Celebrating Milad un Nabi

In India, as elsewhere, Milad is celebrated as an evening dedicated to prayers, where men assemble under the leadership of Maulavis

Celebrating Milad un Nabi

Jawhar Sircar

As many of us admit, one of the major mistakes committed by a secular India was to assume that religious tolerance and amity would last forever. The secular state’s duty was over by declaring public holidays on the major festivals of all religions, but it never seriously considered explaining to the people what and why these celebrations were observed.

Many had some idea about what the festival of the other religion was about, based on what they saw in films, television and the media. But most people lived in their own silos, side by side but without feeling or empathising with the other. Thus, superficial secular co-existence without emotional bonding was just a house of cards that communal forces could blow away with ease.

Milad un Nabi, for instance, is an occasion that several Muslims observe, but Hindus, Christians and others have hardly ever bothered to find out why. This date, which is better known internationally as Mawlid, marks the twelfth day of the month of Rabi u'l Awwal, when many believe that Prophet Muhammad was born.

Its public celebration or otherwise, however, continues to be disputed as orthodox Muslims like the Salafis and Wahabis, oppose it and extreme elements in Saudi Arabia even ban its observance. Yet, it can be said quite safely that all over this subcontinent and in the rest of the world, millions of Muslims, both Sunnis and Shias, commemorate this date as the birth anniversary of Hazrat Muhammad.

Even an increasingly-radical Pakistan gives up its ‘hard Saudi Arabian line’ temporarily and heralds this national holiday quite majestically with a 31-gun salute in Islamabad and with 21-gun salutes in provincial capitals. But then, we also have the Deobandi sect and the dissident Ahmadiyyas who denounce its public celebration.

In colloquial Arabic, 'Mawlid' means the date of birth and we can trace its sanctity back to the four original Khalifas, who observed it — though it was then more of an 'open house' day, rather than a public festival.

As in other religions, there are problems in arriving at unanimity on the exact date of birth, and Shias insist that Hazrat Muhammad was born a little later. This disagreement is not unusual, because till date, while most Christians believe that Christ was born on Christmas eve, some Eastern Churches celebrate it on the 6th of January and many feel that neither date can be established with proof. Just as many Hindus observe the holy hour of Krishna’s birth past midnight, several Muslim communities observe night-long prayers and vigil.

History tells us that Mawlid or Milad was actually converted into a major celebration by the Fatimid Khalifas, almost three centuries after Prophet Muhammad's death — as a Muslim response to Christmas celebrations. Records also show that most Sunni countries had started observing this date from the 12th century onwards.

In India, as elsewhere, Milad is celebrated as an evening dedicated to prayers, where men assemble under the leadership of Maulavis. Of late, women have also started their own group prayers. It is also a part of the tradition to organise public Quran recitation competitions.

A colonial report of 19th century noted that it was celebrated as the Baraa Wafat or the twelfth night, when "Fatihas are recited for Muhammed's soul and other works in praise of the Prophet's excellences are read". It describes how in many parts of India, "a stone with the impression of a footprint on it" called the Qudam Rasool was exhibited and washed with intense devotion.

This ritual reminds us of the Buddha's holy footprint or Vishnu-pada, and frankly, masses tend to follow similar customs. We are reminded of other Indian religions, when we see how Muslim hosts spread out clean rugs for the community to pray on and light agarbattis and even sprinkle rose water on devotees.

Loudspeakers have, however, managed to transform even small privately organised Milad prayers into public events, and the 'holy word' is disseminated as far as possible. Hasir Mallick describes how several Bengali Muslims also pray for the welfare of their ancestors on this night, somewhat like Hindus do on pitri-tarpan. He also narrates that when Maulavis end their sermon, the entire gathering sing and recite together Prasansha-geets of the Prophet, after which, batasa or sweets are distributed.

In Bangladesh and Muslim-majority towns of India, attractive processions are also brought out during the day, with decorated horses and projectionists in green turbans carrying flags. Mosques and public thoroughfares are brightly decorated with festoons and shiny ribbons. At Dhaka and Chittagong, mammoth public turnouts are called the Jashne, where several lakhs march with green flags and banners, accompanied by microphone-mounted vans carrying singers and reciters.

Other Milads in the subcontinent also attract massive crowds through music, songs and prayers. It is interesting to see how many of them, especially in Pakistan, end the evening with dazzling display of fireworks in stadiums and public places — reminding many of Diwali and Dusshera.

The increasing carnival-type character of this event, however, continues to alarm purists, who are opposed to such gaieties and frivolity. But then, colourful festivities actually ensure mass participation and even those who may not be particularly religious. They also eliminate social barriers and ensure stronger fraternal bonding.

(The author was Secretary, Culture, Government of India. Views are the author’s own)

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Published: 29 Oct 2020, 8:35 AM