May 4, 2014 By KS Shameer

Moulid: Beyond Rashid Rida’s Tolerance

mowlidAs children we did not know the meaning of the moulid we used to recite and sing. Nor did we try.  When we pestered our elders for a little bit of glosses on those sonorous, full-bodied verses, they discouraged: ‘You don’t know the meaning of the Qur’an either.’ Piety stayed well outside all meanings. So we recited again and again, unconvinced though we were. In fact, the elders themselves were in the dark about the meanings.
We became elders. And some of us consciously had a shot at the meanings concealed from us. Anyway, we had to be be different from those innocent guys who dodged questions. No tradition can always play the ostrich. Meanwhile there were discourses around, prodding us to question all meaningless rituals in the tradition. These discourses came up not as a consequence of modernity. Traditional rituals, including milad celebrations, were severely censured by the progressive Muslim groups which owed their allegiance both to Islam and to the zeal of reformation, which cropped up as part of the widely celebrated and less censured Kerala renaissance. Kerala Nadvat al-Mujahiddin, which declared introduction of  the reform discourse as its focus area, while never distancing itself from the retrograde Wahhabi Movement in Saudi Arabia, was instrumental in our search for meanings in the tradition.

Later, Jama’at-e-Islami came to the centre stage. Though moulid and other ‘coarse’ aspects of traditional culture were not in the immediate focus of Jama’at, which was poised for political reform,  there were muffled criticism and tongue-in-cheek laughter against people who ‘bray like donkeys in front of microphones’ and blocked all public roads during milad processions.

My first successful shot at reading the complete Arabic document after learning the basics of the language was Manqoos Moulid (Imperfect Moulid-so called, because of the author’s humility). The text is structured as hikayat (tales) followed by encomiums in verse. By the very fact that the prose narratives are tales, they may not have historical authenticity and they are, rather, expressions of the author’s elation at the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Significantly, all tales (hikayat) narrate fictionalized as well as authentic accounts related to Prophet’s birth. In Manqoos Moulid, there are six such tales and as many encomiums.

Those who distance themselves from these oral traditions by terming them ‘cock-and-bull stories’ and relating them to authentic histories might feel shocked at some of these tales. In the first hikayat of Manqoos Moulid, there is an interesting ethereal genealogy of the Prophet, which the Prophet himself is reported as having narrated:

‘I had been a light in the hands of God two thousand years before He created Adam. That sparkle as well as God’s Angels used to sing God’s Graces. When God created Adam he dropped the light in the clay. Then God  sent me via Adam’s rib to the earth. I was placed in Noah’s Ark, exactly at his rib. When Abraham was cast into the conflagration, I resided in his rib, too. God kept shifting me from the noble, proud ribs to pure, uncontaminated wombs until he brought me out among my parents, neither of whom touched impurities.’

Marion Holmes Katz, associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, has written about the devotional piety in Sunni Islam under the title ‘The Birth of Prophet Muhammad’, which was published by Routeldge in 2007.  The book has discoursed at length on the history, style and contents of Maulid as well as on the history of their critiques. There is yet another interesting tale on the birthday of the Prophet in the book:
‘[It is transmitted] from Amina, the mother of the Prophet, that she said: When I went into labor, I saw women as tall as palm trees resembling the daughters of ‘Abdul Manaf surrounding me. I have never seen anyone with faces as luminous as theirs. It was as if one of the women came forward to me; I leaned against her and went into labor, and my birth pangs became intense. It was as if one of them came forward to me and handed me a drink of water whiter than milk, colder than ice, and sweeter than honey. She said to me, “Drink!” and I drank. Then the second one said, “Take more!” and I took more. Then she rubbed my belly with her hand and said, “In the name of God, come out with the permission of God!” Then they – those women – said to me, “We are Asiya, the wife of Pharaoh and Maryam, the daughter of ‘Imran, and those are some of the wide-eyed houris.”

One of several authors (disseminators) of this narrative, Marion says, is Ahmad ibn Zayni Dahlan (d. 1304 AH/1886 CE).  Dahlan was a Shafi Mufti (Judge well versed in the Shafi Jurisprudence) who has written an authentic biography of the Prophet. Dahlan, despite being aware of the ‘non-canonical’ nature of the narration, authenticated it because its lack of authenticity does not do any harm on the believer. It rather links his belief with the beliefs of communities before the arrival of Islam. These narratives have shaped believers’ intense love of the Prophet to the extent that they attained, in due course of time, what Marion calls de facto canonicity.  Moreover, the narratives and encomiums have become part of oral formulaic culture of the Muslim life.  Authentic narratives in all genres went side by side in the Muslim culture with the fictionalized narratives. It is the very same historical tradition where classical jurisprudential texts were written that commissioned the compilation of A Thousand and One Nights. It was the gradual depletion of the tradition of story-telling and fictionalization in favour of drab literalism and authentication which tore away the inventiveness in Muslim life, which has deeply affected Muslim art and aesthetics.

I would conclude this blog with a comment on Rashid Rida’s attempt to reform the Moulid literature, which was discussed at length in Marion’s book. Concerned over the spurious nature of the tales in Maulid Literature and motivated by supreme shaykh of the Sufi orders of Egypt, ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Bakri, in 1916, Rida resolved to write a moulid absolving it of all historical impurities.
“If Rida were to produce an alternative text, he asked, would al-Bakri use it in place of the received narratives in the Egyptian state mawlid celebration and other observances of the mawlid?  Al-Bakri replied in the affirmative, and Rida immediately set to work, doing much of his writing at Al-Bakri’s home and regularly consulting him about the contents.  Since the resulting text was excessively long, Rida condensed it for recitation in the official mawlid celebration. It was presented in place of the traditional mawlid at the state celebration that very year.  He then agreed to its publication, first in Al-Manar and then as a separate book. (Op.cit page 177)”

One of the major breaks Rida’s moulid has with other works which preceded it was that Rida called it risala (essay), thereby banning the poetic imagination from the narrative. He also departed from Prophet’s birthday as the topic of narration towards his social life to be emulated by all believers.  His was an attempt to deconstruct the whole tradition of birthday celebration in such a way as to direct the zest for respecting Prophet’s birth towards socio-political reform. One of the critical comments against Rida’s moulid is worth being cited: ‘It would have been better, he argues, to print the text with instructions that it be read in the style of a sermon; this would have been more appropriate, and more distant from “the familiar form” (al-sura al-ma’lufa), presumably of traditional mawlids.” (Ibid 178). What differentiates traditional mawlids from their modern versions is their perfomative, theatrical quality.  Prose and sermon later produced cannot transmit the evocative and performative values of traditional texts. The difference lies in the way one looks at the life of Prophet Muhammad: in whether one uses brain alone or brings his heart as an accompaniment.  The same difference is conspicuous in the two biographies on Prophet Muhammad: of Haykal and Martin Lings.

But Rida’s Moulid is an important contribution in the tradition of Moulid literature. At least, his engagement with the mild tradition is creative. He realizes the significance of Prophet’s life in popular imaginations and uses the same for social reform. Here he parts ways from a die-hard critic.

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