Lots of people argue over Christmas, whether it is the holy day to honor the birth of the Jesus or a commercial, secular holiday. (And at least to Neil deGrasse Tyson, the birth of Isaac Newton).
Muslims are no strangers to arguments, and have their own debates. No, not the debates over whether Muslims should celebrate Christmas, which is something of an annual ritual for Muslims living in Western societies.
I am speaking about the other important debate, the one over whether Muslims should honor the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. And this Friday night, January 2nd, Muslims begin celebrating the birth of Muhammad.
Stay with me here. ☺
Historically speaking, many Muslims have honored the birth of Muhammad in a ritual called the Mawlid. These popular practices are festive occasions, often with decorations all over cities, featuring tents in which sweets and candy are handed out.
Connected to these festivities is a whole tradition of devotional songs that portray Muhammad not simply as the deliverer of the last divine dispensation (the Qur’an) but as a being of cosmic significance, an opening of a channel of divine mercy onto this world, and a means of intercession for us sinners.
It was this Muhammad — the cosmic Muhammad who served as the cause of creation, the Muhammad that God so loved that were it not for him creation would not have been (according to the Sacred Hadith, “Wa law laaka…” ) — who was and remains the object of Muslim devotion. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so does Muhammad reflect the light of God onto the cosmos.
Perhaps the most famous of these devotional Mawlid poems is a Turkish version that dates back to about 700 years ago. Written by Suleyman Chelebi, this Mawlid poem (referred to in Turkish as the Mevlut) offers a somewhat rare point of view in Abrahamic traditions: a chance to see a central religious narrative from the point of view of a female character — in this case Muhammad’s mother, Amina.
The narrative is something of a “super best friends” episode of great luminous women of religious history: Muhammad’s mother, Asiya (who raised Moses), and Lady Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Some have said that of these charming three
One was Asiya of moonlike face,
One was Lady Mary without doubt,
And the third a houri beautiful.
Then these moonfaced three drew gently near
And they greeted me with kindness here;
Then they sat around me, and they gave
The good tidings of Muhammad’s birth;
Said to me: “A son like this your son
Has not come since God has made this world,
And the Mighty One did never grant
Such a lovely son as will be yours.
You have found great happiness,
O dear For from you that virtuous one is born!
He that comes is King of Knowledge high,
Is the mine of gnosis and tawhid [monotheism].
For the love of him the sky revolves,
Men and jinn are longing for his face.
This night is the night that he, so pure
Will suffuse the worlds with radiant light!
This night, earth becomes a Paradise,
This night God shows mercy to the world.
This night those with heart are filled with joy,
This night gives the lovers a new life.
Mercy for the worlds is Mustafa,
Sinners’ intercessors: Mustafa!’”
As has been characteristic of the Muslim tradition, the paramount quality of Muhammad emphasized here is that of rahmatun li ‘l-‘alamin (“a mercy to all the worlds”), a direct reference to Qur’an 21:107.
The next section of the poem is referred to as the great “Welcome,” in which all of the cosmos joins in welcoming the newborn Muhammad.
This Muhammad is much more than simply a child; he is the cure for pain, one who is not separated from God, and a saintly being (“friend of God”), whom all will call upon to deliver them from sin in the days of the Hereafter:
Welcome, O high prince, we welcome you!
Welcome, O mine of wisdom, we welcome you!
Welcome, O secret of the Book, we welcome you!
Welcome, O medicine for pain, we welcome you!
Welcome, O sunlight and moonlight of God!
Welcome, O you not separated from God!
Welcome, O nightingale of the Garden of Beauty!
Welcome, O friend of the Lord of Power!
Welcome, O refuge of your community!
Welcome, O helper of the poor and destitute!
Welcome, O eternal soul, we welcome you!
Welcome, O cupbearer of the lovers, we welcome you!
Welcome, O darling of the Beloved!
Welcome, O much beloved of the Lord!
Welcome, O Mercy for the worlds!
Welcome, O intercessor for the sinner!
Only for you were Time and Space created…
Here is where the Mawlid goes from being a nativity poem to an everyday occasion of connecting to God. Muslims can celebrate Muhammad’s birthday anytime.
In fact, many Muslims hold Mevlut ceremonies during the course of the year. Why? Because the cosmic Muhammad is not born just once a year, but offers an opening to the divine anytime — here, now. So the nativity poem to honor Muhammad is and can be recited at any time: in weddings, for example, or anytime that Muslims want to feel connected through God through the overflowing fountain of Muhammad’s mercy.
So if the Mawlid/Mevlut is a chance to honor Muhammad, why would some Muslims object to such a celebration? Why would the Muslim blogosphere break out every year with debates over the properness of the Mawlid? For some Muslims, the objection is mainly an objection to the presentation of the cosmic Muhammad, which they feel glorifies Muhammad beyond his mere human dimension.
For other Muslims who object to the Mawlid, it is based on a notion of objecting to religious practices that have no sanction in Muhammad’s own practice. In other words, since Muslims are to emulate Muhammad’s own paradigm, the argument against the Mawlid is that Muhammad never celebrated his own birthday, neither did his immediate contemporary community. To put it in comparative context, it would be akin to arguing that Christ never celebrated Christmas, so neither should Christians.
The Mawlid gives us a useful chance to see the range of interpretations and practices marked as Muslim. As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s all about the love, even the disagreement. For the Muslims who honor Muhammad’s Mawlid, it’s the deep love for Muhammad that brings them closer to God. For those who identify as Salafi, and wish to abide only by practices that they believe originate in the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad, it is a way of honoring the desire to practice Islam as Muhammad would have wanted us to do, without what is deemed to be later accretions and potentially dubious practices. As the Prophet himself is to have said, disagreement among the scholars is a mercy.
And here’s a fun little thought: next year, the birthday of Muhammad will fall even closer to…the birth of Christ. Whatever brings you closer to God, Christmas and Mawlid, may it be blessed.