The mawlid, or the birth of the blessed Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and grant him peace, is considered by Muslims to be the single greatest event in humankind’s history. Indeed, it was a momentous cosmic event. Ibn Kathir, the accomplished muhaddith (hadith master), muffasir (Qur’anic exegete), historian and qadi (judge), noted in his multi-volume work, al-Bidaya wa al-niyaha, that it was an occasion in which “Paradise and the skies were decorated and the angels moved about in continuous processions. The palace of Chosroes was shaken and the fire of 1000 years ceased to burn.” The Prophet himself often recounted to his companions the moment of his birth, describing how his blessed mother Amina marvelled at being able to see distant castles in Damascus by the light that emanated from her. The Prophet’s uncle, al-‘Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, Allah be well pleased with him, described the moment of the Prophet’s birth in prose, exclaiming: “[W]hen you were born, a light rose over the earth until it illuminated the horizon with its radiance. We are in that illumination and that original light and those paths of guidance — and thanks to them we pierce through.”
Muslim theologians and poets throughout history concluded that it is almost impossible to describe the qualities of the Prophet Muhammad or praise him as he should be praised. The poet’s inability to praise the Prophet stemmed from the fact that he is mentioned in the Qur’an with words of praise, and since the Creator and the Lord of all the worlds utters blessings upon him, humans must be wholly incapable of praising him as he so deserves. The Spanish author Lisan al-din pondered over this dilemma and frustratingly admitted that since “the verses of the Holy book have praised you/How could the poem of my eulogy possibly praise your greatness?” Imam Muhammad al-Busiri concludes in his Hamziyya that the inability of tongues to describe the Prophet is one of his true miracles.
The Prophet’s companion, Hassan ibn Thabit, often captured the Prophet’s magnanimity in his poems, once stating: “I witness with Allah’s permission that Muhammad is the Messenger who is higher than heaven.” Even after the Prophet’s earthly departure, Hassan ibn Thabit defiantly proclaimed: “I shall never cease to praise him. It may be for so doing I shall be forever in paradise.” It is this precedent of extolling praise of the Prophet that following generations of Muslims emulate. None other than the hadith master, the Shaykh al-Islam (“The Senior of Islam”) al-Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, well-known and respected for his commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari, expressed these sentiments centuries later, when he lamented: “By the gate of your generosity stands a sinner, who is mad in love/Best of mankind […] Praise of you does not do you justice/ But perhaps, in eternity, its verses will be transformed into mansions. My praise of you shall continue for as long as I live, For I see nothing that could ever deflect me from your praise.”
Today, the most often recited and valued expression of praise of the Prophet is a poem entitled al-Burda (“the poem of the cloak”) written by Imam al-Busiri. He wrote this poem after suffering from a stroke. In anguish and in misery, he turned to the Prophet to compose a poem in his honour. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace, appeared to Imam al-Busiri in his dream and cast his cloak (“burda”) over him, just as the Prophet had once done to Ka’b ibn Zuhair, after listening to his poem honouring the Messenger of Allah. Imam al-Busiri was healed by the touch of the Prophet’s cloak and in the morning discovered that he could move once again.
For the companions, it was not enough to recite honorific poetry in his name; they used to cherish anything that was associated with him. Indeed, we know from the authentic hadith collections that they used to collect the Prophet’s hair (often using it to cure ailments) and tying strands to their caps. They would also kiss the hands of other companions that had touched the Prophet. Imam al-Dhahabi, arguably the greatest of all hadith masters, summarised the manifestations of the companions love for the Messenger of Allah, explaining that
[…] they enjoyed his presence directly, kissed his very hand, nearly fought each other [for] the remnants of his ablution water, shared his purified hair on the day of the greater pilgrimage, and even if he spat, it would virtually not fall except in someone’s hand so that he could pass it over his face […] Don’t you see the Companions in their intense love for the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace, asked him, “should we not prostrate to you?” and he replied “no,” and if he had allowed them, they would have prostrated to him as a mark of utter veneration and respect, not as a mark of worship, just as the Prophet Joseph’s brothers prostrated to Joseph, upon whom be peace.
His birth is a blessing for all those who rejoice and celebrate it. We know that Abu Lahab, the “father of the flame” rejoiced at his nephew’s birth and freed his slave with his fingers, only to gain reprieve from his punishment in the grave for this single act of happiness. We also know that a dead palm tree trunk moaned when the Prophet Muhammad moved a slight distance away from it to deliver his Friday sermon in his mosque. The blessed Prophet walked over to it and consoled it. If a dead tree cries when distanced from the Prophet, what about a human being?
In addition to reciting poetry in praise of the habib Allah (the Beloved of Allah), the mawlid should move us to ponder and reflect upon the ethical nature and moral message of the Prophet Muhammad. Described by Allah as a “mercy for all of mankind,” the mawlid reminds us of the qualities we should strive to implement on a daily basis. Summarising his readings of the traditions that describe the Prophet’s character, Thomas Cleary refers to him as someone who was “[B]rilliantly spiritual, stern in matters of right yet compassionate and clement, rich in dignity yet extremely modest and humble […] a manly and valorous warrior who was most kind and gentle with women and children.” In countless sayings, the Prophet reminded his followers to be gentle, compassionate, and above all, merciful. It was related that he said:
[Allah] is Compassionate and loves those who are compassionate. He is Gentle and loves those who are gentle to others. Whoever is merciful to creatures, to him is Allah merciful. Whoever does good for people, to him will Allah do good. Whoever is generous to them, to him will Allah be generous. Whoever benefits the people, Allah will benefit him.
Thus, the mawlid is an event whereby Muslims not only have an opportunity to come to know the Prophet, pause and reflect on their character and check themselves against the behaviour of the Prophet Muhammad, but it also gives us an opportunity to come to love him. After all, the Prophet told us: “None of you believes until he loves me more than he loves his children, his parents, and all people.” The blessed Prophet once told a Bedouin (who had said that he hadn’t prepared much for the Day of Judgement, but he loved the Prophet) that “You will be with those whom you love.” Muslims, scholars and lay people alike have celebrated the mawlid throughout the ages to instil this love in us and offer us the hope of intercession. In the words of Jalal al-din al-Suyuti, the polymath, mujtahid Imam and mujadid (Renewer) of the tenth Islamic century, the person who celebrates the mawlid is “rewarded because it involves venerating the status of the Prophet and expressing joy at his honourable birth.”
© Aftab A. Malik, January 2012