When we remind ourselves of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW), we ought to take stock of ourselves in relation to him (SAW) and his message, writes PROFESSOR NURAAN DAVIDS.
MOULOOD-un-Nabi, also referred to as Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi or Mawlid an-Nabi ash-Sharif, is widely accepted by most Muslims to signify the birthday of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW), in Rabi-ul-Awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar.
To quibble about the specificity of time and place, and indeed, whether we should at all be celebrating this wondrous occasion, is to lose sight of the very purpose of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) and his message – much as we do in our attempts to reduce the miracle of his life into a singular occasion of a celebration. We cannot disagree about his birth, not only as a physical creation but also as a metaphysical manifestation of an entire way of life.
To speak or write about the point and purpose of Moulood-un-Nabi, therefore, is to immerse ourselves in the essential embodiment of his transcendental life and message – from a birth into orphanhood to the position of Khatam An-Nubuwwa (Seal of Prophethood): ‘Muhammad is not the father of any of your men but [he is] the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of the Prophets: And Allah has full knowledge of all things.’ (Surah al-Ahzaab 33:40)
And clearly, as Muslims – those who have received the message – what we should not disagree about is the immense gratitude and appreciation due to Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW): ‘Be grateful to Allah. And whoever is grateful is grateful for [the benefit of] himself. And whoever denies [His favour] – then indeed, Allah is free of need and praiseworthy.’ (Surah Luqman 31:12) Gratitude, as most of us understand, is best expressed in forms of remembrance and commemoration.
To celebrate the birth of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) is not only to do with him (SAW). It has to do with us, our ability and willingness to recognise the blessings bestowed upon us in being invited into the message of Islam, and indeed, whether we have done justice to this message. As such, when we remind ourselves of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW), we ought to take stock of ourselves in relation to him (SAW) and his message. Hence, we find in Surah Al-Ghaashiyah (88:21), Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) is described as a mudhakkir: ‘So remind, [O Muhammad]; you are only a reminder.’
Remembrance and reflection
As human beings, we have been granted autonomy and agency by Allah SWT; we cannot be forced into accepting or living by the message: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:256) Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) can only remind us, through his words and actions, so that his words and actions become the practical embodiment of the message; the human expression of the Divine message. Importantly, in reminding us of the message of Allah SWT, we become the reminded and are invited into a perpetual state of remembrance and reflection.
Being in a state of remembrance, of dhikr, is a sensory process of a continuous awareness and attunement to the presence and glory of Allah SWT: ‘And the men and the women who remember Allah much with their hearts and tongues. Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a great reward (i.e. Jannah).’ (Surah Al-Ahzaab 33:35) Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) is reported to have said, ‘The similitude of one who remembers his Lord and one who does not remember Him is like that of the living and the dead.’ (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
To me, therefore, the question is not whether we should or should not celebrate Moulood-un-Nabi; the more important question is: what about him (SAW) are we celebrating? What do we understand by his (SAW) Sunnah? Do we only interpret the Sunnah as a formalised set of rituals and forms of worship? Or do we realise that the Sunnah constitutes a cohesive, practical expression of what it means to be Muslim? That if we wish to draw closer to Allah SWT then we can only do so by living the message of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW); and that message, far from only involving legalities and practices of belief, encapsulates the very essence of what it means to live a life in complete surrender to the Will of Allah SWT.
How much, therefore, of what we do is shaped by posing a very simple question: what would the Prophet do? We can only respond to this question if we actually know about Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW). If we know that he (SAW) was a patient, honest, sincere, humble, forgiving, just and generous man then when faced with scenarios which require these attributes, we already have the guiding framework and example of how to respond. By following the master template of Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW), we have a better chance of not only avoiding poor actions and choices but our very emulation of him becomes a form of praise, moving us ever closer to Allah SWT’s rahmah.
In a hadith narrated by Bukhari, on the authority of Jabir ibn Mut’aim, Rasulullah (SAW) describes himself as follows: ‘I have names, I am Muhammad. I am Ahmad. I am the Obliterator (Al-Mahi) by whom God obliterates unbelief. I am Al-Hashir, the Gatherer, who will gather mankind at my feet. I am Al-Aqid, the Last, after whom there shall be no other prophet.’
The Prophet (SAW), ‘an excellent example’
In Surah Al-Ahzaab (33:21), Allah SWT states: ‘You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah an excellent example for him who hopes in Allah and the Last Day, and who remembers Allah much.’ This verse offers a profound commentary on the relationship between Allah SWT and Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) as it does between the Quran as hudaa al-naas (a guidance for humanity), and the Sunnah, which literally means a ‘well-trodden path’.
The image of a ‘well-trodden path’ immediately evokes a sense of footsteps already being laid, the path already being cleared. All that is left for us to do is to plant our own footsteps into the imprints of this path so that we might follow the ‘excellent example’ and move towards an excellent outcome: ‘And whomever God guides, he is rightly guided, and whomever He leads astray you will not find patrons for them, apart from Him.’ (Surah al-Israa 17:97)
To follow the ‘excellent example’ provides relief and release on two fronts. One in knowing that we are following in a divinely decreed way of life; and another in recognising that, in doing so, we live towards relief in the aakhirah. If we grasp the enormity of this then we draw closer to understanding why Allah SWT describes Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) as a mercy because, in very simple terms, if we follow him (SAW), we have a better chance of living good and, therefore, contented lives.
By bringing us the message of Islam, Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) sets into motion multiple unprecedented social, political and economic trajectories and discourses, fundamentally underscored by a way of life, detailed in every aspect of what it means to act ethically. Here is a man who, whether examined through lenses of history, biography, sociology, philosophy, politics or theology, and whether as husband, father, friend, religious leader or military general, remains embodied in the irrefutable virtues of honour, truthfulness, trust, faith, loyalty, steadfastness, generosity, kindness, humility, astuteness, care, compassion, his unrelenting capacity for forgiveness and, above all else, his love – firstly, for Allah SWT, his family, Companions and his ummah.
The Prophet (SAW), ‘a mercy to the worlds’
Neither I, nor the words I write, have the capacity to fully capture the essence of his being (SAW). In a very limited way, however, it is possible to ponder on the essence of his character, unsurpassable and incomparable, yet invitingly open to being imitated and followed, as a universalist and universalising message: ‘And We have not sent you [O Muḥammad] except as a mercy to the worlds’ (Surah Al-Anbiya 21:107); ‘I have been sent to perfect good character.’ (Al-Bukhari)
If we manage to assemble and engage with all that we can possibly know about Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) then, in a very succinct yet profound way, this one sentence encompasses his (SAW) life and message – that is, ‘to perfect good character’. What is left for us, is to reflect upon our own characters. Are we able to identify the virtues portrayed by Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW) in our own lives? How easily identifiable are his (SAW) qualities in us and perhaps, more importantly, to those who know and engage with us?
The measure of our closeness to him (SAW) is determined by how much of him (SAW) we have internalised into ourselves, by how much we have reminded ourselves of his (SAW) message.
Finally, if we say we have received the message then what is the message which we convey about our Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW), our Islam, and hence, our relationship with Allah SWT? If celebrating Moulood-un-Nabi invites us into learning about and adopting just one of his (SAW) illustrious qualities then there can be no harm in celebrating this day, not on one day but on a daily basis.
And if by knowing and remembering him (SAW), we can feel our love for him (SAW) then by the grace of Allah SWT we have indeed, received the message: ‘None of you will have faith till he loves me [Sayyidina Muhammad (SAW)]more than his father, his children and all mankind.’ (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
Nuraan Davids is Professor: Philosophy of Education in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University.
- An abridged version of this article appeared in the October 2021 print edition of Muslim Views.