Editor’s note: The following piece on Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) has been adapted from Dr. Amir Gulamhussein’s article, “Significance of the Celebration of the Birthday of Prophet Muhammad,” which appeared in Ilm, volume 12, Number 2, December 1989, on pages 15-21. The flagship Ismaili magazine was published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) for the United Kingdom from 1975 until 1992. Dr. Gulamhussein served as ITREB’s chairman for a number of years, and was also on the editorial board of the magazine during its later stages.
THE CELEBRATION OF THE BIRTHDAY OF PROPHET MUHAMMAD (S.A.S.), WITH AUDIO RECORDING OF SPEECH BY MAWLANA HAZAR IMAM
“In the face of this changing world, which was once a universe to us and is now no more than an overcrowded island, confronted with a fundamental challenge to our understanding of time, surrounded by a foreign fleet of cultural and ideological ships which have broken loose, I ask, do we have a clear, firm and precise understanding of what Muslim society is to be in times to come? And if, as I believe, the answer is uncertain, where else can we search than in the Holy Qur’an, and in the example of Allah’s last and final Prophet?” — His Highness the Aga Khan, March 12, 1976, Karachi, Pakistan.
PROPHET’S BIRTHDAY THROUGH THE CENTURIES
The above quotation of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, is from a speech that he delivered to eminent scholars from around the world who had gathered in Karachi to present their research findings and reflect upon various aspects of the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s). The conference was part of a series of events that were organized to mark the birthday anniversary of the beloved Prophet.
Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca on the night of 12 Rabi’ al-awwal, the third month in the Islamic lunar calendar, in 570 AC. The birthday of the Prophet is called maulid which denotes the festivities organized on this happy and auspicious day. The alternative term miladun-nabi, which means birth anniversary, is also very commonly used.
The commemoration of miladun-nabi on a grand and festive scale emerged first in Egypt during the Fatimid era (969 – 1171 AC). This is not surprising because the Fatimid Caliphs were descendants of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) through his daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s.), who was married to the Prophet’s cousin, Hazrat Mawlana Murtaza Ali (a.s.). The Egyptian historian Maqrizi (d. 1442 AC) describes a Fatimid celebration held in 1122 AC in which the gathering included prominent scholars and officials of the religious hierarchy. They listened to sermons (khutba) and were given sweets, particularly honey, the favourite of the Prophet. On that occasion, the poor received alms. The tradition of miladun-nabi in Egypt was continued from the Fatimid days by all subsequent Muslim dynasties.
The way in which the birthday anniversary was celebrated varied in different countries. In Turkey, the mosques were decorated with lights, whereas in other Islamic lands, the occasion was marked by recitations of na’ats (devotional songs) in praise of the Prophet. In Iraq, the birthday came to be considered in the hierarchy of festive days second only to ‘Id al-fitr and ‘Id al-adha. It was also lavishly celebrated during the Middle Ages in Mecca, the city of his birth. In India, celebrations included large exhibitions of paintings, lectures and a funfair of activities ending with lavish feasts in which everybody participated. More recently in this century, 12 Rabi al-awwal was declared a public holiday in the Ottoman Empire.
A ‘BEAUTIFUL MODEL’
The Prophet’s life and his conduct should become a model on which every Muslim should aspire to build one’s life according to the situation facing the person. Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:
“Verily, in the apostle of God you have a good example for everyone who looks forward (with hope and awe) to God and the Last Day and remembers God unceasingly.” — 33:21.
The prophet (nabi) of Allah, Muhammad, never claimed to possess any superhuman qualities. He maintained that he was a mortal and a servant (‘abd) of Allah to whom revelation (wahi) came. He knew that his role was to be the messenger (rasul) and mediator of Allah in guiding mankind. The Prophet preached that the revelation that he received was by Allah’s unbounded grace, and through this act of mercy and kindness, he was appointed to be a guide amongst the people.
He never claimed vanity inspite of his exalted position as indicated in the Holy Qur’an. As Allah ‘taught Adam the names of all things’, (2:31) so did He teach Muhammad the Qur’an; with the first revelation coming to him on the Night of Qadr. (96:3) The designation of the Prophet as being ‘Mercy for the mankind’, rahmat lil-alamin (21:107), is another example of his lofty post. He saw his role amongst his people as their guide and teacher, and by his example he was to steer them to salvation. Whosoever followed him and his way understood their purpose and meaning of their existence in the world.  In this context, the chosen (al-mustafa) prophet became the prototype (uswa hasana), a ‘beautiful model’.
The function of the Prophet has been misunderstood by non-Muslims. His function was not only to be a spiritual guide, but also the organiser of the new social order which came as a result of the last of the revealed books, the Holy Qur’an. Outsiders have understood his role, for example, as a political figure of high distinction and great statesmanship. However, his role as a religious and spiritual guide and how his life could be emulated by those who are aspiring sanctity and piety is still misunderstood.
With regard to this misunderstanding Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the eminent contemporary Muslim scholar, says: “This is particularly true in the modern world in which religion is separated from other domains of life and most modern men can hardly imagine how a spiritual being could also be immersed in the most intense political and social activity.”  The integration of the material and spiritual aspect of one’s life was the hallmark of the lifestyle of the Prophet, and how he managed to fulfil this dual role should become an example for Muslims, who today face immense challenges and difficulties in trying to live in societies which have become increasingly material.
BALANCE BETWEEN DIN AND DUNYA
Prophet Muhammad participated fully in social life. He married and had a household. He was a ruler, a judge and a soldier who fought many battles in which he underwent painful ordeals. In his personal life, both as an orphan and adult, he underwent many hardships. In spite of this, he always exhibited humbleness and tolerance. He also made time to detach himself from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and indulged in contemplation and meditation. By this practice, he integrated the worldly aspect of his life with spiritual activities.
In his daily life, he exercised utmost kindness and showed concern for the weak. His loving kindness extended over all beings. He was noted for his love of children and used to greet them and play with them. He was also known for his love of animals. 
He lived simply and his saying faqri fakhri (‘my poverty is my pride’) became a motto for the many. Every phase of his work and action became an ideal model of moral perfection. Whatever he did remains exemplary for his followers and thus his actions and sayings were recorded and preserved in the famous hadith literature.
The nobility and generosity of the Prophet was best exemplified in his triumphant entry into Mecca. The very people who had caused untold hardships to him were forgiven instead of him taking revenge and punishing them. This act of generosity was to become a source of immense joy and pride to his followers, who understood that the Message of Allah in the practice of their faith preached tolerance and forgiveness.
The Prophet’s love and compassion for his fellow beings and his concern for their welfare in all spheres of human endeavours are exemplified and recorded. He was their uncrowned king, ruler and father who was concerned with the welfare of his subjects. His total involvement in social welfare matters of the community (ummah) earned him high praises and respect. He continually sought better relationship between the members of the ummah and those of other faiths (Christians and Jews). In this manner he preached brotherhood, tolerance and patience (sabr) as qualities that would ensure peace and harmony. He sought to make the practice of religion an integral part of life so that there was peace and equilibrium between all forces that confront humankind.
The Prophet’s quality of magnanimity, that is the nobility of his soul and his quality to be above petty feelings, exhibited itself most of all in charity towards men and women and all other beings. There was no narrowness or pettiness in the soul of the Prophet, no limitation in giving of himself to others, both in terms of time and resources. The saying that ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’  was characteristic of his life until his demise in 632 AC at the age of 62.
SMALLER AND GREATER JIHADS
Anything that sought to destroy this equilibrium was counteracted. For example, the many wars that were fought, whether for political or social reasons, were for preserving the Faith (din) and social justice. In this manner, war had a positive meaning as an activity to establish peace and harmony. It is also interesting to note that apart from the outward war (jihad of combativeness), the Prophet also advocated inward combativeness which was necessary for maintaining the inner equilibrium. This battle was called the ‘great holy war’ (al-jihad al-akbar) and is fought within ourselves against forces that tend to negate AlIah’s Will. Interestingly, the outward war was designated by the Prophet as the ‘small holy war’ (al-jihad al-asghar).
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
In the brief account of the qualities of Prophet Muhammad presented here, one of the key features that emerges is that his lifestyle highlights the fact that in order to achieve harmony, peace and tranquillity within the society at large and within the self, we have to live in this world and not reject it. It is through constant struggle in this world, that we will be in a position to transcend the human state and achieve the realisation of the Absolute which is the true destiny for all of us. The life of the Prophet is looked upon as a prototype by the believers in their quest to achieve this lofty status.
Prophet Muhammad’s meritocratic principles and ethic have been beautifully summarized in the concluding paragraph of the Presidential Address given by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Seerat Conference in Pakistan. He said:
“The Holy Prophet‘s life gives us every fundamental guideline that we require to resolve the problem as successfully as our human minds and intellects can visualise. His example of integrity, loyalty honesty, generosity both of means and of time, his solicitude for the poor, the weak and the sick, his steadfastness in friendship, his humility in success, his magnanimity in victory, his simplicity, his wisdom in conceiving new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam, surely all these are foundations which, correctly understood and sincerely interpreted, must enable us to conceive what should be a truly modern and dynamic Islamic Society in the years ahead.” 
Date posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2016.
. The Muslim World: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by H.R.H. Prince Karim Aga Khan, Aga Khan Ismailia Federal Council for Pakistan, 1977, p. 23-28.
. And Muhammad is His Messenger by Annemarie Schimmel, University of North Carolina Press, London, 1985, p. 144. The book also provides insights into the manner in which this auspicious occasion was observed and celebrated in various countries in which Islam flourished, p. 144 – 158.
. Dalail an-nubuwwa, Abu Nu’aim, p. 110.
. The Faith of Shia Islam by Muhammad Rida al-Muzaffar, The Muhammad Trust of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1982, p. 61.
. Kitab al-mawa’iz……al khitat, Maqrizi, 1:433, 466.
. Manqib al-‘arifin, Aflaki, p. 242, Chapter 3, para. 152, quotes Rumi: “To follow the messenger of God, belongs to the duties of the ahl-i ma’na” (those who have reached the inner meaning of life).
. Ideals and Realities of Islam, by S.H. Nasr, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1966, p. 68.
. And Muhammad is His Messenger, by Annemarie Schimmel, p. 49.
. Ideals and Realities of Islam, by S.H. Nasr, p. 75.
. The Muslim World: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by H.R.H. Prince Karim Aga Khan, p. 28.
LISTEN TO SEERAT CONFERENCE PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS BY HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN
We welcome your feedback. Please click Leave a comment.