Muslims Honor Birthday of Muhammad – Except in His Birthplace
Column by Stephen Schwartz - On January 24, the Islamic hijra month of Rabi Ul-Awwal began. During this month, traditional Muslims around the world will celebrate the birthday of Muhammad (peace be upon him). Milad An-Nabi (Birthday of the Prophet) will be an official holiday in India on February 5, the 13th day of Rabi Ul-Awwal. The occasion is similarly honored in 54 Muslim countries, as well as several others with large Muslim minorities, including Sri Lanka, Fiji, Guyana, Kenya, and Tanzania. Milad An-Nabi festivals, juloos processions, candle-lighting, and gatherings for recitation of verses in praise of Muhammad will be held wherever Muslims congregate. The event is known as “mevlud” among the Bosnians, “mevlyd” in Albanian, “mevlid” for the Turks, and “mawlid” in Britain and other English-speaking lands where Muslims have immigrated. The custom is maintained vigorously in Egypt – of which more will be said toward the end of this column.
The birthday of the Prophet will, unfortunately, not be commemorated publicly in Mecca, where he was born, in Medina, or elsewhere in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The KSA is the only Muslim state that does not recognize Milad An-Nabi. For the past decade, since a royal order by then-Crown-Prince and now King Abdullah, Saudi Muslims have been permitted to praise the prophet at Milad An-Nabi behind the walls of private homes. But there will be no open festivals or processions within Saudi Arabia’s borders.
Why is this? Muslims know that Milad An-Nabi is hated by the Wahhabi fundamentalists who control religious life under Saudi rule. It is condemned as alleged “shirk” or polytheism, supposedly diluting the Muslim worship of one God. Milad An-Nabi has further been assailed as an imitation of the Christian Christmas.
In October 2011, Darul Uloom, the headquarters of the Deobandi fundamentalist sect in Uttar Pradesh, issued a fatwa signed by its vice-chancellor, Maulana Abul Qasim Naumani, denouncing all birthday observances, including that of Muhammad. The Deobandi clerics proclaimed “Muslims should not follow the tradition of western culture of celebrating birthdays as it [is] against the Shariat law.” Darul Uloom emphasized that its students do not participate in Milad An-Nabi. In this manner, they revealed themselves to be satellites of Wahhabism.
Students (talibs) from another Deobandi medresa, Darul Uloom Haqqania in Pakistan, formed the nucleus of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after 1996. They were supported by Pakistani military and intelligence officials, who continue to assist radical Islamists in their own country as well as among their neighbors. Deobandi medresas have spread across the subcontinent. In line with the general radical trend among Pakistani Muslims in the West, Deobandi medresas have proliferated in Britain, and several now operate in the U.S. and Canada. The latter include the Institute for Islamic Education in Chicago, Darul Uloom Madania in Buffalo, New York, Darul Uloom New York, in Jamaica, a neighborhood in the metropolitan borough of Queens, and Darul Uloom Canada, in the province of Ontario. Deobandism is also disseminated among Muslims by the massive revivalist network, Tablighi Jamaat.
Darul Uloom Deoband received global attention most recently when it opposed the participation of the author Salman Rushdie in the Jaipur Literature Festival. Rushdie stated his fear of a homicidal attack and did not appear. A crowd of Muslim protestors came to the Festival, bent clearly on disrupting it if Rushdie were to be seen by videolink from London. William Dalrymple, head of the Festival and a commentator notably sympathetic to Islam, pointed out to the London Guardian that Rushdie had attended the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2007 without incident.
Apparently unwilling to identify directly the purveyors of radical ideology among Indian Muslims, Dalrymple argued that the uproar in Jaipur was caused by local politics. He mentioned the killing of nine Muslims by Rajasthan police at Gopalgarh in September 2011, and the cycle of elections to be held in Uttar Pradesh, with its prominent Muslim minority, in February and March of this year. In addition, Dalrymple assigned equal or greater responsibility to Hindu politicians and academics for censorship of works they consider offensive.
Dalrymple blamed the dispute ultimately on the legacy of foreign imperialism, writing, “Outdated colonial laws need to be repealed, violent fringe groups must be stopped from holding the nation to ransom and we need a movement to stop politicians abusing religious sentiment for political gain. Only when freedom of expression can be taken for granted can India really call itself the democracy it claims so proudly to be.” He concluded by noting that Rushdie appeared on Indian television, interviewed by Barkha Dutt, and spoke defiantly, branding the extremists “the real enemies of Islam.” Dalrymple added, “Meanwhile, on stage, we had a rousing panel discussion about freedom of expression, which was beamed live around India. There could have been worse outcomes.”
But for moderate and traditional Muslims, domination by extremist ideology and exploitation of religion for political ends are the worst of all outcomes. Violence by Islam-haters takes lives, but radicalism steals the soul of our community, and combatting it must take priority over review of the colonial heritage. This lesson is being learned in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosova, Macedonia, and other Muslim lands wracked by anti-Muslim hatred in the Balkans. It was learned in the past in Arabia, Iraq, Muslim Spain, and elsewhere.
The controversy over Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and ensuing fatwa against him by the Iranian clerical regime after the book’s publication in 1988 – 24 years ago – introduced what the Islamologist Daniel Pipes called “Rushdie rules.” In these conditions fear of offending Muslims induces non-Muslim media and political leaders to refrain from criticizing Muslims or publicizing critical writings about Islam. But Muslims should not be afraid of criticism. If rhetorical or pictorial attacks by non-Muslims sting us, we should ask ourselves how we have failed to make Islam better and more worthy of respect. When radicalism enables terrorism, we must help our non-Muslim neighbors (and political leaders) to extirpate it.
The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, Igarashi Hitoshi, was murdered in 1991, in presumed fulfillment of the Iranian fatwa against Rushdie, by an unknown assailant. The Italian publisher of the book, Ettore Caprio, was seriously injured in the same year. The Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot in an incident believed linked to the book in 1993. Also in 1993, in Sivas, Turkey, a cultural festival sponsored mainly by Alevi Muslims – a heterodox sect composed of Turks and Kurds who have fused Shia, Sufi, and pre-Islamic shamanic practices – was attacked by Islamist fanatics at a local hotel. The building was burned and 37 people perished. One who escaped was Aziz Nesin, translator of The Satanic Verses into Turkish, who died two years later.
Revival of agitation against Rushdie and his book demonstrates an increase in radical preaching among Muslims in many countries, reflected additionally in the large vote granted in Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabi (so-called “Salafi”) Hizb Ul-Nur or “Party of the Light.” Muslims are not forced in any part of the world to read Rushdie’s writings or the periodicals that publish anti-Islam cartoons. Violence by those denouncing them has had no effect aside from taking lives unjustifiably and diminishing the dignity of Islamic believers. Muslims who were insulted by Rushdie’s book or the various cartoons in Western media have better and more Islamic ways of expressing their disapproval: by ignoring them or by expressing polite and measured disagreement with their content. Attempts at legal censorship of anti-religious expression will fail in Western countries. No effort to evade this fact by imposing hate-speech laws or forbidding the “defamation of religion” – as proposed by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – will change this reality.
The same question must be asked of Muslims in the most recent Rushdie contention as was posed by myself and a few others during the first “Muhammad cartoons” affair in 2005. That is, if we are firm in our faith, how are we harmed by anybody’s writings or drawings against us? As Muslims, we should follow Qur’an and act with forbearance toward those who denigrate our religion. Physical attacks on innocent Muslims may require physical self-defense… but in that arena as well as the realm of ideas, radical Muslims do more harm to moderate and traditional Muslims than Islam-haters perpetrate. Violence is an indicator of weakness, not strength, in belief. Jihadists often admit they have turned to the path of terror because they were deficient in their faith.
At the time of the Danish cartoons controversy, in Libya 11 people were slain in demonstrations against the cartoons. Rioters attacked European diplomatic facilities in Damascus, Syria. But how did the alleged damage to Islam by the Muhammad cartoons compare with the killing of 15,000 people in the recent Libyan civil war, many at the hands of the late dictator Mu’ammar Al-Qadhdhafi’s guards and mercenaries, or the 6,000 dead in the current uprising in Syria? A German journalist, Kristina Bergmann, wrote presciently from Cairo in the weekly Der Spiegel, in 2006, “The governments in Cairo, Damascus, Riyadh and elsewhere can only hope that the pent-up rage of the man in the street doesn’t turn at some point from Denmark onto them.” Her prediction has come true. But it is also true that such ructions were and are promoted by despotic governments to divert the attention of their subjects from their difficult plight.
The action of Darul Uloom Deoband to block Rushdie from revisiting India brings up another question. How do the Deobandi clerics possess the moral right to condemn writings disrespectful of Islam when they have forbidden expressions of love for Muhammad? After Darul Uloom Deoband issued its fatwa against Milad An-Nabi, a website, “Friends of Deoband,” tried to disclaim the charge that banning the holiday expressed disregard for Muhammad. Its writer asserted, “we do not denounce the commemoration of his noble birth. Rather, we denounce the abominable acts that are associated with it as you [may] have seen in the mawludi functions which [take place] in India, of narrating weak and forged narrations, the mixing of men and women, and extravagance in lighting candles and decorations.” This is an absurd attempt to evade responsibility for an action that outrages traditional Muslims and baffles non-Muslims.
Wahhabis, Deobandis, and other fundamentalists usurping the heritage of Sunnism act openly as if they hate the personality of Muhammad, his family, companions, and successors. They prevent the holding of Milad An-Nabi. In Mecca and Medina, they have devastated the Islamic monuments dating from the prophet’s time. Wahhabis want to reduce the prophet to an ordinary man, supposedly to avoid his equation with God. But a great prophet, and for Muslims, the last prophet, cannot be treated as a banal individual by those who believe in his prophecy.
In writing this column, I recall many personal experiences. Having become Muslim based on my work as a journalist in the Balkans, I have observed the devotion to Muhammad expressed by Bosnian and Albanian Muslims on his birthday, which is included officially in the Islamic calendar (takvim) by the clerics of Sarajevo. Approval for mevlud in Bosnia-Hercegovina cannot be avoided even by the religious apparatus influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, because the clerics know the high level of attachment the Muslims express for the practice.
I have told Wahhabi interlopers in the Balkans and elsewhere repeatedly that if they try to force the Balkan Muslims – some 250,000 of whom died in the wars of the 1990s – to abandon mevlud, Sufism, decorated mosques, religious and folk music, and other aspects of local Islamic culture the fundamentalists abhor, they will drive the people away from religion, rather than bonding them to it. Wahhabis in Bosnia-Hercegovina told me that the destruction of historic Ottoman mosques by Serbian invaders was a matter of indifference to the Islamists, since “the mosques remain in the people’s hearts.” That attitude is complicit with Serbian aggression.
I remember how, during the first commotion over The Satanic Verses, I witnessed a non-Muslim in a San Francisco bookstore expressing his disappointment that the work was not an erotic novel. Muslim anger had surrounded the book with a penumbra of scandal and sexuality. The irritated book buyer, who did not seem very well-educated, had no idea why else the book might have offended Muslims. How is Islam defended when Muslims engage in intolerant and criminal outbursts that distort the encounters many non-Muslims may have had, for the first time, with the religion?
Numerous individuals who came forward to defend Rushdie against “the Muslims” in 1988 would not then support dissidents in then-Communist countries. Opposing Muslim attempts at censorship was easy for them compared with protecting Polish or Cuban dissenters. How did we Muslims become so degraded as to be considered worse than Communist dictators? Sadly, in the 24 years that have since gone by, the possibilities for reasonable, spiritually-based knowledge of Islam among non-Muslims has been prevented most often by the bigoted interference of Islamist demagogues.
And finally, I am reminded of an occasion after I had become Muslim, when I was still reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle, and proposed to write an article for the paper on Milad An-Nabi. A large assembly for Muhammad’s birthday, titled a “seerah conference” or rally to praise Muhammad’s life (to avoid the censure of Wahhabi clerics), had been held in the Silicon Valley area, with its large South Asian Muslim population. But I was informed peremptorily by a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a purported “civil rights” group and pillar of the “Wahhabi lobby” in the U.S., that praising Muhammad on his birthday was “not part of Islam.” I was shocked then and remain appalled.
According to The Times of India, elaborate preparations for Milad An-Nabi are underway in Hyderabad. One procession will be led by a group with an interesting name and acronym: the Sunni United Front of India (SUFI). After Darul Uloom Deoband issued its fatwa against Milad An-Nabi, Sufis affiliated with the All-India Ulema and Mashaikh Board in U.P. rejected it. Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichowchhwi, their general secretary, cited Islamic authorities including an inspirer of the Deobandi founders, Haaji Imdaadullah Muhajir Maqqi, who performed Milad An-Nabi and affirmed that it conferred blessings upon him and others.
Milad An-Nabi may be memorable in Egypt this year, for the wrong reasons. The occasion is usually important for Egyptian Muslims. But how will the newly-ascendant Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Wahhabis of the Nur party, who together gained a majority of 65 percent in the country’s elections, respond to the commencement of Milad An-Nabi in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities?
A wise Kuwaiti Sufi, Sheikh Yusuf Ibn Al-Sayyid Hashim Al-Rifa’i (b. 1932), wrote in 1999, “Alas, woe and misery for a Sect that hates its Prophet, whether in word or in deed” [Emphasis in original]. Before him, a Saudi sheikh considered the outstanding defender of Sufism against Wahhabi oppression in that country, Sayyid Muhammad Ibn ’Alawi Al-Maliki (1947–2004), refuted the Wahhabi accusation that Milad An-Nabi “imitates the Christians” by showing that in narratives of the Night Journey of Muhammad, it is said that the Prophet of Islam, accompanied by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (Jibril), passed over the town of Bethlehem, and Muhammad prostrated twice in prayer to mark the birth of Jesus.
Books and cartoons lampooning Islam do much less harm to the faith than absurd strictures on Muslim life, which have given the religion a reputation for extremism in word and daily practice, and terrorism in deed. Before Muslims in India and elsewhere can effectively defend Islam against those who are prejudiced against it, we must clean up our own house and protect our traditions within our community. Criticism of Islam must be answered by an effective intellectual defense of Islam. That means repudiating the Saudi Wahhabis, South Asian Deobandis, Muslim Brotherhood, and all other elements that replace balanced dialogue among believers, and with adherents to other faiths, by flimsy fatwas and menacing manipulations.
We must restore our love of our prophet before we can succeed in answering the criticisms of non-Muslims. In that spirit, I wish to all of the traditional and moderate Muslims of the world, “Milad An-Nabi Mubarak!” Light candles, march in processions, and read the poetry of Milad An-Nabi! Paraphrasing a Jewish salutation, I will add, “Next year in Mecca and Medina!” May the blessings of Muhammad’s birthday be generously bestowed upon you and upon all humanity.
Columnist, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, is Director of Center for Islamic Pluralism, Washington DC.