Tonight many Muslims will mark Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night of the Islamic calendar.
The entire month of Ramadan, which this year began on August 1, aims to cultivate the spiritual virtues of patience, humility, and submission to God. But many of my Muslim friends confess the spiritual purposes of Ramadan can be neglected in the social swirl and wonderful food of the sundown to nearly sunrise breaking-of-the-fast. “Sort of like Christmas,” a friend suggests.
Laylat al-Qadr has preserved its spiritual character. “More like Good Friday,” the same Muslim friend explains.
This is a night of wisdom or power or destiny — translation from the Arabic loses a great deal — commemorating the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet. At sundown many Muslims will eat three dates, but otherwise avoid feasting and spend hours in prayer seeking forgiveness, grace, and salvation. Self-reflection, self-criticism, and dependence on God are all emphasized.
Tonight’s prayers will be especially fervent in Tripoli, don’t you think?
In Tunis and Cairo I imagine millions praying with hope for the year ahead. In Damascus, Aleppo and across Syria, the supplications may focus more on personal protection. And in Yemen? Iraq? Saudi Arabia? In Muslim homes across the United States?
The current National Strategy for Counterterrorism identifies Al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents as the “preeminent security threat to the United States.” The Strategy continues, “To rally individuals and groups to its cause, al-Qa‘ida preys on local grievances and propagates a self-serving historical and political account. It draws on a distorted interpretation of Islam to justify the murder of Muslim and non-Muslim innocents. Countering this ideology—which has been rejected repeatedly and unequivocally by people of all faiths around the world—is an essential element of our strategy.”
Better than anything the United States government could orchestrate, the cascade of change across the Arab world and well-beyond rejects the mythology of victimization that has been at the core of Al-Qa’ida’s claims. The courage of Libyan rebels and the self-sacrifice of Syrian protesters has transformed the strategic context in which both the United States and Al-Qa’ida engage the Arab world and the Ummah Wahida as a whole.
During the month of Ramadan believers are encouraged to re-read the entire Quran. Tonight they should be finished or nearly finished and give particular attention to the meaning and purpose of their lives in the context of the Quran.
The prayers offered tonight will also reflect the radically changed political context of the last seven months.
The Quran is a book of Arabic poetry. The King James Bible is great English literature. But what if Shakespeare had been its single translator and most of us could recall a thousand verses by heart? Then an English-speaking non-Muslim might have a clue regarding the power of the Quran and poetry in Arab life.
The echoes of victimization will never disappear. To blame another for our own failures is a human tendency across every sect and culture I know. Al-Qa’ida will continue its recruiting. Tyrants — petty and large — will still try to exploit fear and failure.
But the Quran is an uncomfortable read for anyone inclined to victimization or self-justification. The envious echoes are quieting, drowned out by the shouts from Tahrir Square, Martyrs (née Green) Square, and the deadly struggle repeated each Friday outside mosques across Syria.
If your peers — even your sons and daughters — have joined together to topple tyrants, claim their dignity, and insist on having a say in the future, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue in favor of suicide vests, market bombings, and fantasies of restoring a caliphate long gone. There are other clearly more productive paths.
We are told the first words of the Quran as heard by the Prophet were (in Arabic of course):
Read and identify with the Lord who creates
Who created humans from a clot of blood
Read of your Lord: generous, gracious and bountiful
Who imparts knowledge by the pen
Teaching humanity that which it did not know.
Creating, reading, and learning what we do not know, this is the path of faith. The verb for “read” can also be translated as proclaim. The reader of the Quran is called to share the knowledge of a generous, gracious and bountiful God.
The most common prayer offered during Layat al-Qadr is to repeat again and again, “O Allah! You are forgiving, and you love forgiveness. So forgive me.” Forgive me for whenever I have acted contrary to your generous, gracious, and bountiful identity.