It’s the holiest night of the Muslim calendar, when your prayers and charity are especially sacred, but no one knows for certain which day it is. The Prophet Muhammad said it fell on one of the odd-numbered nights in these last ten days of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, but never said which one. While some schools of Muslim thought have settled on a particular night, others say it’s best to observe the Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, on all of the odd numbered nights at the end of Ramadan, and some Muslims sequester themselves for the whole ten-day period in the mosque for extra prayer and Qur’aan reading.
Some say that Islam is a patriarchal religion, and that’s not inaccurate, but one of the things I love about the Night of Power is what it says about the power of women in the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the emergence of Islam. Behind the story of the Night of Power is a powerful, tender love story that makes all the rest possible.
Before he was the Last Messenger of God, Muhammad was a quiet young man, illiterate in the conventional sense, but able to read people with a degree of emotional intelligence that was renowned throughout his city. When a dispute between two Meccans seemed unsolvable, Muhammad was the first one called upon to present a solution that would both solve the dispute and strengthen the community.
His people skills also made Muhammad one of the most successful caravan guides on the weeks-long Mecca-to-Damascus route, which caught the eye of one of Mecca’s most successful and powerful traders, a widow named Khadijah. She was known as the “Princess of Quraysh,” because her caravans to Damascus were as large as all the other merchants’ combined, and she hired Muhammad, only 25 years old, to lead her caravans to Syria, and through his honesty and hard work, he doubled the expected profit on his first journey.
Clearly she saw something else in him, too, because although she was forty years old, thrice widowed and a mother of three, Khadijah asked Muhammad to marry her, and he accepted. Their love for each other, in fact, is legendary, and for the rest of Khadijah’s life, she was not only Muhammad’s only wife, but also the love of his life, his best friend and confidant, and his greatest supporter. She built his confidence and competence as a leader, a trader, a peacemaker … and they made a lot of money together, too.
Now, the Arabs of that time were polytheists, but Muhammad himself was known to have sought out monotheistic philosophers along the route from Mecca to Damascus, and had by the time of his marriage become known to dabble in Hanifiyyah. The Hanifs were neither Christian nor Jewish nor Zoroastrian, but their own class of monotheist, almost a philosophical movement characterized by retreating into caves in the hills around Mecca to fast and meditate upon the concept of tawhiid — of the oneness of a singular god, ruler of all things.
The month of Ramadan was already a month of fasting in Mecca, and the Hanifs often spent days at a time meditating in their caves. That’s what Muhammad, now forty years old, was doing in a cave on the Mountain of Light when something terrifying happened.
A great and terrible being, the Angel Gabriel, appeared between Muhammad and the mouth of the cave, but unlike when he spoke to Hebrew Daniel and Virgin Mary, he didn’t say, “Be not afraid.” Instead, in a booming voice, Gabriel ordered Muhammad, “Read!”
Muhammad, quivering with fear, stuttered, “I can’t read.”
The angel leaned in, hugged him tight in it’s terrifying arms, and ordered again, “Read! In the name of your Lord who created, recite!”
“I cannot read,” he shuddered.
Nevertheless, the angel exhorted him again, “Read!” Again, Muhammad protested his illiteracy, and a third time the angel demanded, “In the name of your Lord, you will read!”
Suddenly, five verses came into Muhammad’s head, which he recited. This seemed to satisfy the angel, who disappeared, and Muhammad snatched up his things and fled back to Mecca.
Running into his home, he fell shivering to the wool ticks in the sitting room. “Khadijah!” he called, “Bring me a blanket!” And she came with a wool blanket, wrapping it around her husband, and wrapping her beloved in her arms, cradling him till the shivering stopped. She continued to hold him as he struggled through the telling of his terrifying tale, comforting him as he tried to make sense of what had just happened.
And through this and several subsequent terrifying visits of the Angel Gabriel, the mercantile queen and savvy, practical Khadijah listened and held her husband and talked through his experiences with him. While Muhammad was afraid that he was losing his mind, hallucinating things that couldn’t possibly be true, afraid that he had been possessed by an evil djinn that could only be purged by killing himself, Khadijah believed in her beloved. She knew who he was, how he was trusted by even the most powerful sheikhs of Mecca, a learned, practical man she depended on in her commercial empire.
Khadijah knew Muhammad better than anyone, and she knew with all her heart and soul that he wasn’t hallucinating, or crazy, or possessed. Khadijah knew that, as she had chosen Muhammad to be hers, he had been chosen by a higher power for something greater than either of them could imagine.
It was Khadijah who soothed and comforted him, who talked him down, who encouraged him to believe in what he had seen and heard, who believed in his ability to become a great leader of men and women. She and their son were the first to pray with him in the Muslim way at the Ka’abah in the center of Mecca, which he came to believe was the original temple to the singular God, built by Adam after the Garden, rebuilt by Abraham after the sacrifice, and by Noah after the flood.
For the last ten years of their quarter century together, even when Muhammad doubted himself, Khadijah’s trust and support in her husband never wavered. She gave generously of her mercantile fortune to support the earliest Muslims financially; even through a trade boycott of her clan’s business, she continued to support the community.
For this, and for her steadfast love and support of her husband Muhammad, his adored Khadijah is known as “Mother of the Believers,” and arguably the most important of the Five Perfect Women.
Without her story, without Khadijah the Princess of the Quraysh, most powerful merchant and woman in Mecca at the turn of the seventh century, we wouldn’t know the name Muhammad abu Qays ibn Abdullah, last Messenger of God. There would be no Islam, fastest growing religion on earth, and 1.8 billion Muslims, a quarter of the planet, wouldn’t be fasting this month of Ramadan.