THE CELEBRATION OF THE PROPHET’S BIRTHDAY – Annemarie Schimmel
OF THE PROPHET’S BIRTHDAY
A Turkish dervish of the seventeenth century sings:
The night in which the Messenger was born is
Without doubt similar to the Night of Might,
that is, to the night in which the Koran was revealed for the first time, which is called in Sura 97 “better than a thousand months.” A century later, the Malikite mufti of Algiers, Ibn ‘Ammar, brought forth three scholarly proofs for this idea: (I) the birthday, maulid, has given the Prophet to the whole world, but the Night of Might, lailat al-qadr, was meant especially for him; (2) Muhammad’s appearance was more important for the community, umma, than the “coming down of the angels” of which Sura 97 speaks, for Muhammad is superior to the angels; and (3) the maulid is a most important day for the entire universe, whereas the first revelation of the Koran is meant for the Muslims in particular. These two statements clearly indicate the degree to which veneration of the Prophet had increased during the late Middle Ages, and how much it permeated the piety of the masses and the elite.
In general, the Prophet’s birthday is called maulid, a word that also often denotes the festivities held on this day. An alternative term is milad, “birthday, anniversary,” and the passive participle maulud, from the root w-l-d that underlies all these terms, is also used. Maulūd (written in modern Turkish mevlût or mevlûd) appears, however, more frequently to denote poetry or literature written in honor of the Prophet’s birth and even, more generally, of his life. (For instance: “We went to a maulid in his house and listened to a classical maulūd.”)
To be sure, even in the earliest reports miraculous events are mentioned in connection with the night of Muhammad’s birth. This was the night of 12 Rabi’al-awwal, the third lunar month, which was remembered also as the day of the Prophet’s death. Long after colorful celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday had become popular in the Near East, the Indian Muslims still spent this night listening to earnest sermons and recitations of the Koran as well as in almsgiving; the day was called bārah wafāt, “the twelfth, [day of] death,” and in some places a “general ziyārat [visit] of the dead” took place.
In the late eight century the house in Mecca in which Muhammad had been born was transformed into an oratory by the mother of the caliph Harun ar-Rashid, and pilgrims who came to Mecca to perform the hajj of Muhammad’s birthday on a larger and more festive scale emerged first in Egypt during the Fatimid era (967-1171). This is logical, for the Fatimids claimed to be the Prophet’s descendants through his daughter Fatima. The Egyptian historian Maqrizi (d. 1442) describes one such celebration held in 1122, basing his account on Fatimid sources. It was apparently an occasion in which mainly scholars and the religious establishment participated. They listened to sermons, and sweets, particularly honey, the Prophet’s favorite, were distributed; the poor received alms.
It was precisely the miracles that were said to have happened on the occasion of the Prophet’s birth that most delighted and uplifted the devout, and inspired poets and theologians to describe the birth of “the best mankind” in ever new, ever more glowing images.
The earliest Arabic resources, basing their claims on Koranic epithets like sirājun munīr, “a shining lamp,” tell that a light radiated from Amina’s womb with the arrival of the newborn Prophet. Hassan ibn Thabit sings in his dirge for Mohammad that his mother Amina of blessed memory had born him in a happy hour in which there went forth
a light which illuminated the whole world.
It is not surprising that this spiritual light was soon given material reality in the accounts of the Prophet’s birth, as can be seen first in Ibn Sa’d’s historical work in the ninth century. Yunus Emre sings, like numerous poets in his succession in Turkey,Iran and India:
The world was all submersed in light
In the night of Muhammad’s birth.
And Ibn al-Jauzi before him-without doubt a serious, critical theologian of Hanbalite persuasion and not a mystical poet- wrote in his maulid book, which is the first of this kind:
When Muhammad was born, angels proclaimed it with high and low voices. Gabriel came with the good tidings, and the Throne trembled. The houris came out of their castles, and fragrance spread. Ridwan [the keeper of the gates of Paradise] was addressed: “Adorn the highest Paradise, remove the curtain from the palace, send a flock of birds from the birds of Eden to Amina’s dwelling place that they may drop a pearl each from their beaks.” And when Muhammad was born, Amina saw a light, which illuminated the palaces of Bostra. The angels surrounded her and spread out their wings. The rows of angels, singing praise, descended and filled hill and dale.
An Andalusian scholar in the twelfth century, the Qadi Ibn ‘Atiyya, takes up this idea:
The month of Rabi’ precedes the [other] months
And, by God! It has one night which is resplendent
With luminous meteors between the horizons…
Qadi ‘Iyad, the great authority on the Prophet’s biography, who was a devout North African Muslim, does not mention any miracle except the light in his brief description of Muhammad’s birth. This is rather astonishing, for the narratives about the various wondrous events that happened during Muhammad’s birth belong to the oldest layer of legends. It was said that a radiant light shone from the forehead of ‘Abdallah, Muhammad’s father, and although several women tried to woo him away for the sake of this light, he married Amina, whom God had predestined to become the Prophet’s mother. The light was carried in her womb.
In the night when the Prophet was begotten-thus Abu Nu’aim’s Dalā’il an-nubuwwa– all the cattle of the Quraish talked among themselves to tell each other that the future leader of the community had been begotten. Amina was ordered to call the child Muhammad or Ahmad. She had an untroubled, easy pregnancy. But when the time came that she was to give birth, strange things happened:
And while it became heavier and heavier for me and I was hearing an increasingly strong noise, lo, a white silken kerchief was spread between heaven and earth, and I heard a voice say: “Let him disappear from the views of men!” I saw men standing in the air, who held silver ewers in their hands. The perspiration which dropped from me was like pearls and more fragrant than strong musk, and I exclaimed: “O that ‘Abdul Muttalib would come to me!” Then I saw flocks of birds descending upon me and covering my lap; their beaks were of emerald and their wings of hyacinth. And God took away the veils from my eyes, and I saw the earth in the East and in the West. I saw three flags erected, one in the East, one in the West, and one on the roof of the Ka’ba. Labor set in, and it became difficult to me… Thus I gave birth to Muhammad, and I turned to him to look at him, and lo, there he was lying in adoration, lifting his hands to heaven like one supplicating. Then I saw a cloud coming from the sky which covered him so that he became invisible to me, and I heard someone call: “Lead him around the earth in East and West, and lead him to the oceans that they may recognize him with his name and his stature and his qualities and that they may know that he will be called in the oceans al- Māhī [the One Who Wipes Out] because he will wipe out all polytheism.” Then the cloud disappeared quickly, and lo, there he was lying, wrapped in a white woolen garment, and beneath him there was a green cover from silk. He held three keys of white pearls in his hand, and someone exclaimed: “Look, Muhammad keeps in his hand the key of victory, the key of bloodshed, and the key of prophethood,”
Other reports tell that the newborn Prophet fell to the ground and, pressing his hands on the earth, looked up to the sky, this was interpreted as indicating his role as ruler of the whole earth.
No poet forgets to mention the light that “illuminated the world to the palaces of Bostra” in Syria. “A shining bow appeared like rainbow. This light which appeared was like television, for it brought nearby and showed clearly cities far away,” is how a Swahili preacher explained this miracle in 1963.
Significant signs were witnessed in the neighboring countries when the Prophet was born; it is said that the halls of the palaces of the Persian king were shuttered, or that the Tigris and Euphrates flooded the capital, and later poets, especially in the Persianate tradition, have played in their encomia with the verbal connection between Kisra (Khosroes, the Persian emperor) and the Arabic word kisr, “breaking.”
The popular tradition according to which Amina was attended during her labor by Asiya and Mary, contains a hint at Muhammad’s superiority over Moses and Jesus. Asiya is Pharaoh’s believing wife who looked after the infant Moses, and Mary as Christ’s virgin mother occupies along with her, and even more than she, a place of honor in Islamic piety.
It is also important to remember that Muhammad was born free from all bodily impurities, He was circumcised when he appeared from the womb; this legend is popularly taken as the basis for the circumcision of boys- a duty not mentioned in the Koran but known among Muslims as a sunna of the Prophet (it is therefore called sünnet among the Turks)
The first comprehensive book about the Prophet’s birth, as far as one knows, was composed by the Andalusian author Ibn Dihya, who had participated in the festive maulid in Arbela in 1207. Written in prose with a concluding poetical encomium, his work has the characteristic title Kitāb at-tanwīr fi maulid as-sirāj al-munīr (The Book of Illumination about the Birth of the Luminous Lamp), in which the light-mysticism associated with Muhammad is evident. Two Hanbalites, Ibn al-Jauzi and, a century and a half later, Ibn Kathir, devoted treatises to the maulid. Poetical works about this important event were also composed relatively early. It is noteworthy, however, that Busiri’s Burda (late thirteenth century), the most famous of all Arabic eulogies, mentions the Prophet’s birth only in passing, and does not give any special, detailed description of it. And one should keep in mind that Ahmad ad-Dardir’s famous maulid begins with the praise of God “Who is free from ‘begetting’ and ‘being begotten’ [or, ‘being born,’ maulūd].
In the Turkish tradition, the best-known early mevlût was written by Süleyman Chelebi of Bursa around 1400. But more than a century earlier, Yunus Emre had already promised heavenly reward to those who recite mevlût, which shows- provided the verses are genuine- that mevlûts were popular among the Turks at a rather early stage. Süleyman Chelebi’s poem is written in rhyming couplets, a literary from adopted from the Persian. Its rhytm is simple; the meter is the same as that used primarily in Persian mystical and didactic epics such as ‘Attar’s Mantiq ut-tair and Rumi’s Mathnawī. The language is plain, almost childlike, and therefore the poem has not lost anything of its charm even today. (But even this poem was considered an impious innovation by a stern Turkish theologian of the fifteenth century, Molla Fenari!) The mevlûd-i sherif, as it is called, is all being recited in Turkey, not only on the Prophet’s birthday but also on the fortieth day after a bereavement, as a memorial service on a death anniversary, or in fulfillment of a vow, because it is credited with very special blessing power. Similarly, Indian Muslims, especially women, used to celebrate mīlād parties at every great family event.
The celebration of a mevlût in a Turkish family is a festive affair, and as in other parts of the Islamic world one puts on fine clothes for such an occasion and then seeks what an East African poet describes in the beginning of the maulūd poem:
From the moment you set out toward the maulid,
You have gone out to experience the raptures of Paradise.
Sometimes incense is burnt, and at the end of the recitation, which is interspersed with numerous recitations from the Koran as well as prayers, sweets are distributed. In North Africa one usually prepares ‘asīda, a kind of pudding made of hominy, butter, and honey , the same sweet that is given to the guests at a real childbirth. In other areas the participants are offered cool sherbet and candies; in Turkey everyone used to take home a little paper bag filled with sweets.
Süleyman Chelebi’s mevlût was often imitated, so that there are about a hundred different versions of mevlût poetry in Turkish; but no other Turkish religious poem can compete with it for the favor of all classes of society. Its first part tells the story of Muhammad’s birth as Amina experienced it. Full of amazement, she recounts (using the traditional imagery) what happened to her at the end of her pregnancy:
Amina Khatun, Muhammad’s mother dear:
From this oyster came that lustrous pearl.
After she conceived from ‘Abdallah
Came the time of birth with days and weeks.
As Muhammad’s birth was drawing near
Many signs appeared before he came!
In the month Rabi’al-awwal then
On the twelfth, the night of Monday, look
When the best of humankind was born-
O what marvels did his mother see!
Spoke the mother of that friend: “I saw
A strange light; the sun was like its moth.
Suddenly it flashed up from my house,
Filled with world with light up to the sky.
Heavens opened, vanquished was the dark,
And I saw three angels with three flags.
One was in the East, one in the West,
One stood upright on the Ka’ba’s roof.
Rows of angels came from heaven, and
Circumambulated all my house;
Came the houris group on group; the light
From their faces made my house so bright!
And a cover was spread in mid-air,
Called ‘brocade’- an angel laid it out.
When I saw so clearly these events
I became bewildered and confused.
Suddenly the walls were split apart
And there houris entered in my room.
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 tauhīd [monotheism].
For the love of him the sky revolves,
Men and djinn 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’ intercessor: Mustafa!’
They described him in this style to me,
Stirred my longing for that blessed light.”
Amina said: “When the time was ripe
That the Best of Mankind should appear,
I became so thirsty from the heat
That they gave me sherbet in a glass.
Drinking it, I was immersed in light
And could not discern myself from light.
Then a white swan came with soft great wings
And he touched my back with gentle strength.
As this verse is recited, every participant ever so gently touches his or her neighbor’s back.
And the King of Faith was born that night:
Earth and heaven were submerged in light!”
Then begins the great Welcome, which all nature extended to the newborn Prophet, whose coming they had expected with such longing, a welcome to the Friend of God in whose intercession at Doomsday all can trust:
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….
There follows an extended description of the Prophet’s miracles, among which the heavenly journey occupies a central place. Importantly, every section ends with the verse
If you want to be rescued from Hellfire,
Utter the blessings over Him with love and [longing] pain!
In Turkey, this mevlût (which, incidentally, has even been translated into Serbo-Croatian) is concluded with a special prayer in which God is entreated to send the recompense for the recitation to Muhammad’s Rauda in Medina; then follow prayers for the Prophet’s family, for saints and scholars, and requests for the participants’ happiness and long life, “so that they mat enjoy participation in many, many more meetings of this kind”; then prayers for the caliph, for soldiers, traders, and pilgrims, and for a peaceful death, and future life in Paradise.
Resource: Annemarie Schimmel
And Muhammad is His messenger