Mawlid al-Nabi ('the birth of the prophet') celebrates the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It takes place on the 12th day of the third month in the Islamic calendar, Rabi al-Awwal, which falls, this year, on March 20th in the Gregorian calendar.
The story and teachings of Muhammad are set out in the Islamic holy text, the Qur'an. Muhammad lived from about 570 CE to 632 CE and in that time established the Islamic religion and thereby replaced tribal loyalty and rivalry with equality among all Muslims. He experienced visions of the angel Gabriel who first called him into service as a prophet and then told him to “magnify thy lord”, upon which Muhammad began to preach publicly in the now holy city of Mecca, where he had lived for many years. Though many people were receptive to his message, others sought to ridicule and threaten him and Muhammad was compelled to flee in 622 CE.
Mawlid al-Nabi was first celebrated in around the 13th century and included sermons, recitation of prayers, gift giving and feasting. Today the festival is observed in many countries, though some conservative Muslim sects consider it idolatrous and so do not celebrate it. In some places there are large carnival-like street processions and mosques and homes are decorated. As well as feasting and gift-giving, charity and food is given to the poor, as on other Muslim holidays. Stories from the life of Muhammed are narrated and poetry is recited, particularly by children. The famous poem of praise, Qaṣīda al-Burda Sharif, by the 13th century Sufi poet Busiri, is often recited by scholars and poets. Here are a few verses:
39. wa kulluhum min rasulillahi multamisun / gharfan min al-bahri wa rashfan min al-diyami
All of them come and take from Allah's Messenger a handful of his ocean or a sip of his continuous rains.
40. wa waqifuna ladayhi `inda haddihim / min nuqtati al-`ilmi aw min shaklat al-hikami
They stand before him – each at his limit – possessing but one dot of his science and a glimpse of his wisdom.
41. fa huwa al-ladhi tamma ma`nahu wa suratuhu / thumma istafahu habiban bari'u al-nasami
He is the one whose innermost and outward form were made perfect, after which the Creator of souls took him for His Beloved Friend.
48. a`ya al-wara fahmu ma`nahu fa laysa yura / li al-qurbi wa al-bu`di minhu ghayra munfahimi
Creation is, in truth, powerless to understand his secret. You will not see any near him or far, except it makes them bewildered,
49. ka al-shamsi tazharu li al-`aynayni min bu`din / saghiratan wa tukillu al-tarfa min amami
As the sun appears small to the eyes from a distance, and yet exhausts their sight upon a second look.
50. wa kayfa yudriku fi al-dunya haqiqatahu / qawmun niyamun tasallaw `anhu bi al-hulumi
And how could one perceive his reality in this world, who belongs to a sleeping race distracted from him with dreams?
Happy Mawlid al-Nabi!