My first all-nighter was not, in fact, caused by a last-minute paper or exam in school. Since I can remember, my family has always been pulling all-nighters for one of the most important nights of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: Lailat-ul-Qadr (The Night of Power). According to Muslim belief, this was the night that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Allah through the Archangel Gabriel (PBUH). Many Muslims spend the entire night in prayer because blessings are believed to be greatly magnified; in the Quran, Allah says, "The Night of Power is greater than a thousand months. The angels and the Spirit descend therein by permission of their Lord for every matter. Peace it is until the emergence of dawn." (97:3-97:5).
For me, experiencing Lailat-ul-Qadr has always been about reinforcing many values of Ramadan: an emphasis on personal reflection and prayer in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and developing physical and mental self-discipline. Participating in all-night prayers with different groups also provided me with insight into the diversity of practices within Islam. For example, I noticed that my extended family was relatively unique. We are from the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shi'ism, and we have very specific prayers that must be done at clearly defined times during the night. We make du'a (supplication) for the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Prophet's extended family including his grandson Husayn (the third Imam for many Shi'as) and the other martyrs of the Massacre of Karbala. When I practiced Lailat-ul-Qadr with my friends who were predominantly Sunni, I noticed a larger degree of personal autonomy in that as long as we stayed awake, we could decide what to do at specific times of the night. This involved choosing which chapters we would recite from the Quran and which attributes of Allah we would contemplate.
Since coming to college, however, I have become especially interested in how Lailat-ul-Qadr relates to the theme of learning. Remarkably, the first Quranic verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on the original Lailat-ul-Qadr were not about the night itself; instead, Allah first promoted education by saying, "Read! In the name of your Lord who created -- created man from a clot [of blood]... [Your Lord] taught by the pen; taught man that which he knew not." (Quran 96:1-2, 96:4-5).
These verses are especially powerful for me because they validate my academic goals while reinforcing my faith. I am studying to become a doctor, so only by reading can I understand the biology of how a single cell (a clot of blood) eventually develops into a full human being. Also, I am constantly using "the pen" in the pursuit of knowledge as I write lab reports, take exams, and present research. Truly understanding these verses and the extent of Allah's imperative to pursue education helped me find motivation in difficult times, like last summer when I spent most of Ramadan (including the Night of Power itself) taking intensive Organic Chemistry away from my family.
However, Lailat-ul-Qadr also provides an interesting contrast to the theme of man's knowledge. Allah cautions that all knowledge has limits, and Lailat-ul-Qadr is itself an example, because no human knows its actual date! The closest approximations from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) say that it occurs in the last 10 days of Ramadan, on one of the odd-numbered dates (21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th, or 29th). Not surprisingly, many wonder why we don't know the exact date of such a critical night.
Interestingly, on the first Lailat-ul-Qadr, Allah also revealed to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), "[...] Indeed, man transgresses all limits because he thinks himself self-sufficient." (Quran 96:6-7). I believe that God has not provided us with the exact date of the night to show mankind that regardless of how much knowledge we can attain, certain answers will be forever beyond our reach. Science is not even close to discovering all the wonders of God's universe, and I believe it is unlikely that science can ever provide an answer to all possible questions. This attitude is by no means defeatist with regards to scientific advancement; rather, certain noticeable gaps in our knowledge are reminders that we must have humility.
When we don't know the answer, we should submit to God in the true meaning of "Islam."