This article was first published on December 11, 2016.
LONDON – As the Muslim world marks the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, we should take comfort in following this celebratory tradition, first established – as some say – by the Fatimids of Egypt.
In his book, “Subh al-asha,” the Egyptian scholar Qalqashandi relays that they would hold a large celebration, which included handing out sweets to everyone. Qalqashandi also pointed out that they celebrated, with equal vigor, the birthdays of other members of Prophet Muhammad’s family, as well as historical personalities, such Prophet Jesus, upon whom be peace.
Muslims in Britain ascribe to many diverse points of view: some will celebrate the Prophet’s birthday while others will not. Irrespective of any person’s disposition, my view is to mark this occasion with thoughts of an attribute which Prophet Muhammad identified in a truly profound way: manners. Specifically, he said, that “a person will raise their rank in the next life in according to how good their manners were in this life,” and that “the best of people are those with the best manners.”
Over a hundred years after Prophet Muhammad’s death, the scholar al-Jahiz wrote in his essay on women, “We have seen people who revile women, the worst of revilements, and disdain them, and deny them most of their rights. It is true impotence for a man to be incapable of fulfilling the rights of fathers or uncles, unless he disparages the rights of mothers and aunts.”
Prophet Muhammad spent much of his life trying to educate men to honour and treat women with dignity. Throughout his life, he made time to address their concerns, regularly reprimanding men. Sadly, throughout his life and even after his death, negative attitudes regarding women prevailed.
For example, he used to say “Do not prevent women from attending the mosque” and as some scholars such as Ibn Qudmah and al-Qayrawi wrote, “the mosque was so full of women that men who arrived late would form rows and pray behind the women.” Worse, one of the companions, Abdullah ibn Umar, refused to speak with his son (Bilal or Waqid) until he changed his treatment of his wife in stopping her from going to the mosque. Abdullah ibn Umar would say, “I tell you what the Prophet of God said, and you still stop your wife?” Eventually, his son ceded.
Dignity & Rights
In one of his speeches on dignity and rights, the Prophet said, “Whoever leads a blind person away from the path they are walking on is cursed.” When we consider that much of what he said was reactionary— something would happen, and he would respond—it’s clear that his statement is a reflection of how some people at the time of Prophet Muhammad behaved in undignified way. The Prophet used to say, “I have been sent to perfect good character.”
Part of manners, however, can be reflected in his statement “The one who is not grateful for a little, cannot be grateful for a lot. And the one who is not grateful to people, cannot be grateful to God. To talk about a blessing is to be grateful to God.” This echoes the Qur’an, wherein God says in Surah Luqman, “Whoever is grateful, does so to the benefit of their own soul.” To acknowledge not just what we have but the way we behave, to be grateful, and to continually seek to improve ourselves—these are a reflection of another of his statements: “The best of people are those who add value,” meaning that our individual contributions to our families and the societies that we live in, are what will truly define us.
The most beautiful part of any celebration is, of course, the food. Prophet Muhammad said that “If you fulfil a person’s craving for a particular food, you sins will be forgiven.” And “Whoever makes a person happy by providing them with what the crave, makes God happy.” Reflecting the importance of providing oneself with sustenance, he also said “If the time for prayer and the time for dinner coincide, start with dinner.”
Adding encouragement towards hygiene, one of the best of manners, the Prophet said “Washing your hands before a meal banishes poverty, while washing your hands after a meal, banishes major sins.” And he qualified this by adding that you shouldn’t over-eat, comparing the desire to eat to “watering a plant, which if over-watered, dies.”
Balancing Life & Faith
Balance has always been the cornerstone of faith, anything done in excess leans a person towards exhaustion; and when anything is left out, it leaves a person wanting. The Prophet contextualized this further saying that “The deeds loved most by God are those which are done regularly, even if they are little.”
A true celebration is about balance, something understood best by the words from another classical scholar, Ibn Rajab, who said, “Love is better than fear. While fear checks us from sinning, it is love which makes us do what is prescribed for us with an open heart.”
So whether you celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday or not, consider the notion of manners. Ask yourself, “What can I do to improve who I am, both for myself and for those around me?”
My closing advice is from the Prophet Muhammad in these two statements of his: “God says that if you seek kindness from Me, then be kind to God’s creation (not just people, but animals, etc),” and, “A person will gain with good character, the same reward as someone who fasts all day and prays all night.”
He lived his life trying to teach us all decency and good manners. On the occasion of his birthday, may he and all of us–all of humanity–find success in the next life, amen.