The month of Ramadan is coming to a close, which means it’s time to celebrate the Night of Power, or لَيلة القَدر (laylat al-qadr, لَيلة meaning “night” and قَدر meaning “power”). Sometimes also called “the Night of Decree,” (قَدر can mean both “power” and “decree”), this is the night when, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad received the first revelation of what we know as the Qurʾān. It’s said that Muhammad was fond of retreating to the caves around Mecca to fast, pray, and meditate, and it was during one of these sessions, in 610 CE, that he received this first revelation.
Because the Qurʾān was compiled in written form after Muhammad’s death, supposedly from disparate scraps of paper where listeners had transcribed this or that revelation, there was no way to determine the order of the revelations, and some revelations were grouped together in longer passages even though they’d probably been preached on separate occasions. The text is arranged in order of length, longest chapter to shortest, rather than chronology, and the initial lines that Muhammad received are the first five verses of the 96th chapter, سورة العلق (sūrat al-ʿalaq).
Arabs hold that the name “Qurʾān” (قُرآن) is taken from the first word of this first revelation (the imperative form of قَرَأَ, qaraʾa, which can mean “read” or “recite”), although modern scholars tend to think that it derives from the Syriac word qeryānā or “scripture reading.” The five-verse revelation is as follows (sorry if this formats badly, and when you read it please note that Qurʾānic Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic are not quite the same thing):
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ
(iqraʾ bi-ismi rabbika alladhī khalaqa)
خَلَقَ الْإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ
(khalaqa al-insāna min ʿalaqin)
اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ
(iqraʾ wa-rabbuka al-akramu)
الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ
(alladhī ʿallama bi-al-qalami)
عَلَّمَ الْإِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
(ʿallama al-insāna mā lam yaʿlam)
“Recite! In the name of your Lord, who created;
Created man from a clot.
Recite! That your Lord is the Most Generous;
Who taught by the pen;
Taught man that which he did not know.”
The specific night on which لَيلة القَدر should be observed is disputed. Sunnis hold that it happened on one of the odd-numbered nights in the last ten days of Ramadan, so the 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, or 29th. Many observe it on the 27th. Many Shi’a, however, tend to observe it on the 23rd, meaning it comes right after a three-day observance of the assassination and death of ‘Ali (who is said to have been attacked on the 19th while at prayer and lingered until dying on the 21st).
As far as religious significance, the 97th chapter of the Qurʾān, سورة القَدر (sūrat al-qadr), which is only five verses long, explains:
إِنَّا أَنْزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ
(innā anzalnāhu fī laylati al-qadri)
وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ
(wa-mā adrāka mā laylatu al-qadri)
لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ خَيْرٌ مِنْ أَلْفِ شَهْرٍ
(laylatu al-qadri khayrun min alfi shahrin)
تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِمْ مِنْ كُلِّ أَمْرٍ
(tanazzalu al-malāʾikatu wa-al-rūḥu fīhā bi-idhni rabbihim min kulli amrin)
سَلٰمٌ هِيَ حَتَّىٰ مَطْلَعِ الْفَجْرِ
(salāmun hiya ḥattá maṭlaʿi al-fajri)
“Indeed, we have revealed it [meaning the Qurʾān] on the Night of Power;
And what will explain to you what the Night of Power is?
The Night of Power is better than a thousand [other] nights;
The angels and the Spirit descend in it, by the permission of their Lord, with every command;
Peace it is! Until the break of dawn.”
Observant Muslims will spend the night (or every night over the last ten days of the month, since the precise night is uncertain) in heavy prayer and may try to time their charitable giving to fall on that night, since as the verse says, the Night of Power is better than a thousand other nights (so any prayer or good deeds performed on that night are worth similar actions on a thousand regular nights). Those who are feeling especially pious may take a minor “retreat,” called اعتكاف (iʿtikāf, “withdrawal”) into the mosque to fast and pray constantly for the final ten days of Ramadan (this ensures that they will be in prayer on the Night of Power); in order to complete the اعتكاف they must remain in the mosque for the duration, leaving only to go to the bathroom or for an emergency either to themselves or a close relation.