Sunday, March 29, 2015

For the Love of the Prophet

Wa ma nursilul-Mursalina
Illa mubashshirina wa mundhirin.
Faman amana wa aslaha fala khawfun alayhim
wa la hum yahzanun.  [6:48]
And We send [Our] message-bearers
 only as heralds of glad tidings and as warners: 
hence, all who believe and live righteously –
no fear need they have and neither shall they grieve.  [6:48]…

Innal-laha wa Ma-laa ikatahu yusalluna alan-Nabiyy.
Yaa ayyuhal-ladhina amanu sallualayhi wa sallimu taslima. [56]
Verily, God and His angels bless the Prophet:  [hence] O you who have attained to faith, bless him and give yourselves up [to his guidance] in utter self-surrender! [ 33:56]

Who was this Apostle of God?  More important, who is he for us, today?  Last Saturday I attended a Mawlid, a celebration of the Prophet, pbuh. 

The celebration of Mawlids goes back to the early days of Islam when some of the successors of the Companions of the Prophet began to hold sessions to honor the dignity and example of the Prophet through poetry and songs. Mawlid an-Nabi is now widely celebrated by Muslims of different sectarian backgrounds in many countries around the world.

The practice of celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is not universally approved, however. Muslim jurists and scholars have been debating the practice since its inception.  This is why the Mohammed Webb Foundation made a strategic decision when they held their first Mawlid years ago, not to have it on the Prophet’s birthday.  The debate continues in Chicagoland between Sufi – inspired Muslims and followers of the more Orthodox branches of Islam – Salafian, Maududian and Wahhabian groups.  Nonetheless, the tradition has taken root in the Muslim community here – more and more mosques and Islamic groups are hosting Mawlids.  Sufi-inspired traditions in Islam seem to be more compatible with Western cultural practice.  Mawlids seem to be here to stay, and in fact, new songs and poetry are being written that blend traditional qasidas – songs and poems - with western style music.  The performer at Webb’s Mawlid, Nader Khan shared one song adapted from the Shrek song, “Hallelujah,” now titled “Alhamdulillah,” among others.

Probably the most widely used traditional qasidas (ghazals in Urdu) came from, or were inspired by a collection commonly known as The Burda, by Shaykh al-Busairi, a 13th century Berber Sufi poet.  Nader Khan shared several of these songs of praise.  They are meant to be participatory – an exchange back and forth between singer and audience, until the rhythm and tones create a transcendental experience.  And the words are crafted to evoke transcendental emotion:
From “Aj sik mitraan” -
Today the yearning for the loved one is great indeed!
            Why is my heart saddened, like a reed (flute)?
            The desire is aflame, running through my veins!
            Why are my adoring eyes today dazzled by the beloved?
            His face is like the full moon, worthy of his regal stature!
            A radiant light shines on his brow
            His tresses are black, his eyes are intoxicating!
            Those dreamy eyes are full of the wine of love!

Hearing these words, and those in the other songs of supplication to and praise for the Prophet, I found myself transported back to my experience in Madinah last month, waiting to visit the “Rawdah,” the tomb of Prophet Muhammad, Abu Bakr and Umar.  The Rawdah is located in the Masjid An-Nabawi, the Prophet’s mosque.   This mosque sits over the site where Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Madinah once stood, and the homes of his wives.  Those simple mud huts are only a memory. The common prayer space of the Prophet and his followers has increased by many mutiples – it looks like several football fields could fit inside.  The site is now an expanse of marble floors and columns, lights and minarets, carved wood, and decorated arches and ceilings.  And it is now divided into men’s and women’s sections.  Since the Rawdah is located in the men’s section of the mosque, men can visit and pray there during most of the day.  

For women, the experience of visiting the Rawdah could be described as calculated to evoke the suffering of separation, and yearning for reunion with the beloved Prophet.  The women wait for the evening hours, after Aisha prayer.  They assemble in increasing throngs, pressed closer and closer together, immobilized, the old and the young with their children and babes in arms, searching each others’ faces for mercy as the minutes drag to hours, the crowd grows to the thousands, and the press increases.  Finally, when the carved wooden screens are opened to the massive expanse behind their walls, there is a merciless stampede… a torrent of frenzied anticipation released into the vacuum created by the pull of the Prophet’s promise.  Each and every soul in the horde rushes toward her salvation, invoking the blessed one who would understand her every pain and sorrow.  They pray before the Prophet’s bones, asking for forgiveness, expecting love.

References in the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad – God’s blessings and peace be upon him - speak of him as the Apostle of God, inspired with Revelation, who does not know what is beyond human perception, who follows only that which is revealed to him, who is only a messenger and a herald of glad tidings and a warner, who is not responsible for the conduct of his people, nor can he determine their fate, who is a human being, a mortal, like all the other prophets.  He was instructed to call people with wisdom and kindness, and not to grieve over the rejection of his message.  He was a blessing from God to all mankind, devoted to prayer, full of compassion and mercy.

The Prophet was instructed by revelation to say these things to his followers:

Surah 6:  Al-An’am
Say [O Prophet]:  ‘I do not say unto you, ‘God’s treasures are with me’; nor [do I say,] ‘I know the things that are beyond the reach of human perception’; nor do I say unto you, ‘Behold, I am an angel’:  I but follow what is revealed to me.”
Say:  “Can the blind and the seeing be deemed equal?”  Will you not, then, take thought?”  [50]

Surah 7:  Al-A’raf
Say [O Prophet}:  “It is not within my power to bring benefit to, or avert harm from, myself, except as God may please.  And if I knew that which is beyond the reach of human perception, abundant good fortune would surely have fallen to my lot, and no evil would ever have touched me.  I am nothing but a warner, and a herald of glad tidings unto people who will believe.”  [188]

Surah 38:  Sad
Say [O Prophet]:  “No reward whatever do I ask of you for this [message]; and I am not one of those who claim to be what they are not.  [86]  this [divine writ], behold, is no less than a reminder to all the worlds [87] – and you will most certainly grasp its purport after a lapse of time!”  [88]

It is easy to see why the orthodox followers of Islam do not approve of the Mawlid, or any excessive expressions of love for the Prophet.  The Prophet was not our Savior.  He was a messenger.  He may well have been “more beautiful than two moons could ever hope to be.”   We would expect a messenger of God to be beautiful, but he was a vehicle.  The Prophet was not meant to be the object of our fantasies, even if in our humanness we compensate for the disappointments in our lives by fantasizing.  We must forgive ourselves, and each other for doing so. 

Revelation enjoined the Muslims to follow “the middle way.”
And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you…. [2:143]

This passage, in Surat Al-Baqarah, follows an injunction to Ahl al-Kitab – those in Madinah who blindly followed the rigid rules of their ancestors, and could not see the truth that the Prophet was sharing with them.  This was when the Prophet was instructed to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah.  The middle way here means the path between orthodox rigidity on the one hand, and disbelief on the other (as demonstrated in the Prophet’s time by the kuffar).  When we think today about how to relate to the Prophet, we might do well to remember this passage... and shy away from the rigidity of orthodox interpretations that reject any celebration of the Prophet’s life on the one hand, and excessive emotionalism and fantasies on the other.

I was given a different perspective on the Prophet when I was in Madinah.  A vision came to me in my room beside the Prophet’s mosque, before I went to visit the Rawdah.  I was in that state between wake and sleep, where you are sure your dreams are real.  I was flying, in complete control of where I went.  A glorious feeling – the ability to swoop and soar over the land, bank and turn, control my altitude.  I flew over the landscape, and then I was flying up the minaret of a mosque.   I was not alone.  I found myself with a boy, about seven or eight years old.  He was riding on my back.  And he was bursting with wonder and delight and excited anticipation of the adventure that lay before us.  We flew above the stairs of the minaret, round and round, until we came out the top and into a brilliant light.  We were flying toward the Kaaba.  It’s sides were separating from each other, and rays of uncountable colors were shimmering through the seams from within, irridescent.   We flew right over the Kaaba, toward an even more brilliant horizon dancing in the distance, indescribably beautiful.  As I woke up I realized who he was.  He was the Prophet.  And since then I have carried the memory of his shared wonder and joy.  Whenever I feel discouraged or confused, all I need is to remember that feeling.  Al Hamdulillah, God gave me exactly what I needed.  May He grant such peace to all who so desire.

Laqad kana lakum fi Rasulil-lahi
uswatun hasanatul-liman-kana
yarjul-laha wal-Yawmal- Akhira
wa dhakaral-laha kathira. [33:21]
Verily in the Apostle of God you have
a good example for everyone who looks forward [with hope and awe]
to God and the Last Day
and remembers God unceasingly. [33:21]

Rabbana la tuzigh qulubana ba’da idh hadaitana wa hab lana min ladun-ka rahma, innaka antal wahhab.  [3:8]
Our Lord! Let not our hearts swerve from the truth after You have guided us and bestow on us the gift of Thy grace:  Verily, Thou art the [true] Giver of Gifts.  [3:8]

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