Friday Thoughts 56
The Night of Power
And if My servants ask you about Me: I am near. I respond to the call of the caller when he calls. So they should respond to Me and have faith in Me that they may be guided. (Surah 2:186)
"When is that night in Ramadan when you can make wishes?" I was asked recently.
The questioner meant Laylatul-Qadr, the night of power. It is associated with a variety of beliefs, for example that God decides what is going to happen to you in the coming year, or that, if you spend the night in prayer, then all your shortcomings of the past year are forgiven, or anything you pray for will be fulfilled. Since, according to the Qur'an, this night is considered "better than a thousand months", many Muslims conclude that the ritual prayers performed in it are better than the prayers of a thousand months: they then take this opportunity to make up for prayers neglected in the course of the year due to haste and stress in their everyday lives or for prayers performed without the adequate concentration. And while the Qur'an only mentions this night as the night of revelation when "the angels and the spirit descend with their Lord's permission with any matter", various beliefs and hopes must have occupied people's minds at a rather early stage because the Prophet himself was asked when Laylatul-Qadr was. Instead of giving a particular date, though, he casually said that it was in one of the odd nights among the last ten nights of Ramadan, encouraging people to be on the look-out for it. He might not have wanted people to commemorate the night of revelation as something that belongs to the past as it is traditionally done, usually in the twenty-seveth night that is spent with prayer, reading and studying, and with telling the children the story of the Prophet Muhammad fasting and praying in a cave in the desert until he was addressed by an angel and told, "Read!" Searching for the night in question might be a possibility to proceed beyond the level of thinking of something that happened 1400 years ago in Arabia and sharing the blessings contained in it to a level of experience of one's own.
Well, remembrance is one of the key concepts of the Qur'an and one of the things that may be included in the English word prayer in its widest sense. Our capability to remember is an important prerequisite both for learning and for coping with our everyday lives. We remember appointments and regular obligations and write them into planners and diaries in order to make sure that we do not miss them - our livelihood and our relationship with others may depend on them. We remember painful and pleasant experiences, trying to avoid the former and repeat the latter. We remember mistakes we made and try to make up for them and to achieve forgiveness. We remember the people we love, trying to increase their happiness. We are repeatedly encouraged to remember God's mercy that gives us life, health, our physical, mental and spiritual capability, and our manifold talents, and that, indeed, is the basis for all creation. Even revelation is characterized as "remembrance".
We are advised to remember and learn, not only as individuals but also as a community: "And remember how you were few, you were weak in the land and afraid that the people would annihilate you, but He protected you and strengthened you with His help and provided you with good things that you may be grateful," (8:26) or, "... remember God's favour to you when you were enemies, but He united your hearts in love that, through His favour, became brothers and sisters ..." (3:103). Remembrance, then, is not an intellectual exercise that concerns mainly historians but an active way of re-experiencing things that were important in the past and are essential for us today. Running between Safa and Marwa during our pilgrimage to Makkah, for example, or sharing the meat of an animal on 'Îd al-Adha, puts us into the shoes of our ancestors, Abraham and his family. Being thus connected with them and what they stand for is an antidote for forgetfulness and carelessness and a taste of their lives in the presence of the Ultimate Friend that deepens our love. The numerous stories of Muslims who describe Laylatul-Qadr as spreading light, strength, as well as a sense of security and encouragement and peace with God and all creation are examples of tasting some of the experience of the Prophet Muhammad.
Ritual prayer is something else that, in English, comes under the term prayer. In fact, when Muslims use the word prayer, they often think of ritual prayer in the first place. According to the Qur'an, its purpose is "remembrance", but this is obviously different from remembering experiences of the past. The Arabic word salâh literally means link, connection. Ritual prayer is actually an encounter: certainly with God, but also with ourselves and with those who pray together with us, be it physically in a prayer congregation or ideally as part of that big circle of ours around the city of Makkah, wherever we are in the world, as well as throughout the ages. It is supposed to reconnect us with God and with creation. We therefore complete it with the greeting of peace to the right and to the left: we greet the angels, human beings, animals and plants in the world and wish them peace. For many Muslims, ritual prayer in sacred places or at sacred times like in Ramadan, especially in the nights and most of all Laylatul-Qadr, assumes a quality that makes them aware of the two-sided meaning of salâh: it is translated as "prayer" when it is applied to human beings, and "blessing" when it is applied to God, and even the angels are said to "pray for blessings" for us.
What the questioner had in mind, though, was prayer in the sense of supplication, like, "When can I say something to God and be sure it is responded to?" In Arabic, this kind of prayer is called du'â, calling or invocation. There are many things that we would like to say to God. Sometimes we have requests for our wellbeing or the wellbeing of our near and dear ones, especially when there are problems like disease or misfortune. We might want to complain about injustice or violence that we experience or observe and feel helpless about. We might want to pray for forgiveness for mistakes and shortcomings and for help with setting things straight and reconciling with others. Or we might want to express our joy and gratefulness in praise. Beautiful prayers of this kind have been handed down from prophets, imams, sages and other spiritual ancestors of ours. The Prophet Muhammad encouraged us to ask God for anything that we wish, especially when we pray for others. In this case, he said, "there is an angel who says amen - and the same for the person who prays."
People around us do not always listen to what we say. They might feel overwhelmed when we complain too much or annoyed if we have too many requests, or simply bored if we share our experiences, even if they are pleasant ones. Besides, they might not be able to help us with problems that we may have. Or, like doctors or lawyers, they might have specific consultation hours, or at least they may not be available after office hours. Even parents or spouses or friends may not be able to listen to some of the things we want to say, especially if they are too difficult for them to understand, or if they feel helpless to handle our problems. Or if they simply do not have time. When would be God's most suitable "consultation hour"?
The Qur'an simply says that God is near and responds. Elswhere, we are told that God is affected by "neither slumber nor sleep", but hears and sees everything. We are only reminded that we should also respond to and trust in God. Like any conversation between friends, even du'â can have two ways. God may fulfill what we are asking for. Or, as Iqbal expressed in a poem, the prayer may change the person who prays. "Consultation hours" then seem to be any time for anything that comes from the heart. Perhaps it needs sacred time or sacred space for us to notice.
(c) Halima Krausen, 2008