It is quite fascinating to note the usage in the Qur’an and Hadith of the term “night” (layla) as opposed to “day” when discussing the merits of Ramadan–the holy month of fasting in which the Holy Qur’an was revealed–as we see, for example, in the following Revealed and transmitted sources:
“Indeed, We sent it [the Qur’an] down during a blessed night (layla mubaraka)…” (44:3)
“Whoever prays during the nights in Ramadan with faith and seeking his reward from God will have his past sins forgiven. And he who passes “the Night of Power” (laylatul qadr) in prayer with faith and seeking his reward from God will have his past sins forgiven.” (Hadith: Bukhari and Muslim)
Why is the “night” referenced in such verses and hadiths as opposed to the “day”? What is the significance of layla (night) as it pertains to Revelation and to Ramadan in the context of the spiritual life?
In a sense, the night is a time and space when we experience the “absence” of extrinsic phenomena which are multiple, separate, and dispersive to our visual and cerebral perception of them during the time of the day. As a natural occurrence in which the objects of the world are as if absorbed into a dark nothingness, layla represents that aspect of our consciousness and being which corresponds to the ‘world of the non-manifested, or unseen” (alam al-ghayb). Layla then serves as a “support” or means for withdrawing from our “outer senses” into the realm of our “inner senses” and entering the reality of the “unseen”. This is contrasted to the “day” which represents the ‘world of the manifested or seen’ (alam al-shahada) in which our consciousness dwells in dispersiveness, in the realm of the “outer” physical senses. It is this transition and arrival of the “day” to the “night” of our consciousness–from the ‘separateness’ and dispersive quality of worldly phenomena to the ‘unitive’ and inward quality of spiritual phenomena– to which the seeking of that sacred moment (waqt) of layla realizes. It is through the mystical instant and transcendent center that is layla that we pass beyond the compressive and enslaving quality of temporal duration and the dispersive and extensive quality of material space which dominates the consciousness of our outer senses.
Such centeredness in the “unseen” world beyond the confines of our outer senses is the hallmark of many spiritual traditions the world over, from the contemplative states of stillness as found in Orthodox Christian hesychia, to the meditative mindfulness of Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism for example. This spiritual center and moment that is layla is likewise to be seen as the very mystical substance of reflection (fikr) and inner witnessing (mushahada), as they are referred to in Islamic Spirituality. It is of no wonder that many a Sufi (from the time of Umar ibn al-Farid to the present day) has written so much about “Layla” (a female Arabic name distinct from the Quranic ‘layla’, yet stemming from the same root as layl, meaning night) and also used the “night” as a metaphor or symbol for Divine Love manifested through spiritual “union”, or mystical identity through deep contemplative solitude with the Divine. It is perhaps with spiritual contemplatives in mind that the Qur’an utilizes the symbolism and reality of layla to communicate subtleties of the most significant spiritual events in Islam: that is, the descent of the Holy Qur’an which occured in the month of Ramdan ‘through’ the “Night of Power” (laylatul qadr), and the ascent of the Prophet to the metacosmic Divine Throne, through the “Night of Ascension” (laylatul mi’raj), In regards to the latter, the Holy Qur’an states:
“Glory Be to God Who did take His servant[Prophet Muhammad] for a Journey by night from the Sacred Precinct [in Mecca] to the farthest Mosque [in Jerusalem], whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who hears and sees (all things).” (17:1)
Again, it is to be noted that the “Night of Power” or the “Night of Ascent” is not the “day of Power” or “day of Ascent”. It is as if the Uncreated and Revealed Word of God could only descend from the “non-Manifested” realm (alam al-ghayb) of the “Guarded Tablet” (al-lawh al-makhfuz) to our “manifested realm”, and the Blessed Body and Soul of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) could only ascend from the “manifested ” realm to the “non-Manifested” realm through recourse to an intermediary buffer or barrier (barzakh) of a state or moment that is layla: that which is realized or experienced as “night” in our realm of existence for those who are blessed to “witness” such an event through seeking layla.
The “night” as an ‘outward’ reality and occasion for the Descent of Divine Revelation into the blessed soul of the Prophet (saw) then, also has an ‘inward’ function, corresponding as it does to the realm and occasion of ascent of the yearning soul of the seeker towards the spiritual realization of Pure and Exclusive Oneness (ahadiyya). Layla then can be seen as a universal symbol for the state of the soul longing for and realizing spiritual stillness and even mystical annihilation (fana), entrenched an overwhelmed as it is by the “illuminating darkness” or “blessed night” (layla mubarika) of ineffable Reality. Layla, is a kind of “gate” or “moment” of Divine Bestowal in space and time when (and where) spiritual concentration and isolation supernaturally lead to an inwardness which transcends the realm of the “outer senses” including the ‘sense’ of individual and “separative” consciousness. It is of no wonder that living spiritual traditions to date use the night (layla) as the most opportune support for contemplative prayer or meditation. This is seen in Christian and Buddhist monks (for example) who even to this day spend the long hours of the late night (corresponding to the time of the Night Vigil–tahajud–of Islam) in meditation or prayer. In this sense, it is quite remarkable that the Qur’an acknowledges the universality of that spiritual opportunity which layla (the night) affords the seeker, identifying the pious believers of other revealed religions among the People of Scripture/Revelation (ahl al kitaab) as those who prostrate and “recite the Signs (ayaat) of God at night“:
“They are not all alike. Among the People of the Book there is an upright community who recite the revelations of God in the watches of the night, falling prostrate. They believe in God and the Last Day, and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency, and compete with one another in good works. These are of the righteous. And whatever good they do, they will not be denied it; and God knows the pious” (3:113-114).
It is quite fascinating to note that God has Willed the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his spiritual community (ummah) to follow this universal model of ‘Night vigil’ found also in those pious and saintly amongst the “People of the Book” of other revealed traditions who recited (and still recite, according to the Qur’an) the revelations of God, and pray or prostrate “in the watches of the Night”. In a sense, this universal spiritual model of “night prayer” has been particularized and ‘institutionalized’ in Islam, most especially in the month of Ramadan in the form of qiyam and/or tarawih prayer offered every night in Ramadan (as evidenced by the Hadith of the Prophet (saw) we began with), and also in the form of tahajud (night vigil) prayer which may be offered optionally any night of the year. In many ways, it is the tahajud prayer which is the hallmark of Prophetic spirituality especially in the early stages of the Prophecy of Muhammad (a practice which the Prophet continued for the rest of his Prophetic career and life) as it combines revealed remembrance in the form of prayer and even in the form of devotion to the revealed Name (ism) of God, all during the ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ moment of the night (layla). Among the earliest verses revealed to the Prophet (saw) was the following injunction involving standing in prayer and invoking the Name of God during the night, an injunction which can be seen as the very basis of the mystical method of Islamic Spirituality :
“Oh you enwrapped in your cloak. Stand in prayer all night, save a little. A half thereof, or lessen it a little. We shall charge you with a weighty word. Indeed, [spiritual] impressions are more keen, and [inspired] speech more penetrating, during the night. Truly, by the day you have many duties. So invoke the Name of your Lord (ism rabbik) and devote yourself to Him with utter devotion” (73:1-8)
Following in the literal footsteps of the Prophet (saw), many among his spiritual community to this day, along with upholding the daily prescribed canonical prayers, strive to uphold the model of prayer as outlined by God and practiced by the Prophet (saw) in the night (layla), and especially in the nights of Ramadan. Along with night vigil, others of the same community focus on “devoting” themselves to the invocation of the revealed Name of God (ism Allah) as outlined in the above verse: that is, invoking the Name of the Lord with “utter devotion”. As such, the revealed word, that is the Name of God, descends into the hearts of those who invoke the Name of God with utter devotion, seeking to realize the spiritual state of tranquility (sakinah), stillness and receptivity to the Divine Love that is layla; just as the pure receptivity of the blessed soul of the Prophet (saw) received the descent of the Revelation, or “weighty word” of God in the form of the Qur’an during the “Night of Power” (laylatul qadr).
May we seek and find that Blessed Night (layla mubaraka) outwardly in the sacred month of Ramadan, and inwardly in the blessed night of the soul at any and ultimately every moment of our lives.