((Aljumuah offers our series of articles by Reform Jewish Rabbi, Allen S. Maller, as a bridge-building effort to promote good relations among Jewish and Muslim communities.
We share much in common due to the same source of our prophets and the revelations they received, namely the One God. Indeed, we are both stronger when we work together for justice, peace and mutual understanding. Our profound thanks to Rabbi Allen, who alone is responsible for the views and interpretations expressed herein.))
RAMADAN IS THE month when the Sacred Scriptures of Jews, Christians, and Muslims were first revealed. Wathilah ibn Al-Asqa‘ reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said,
The scriptures of Abraham, upon him be peace, were revealed on the first night of Ramadan. The Torah was revealed after six nights of Ramadan had passed. The Injil [Gospel] was revealed after thirteen nights of Ramadan had passed. The Criterion [Quran] was revealed after twenty-four nights of Ramadan had passed. (Musnad Ahmad 16536, graded Hasan according to Al-Suyuti)
Other hadiths also mention that the Psalms of David were revealed on the eighteenth night of Ramadan.
So Ramadan is a good time—for all those who worship the One and Only God—to seek an understanding of how our Sacred Scriptures relate to one another. There are several similarities in custom, language and philosophy between the Jewish holy day of Shavuot, which this year falls on May 30, and the Muslim holy day of Laylat Al-Qadr, which some project will fall on June 21 this year. Both holy days commemorate the beginning of the revelation that formed the foundation of their respective Jewish or Islamic religious communities.
For example, Muslims and Jews share the custom of late night prayer and study. Many Muslims stay up late praying on the 27th night of Ramadan, hopeful of experiencing some aspect of the Night of Power (Laylat Al-Qadr). Jews also have a tradition of joining other Jews on Shavuot to stay up past midnight studying various Torah texts.
Qadr has two related meanings: power and destiny. As is often the case in the Quran, it is likely that both meanings are intended. Laylat Al-Qadr therefore means a night (laylah in Arabic, lailah in Hebrew) when God asserts Divine power in a special way to move events in a direction that God has destined for them. The revelation of the Qur’an and the Torah are prime examples of such a manifestation of divine power and will, which have changed the direction of human history in both cases.
The Quran states:
We sent it (the Quran) down on a blessed night (Arabic laylah mubarakah, Hebrew lailah mevurakh) for We were sure to warn (every people in their own language). Every matter of wisdom is made distinct in it, by command from Us, for We were bound to send (prophets) as a mercy from your Lord, for He hears and knows (all). [Surat Al-Dukhan, 44:3-6]
The Quran’s statements: “We were sure to warn” and “We were bound to send” reflects God’s merciful commitment to send prophets to teach and to warn every tribe, people and nation on earth about their responsibilities to God and their fellow human beings.
So too, in the Torah Moses reveals to the Jewish People:
Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! You will not extend your time in the land you are crossing the Jordan [River] to possess.
Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set before you: life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! I also call on you to love the Lord your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the Lord promised to give to your ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Torah-Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
Moses is a warner (to Pharaoh and his people) and a mercy (bringing Torah guidance) for the Jewish people (and later for the Christians who included the Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible into their own holy scriptures)—just as Muhammad is a “mercy for all the worlds” [Surat Al-Anbiya’, 21:107]. The Quran explains that God’s commitment to reveal Divine guidance to humanity is not limited to the descendants of prophets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; it also extends to all the other nations.
When the Quran says, The month of Ramadan is one in which the Qur’an was sent down [Surat Al-Bakarah, 2:185], the meaning, of course, is not that the whole of the Quran was sent down to Muhammad on one night or in one month or even in one decade. What is meant is that the revelation of the Qur’an to him began in the month of Ramadan on the Night of Power.
The beginning of the revelation is equated with the whole act of revelation because the reality of revelation became clear to the Prophet on the first occasion of revelation. Later communications provided expanded expression of that message.
In the Jewish tradition the rabbis point out that the revelation at Mount Sinai (Arabic Tur) begins with: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt…” One rabbi says that this first sentence is really all that is needed because everything else in the Torah flows from that. Another rabbi then says that everything flows from just the first Divine word: “I am.”
Both Islam and Judaism have a fully developed legal system which arose to elucidate the revelation our ancestors received: “Every matter of wisdom is made distinct in it, by command from Us.” Both religions share the outlook that although God’s revelation exists beyond space and time, it does in fact first manifest itself at a specific time and place.
The Night of Power is more than just the anniversary of the specific night when the Quran’s revelation began, as is indicated by the variety of Islamic Traditions (hadiths) about the date of the Night of Power.
For example, according to one tradition (hadith) the Prophet said:
Whoever wants to search for (this night) should search in the last seven nights (of Ramadan).
Yet in another tradition the Prophet is reported to have said:
Look for the Night of Power when nine, seven or five nights remain in Ramadan (i.e. from the 20th to 25th of Ramadan, inclusive).
But it is also said,
Search for it on the 29th, 27th and 25th of Ramadan.
All these traditions are quoted from Bukhari, one of the two most reliable sources of Prophetic Tradition. Add traditions from other Hadith collections, and the variety increases to seven different possible dates for the night of power: 17th, 21st, 23rd, 24th, 25th, 27th or the last day of Ramadan. Prophet Muhammad may have known the exact calendar date of the first Divine revelation he received. Yet neither the Quran nor the Prophet revealed the date of that historical milestone.
This is the very same situation that we find in the Torah. Shavuot—a Jewish holy day that commemorates the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai—is the only yearly Jewish holy day for which the Torah does not specify an exact annual date.
- Passover—which commemorates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery and oppression in Egypt under Moses—occurs on the fifteenth day of the first month.
- Rosh Hashanah—the first day of the Jewish religious new year—is on the first day of the seventh month.
- Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement fast—is on the tenth day of the seventh month.
- Haj Sukkot—the week-long fall harvest pilgrimage festival—is on the 15th day of the seventh month.
But for Shavuot, Jews are simply told that starting with the Shabbat [i] of the week-long Festival of Passover, we should count each day for seven weeks (Shavuot), and then the fiftieth day is Shavuot. In one text the Torah simply states:
You shall count for yourselves seven weeks; from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavuot for the Lord your God. (Torah-Deuteronomy 16:9-10)
This text starts the counting from an agricultural harvest event that will vary slightly from area to area; so no fixed date is possible. There is another Torah text that connects the counting of seven weeks to Passover but still lacks an explicit annual date:
You shall count for yourselves—from the day after the sabbath, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving—seven complete Shabbats, until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days… (Torah-Leviticus 23:15-16)
But there are at least two ways to start this counting, so different Jewish groups came up with different times for Shavuot. If you count seven weeks (Shavuot) and a day after the first day of Passover, then the fiftieth day (always on Sivan 6) is Shavuot according to the Pharisee school/sect of Judaism. If you count for seven weeks (Shavuot) and a day from the Shabbat that falls during the week of Passover, then the fiftieth day (always a Sunday) is Shavuot, according to the Sadducee school/sect of Judaism.
And Christians, counting seven weeks plus a day from Easter [ii] Sunday to Pentecost, get two other dates, because the date of Easter is calculated differently by Eastern churches and Western churches.
For the Sadducees, who take the word Shabbat literally to mean the Friday-dusk-to-Saturday-dusk Sabbath, Shavuot always falls on the same day of the week (like Shabbat always begins on Friday evening)—but not on the same calendar date; for the Pharisees, who take the word Shabbat to mean the first day of Passover, Shavuot always falls on the same annual calendar date (like all the other holy days)—but not each year on the same day of the week.
Everyone seems to agree that, just as the direction of a subatomic particle and its velocity cannot both be simultaneously measured, in the same way God’s revelation cannot be tied both to a date in the year and simultaneously to a day in the week. Of course, it is true of every fixed date in a calendar that the day of the week on which it falls will vary from year to year. So why is it only Shavuot (and Shabbat) that are among the Jewish holy days where the calendar date is not fixed by the Torah?
Here’s why: Shavuot celebrates a historical event marking the inauguration of the ongoing covenant made between God and Banu Isra’il in the third month after God had rescued the Jewish People from Egypt; and Shavuot also marks the trans-historical, non-temporal event of revelation—which can be compared to falling in love:
I know the exact day when I and my wife were married. I do not know the day, the week or even the month, when I fell in love with her. A wedding is an event that takes place on a specific day of a specific month of a specific year.
Forming a loving commitment is a natural ongoing process that must be experienced. This is why the only Jewish holy days that do not have a proscribed specific date on the yearly calendar are the weekly Sabbath and the once a year Shavuot; a day commemorating the beginning of the partnership /covenant /commitment between God and Abraham’s son Israel (i.e., Jacob/Arabic, Ya’kob) —a relationship to continue with Israel’s descendants.
Being chosen is an event; choosing is a process. One day, propelled by my growing love for my beloved, I proposed marriage. Two weeks later, she finally said ‘Yes.’ Some four months later, on December 25, 1966 we were married. I may not know the exact day, or even month, when I fell in love enough to propose marriage, but I know it did happen, and that is really all that is vital to the ongoing relationship.
During fifty subsequent anniversary celebrations our love has continued to grow. Experiencing each additional anniversary is more significant than our original wedding day. The consequences of the choice are more important than the original choice event itself—provided that choice was the right one. Yet without the choice to make the commitment, the natural desire to love and be loved would be unexpressed and unrequited: a terrible loss for both partners.
Likewise, revelation was a process but the initiation of it took place as an event on a specific day of a specific month of a specific year. The commemoration of that event celebrates the ongoing effect of that historical process and the individual’s quest to tap into its benefits. Experiencing even a small aspect of God’s revelation is, like love, an ongoing process for each generation.
Thus both Shavuot and Laylat Al-Qadr have more than one calendar date. Very important things can have movable calendar dates because they are ongoing events. Because Shavuot and Laylat Al-Qadr recur annually, it means that some doors of divine mercy will always remain open—even though prophetic revelation has come to a conclusion.
What matters most is not on what historical date God’s revelation began to be received by Moses or Muhammad, but it is whether you live your ongoing daily life now as directed by God’s revelation. Believers still can, and do, receive power, knowledge and enlightenment from the Holy One. After all, the Night of Power stands for salam and barakah in the manifestation of divine power and will (qadr).
As the Quran says: Salam! This ’till the rise of dawn [Surat Al-Qadr, 97:5] and “We revealed it in a night of barakah” [Surat Al-Dukhan, 44:3]. Salam (peace) and baraka (blessings) are best realized by those who become close to God’s revelations.
For Jews this coming close to God’s revelation is Tikun Lail Shavuot, for Christians this is Pentecost, and for Muslims this is Laylat Al-Qadr.
Allah knows best.
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com
[i] ‘Shabbat ‘ literally refers to the weekly 24-hour period from Friday-dusk-to-Saturday-dusk ‘sabbath’ day of rest on the Jewish calendar.
[ii] The Christian holy day of Easter is linked to the Jewish holy day of Passover.