By the late 11th century veneration of the Prophet had begun to assume a visible form in different parts of the by-now burgeoning Islamic world. Celebrations of maulid, the day of birth of the Prophet, on 12th Rabi' ul-awwal, the third month of the Muslim lunar calendar, had begun to make an appearance. Piety increasingly began to take the form of poetry and song. Love for Hazrat Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, began to be expressed beautifully and eloquently in the poetry of the many languages of the Islamic world. The tradition continues - the day of the Prophet's birth is still celebrated. From the eastern end of the Muslim world to the western the maulid is a wonderful occasion for the pious to show their warm love of the Prophet in songs, poems and prayers. And hand-in-hand with the maulid has grown an entire poetic tradition - one that flies in the face of an orthodox view that considers all such celebrations as bid' at or a misguided form of innovation.
The number of poems written for this festive occasion in different languages is beyond reckoning. Using local idiom and metaphor, they 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 some. 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.
And yet, love and hope and trust in Muhammad the Messenger of Allah continues to find expression in poetry. Annemarie Schimmel in her seminal book And Muhammad is His Messenger traces the origins of poetry in honour of the Prophet. She writes:
"It seems that the tendency to celebrate the memory of Muhammad's birthday on a larger and more festive scale emerged first in Egypt during the Fatimid Era (969-1171). This is logical, for the Fatimids claim to be the Prophet's descendants through his daughter Fatima... It was apparently an occasion in which mainly scholars and the religious establishment participated. They listened to sermons, and sweets, particularly honey, the Prophet's favorite, were distributed; the poor received alms." P. 145
Travelling through northern Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Sind, the notion that celebrating maulid provided baraka or blessing to the listeners first reached South India. In its infancy, this tradition among Muslims in the Deccan initially paid homage to not just Hazrat Muhammad but the three first Caliphs of Islam as well as all members of the Prophet's immediate family, especially Hazrat Ali. Coloured by Sufism, influenced by the fast-gaining popularity of the sozkhwani and marsiyakhwani traditions of Awadh, it flowered in homes and mehfilkhanas all across the north reaching as far east as Bengal. Gradually all references to Ali and the sahabis were dropped and the milad tradition as it evolved and flourished in North India from the 19th century onwards dwelled exclusively on events associated with the birth of the Prophet.
Ghulam Imam Shahid, an Urdu poet of the early 19th century puts it best when he announces,
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!
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 writes:
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 called "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 Iqbal too has written a great deal on the Prophet, likening him to the leader of a caravan. 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.
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, child birth, house warming 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, i.e. between late afternoon and early evening. Usually segregated, a typical milad would begin with Quran Khwani or recitation of verses from the Holy Quran. This would be followed by a hamd in praise of Allah. Some of the best-loved, and also most commonly memorized 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, hopefully, 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 every few 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 applied 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
Others, such as the one by Hafiz Jallundhari - Salam ae Aamina ke laal, ae Mehboob-e-Subhani - send similar salutations to the son of Aamina and Beloved of God . The mehfil ends with dua or munajaat. Some of the most popular ones are Momino'n waqt-erehmat-e-rab hai, ab woh maango jo dil ka maqsad hai; unconventional choices would be Iqbals' Ya rab dil-e-Muslim ko woh zinda tamanna de jo rooh ko tadpa de jo qalb ko garma de or Hali's Woh nabion mein rehmat laqab pane wala muradein gharibon ki bar lane wala. Hissa or sweets are distributed in the end and the congregation disperses.