Are the devils literally chained up during Ramadan?

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It’s commonly held that because the devils are chained up during Ramadan, anything bad that is done is entirely from the perpetrator, the devil cannot be blamed since he was not present nor working his misguidance. This view is taken from the following hadith (prophetic narration) reported by Abu Hurairah:

“When Ramadan comes, the gates of paradise are opened, the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained up.”

al-Bukhari and Muslim

In short, this hadith can be taken (for brevity) in two ways since there doesn’t seem to be much context related around it.

1. The view I’m advocating here is that it’s descriptive and metaphorical. The Prophet was speaking to the sahabah, informing them that the amount of good they were doing meant that the gates of paradise and mercy were open, and their increased avoidance from transgressions meant that hell was being closed to them. As for the devils, it wasn’t that they were literally chained up someplace but that the sahabah’s heightened state of God consciousness prevented the devils from achieving their nefarious objectives, effectively restricting them. So the hadith is about the effects of the sahabah’s actions during Ramadan, i.e. what their actions have brought about, and not what they were working towards.

SO does that mean it wasn’t encouragement? Not at all. The Prophet was giving them gladtidings that their efforts were paying off, which was to incite them to continue.

2. The other way it can be taken is literally, and as some scholars advocate, we ought to simply accept it for we aren’t at liberty to make sense of it. Yet this seems bizarre for if all of us aren’t to make sense of it, why would the Prophet have mentioned it in the first place? One might respond saying that the hadith is to incite people to do good works during the month of Ramadan with an explanation something along the lines of, “We should work extra hard to get into paradise – its doors are wide open and hell is closed, and there’s nothing to misguide you!” What becomes problematic can be seen in the subsequent questions an inquirer might be compelled to ask:

  • Were the gates of paradise closed before? If not, what’s the point of the statement?
  • If the gates of hell are closed, does that mean no one ends up in hell during Ramadan?
  • Why are the devils only restrained during Ramadan? Why can’t they be restrained all the time?
  • If paradise is open and hell is closed, doesn’t that mean getting into paradise is easier, and if so, why should one work any harder this month?

This hadith has been discussed by various famous scholars, such as Qadi Iyaad, Ibn Hajr, and al-Qurtubi, who peruse the various possible interpretations, and most of whom seem to incline towards the view I’m advocating here.

Given the problems with taking the hadith literally and the host of legitimate questions it raises, the first reading makes sense and coheres with everything else found in revelation. On a basic level it is exemplified in the verse, “Iblis then said to God: Because You have put me in the wrong, I will lure mankind on earth and put them in the wrong, all except Your devoted servants.” (15:39-40) The heightened level of devotion being shown by the sahabah (and by analogy all those who today behave in a similar way) meant that they were beyond the grasp of Iblis and his minions.

And of course, God knows best.

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