruq (d. 899 AH / 1493 CE) Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Shah Waliullah (d. 1114 AH/1703 CE) Hawami Sharh Hizb al-Bahr (Persian)
- Abu al-Iqbal Hasan ibn Ali ibn Ahmad al-Mintawi al-Azhari al-Madabighi (d. 1170 AH/1756 CE) Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Ahmad ibn Umar ibn Ayub al-Izmiri (d. 1180 AH/1766 CE) Fath al-Ali al-Barr Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Mustafa al-Kamali (d. 1210 AH/1795 CE) Jannatal-Nasr Fi Khawas Hizb al-Bahr
- Muhammad Bello ibn Usman dan Fodio (d. 1253 AH/1837 CE) Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki (d. 1317 AH/1899 CE) Hizb al-Bahr
- Yusuf Nabhani (d. 1350 AH/1932 CE) Sharh Hizb al-Bahr
- Sidi Ahmad Zarruq's Commentary on Shaykh al-Shadhili's Hizb al Bahr - Translation by Khalid Williams