Tonight, hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam). Ironically, other Muslims, although much smaller in number, condemn this practice as a bad innovation (bid‘a) that must be stopped. If celebrating the birth of the Prophet can be this divisive, then there is little hope that other differences, which are often more open to interpretation, can be removed. Also, the fact that celebrating the birth of the Prophet, who is described in the Qur’an as “a mercy to all peoples” (21.107), can make Muslims the subject of condemnation and even accusation of disbelief by other Muslims, raises serious concerns about the later’s mindset. This minority’s hostility towards the majority who honour the Prophet’s birth is an unmistakable sign of intolerance, and it can only point to even more hostility towards non-Muslims.
There are many issues of creed and practice that Muslims disagree on, as is the case in every religion. But objecting to celebrating the birth of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) is one that is particularly alarming. In addition to being a sign of intolerance, it indicates two other serious problems that concern the core faith of the Muslim.
1) Rejecting the love of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam): Celebrating birthdays is an established and well-known practice. People celebrate the birthdays of their sons, daughters, siblings, parents, friends, and indeed others they admire for one reason or another. Those who argue that they are uncompromisingly against marking any birthday still have other occasions to celebrate. These include weddings, graduations, and other memorable and important events in the lives of people who are close to them. In other words, those who reject honouring the birthday of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) single him out for exclusion from the list of people they celebrate. There is a beautiful recent karāma (wonder) about this issue here.
Yet the driver of people’s celebrations of birthdays, weddings…etc. is the love they have for the people concerned. A mother celebrates the graduation of her son because she loves him, a father’s celebration of the wedding of his daughter is driven by love, and so on. All these celebrations are expressions of love, and love is the fabric of humanity and what keeps us together. When someone objects to remembering the birth of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam), their objection is effectively to the love of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam).
The standard argument of the rejectionists is that showing this love to the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) may lead Muslims to treating him as Christians treat Jesus: a god. But this argument has been proven countless times to be completely false and baseless. Over a millennium of honouring the Prophet’s birth has not turned him into a god in the eyes of Muslims. Regardless of how high Muslims think of him, they never say “there is no god save Muhammad,” but they have always held to the teachings of the Qur’an that “there is no god save Allah” (47.19) and “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah” (48.29).
Furthermore, the Qur’an reminds the Muslims in several places that even one’s children can be a “trial”:
Your wealth and your children are a trial, and that with Allah is a mighty wage. (8.28)
Significantly, there is not a single verse that describes the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) as a “trial.” In other words, one’s relationship with their children can make them err, but their relationship with the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) can never do that.
Even more telling is the contrast shown in the following verses:
O you who believe! Let not your property or your children divert you from the remembrance of Allah. Those who do that are the losers. (63.9)
You [who believe] have had a good example in the Messenger of Allah for whosoever hopes for Allah and the Last Day, and remembers Allah much. (33.21)
While one’s children can be a distraction from remembering Allah, the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) can only remind them of Allah. There is nothing to fear from any celebration and remembering of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam), but one has to be conscious that his/her love for their children does not make the person forget their duties towards Allah.
Additionally, one only needs to compare what is involved in marking birthdays and other events of ordinary people and in honouring the birth of the Prophet. While permissible, the former does not involve any acts of worship, whereas the latter includes reciting the Qur’an, remembering Allah, praying to Allah, and recalling the Prophet’s attributes and deeds.
2) Misunderstanding the Muslim’s relationship with the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam): Rejectionists know why they must follow the Prophet, as this is clearly stated in the Qur’an. Their relationship with the Prophet is based on reason. Yet the truth of the Muslim’s relationship with the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) is that while it starts with reason and continues to have rational bases, its developed form is love. If someone who objects to celebrating the Prophet’s birth thinks they love him, they clearly do not understand what love is. As discussed earlier, one would not object to celebrating anyone they love, let alone the Prophet.
This verse in particular sheds light on what loving the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) really means:
Say: “If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your clansmen, the wealth which you have gained, the merchandise which you fear may slacken, and dwellings that you love are dearer to you than Allah, His Messenger, and fighting in His way, then wait until Allah brings His command. Allah does not guide the ungodly people.” (9.24)
Naturally, the person loves much their family, relatives, and possessions, so the verse states that he/she should have even more love for the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam). This is a state that one can never achieve while objecting to celebrating the Prophet’s birth. To really love him more than anything else, including one’s close family members, that love must overtake the person. This is not a relationship with the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) that is only based on reason, but one that has moved into the realm of love.
Similarly, the absolute obedience to the Prophet in this verse cannot be observed by the Muslim without being overwhelmed by love for the Messenger (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam):
What the Messenger gives you, take; and what he forbids you, refrain from. (59.7)
The great Sufi Master Shaikh ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Gaylānī recounts a short, beautiful story about Majnūn Lailā (The mad lover of Laila). One day he came across some people who asked him: “Where have you come from?” He replied: “From being with Lailā.” They asked him: “Where are you going?” He answered: “To Lailā.” Try to convince Majnūn not to celebrate Laila’s birthday!
The love for the Prophet is not an extra that the Muslim may or may not have. It is the very spiritual power that embeds Islam in the heart. Without this love, one’s faith and practice of Islam is bound to be superficial. It is the lack of this love that is behind the complaint of many Muslims that they are unable to find much warmth in their hearts when worshipping. The love of the Prophet (ṣalla Allah ‘alaihi wa sallam) is the door to divine love:
Say [O Muhammad!]: “If you love Allah, then follow me, and Allah will love you, and forgive you your sins. Allah is forgiving, compassionate.” (3.31)