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Night of nights
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 10 - 2005

As the last 10 days of Ramadan trickle away, Gihan Shahine is eager to catch the blessings of Laylat Al-Qadr
Since Monday, the first of the last 10 days of Ramadan, worshippers have been flocking to mosques to undertake nocturnal prayer and supplication -- in the hope that such activities will coincide with Laylat Al-Qadr. Among the most revered and mysterious occasions on the Muslim calendar, Laylat Al-Qadr is most simply described as the lunar anniversary of the blessed night on which the earliest verses of the holy Quran were revealed to Prophet Mohamed in a cave of Mount Hira', some 1,439 years ago.
All Ramadan nights are holy, but Laylat Al-Qadr is believed to be the holiest of them all -- not least because it is specifically named in the Quran: "We have indeed revealed it in the Night of Power" (97:1). A frightful vision of the Angel Gabriel, occurring unexpectedly in his customary place of seclusion, left the Prophet trembling with fear -- and marked the start of "mercy for the world", as the Quran calls itself. On this, the night of divine might and infinite honour -- of which the exact date will remain forever unknown -- it is believed that people's destinies are determined, sins forgiven and prayers answered.
Laylat Al-Qadr is somewhat oddly translated as Night of Power, a reference to the second, vastly evocative word denoting, among other meanings, magnitude, worth and moral weight -- and implying, for most religious scholars, divine power; a person who attains its blessings is likely to attain control over spiritual life. For others like the former head of the Al-Azhar fatwa (religious edicts) committee Sheikh Gamal Qotb and the late Saudi Imam Ibn Othaymeen, Al-Qadr implies honour and veneration -- qualities of mind associated with divine revelation.
Ramadan, Qotb explains, is divided symbolically into the three phases of life -- the past, the present and the future -- during which, correspondingly, God forgives the past sins of his worshippers, bestows mercy on them in the present and saves them from future hellfire; Laylat Al-Qadr combines all three blessings and affects the entire course of life. For his part Ibn Othaymeen identified it with fate; every year on Laylat Al-Qadr, the destiny of a Muslim in the next year is decided.
The Quran declares it "better than a thousand nights", ie nearly 84 years of continuous worship, and the Prophet said that whoever prayed on the night with sincere faith would be forgiven all the sins they had committed thus far in their life. Conventionally believed to be the eve of 27 Ramadan, there is no consensus as to when Laylat Al-Qadr is. Hadith (Prophet Mohamed's teachings) identifies it variously with odd-numbered days among al-'ashr al-awakhir (the last 10 [days of Ramadan]), and with al-'ashr al-awakhir as a whole. Some scholars, like Qotb, believe it could be any time during Ramadan.
Signs to help worshippers identify the night are nonetheless occasionally mentioned in Hadith : the next morning, for example, sunrise is not preceded by rays but rather the sun "rises as a brass disc" until it appears fully; the night itself is "calm and pleasant, neither hot nor cold nor windy". But many -- once again Qotb is one of them -- insist that the real signs must be spiritual rather than physical: the faithful experience exceptional tranquillity; according to Ibn Othaymeen, they also take greater pleasure in worship. All agree that the actual date is kept hidden for a reason: to make the point that worship, including nightly supplication, is an ongoing activity, and to prevent people from squeezing their efforts into the space of a single night.
Some scholars report that the Prophet was intentionally made to forget the date after it was revealed to him, because on his way to communicate it to his companions he encountered a quarrel; implicit in the story is that quarreling would block off the blessing. The Prophet's wife Aisha said that, during the last 10 days of Ramadan, the Prophet would "tighten his izar ", ie refrain from conjugal relations, and that he would spend every night awake, in prayer.
Many choose to spend these last 10 days of the month in a state of i'tikaf (seclusion), a tradition established by the Prophet . If Ramadan is itself a way of training the devout to master their physical needs, i'tikaf goes a step further than giving up food, drink and conjugal relations. It involves giving up luxury, comfort and familiarity, spending time instead among strangers, subsisting on simple food in perpetual conditions of worship; i'tikaf is done by way of preparation for the even greater challenge of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Mohamed, a 31-year-old dentist who has undertaken it, attests to the value of the experience: "It gives the power to give up sinful activities that I would otherwise find difficult to stop engaging in. Focusing on prayers and the Quran without any form of distraction gives energy, comfort -- and happiness."
But even if they don't go as far as i'tikaf, many of the faithful find themselves more readily benevolent during the last 10 days of Ramadan than at any other time of year. They visit orphanages and hospitals, give alms and adopt a generally more forgiving attitude -- so much so that during those 10 days broken families are often reconciled.

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