Friday, September 12, 2014

Lailatul Qadr

Surah Al-Alaq (The Germ Cell) # 96
Iqra bismi Rabikal-ladhi khalaq
Khalaqal-Insana min alaq.
Iqra wa Rabbukal-Akram.
Alladhi allama bilqalam.
Allamal-insana ma lam ya’lam.

Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created (1)
Created man out of a germ-cell (2)
Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One (3)
Who has taught [man] the use of the pen (4)
Taught man what he did not know. (5)

M. Asad notes – “There is no doubt that the first five verses of this surah represent the very beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an.  Although the exact date of Laylatul-Qadr cannot be established with certainty, all authorities agree that these five verses were revealed in the last third of the month of Ramadan, thirteen years before the hijrah (corresponding to July or August 610 of the Christian era).  Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, was then forty years old. 

At that period of his life, according to Bukhari, “solitude became dear to him, and he used to withdraw into seclusion in a cave of Mount Hira (near Mecca) and there apply himself to ardent devotions” consisting of long vigils and prayers.  One night, the Angel of Revelation suddenly appeared to him and said, “Read!”  Muhammad at first thought that he was expected to read actual script, which, being unlettered, he was unable to do; and so he answered, “I cannot read” – whereupon, in his own words, the angel “seized me and pressed me to himself until all strength went out of me; then he released me and said, “Read’ – to which I [again] answered, ‘I cannot read…’  Then he seized me and pressed me to himself a third time; then he released me and said, ‘Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created – created man out of a germ-cell!  Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One…”  and so Muhammad understood, in sudden illumination, that he was called upon to “read,” that is, to receive and understand, God’s message to man.[1]

Some years later, still in Mecca, more verses came to the Prophet, which again made reference to this first revelation:

Surah Ad-Dukhan (Smoke) # 44
Ha Mim (1)
Wal-Kitabil-mubin (2)
Inna anzalnahu fi laylatim-mubarakatin ‘inna kunna mundhirin (3)
Fiha yufraqu kullu amrin hakim. (4)
Amram-min indinaa ‘inna kunna mursilin. (5)

Consider this divine writ, clear in itself and clearly showing the truth (2)
Behold, from on high have We bestowed it on a blessed night:  for verily, We have always been warning [humankind]. (3)
On that [night] was made clear, in wisdom, the distinction between all things [good and evil] (4)
At a behest from Ourselves:  for verily, We have always been sending [Our messages of guidance] (5)

So what can we think about the fact of this revelation?  How can we, in the twenty-first century, describe what might have happened to the Prophet for the first time on Laylatul-Qadr? 

I’d like to draw an analogy from modern-day science, if I might, and excuse me if it sounds at first like I’m totally off subject here.  In his book, Your Inner Fish, evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin shares an experiment designed by Jay Neitz, a scientist who specializes in color vision.  Jay studies color vision using monkeys.  The proteins in the back of monkeys’ eyes, and our eyes, that detect color are called opsins.  They are tuned to different wavelengths of light.  Jay had a colorblind monkey named Sam who lacked the opsin that detects red and green.  Now these opsins, as everything else that makes up our bodies, are encoded in our DNA – our genes.  So Jay decided to implant the red/green opsin gene from a human directly into Sam’s retina, to see if it would have any effect.  After the transplant, Sam the monkey could distinguish all the colors that humans can see.  Sam went from seeing just grey, white, black, blue and yellow, to seeing hundreds of different colors.  Jay’s experiment was actually designed to mimic the kind of evolutionary adaptation that allowed primates – monkeys, apes and eventually of course humans – to be able to distinguish the ripest fruits and leaves by color – a distinct advantage in the game of survival.  Being able to see in color – a “new dimension of awareness” – allowed the primates who gained that ability to thrive and multiply. 

What does this have to do with Laylatul-Qadr?  We do not know the biological mechanics of what happened to Prophet Muhammad when he received the first revelation.  Of course, he did not get a transplant of a gene for “awareness of the Divine”  - at least not from a human scientist.  But we do know that, however it happened, on Laylatul-Qadr Prophet Muhammad got a “new dimension of awareness.”  He received a special adjustment that night, one that continued to come to him intermittently for the next 22 years.  Surah Al-Dukhan tells us in two places that Allah has always been sending messages to mankind.  Maybe Prophet Muhammad somehow got an adjustment in the DNA of his mental receptors that allowed him to “hear, or experience” something that has always been and always is around us, that the rest of us just can’t “hear or experience.”  He got to “experience” beyond the three-dimensional world of our physical existence.  He got to “hear” into the realm of Creation, the realm of Allah.

Maybe that connection allowed a flow of higher-level energy to manifest through his auditory receptors and vocalize as the most exquisite expressions in the Prophet’s own language, creating a dynamic resonance to the needs of his people – to help them disengage from the destructive culture that bound them to the past, and help them evolve to a higher purpose, a “new level of awareness” – in other words, the Quran. 

Surah Al-Qadr (Destiny)  # 97 contains other verses that came to the Prophet in the early Meccan period:

Inna anzalnahu fi Laylatil-Qadr. (1)
Wa maa adraka ma Laylatul-Qadr. (2)
Laylatul-Qadri khay-rum-min alfi shahr. (3)
Tanazzalul-Malaa ikatu warruhu fiha bi’idhni Rabbihim min-kulli amr. (4)
Salamun hiya hatta matla ‘il-fajr. (5)

Behold, from on high have We bestowed this [divine writ] on the Night of Destiny. (1)
And what could make thee conceive what it is that Night of Destiny? (2)
The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months: (3)
In hosts descend in it the angels, bearing divine inspiration by their Sustainer’s leave:
From all [evil] that may happen (4)
Does it make secure, until the rise of dawn. (5)

M. Asad notes that, on the basis of several Traditions it may be assumed that Laylatul Qadr occurred on one of the last ten nights of the month of Ramadan – probably the twenty-seventh – which was last night, by the way.  “The early scholars also interpreted these verses to mean that a conscious realization of the sanctity of this night acts as a shield against unworthy thoughts and inclinations.  Laylatul-Qadr, the “blessed night” began the revelation that provides man with a standard to discern between all that leads to spiritual growth through an ever-deepening realization (ma’rifah) of God’s existence, on the one hand, and all that results in spiritual blindness and self-destruction, on the other.”

For me, the miracle of these revelations lies in the fact that they occurred at all.  And in the fact that so much of what was revealed over the subsequent course of the prophet’s life still resonates today - that there is an ultimate power that creates and sustains us, and to which we will return;  That our ultimate destinies are subject to that power;  That, confined as we are to the limitations of our three-dimensional human bodies, we cannot perceive the “other dimensions of awareness;”    That the laws of cause and effect we see in nature around us have their equivalent in the dimensions we cannot see;   And, most comforting, that God communicates to us, although we are often not receptive to those communications;  
That we are created with the unique ability to reflect on all Creation, to be filled with awe and wonder, to worship and be thankful to our Creator;  That we were created to take care of each other;  That when we do not do these things, we become lost.

And so, let us reflect with awe on the fact of Laylatul-Qadr, that it happened to a man who became extraordinary in the process, who gained a new dimension of awareness, who thus became our Prophet, around this same time of year 1,435 years ago.   Let us be thankful for the gifts of what we can perceive.  And let us reflect on the possibilities of what we cannot perceive.  Let us reflect on the possibility of infinite possibilities. 

Surah Al-Alaq (The Germ Cell) # 96

Kallaa innal-insana layatghaa (6)
Ar-ra ‘ahus- taghna (7)
Inna ila
Rabbikar-ruj’a (8)

[Nay, verily, man becomes grossly over-weening (6)
Whenever he believes himself to be self-sufficient (7)
For, behold, unto thy Sustainer all must return. (8)]

[1] The above exerpts are quoted from the third Tradition of the section Bad al-Wahy, which forms the introductory chapter of Bukhari’s Sahih; almost identical versions of this Tradition are found in two other places in Bukhari as well as in Muslim, Nasa’I and Tirmidhi.”

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