The source: surah al-Qadr
Surah al-Qadr is the 97th chapter of the Quran, containing 5 verses:
إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةِ الْقَدْرِ
وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ
لَيْلَةُ الْقَدْرِ خَيْرٌ مِّنْ أَلْفِ شَهْرٍ
تَنَزَّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ فِيهَا بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِم مِّن كُلِّ أَمْرٍ
سَلَامٌ هِيَ حَتَّىٰ مَطْلَعِ الْفَجْرِ
Indeed, we sent it down [the Quran] on the night of destiny
And what will let you know what the night of destiny is?
The night of destiny is better than a thousand months
The angels and the spirit descend therein, by the permission of their lord, for every command
Peace; it is so until the ascension of dawn
Surah al-Qadr is one of the many chapters in the Quran which refers to itself. In fact, it references its own beginning, a mythical event which would forever be known as the night of destiny. Today, it is considered by Muslims the holiest time of the year, and is celebrated as the night in which the Quran was sent down to mankind.
However, this contradicts another popular narrative about the Quran. According to tradition, Mohammad received the first words of revelation on Mount Hira while on a meditative retreat. These words — the first few versus of surah al-Alaq — are considered to be the beginning of the Quran and mark the era of its revelation to Mohammad.
How can we reconcile the night of destiny with the traditional account of the Quran’s revelation? A more detailed interpretation of the chapter will help us.
The word qadr carries special importance in the Islamic tradition. Like many Arabic words, it derives from a Semetic root: in this case, Q-D-R, which means power. From this root we have the verb qadira, to have power over or be able to, as well as qaddira, meaning to measure out or determine. Qadr is the verbal noun of both words. Therefore, qadr can also be translated as power, capacity, or measure, and indeed some translators render this chapter as referring to the ‘night of power’ instead.
How did qadr become related to destiny in the Islamic tradition? Like many words in the Quran, observing its use in other chapters will provide clues. Of particular note is verse 38 of surah al-Ahzaab: “And the command of Allah is a decree determined”. Here, the word command is amr, the same word used in surah al-Qadr. This indicates that we are speaking again about the relationship between God’s will and its manifestation on Earth.
The ‘decree determined’ is qadr maqdoor, and maqdoor is the passive participle of the verb qadira. Therefore, the term qadr maqdoor gives a verbal noun, then the passive participle of the same verb: in English, this would be something like: ‘an ability enabled’. Putting this all together, we can translate the verse as: “And the command of Allah is an ability [previously] enabled”. It is from here that the idea of God’s qadr — his ability/power to manifest his command — becomes connected to the idea of predestination, since the Quran indicates that his power in some sense precedes its manifestation.
Belief in qadr, or predestination, has therefore become a central tenet of Islam and comprises one of the six so-called pillars of faith. With that in mind, surah al-Qadar stands as an important reiteration of predestination, affirming that the content of the Quran in some sense preexisted its revelation to mankind. Thus, we get the sense that what is being sent down on the night of destiny is more akin to the latent potentiality of the Quran.
In Islam, angels play the role of communicator between the divine and the human: the transcendent and the worldly. It was the angel Gabriel who conveyed the word of God to Mohammad, which would later comprise the Quran. Moreover, angles are the swift and unwavering executors of God’s will. This explains their depiction as agents of God’s command in surah al-Qadr.
The use of spirit here is somewhat ambiguous. The Christian concept of the Holy Spirit, being understood in the context of the triune God, relates to that aspect of the divine which comes to embody the believer. This is implicit in Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit in John 14:15-21, for example, when he claims that he will continue on in the community of his followers as the inheritors of Spirit. In the context of surah al-Qadr, the spirit can be understood in a similar sense: it is that divine aspect which permeates the believer and is responsible for prophetic or divine revelation.
However, this is more accurately related to ruh al-quds, the Holy Spirit, which is directly mentioned in the Quran in numerous places. Instead, in surah al-Qadr, we have only ruh, or spirit. This is the same word, for example, which is used in the mythic genesis of mankind: that God fashioned man out of clay and breathed spirit (ruh) into him. Therefore, it is unclear whether the spirit referred to in surah al-Qadr is the spirit of divine revelation, which would be unique to the prophets, or the spirit which represents that divine aspect present in every human.
Putting it all together
Given the use of qadr, the angels, and the spirit in this chapter, we can conclude that what is being sent down is not the Quran per se, but rather a latent, undifferentiated potential which comes to inhabit Mohammad as Spirit. This is the interpretation which explains how the night of destiny could predate Mohammad’s first revelation on Mount Hira.
The idea that some form of the revelation pre-existed its actualization will lead us to an interesting connection with the Christian theological tradition. To do so, we will need to situate surah al-Qadr within a Sufi framework.
The Sufi take: the Logos
Here, it will be helpful to introduce the writing of Ibn Arabi, among the most distinguished and prolific mystical Muslim authors. Ibn Arabi’s esoteric interpretation of surah al-Qadr, which he outlines in his Futuhat Makkiyah, associates the descent of revelation not with the mind of the Prophet, but his body. The Sufi scholar René Guénon has taken this to mean that Ibn Arabi relates the night of destiny to the Christian notion that verbum caro factum est (the word became flesh). This is further corroborated by the fact that the spirit, in both senses as the Holy Spirit and divine spirit of mankind, comes to reside in the body.
The Christian concept of the word is most accurately represented as the Logos, which is introduced in John 1:1: in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Immediately, what we take away from this verse is that the word in some sense preceded its embodiment in flesh. Is this not analogous to the distinction made, in the Islamic tradition, between the night of destiny and the revelation on Mount Hira?
In fact, if Ibn Arabi is situating God’s command in surah al-Qadr as the Christian concept of Logos, then we find that the latent Spirit sent down during the night of destiny is analogous to the Logos that pre-existed the historical figure of Jesus Christ, and the actual revelations of God’s word over the period of 23 years are analogous to the embodiment of the Logos in Christ.
In other words, the theological concept underlying both the Christian idea of the Logos and the actualization of God’s command in surah al-Qadr is a distinction between God’s word as latent potentiality and its actualization on Earth. This is a topic which permeates Sufi theology and is characteristic of the more general concept of the human-divine enigma.
Surah al-Qadr still leaves us with something of a paradox, however. If the Quran refers to aspects of Mohammad’s surroundings, such as his discussions with tribal leaders, the course of battles, and so on, how could the text have existed prior? In other words, how could the Quran — even as latent potential — exist prior to the historical contingencies that influenced it? This question will lead us to our next topic: the Inscribed Tablet, perhaps the most mysterious and thought-provoking concept in the entire Quran.