Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Trouble with Mawlid

This Post is inspired by a beliefnet discussion on the celebration of Muhammad’s birthday or Mawlid . The discussion began with a post which said in part:

I converted to Islam almost 10 years ago. One of the many things that I found interesting about this deen is how G-d (Allah, swt) is a diety with no partners and how the messengers of G-d are not diefied. As a Christian, I always thought that the reverence for Jesus (Isa, as) was equal to worship.… My husband really wants our family to partake in the Mawlid festivities this year. I am extremely uncomfortable with it. Not just because I feel that this is wrong on so many levels, but, I find myself thinking of my Muslim brothers and sisters as hypocrites for mocking the Christians who celebrate Christmas yet find it "permissable" to celebrate Mawlid. Really, what is the difference?

I do love the Prophet, saws. He was a special creation for all mankind and I am a beneficiary of the message from Allah, swt, he delivered. But, he was a man- not G-d.

The responses this discussion received reveal that modern Islamic thought cannot be understood with a simple dichotomy of liberals vs. conservatives. The posters I’ve thought of as liberal were unsurprisingly supportive (one compared it to celebrating one’s mother’s birthday). The Conservatives, however, were all over the map. Abdullah gave his usual scholarly review, and claimed that it was a matter of choice because there was a roughly equal number of Imans who came down on each side.

There seem to be two main arguments against celebrating Mawlid 1) We should not add new practices that were not performed in Muhammad’s time 2) Muhammad was a man, not God, and therefore should not be worshipped as Jesus is worshipped.

The first argument cannot be consistently used by the Conservative Clerics who cite it most frequently, because they themselves have added a host of prohibitions to Islamic practice that were not followed in Muhammad’s time: separating men and women during worship, forbidding music, requiring women other than the prophet’s wives to wear veils, forbidding women to run businesses and drive cars etc. etc. Interestingly, these clerics seemed to think it’s OK to forbid things that Muhammad didn’t forbid, but not OK to permit things unless Muhammad specifically permitted them. Apparently whatever isn’t permitted is forbidden. This kind of attitude is not unique to the Muslim world by any means. H.L. Mencken defined a puritan as a person who is deeply worried that someone somewhere might be having fun. These people often acquire positions of spiritual authority in every religious tradition, because it is easy to confuse hating the world with loving God.

I am glad that Abdullah was willing to accept that there was no consensus of scholars on this issue, and that his conclusion was clearly based on careful research and reasoning. I would suggest, however, that he be less willing to rely on an argument that he has frequently used in our discussions with each other “Allah never unites the Muslims on an error”. The Salafi scholars he frequently cites almost universally agree that the Muslims have been united on many errors ever since the passing of the rightly guided Khalifs. Beliefnet poster Bint Maqbool apparently agrees with this when he says that the Prophet's birthday was celebrated only "when many of the features of true religion had vanished and bid’ah had become widespread”. I disagree with almost all of the reforms proposed by the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, but I do agree with him that all religions need to reform themselves regularly in order to stay spiritually healthy. The Koran does say “If ye turn back (From the Path), He will substitute in your stead another people; then they would not be like you! (Sura 47:38). This seems to me to imply that it is possible for the Muslims (or any other group) to unite on an error, and that we each have an obligation to constantly be on guard against that possibility.

The second objection—that Mawlid involves worshipping Muhammad—has grains of truth that cannot be so easily dismissed. If I were a Muslim, I would be more aggressively critical of certain practices common in Islam which seem to me to come dangerously close to deifying Muhammad. I would question the willingness to treat everything Muhammad said (or Muhammad’s cousin said) with the same kind of reverence as the Koran. I would also question the banning of pictures of Muhammad, which I believe is now having the opposite effect than it had in Muhammad’s time. Muhammad originally banned his followers from making pictures of him because he wanted to make sure that his followers worshipped Allah without any intermediary. However, when this ban is applied to non-Muslims, as it never was in his time and often is today, Muhammad becomes so sacred that no one should ever be allowed to make pictures of him.

However, as I am not Muslim, I am both more tolerant of the use of spiritual intermediaries and less willing to make judgments about what is going on in the hearts of people from other cultures. I am a professor of Western Philosophy and am reasonably skilfull at interpreting texts. But my study of Islam has only just begun, and mere study can never substitute for the experience that comes from actual spiritual practice. Only those who live and practice Islam can judge if there is any validity to these comments. I offer them only for your consideration.

With that caveat in mind, I shared with this Muslim sister some comments that might have validity because of our shared experiences of being converts from Christianity to another religion. (Buddhism in my case.)

Perhaps the reason that you find Malwid so disturbing is that it reminds you of your own experience of worshipping Jesus as God during Christmas. If so, it might be best for you to ask your husband to let you stay away from Mawlid ceremonies, until you work these issues out. If I were you, I would recognize that this is your problem, not his or Islam’s, but I think he should respect the fact that these are serious religious issues that you need to wrestle with. Perhaps someday you will see the holiday the way your family and children see it—as an expression of love and respect for Muhammad roughly analogous to celebrating any other esteemed person’s birthday. Until then, however, it is good to search your heart, to make sure that this celebration is genuinely in harmony with your spiritual aspirations.

This is a problem that all religions have recognized, although it is especially crucial to Islam. Sociologist of Religion Peter Berger talks about what he calls the Sacred Canopy—a network of rituals, buildings, art works, priests etc. which enables people to connect to God on a daily basis. The problem with this sacred canopy is that it often becomes a substitute for God, rather than a means of reaching him. (Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa called this mistake “Spiritual Materialism”.) When religious reformers become aware of this kind of corruption, they often demand that the sacred canopy be destroyed, and/or be made as simple as possible, so that people can have a more direct experience of God. We can see this kind of reform in the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in Christianity. The Catholics rely heavily on what they sometimes call “smells and bells”-Incense, rituals, priests in bejeweled robes etc. The first protestants replaced all this with bare wooden buildings, with one man in a plain black robe reading from a single black book. In Buddhism, Chinese teachers rebelled against the elaborate rituals of Indian Vajrayana Buddhism by creating what is now known as Chan or Zen. Instead of complicated mantras and visualizations, Zen meditation consists of staring at a wall and counting your breaths.

I practice Vajrayana Buddhism (which now survives only in the Tibetan lineages), but I initially had some troubles with the fact that many of the rituals are very similar to Catholic rituals. I eventually discovered that the Vajrayana tradition deals with spiritual materialism not by renouncing the sacred canopy, but by constantly reminding oneself that this canopy is only an illusion that works as a means to enlightenment. There are special meditiations that remind us that our practices, and everything else, are only illusions created by our attachments and choices. But these practices are challenging, and there is no denying that Muhammad was right that there are real dangers in mistaking the means for the ends. Perhaps I am sometimes seduced by spiritual materialism, despite my attempts to focus my awareness on higher essences. But I find these practices seem to make me more patient and compassionate than I otherwise would be, so I keep doing them. Because you have chosen Islam as a spiritual path, you will probably have to make very different decisions about what is spiritually acceptable than the ones that I have made. I wish you all the best in your journey