Faith & Reason: A hair from the beard of the Prophet

British Muslims are learning to embrace a festival which points them away from treasured cultural traditions and towards a central religious truth
LAST WEEK a catastrophe that had the potential to shock the Muslim world was mysteriously averted. A single beard-hair of the Prophet Mohamed, which since 1571 had lain in a glass case in a mosque in Istanbul, was stolen, only to be returned the next day. According to Turkish media reports the sacred relic was stolen from the Gazi Ahmed Pasha Mosque while the imam was preparing for noon prayers. But it was returned hours later, left outside the mosque.

The hair is part of the most valuable collection of memorabilia in the Islamic world, which includes several other beard-hairs, a footprint of the Prophet and part of his cloak - all on public display in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, once the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate regarded as the leaders of the Islamic world for over four centuries.

Neither the identity of the thieves nor the reason why they changed their minds is clear. Security has been doubled and special prayers for the protection of these holy treasures, which attract thousands of visitors every year, have been performed. But the rumours keep making the rounds. "It's another plot by the Zionists," claim some. "No, it's the Serbs this time," say others. In the uproar the believers, however, are agreed on one thing: the existence and safety of the relics over centuries are a mi'ujiza (a miracle).

It is a concept that the majority of Muslims across the globe understand and appreciate particularly during this month when they celebrate the Prophet's birthday, the Mawlid an-Nabi. Over the centuries these celebrations have been an important feature in the spiritual renewal and training of Muslim communities.

The celebration of the Holy Prophet's birthday, an event of unique importance in mankind's religious history, is classed as bid'a hasana (a good innovation) in the weighty tomes of classical fiqh (Islamic law). Although mawlid was not known in its present form to the early Muslims, its immense value in inculcating love for the Prophet, and the fact that it does not contradict any principle of Islam means that it is considered mustahabb (recommended) by the jurists.

Today the birthday of the Blessed Prophet is a national holiday in 47 countries. But the style of the celebrations varies greatly from land to land. In Egypt, sugar dolls are sold on the streets; in Java, kettle-drums are beaten in jungle villages. The blessing power of the mawlid is acknowledged everywhere in the Muslim world.

But the religious aspects of the holiday have a unified purpose: to increase love for the Final Prophet in the hearts of ordinary Muslim believers. Typically the celebration of mawlid takes place in a mosque. After a recitation of the Koran, a beautiful voice sings a traditional poem, often several hundred verses long, which tells the story of the Blessed Prophet's birth. The audience is enthusiastic, and joins in repeated choruses. Many listeners know the entire poem by heart and spontaneously volunteer to recite part of it alone or with friends.

Above all the mawlid is a story of love and loving. It is an event that can only benefit the community as it goes through hard times and desperately needs to rekindle the love for our Prophet and his message.

Establishing the mawlid in British Islam is therefore a crucial task. British Muslims need the festival and its message of awe and love to neutralise the effects of the mechanical understanding of faith that now dominates our mosques and streets. Celebrating the birthday of the Prophet is a beneficial exercise in community-building and soul-bonding which has both worldly and heavenly rewards.

More and more British Muslims have, fortunately, come to embrace the message of love inherent in the mawlid and in the next few weeks numerous small events will take place up and down the country. As they celebrate the birth of a man who has been described as "a mercy to mankind" by learning about his life and understanding his message, they will, they hope, attain new levels of understanding and loving. It will protect them from depression, demoralisation and immorality - or panic and the meaningless ugly forms of extremism which have nothing to do with true Islam.

Mawlid is the only event in the Islamic calendar that can give our young balance and wisdom. And teach them real love and, more importantly, how to be joyful human beings who are alive to themselves and others in the universe.

Here in Britain we especially need the mawlid because it will provide the necessary armour to protect us, and those around us, from the effects of the raw and harsh mechanical Islam that is practised by some among us. Learning, and then teaching our young, the old tender and colourful songs about the miracle of Mohamed's birth and message will implant in us love of the Prophet so it becomes an integral part of our religious life. Once we have learned to love the Prophet it will then be easier to love ourselves and our neighbours.

The thieves of Topkapi perhaps realised that the relic they had stolen was of no value on its own and out of context. Anyone in Islam can have a beard but no one else but Mohamed can be the best of all role models of whom God himself has said: "Truly, you are indeed of an immensely good nature."

Fuad Nahdi is editor of the Muslim magazine `Q-News'