From seconds to years to millennia, time is a fluid concept in Islam that I often puzzle over. During the final 10 days of Ramadan falls a night that the Quran describes as being 'better than 1,000 months', which would translate into 83.3 years in modern time measurement.
Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power or Destiny, is the climax of the Islamic month of fasting, commemorating the night when Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, received his first divine revelation through the Archangel Gabriel in 610 AD. These revelations continued for more than two decades and form the Quran, meaning 'Recitation' in English, which is a composition of God's message to humanity.
Many Muslims around the world will spend Laylat al-Qadr in prayer and quiet reflection, some secluding themselves in mosques in devotion to God, hoping to seek the unparalleled benefit of a night when sincere worshippers are forgiven all sins and angels descend on earth.
Last year, while visiting Cairo, I strived for the first time to participate in Laylat al-Qadr, most-widely believed to fall on the 27th night of Ramadan, although many scholars concur it could fall on one of the odd-numbered nights of the final 10 days.
Determined not to have the night pass me by, I spent these five odd-numbered nights awake until the break of dawn, in prayer, reading passages from the Quran, offering duaa (supplications) for loved ones, and trying to grasp how one night could hold such immense power. After all, 83.3 years is more than the average human life expectancy for citizens of most countries in the world. How could one night be greater than an entire lifetime?
To begin to comprehend this idea, I turned to the Quran, in which God continually calls on us to regard our perception of time as relative and flexible rather than linear and constant. For instance, the word for 'day' in Arabic is 'youm', which in everyday usage refers to the 24-hour period of a day. But in the Quran, the explanation of youm is broad, referring to long periods of time, eras or epochs of indefinite lengths, rather than a single day measured by the rotation of the earth on its axis.
"A Day with your Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning," the Quran says in one reference to how humans would grasp the length of a day in the Hereafter. (Quran, 22:47) When God says He "created the heavens and the earth in six days" (7:54), He is referring to six stages of development, rather than six 24-hour days.
Setting aside the ideas of time we have grown comfortable with in everyday life re-arranges how we evaluate the passage of time and helps us begin to grasp the concept of eternity. We realize that while daily living on earth may seem to us to be long, in the end when we reflect back, our time here will appear momentary. Once all is said and done, people will perceive that they had stayed on earth for "a day or part of a day" (23: 112-114) or "not longer than an hour of a day" (10:45), according to the holy book.
Knowing that the journey of life is brief when compared with eternity, spiritually aware Muslims -- those who live in Islam, the Arabic word meaning 'submission' to God -- become more attentive to our actions, seeking to pray, fast, give charity and treat those around us with kindness, respect and justice.
Trying to catch Laylat al-Qadr sincerely is, I presume, about attaining a spiritual connection with God that transcends units of time. For an evening, we have a chance to traverse the world's limitations to where time is incalculable -- where the value in a moment of connection is so unfathomably rich that it surpasses the length of a person's worldly existence.
According to one Hadith, or saying of the last prophet, "whoever establishes prayers on the Night of Power out of sincere faith and hoping to attain God's rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven". It was on this night that Angel Gabriel asked Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to 'read'. Being illiterate, Muhammad responded that he could not. After repeating the request and receiving the same response, Angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad the following verse:
Read! In the name of the Lord, who created:
Created man out of a clot [of blood].
Read! Your Lord is the Most-Bountiful One
Who taught by the pen
Taught man what he did not know.
(Quran 96: 1-5)
What I love about this verse is the emphasis God places on acquiring knowledge in order to understand His miracles. Sometimes this demands that we challenge pre-conceived notions of reality in order to become more receptive to the possibilities of living in submission.
After spending most of my life sleeping through Laylat al-Qadr, last year I tried my best to witness it. In the few months prior, I had made a conscious effort to deepen my connection with God. I discovered that prayer in the early morning prior to fajr, the first of Islam's five daily prayers that takes place before sunrise, can be particularly tranquil and comforting.
In the dark of night before most people are asleep, I am able to clear my thoughts, focus and meditate more than at other times of the day. My daily spiritual routine would be incomplete if I am not awake to hear the call to fajr prayer, which ends with the simple-yet-captivating line, "prayer is better than sleep".
On Laylat al-Qadr, this energy and nearness to God that I get a glimpse of just before fajr is magnified and stretched over an entire night. This is why each year, Muslims will seek the night where worship carries the weight of 1,000 months. Even if we can't fully grasp how this is possible, we have a chance to nurture a formidable connection with God.