TEHRAN – Devout Iranians flocked to mosques, shrines and cemeteries early Tuesday morning for special Ramadan prayers through the night on the anniversary of the date that the first verses of the Quran are believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Pious Muslims believe that worshipping on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Destiny or Power which also marks the descent of the angels and Gabriel, referred to as The Spirit, is more powerful than an entire year’s worth of prayers.
For Shia Muslims, the smaller branch of Islam by number of followers compared to Sunnism but which is dominant in Iran, this night falls between days 18-22 in the holy month of Ramadan, which this year coincides with May 24-18 in the Gregorian calendar.
As is usual, there are several differences when it comes to the way Shia and Sunni Muslims observe Laylat al-Qadr – the latter usually mark the occasion with just one day of prayers on the 26th day of Ramadan, a month of fasting and worship.
Iranian Shia Muslims believe the night of prayers sets out their destiny for the year to come and, in order to get closer to God, they perform a full body ablution called Ghusl.
Afterward, they meet at mosques and spend the night awake performing prayers and religious chants, which they often do while placing the Holy Quran on their heads, a gesture that is typical during Laylat al-Qadr.
In Chizar square, home of the Ali Akbar shrine in the north of the Iranian capital Tehran, a large group of men dressed in black gathered from 8 pm until the early hours of the following morning.
“Every year it is a massive ceremony,” the head of the security for the brotherhood at the shrine, Frahah Hadadian, told EFE, adding that up to 18,000 people gathered there on Sunday evening.
Inside the shrine, Hadadian’s brotherhood serves Iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fasting during Ramadan, to around 1,200 people.
In the surrounding streets, worshippers gather on rugs laid out on the ground and face the green dome of the shrine and to watch the sermon broadcast on big screens set up for the occasion.
“There is great faith at this ceremony. There are young people who perhaps don’t turn up to other ones but they come to Laylat al-Qadr and ask for their wish because of the bond they have with God and with Imam Ali,” Hadadian said.
For Shia Muslims, this date in the religious calendar has another significance as it marks the 19th day of Ramadan, when Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in-law of Muhammad, was fatally wounded in 661. He is believed to have died two days later.
Shias regard Ali to be the true successor to Muhammad and the first Imam in the Theology of Twelver. Sunni Muslims believe Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet, was the rightful successor.
To mark Ali’s martyrdom, many Iranian Shia bring portraits of martyrs, let out cries and hit their chest during prayers.
Believers also hand out juice and tea to the worshippers gathered around the shrine and use the occasion to make charitable donations to disadvantaged people, another feature of Ramadan.
One of those attending the ceremony was Hamid Qanbari, who told EFE he came to ask for God’s blessing, adding that, for him, the holy nights were like “a lamp in the darkness so that the human being can find their path and not lose it.”
“If you lose your way and see a light, just like when you are in the middle of a desert or a plain, hope is created in your heart and you move towards it,” the man in his 30s said.
During Laylat al-Qadr, believers repent for their sins.
Ramadan is celebrated by Muslims all over the world and sees the faithful abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking and having sexual relations during the hours of daylight.
It falls on the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and is a time for fasting, family and discipline. It is also believed that the revelation of the first verse of the Quran was during its last 10 nights of Ramadan.