Muslims seek their Night of Power

Faith & Reason: The holy month of Ramadan brings blessings to the devout but a rather less comfortable condition for the impeached Bill Clinton and an embattled Tony Blair
THIS YEAR the Muslim holy month of Ramadan started with, literally, a bang. Iraqi Muslims looking for the crescent moon to mark the beginning of the fasting month saw instead American Tomahawk missiles and British Tornado fighters. Both President Bill Clinton and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said they then stopped the Western Night of Power because of "the holy month".

Obviously intended to portray a humane and sensitive dimension to the devastating and repulsive bombing raids, this bit of news spin had Muslims everywhere in derision. For there is nothing unholy in doing battle with your enemy during the holy month. One of the most crucial battles in early Islam, that of Badr, was fought during Ramadan - as was the Yom Kippur war led by Anwar Sadat in 1973.

In fact, Ramadan is the most combative month in the Muslim calendar. The sawm (fast) is actually a declaration of war against the carnal soul, the al-nafs al-ammarah of the Holy Book. In fasting, the rebellious tendencies of the carnal soul are gradually dampened and pacified through a systematic submission of these tendencies to the divine will, for at every moment of hunger the soul of the Muslim is reminded that in order to obey divine commands the carnal passions must go unheeded. That is also why the fast does not include only food but also abstention from every form of lust and carnal passion.

According to scholars the rigours of Ramadan should really not be that difficult for a believer. Tradition has it that during the month the Devil is shackled, making it relatively easy for the soul, imprisoned by hunger and thirst, to engage in good works. My local imam has pointed out the particular "blessing" of being a Muslim observing Ramadan in Britain this year. Not only are the fasting hours relatively short but we are performing our obligatory abstinence right in the middle of the festive season. Surely, in a month in which the Lord has promised manifold rewards for acts of piety, we can only be amassing huge blessings as we maintain our sobriety and temperance in a sea of crapulence and gourmandism.

For a believer Ramadan is a month full of divine gifts, hence the salutation Ramadan Kariim - "Ramadan the generous". Life is normally organised around a set of rituals that aim to maximise on the special spiritual rewards on offer. It is a time during which one is encouraged to recite the Holy Book, to remember God and participate in special prayers.

The central core of the holy month, however, remains the Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power (or Destiny). This commemorates the night in the year AD 610 in which the Koran descended, in its entirety, into the soul of the Prophet. In that night the Angel Gabriel first spoke to the Prophet, the Koran was revealed, and the divine mission began. In a season preoccupied with sales and shopping the Night of Power is the ultimate bargain for a believer. The Holy Book in chapter 97 describes the Night of Power as "better than a thousand months . . . peace until the rising of the dawn": for sheer spiritual value there is nothing to match it in the entire universe.

Nobody really knows for certain on which date this holiest night falls. Scholars say this ambiguity is a secret wisdom to prompt the believer to devote himself completely to God during every night of this month in the hope of coinciding with that night which has been kept deliberately obscure. Muslims might desire to watch out for the mystical night but in Britain few can practically do so; little of "ordinary life" changes during the holy month, making the prospect of staying awake during the night possible only if there was no work or college the next day.

The scholars have, however, narrowed down the odds with most holding the opinion that the Night of Power is in the last 10 nights of Ramadan, which are therefore are taken to be particularly holy. If that is the case, then in 12 lunar months' time the eve of the new millennium might be the very night in which the heavens are, literally, set alight by the splendour and mercy of God.

To have completed the fast of Ramadan is to have undergone a rejuvenation and rebirth which prepares each Muslim to face another year with determination to live and act according to the divine will. The fast also bestows a spiritual perfume upon the human soul whose fragrance can be perceived long after the period of abstinence has come to an end. It provides for the soul a source of energy upon which it feeds throughout the year. The holy month has therefore been called mubarak, "the blessed", one in which the grace or barakah of God flows upon the Islamic community and rejuvenates its deepest sources of life and action.

Those who seek to violate the holiness can expect the opposite. For Bill Clinton, Ramadan has brought impeachment; for Tony Blair it has brought his first major crisis in government. Which makes particularly apposite the fact that some scholars (including my local imam) believe the Night of Power might not be in these last 10 days but could be the first night of the month - the same day the "Western Night of Power" unfolded on the skies of Iraq.

Fuad Nahdi is the editor of the Muslim magazine `Q-News'