Last Saturday Muslims throughout the world celebrated Laylat ul-Qadr, usually translated in English as the Night of Power. It is part of the month of Ramadan and commemorates the night when Allah came to Muhammad with the first revelation of the Qur’an. The Night of Power is based on chapter 97 of Islam’s Holy Book. The Qur’an 7has 114 chapters, which are generally ordered from longest to shortest. So, chapter 97 is short enough to quote in full here:
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,
We sent it down on the Night of Power. What will explain to you what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months; on that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task; [there is] peace that night until the break of dawn.
On Sunday, CNN published an article by Peter Bergen titled “What’s behind the timing of the terror threat?” U.S. embassies in the Middle East and North Africa have been closed since last Saturday due to terror threats posed by al-Qaeda. The answer that Bergen seems to be giving to the question “What’s behind the timing of the terror threat?” is Islam’s Night of Power.
I get queasy whenever I hear people connect God and power. We tend to think God’s omnipotence is God’s will to do whatever God wants, which frequently comes in the form violence and coercion. Bergen seems to suggest that Islam’s God is a God of violent power and that al-Qaeda is being faithful to the Night of Power by invoking threats of violence.
But the truth is that the members of al-Qaeda are not faithful Muslims. They are more concerned with the power of violence than with the spiritual power of the Qur’an. Chapter 97 reveals that the Night of Power isn’t about the power of violence and terror. It’s about God’s power of mercy. The God of Islam is especially merciful to the vulnerable, the poor, and the scapegoats of human culture. For example, when God came to Muhammad in 610 CE, there was a huge gulf between the rich and the poor. The Qur’an insisted that Muslims identify with and work on behalf of the poor. Of course, this good news for the poor felt like bad news for the rich. As M.A.S. Abdel Haleem states in his translation of the Qur’an, the religious and economic elite:
… feared that the new religion would threaten their own prestige and economic prosperity. They also felt it would disturb the social order, as it was quite outspoken in its preaching of equality between people and its condemnation of the injustices done to the weaker members of society.
The Night of Power does not represent the power of violence. Rather, it represents the power of mercy for those who haven’t been shown mercy. God’s power in Islam is connected primarily with mercy, not with violence.
Still, you may be wondering about how the chapter ends – “[there is] peace that night until the break of dawn.” If there is peace until the break of dawn, then when dawn break there will surely be violence, right?
Whenever prophets confront the injustices of their culture, there will be conflict. Like the other prophets in the Abrahamic tradition, Muhammad was not well received by the cultural elite. Although he remained faithful to his mission, Muhammad was reluctant to continue his calling to bring justice and equality to his people because he knew it wouldn’t bring peace; it would bring strife and conflict.
The holy month of Ramadan is about conflict, but it is primarily about the conflict within oneself. It’s about the struggle to stop grasping for power over and against others and live into God’s power of mercy that seeks to include the weak and the marginalized into communities of compassion. Faithful Muslims fast during Ramadan to remind themselves of the essence of their religion, which is precisely about being merciful to those who haven’t been shown mercy. How do you show mercy to the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and the scapegoats of human culture?
Ramadan, and specifically the Night of Power, say the only way is to identify with them.
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