Ecumenical & Interfaith, Muslim Ministry
Christmas and the Real Night of Power (Lessness)
December 23, 2019
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In Islam, there is a special night called the Night of Power/Destiny (or in Arabic, laylat al-Qadr). In this short piece, I would like to compare and contrast that night with the Christmas Eve.
What is laylat al-Qadr?
In the Qur’an, there is a chapter or Surah (number 97) named Sūrat al-Qadr and in it there is a description of heaven being opened and angels descending along with the Qur’an itself. According to the Muslim commentator Ibn Abbas, on this night, the Qur’an was revealed in its entirety from the highest heaven with its preserved tablet or ‘mother of the books’ to the lowest heaven and placed in a special chamber called Bayt al-`Izzah (the House of Honor). Thereafter it was gradually revealed to Muhammad over the course of 23 years.
For Muslims, this is a special night near the end of Ramadan, and they believe it can bring them many blessings. For example, Islamic traditions make several promises, including forgiveness of sins, sure passage to heaven, the possibility to have one’s destiny revised, along with interaction with Allah’s angels. According to a tradition narrated by Anas b. Malik, Muhammad was reputed to have said that on this night, “Gabriel descends with a company of angels who invoke blessings on every one who is standing or sitting and remembering God, who is great and glorious.”
Some commentators suggest that the angels will personally greet pious Muslims on this night, especially the ones who are “remembering” God and who have faithfully fasted in Ramadan.
Another tradition suggests that if one is found praying at the mosque when the heavens are opened, then all that person’s sins of the last year are forgiven, or if they die, then they will go directly to paradise. A Muslim tradition suggests that Muhammad said, “Whoever spends the nights of Ramadan in prayer out of faith and in the hope of reward, he will be forgiven his previous sins.” or “Whoever stands in prayer during Laylatul-Qadr with faith and hope in the reward of Allah, all of his previous sins will be forgiven.”
It was reported that when his wife Aisha asked him, “O Messenger of Allah! If I knew which night is Laylatul-Qadr, what should I say during it?” then Muhammad instructed her to say, “O Allah! You are Most Forgiving, and you love to forgive. So forgive me.”
It is also believed that this is the night when the destiny of every human is decided. The view of reputed commentators is that “all the affairs of lifespan, deeds, creation, and provision are decreed on Laylatul-Qadr in the month of Ramadan and will come to pass in the coming year.” Thus, it is definitely advantageous for a Muslim to gain as much merit as possible, so that a good destiny will befall them. One Muslim put it this way, “Du’a [=prayer or supplication] on this night has the greatest power to change decree, before the records of this night seal one’s fate for the coming year.” He is taking his idea from a tradition that says, During Lailatul-Qadr, the angels, the spirit, and the trusted scribes all descend to the lower heavens and write down whatever Allah decrees that year, and if Allah wishes to advance something or postpone it or add thereto, He orders the angel to erase it and replace it with whatever He decrees.
Additionally, because this chapter of the Qur’an also states that “this night is better than a thousand months” (v. 3) some Muslims believe that the prayers that they make on this night are worth 1000x as much as when they are done on other occasions. Besides the descent of angels, the spirit is said to descend, and that there will be peace “till the rising of the dawn.”
Thus, we see that for the pious Muslim this night is potentially filled with many blessings. How do they compare with the blessings of Christmas Eve?
The Night of Powerful Powerlessness
Just as Surah 97 speaks of angels and descent, so the Bible in Luke 2 records that the “angel of the Lord” descended to shepherds in a field near Bethlehem. These fields, although not a place of worship, were the place of visitation. The shepherds had done nothing to merit this angelic visit, other than having the low-class job of watching sheep. The majestic glory of these angels “terrified” the shepherds but the angel assured them that what he was bringing was life-changing. It was the “good news” — not good advice or a prescribed set of things to do or avoid — that would “cause great joy.” This joy no self-congratulations on having worked hard at gaining God's favor, but a deep and wholesome happiness. It would even be extended “to all people” who like the shepherds would bow their knees at a most ironic spectacle, “a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Here the good news was that the shepherds did not need to save themselves, because a Savior was born. They no longer needed to look for a powerful deliverer, because he had arrived. They no longer needed to look for the ultimate Master, because he was born. They didn't have to wonder if they were in right standing with God, as the ultimate mediator who could stand between God and humanity had arrived. Here was God-incarnate, even below their level, fulfilling all their hopes and dreams, and he had the title of Lord or Kurios, which the powerful Caesars at the time called themselves.
Just in case this was a dream that could be dismissed, the angel said, “This will be the sign…” The Gospel writer Luke is likely using a bit of irony here, as the historian Suetonius had said that "...some months before his [Caesar Augustus who was the reigning Caesar at Jesus’ time] birth, a prodigy was produced before the eyes of all announcing that Nature was to give birth to a king for the Roman people.”
The sign that the angel announced was anything but a pronouncement of power. No, it was all about powerlessness: “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” But this powerless had another angle to it, as immediately, we are told that armies (or hosts) of angels, with real—and not imagined—brightness started to sing this God’s praises on behalf of this Christ-child.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The peace that these angels promised did not just last till morning; no, it would be a lasting peace. It was a gift of God’s favor that came from the highest heaven. This was not a merited favor, but simply due to God’s largesse. The shepherds decided to investigate the truth of what these angels had spoken and sung, and it was exactly as promised. The Bible tells us, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen which were just as they had been told.”
In the accounts of the night of Qadr, many promises are made as a reward for piety. With enough prayer, one is promised that one can change their destiny for the year; with praying at the right place and time, one is promised that their actions can erase all the sins of the previous year, and that if a person dies while at prayer on this night they will go to paradise. Yet all of these promises raise a question: who is promising them, and who has the power to deliver them?
In the story from the Bible, the shepherds, meritless low-lifes that they were, saw the heavens opened above them, and it was revealed to them who was the ultimate Caesar (Lord). It was the One who was serenaded by heavenly armies, and who carried the name of Savior, Messiah, and Lord; yet found in the completely vulnerable state of a baby. The shepherds’ reaction is very telling. They glorified and praised God because of what they had heard and seen, and it was exactly as it was promised them. The story of Christmas Eve is entirely trustworthy as the Living God promises what he can deliver, and delivers what He can promise, just as the shepherds remarked that the truth was “just as they had been told.”
Which night will we place all of our hope in? That is the Christmas question.
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