Maulid, the day of birth of the Prophet Muhammad, on 12th Rabi’ ul-awwal, the third month of the Muslim lunar calendar (corresponding with December 2 in 2017) is celebrated in different ways across the Muslim world. A great deal of poetry is written in different languages expressing love and veneration for the Prophet, even though much of it flies in the face of the orthodox view that considers all such celebrations as bid’at or a misguided form of innovation.

However, that has not stopped the poet and hymn-writer from using local idiom and metaphor to express a deep, trusting love for the beloved of god whose life and sayings, as exemplified in the Hadith, influence the lives of believers in more ways than can be counted.

While an unshakeable love for the Prophet is the strongest binding force among Muslims, its expression in song – often using the language of conventional love poetry and the idiom of the ghazal and the geet – is frowned upon by the exponents of a Unitarian Islam. Others believe that since 12th Rabi’ul-awwal is not only the day of the Prophet’s birth but also considered to be the day of his death, such celebrations are inappropriate. Still others are uncomfortable with this almost mystical veneration of the Prophet, that seems not in keeping with the essential spirit of Islam.

Many point out, quite rightly, that the cornerstone of Islam is the word of god, not the person of his messenger. Be that as it may, in the Indian sub-continent the Eid-e Milad-un Nabi is celebrated in homes and assembly halls with great fervour.

Coloured by Sufism, influenced by the fast-gaining popularity of the sozkhwani and marsiyakhwani traditions of Awadh which recount the events associated with the Battle of Karbala and its dramatis personae in sonorous verses, the tradition of naat (hymns in praise of the Prophet) flowered in homes and mehfilkhanas all across the north reaching as far east as Bengal and the Deccan in the south. Ghulam Imam Shahid, an Urdu poet of the early 19th century put it best when he announced:

“Friends, before all of us is the journey into nonexistence –
But when one has words of the naat, then one has provisions for the road!”

Finding the right words

While every naat-poet down the ages has expressed his inability to express the true greatness of the Prophet, they have struggled nonetheless to find the right words. Tender, loving, colourful, rustic, sophisticated, subtle, grandiloquent – the terms and images vary but what doesn’t is admiration for the many qualities the Prophet embodied. Patience, wisdom, modesty, gratitude, intelligence, respect for women are exemplary qualities and dwelling on them in such loving detail is virtually an exercise in “character-building”!

Songs celebrating the Mard-e-Kamil, the perfect man, the exemplar and model for every believing Musalman, whose every action and habit, no matter how seemingly trivial, began to be written not just in Urdu but in many dialects such as khari boli, bhojpuri, dehati and so on. In naat after naat, the Prophet appears before his listeners as an archetype for all forms of human beauty, or as the poet Saghar Nizami says, he becomes: “Beauty from Head to toe, Love embodied”.

Fashioned first on the Arab models such as the Burda and later on the Persian masnawis, the Indian versions wove in many indigenous elements. Mohsin Kakorwi, writing in the early 19th century, expresses the hope that his naat would intercede, as it were, on the Day of Judgement. He wrote:

“In the rows of resurrection your panegyrist will be with you
In his hand he has this enthusiastic ghazal, this qasida
And Gabriel will say with a hint: Now in the name of god recite:
From the direction of Benares went a cloud towards Mathura.”

— “Simt-e-Kashi se chala janib-e-Mathura badal”

Mirza Ghalib has written some exquisitely fashioned naat in Persian, the most famous being a masnawi titled “Abr-i-Gauharbar” or “The Jewel-Carrying Cloud” where the Prophet is compared to the rain cloud which brings blessings in the form of life-giving rain, and is in keeping with his role as rahmatan lil-alimin. The visionary poet Iqbal too has written a great deal on the Prophet, likening him to the leader of a caravan, the “Meer-e Karvaan”. In Asrar-i-Khudi, he writes:

“We are like a rose with many petals, but with one perfume
He is the soul of the society, and he is one.”

The celebratory rituals

Derived from the Arabic word viladut which means birth, the maulid celebrates the birth of Hazrat Muhammad Rasool Allah. However, it need not be celebrated only on the 12th or during the month of Rabi-ul awwal. Milad, literally meaning birthday or anniversary, can be held, in fact, on any auspicious day such as a marriage, childbirth, housewarming or a celebration of any glad tidings. Milad mehfils all across north India proceed along fairly time-honoured ways.

A good time to hold them is usually between the asir and maghrib namaz, giving people ample time to enjoy the proceedings, though they can just as well be held between zuhr and asir, ie, between late afternoon and early evening. Usually segregated, a typical milad begins with Quran Khwani or recitation of verses from the Holy Quran. This is followed by a hamd in praise of Allah. Some of the best-loved, and also most commonly memorised lyrics are to be found in a wonderful little book called Milad-e-Akbar. (My mother has a dog-eared copy, so do I and one day I hope my daughters too will have a copy of this much loved book and shall, I hope, be able to read it in Urdu!) A typical example of a hamd would be:

Tujhe dhoondhta hoon main char su, teri shaan jall-e-jalal hu
Tu mila qareeb rag-e-gulu, teri shaan jall-e-jalal hu”

The reciters sit on a low takht – not a pulpit as you see in a majlis – and the audience sits on the floor which has some sort of farsh arrangement – usually durries covered with white cloth called chandni. Bolsters or gau takhyias are scattered on the farsh. Agarbattis are lit and rose water sprinkled before the milad mehfil gets underway. The hamd is followed by naats, panegyrics in praise of the Prophet.

Beginning with poems celebrating the Prophet’s paidaish or nativity, they go on to relate anecdotes about his life, express joy at his many sayings, or express longing to visit Medina. Those who have not been able to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina have written some incredibly sweet verses, describing the arduous journey, each according to their imagination in ever-new imagery. So you have naats such as: Madina ka safar hai aur mai namdeeda namdeeda; or Sun tayba nagar ke maharaja faryaad mori in asuan ki, more nain dukhi hain sukhdata de bheek inhe ab darshan ki; or Mora jab se laga hai nabi ji se ji, mohe pal bhar chain naa aawat hai. Chalo yasrab nagri ai ri sakhi mora hind me ji ghabrawat hai.

In fact, Indian poets, more than any others, have dwelled, in great ecstasy, on the motif of Medina, imploring the Prince of Medina to intercede on their behalf. In the course of a milad, the naat are interspersed, at regular intervals with prose passages narrating specific instances from the Prophet’s life – his views, on, say, education, the position of women, or any other subject chosen by the zakir, or the narrator.

In large public gatherings, a renowned alim or maulvi is invited to perform the zikr. In private gatherings, it can be any well-respected man or woman. The audience is encouraged to recite durood sharif and send salaam, greetings, to the Prophet. Rose water is sprinkled, or attar is dabbed on the wrists of all those present – the haazreen-e-mehfil – sometime during or immediately after reciting the paidaish. The entire congregation gets to its feet when the salaam is being read. Again, the most popular salaam is to be found in Milad-e-Akbar, one that has been read with solemn and sonorous dignity for generations:

“Ya nabi salaam alaika ya rasool salaam aleika
Ya habib salam alaika, salawatullah alaika…”