Behold The Messenger

We have just entered Rabi’ Al-Awwal, the month of the Islamic calendar so intimately connected to significant events in the life of our blessed Prophet – peace be upon him – not least of which were his birth and death. This month will be marked by some with remembrance of Allah and with words of thanks for the gift of the beloved Messenger. It will be marked by others with increased supplication, with a return to the pages of the sirah and with deep contemplation. It will be marked by others still with the appearance of Christmas tree lights in the mosque and it will, no doubt, be marked by the sight of a young man shouting in the same building about the sin of those who celebrate. For others, however, the month will pass them by as just another month in the lunar cycle, just as it has done for me over the past seven years. It passes us by, not because we are we have an opinion, but because we are not conscious of its significance.

The mosques I have attended have never drawn attention to a special day within this month, nor have my friends. I do not have Islamic heritage to look back on and no believing family to instruct me as I take these tiny steps forward. What I do know is little, while what I do not know is vast and daunting. In this age there are many like me; children of people who do not practice and the growing number of converts to Islam. The years pass us by and we grow a little, but not much. We miss opportunities to obtain greater blessings because we do not know; I think of my regret in early February when I found out too late that the Day of Ashurah had passed – if anyone was to benefit from that fast it was me. Thus how does one respond when he is asked for his opinion of mawlid, an event about which he has only recently become conscious? There have only been a few instances when I have encountered people commemorating the Prophet’s birth. On each occasion I have gone away in deep thought, not because their behaviour was peculiar, but because it was unremarkable.

Like many people I suppose, I have been warned about mawlid without really understanding what it was in the first place. Very soon after I became Muslim in 1998 I was taught that celebrating birthdays is prohibited altogether, hence I built up one more wall between myself and my family, refusing to accept well-wishes and gifts. I also learnt that anniversaries of deaths are frowned upon, along with any other celebration falling outside the two Eids. To mark the birthday of the Prophet, therefore, was doubly condemned as innovation. It must be this that triggered my response to those Muslims commemorating the birth of the Prophet, for their actions seemed quite ordinary. On the first occasion his birth was commemorated with talks detailing his noble character, followed by recitation of poetry and then dinner. On the most recent occasion I listened as the characters studied the Prophet’s sunnah, reading from al-Nawawi’s Riyad al-Salihin, before spending an hour or so reading poetry about him aloud.

Anticipating tinsel and fairy lights in the mosque and goodness knows what else, but finding people studying the sirah of the Prophet instead, I can only conclude that the warning refers to something else that I have never experienced. Again, how do I respond when I am asked for my opinion of mawlid? What can be said of commemorations in general, how do we respond to the fact that the early generations of Muslims did not revere the Prophet’s birthday and how do I view it in light of my Christian upbringing?

To the first question I would simply say that I do not know. Taking stock of the damage done in my personal relationships by my refusal to celebrate birthdays, I take a more magnanimous stance today. We live in a society in which families spend less and less time with one another, I concluded recently, but in my experience birthdays generally bring people together. In any case, with the guardians of the mosques of Mecca and Medina marking anniversaries, there is clearly more to it than I was led to believe.

Seven years ago the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia celebrated the centennial of its founding; the occasion, said the dedicated website, “deserves special attention by way of a unique celebration which will serve as a reminder of Allah’s bounty, and as an appreciation owed to King Abdul Aziz, the great founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Thus amidst commissions for new works of literature and architecture, a great festival was held throughout the land. It was not unique. Last September, as reported in Arab News, the Kingdom celebrated its 75th National Day “with pomp and pageantry, highlighting the heroic efforts made by King Abdul Aziz to unify the country”.

The second question should be addressed by the scholars, not by the likes of me. As to the third request, I would have to say that I believe there is little one can learn about the harm or benefit of commemorating the Prophet’s birth from the Christian’s experience of Christmas. The claims surrounding the divinity of Jesus can be traced back to before the first Council of Nicea 325CE and there is no evidence linking this claim to any celebration of his birth. Indeed neither Irenaeus nor Tertullian mentioned it in their lists of the festivals of the earliest church, while Origen stated that it was only sinners that celebrate their birthdays.

Modern day Christians do not worship Jesus because of Christmas, but rather celebrate the festival precisely because they believe him to be divine. A great deal of evidence points to the fact that the celebrations centred on 25 December or 7 January are merely Christian appropriations of existing pagan festivals. Clement of Alexandria, writing in 200CE, mocked the Egyptian theologians who argued that Jesus’ birth fell on the 20 May in the twenty-eighth year of the reign of Augustus, because believers simply did not know exactly when he was born. If anything can be said of my experience as a Christian then – and I regret that this will not be what was in the mind of the one who asked – it is only that Christmas warmed our spirits and made us think about our faith.

We have just entered Rabi’ Al-Awwal and many people will be commemorating our blessed Prophet’s birth and life. I have been asked to write something about this, but as I ponder on those I witnessed expressing such love for the Prophet as they read his sirah and his sunnah, I can only conclude that whatever I write will be worthless, because I do not know the Messenger as I should. Peace be upon him, I say, for we are a nation indebted to him. This year this month may not just pass me by; taking note of my distance from his noble example I may pick up his sirah and read.

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