Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Five

The Legend:
Muhammad in Popular Islam



The historical Muhammad was an Arab among Arabs, an ordinary man who believed that Allah's final revelation, the Qur'an, had been sent down to him as nothing more than a faithful communicator of its contents. He was persuaded that he had been called to be a prophet, indeed the greatest of prophets, but he nevertheless was only a servant of Allah and throughout his twenty-three years of prophetic activity he never set himself forward as a divine sage or saintly mystic or anything else that might have suggested he was in any way superior to his companions.

The legend of Muhammad in the eyes of the masses of the Muslim peoples, however, is often far removed from the original. After his death simple stories about his life became embellished with folklore, projecting him as a great miracle-worker, as a sinless prophet who was a perfect model for all mankind, as a living person who could appear in dreams and bless pious Muslims, and as the first and foremost of all God's creatures whose light had been created before anything else. His image had been changed from that of a prophetic statesman and warrior to that of a saint and mystical philanthropist.

Throughout the world of Islam the name of Muhammad is revered as second only to the name of Allah himself. Festivals are held in his honour annually, invocations are offered to Allah on his behalf, poetry has concentrated on his excellent characteristics and music has been composed to his praise. To understand the deep spirit of devotion that Muslims show to their Prophet it is necessary not only to become acquainted with the historical personality but also the mythical image which prevails in the minds of the common Muslim peoples. A study of his heritage has to conclude, therefore, with the conception of the Prophet in Islam today.

According to Islam Allah has ninety-nine attributes commonly known in Islam as al-asma al-husna, "the beautiful names". Most of these are derived directly from the Qur'an (the first twelve follow in sequence in Surah 59:22-24) but some come from other sources. In time it became fashionable to define Muhammad as well with ninety-nine names, in this case the titles being known as al-asma ash-sharifa, "the noble names", which parallel the names of Allah. After reciting each name a faithful Muslim must recite the tasliya, "may the peace and blessings of God be upon him" (sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam). These names are regarded with awe and reverence and are recited with keen religious esteem. A widely attested tradition quotes Muhammad himself as saying:

I have many names. I am Muhammad, I am Ahmad, I am al-Mahi through whom Allah obliterates unbelief, and I am Hashir (the gatherer) at whose feet people will be gathered, and I am Aqib (after whom there would be none), and Allah has named him as compassionate and merciful. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.4, p.1255)

The name Ahmad has become a common alternative for the name of the Prophet in Islam and Jesus is said to have foretold his coming by this name (Surah 61:6). It derives from the same roots as the name Muhammad and means "one who is praiseworthy". A number of his many names are based on descriptions given to him in the Qur'an, for example he is called al-Hadi, "he who guides aright" (Surah 13:7); al-Amin, "the Trustworthy" (Surah 26:107); al-Mubin, "the Clear One" (Surah 15:89) and al-Khatim, "the Seal" (Surah 33:40). The other names have derived from the Hadith or have been attributed to him by Muslim sages who claim to have discovered them from one source or another.

A number of the divine names applied to Allah are also given to Muhammad. In Islam they share the following names: al-`Aziz, "the Noble"; ar-Ra'uf, "the Mild" and ar-Rahim, "the Merciful", both names being applied to the Prophet in Surah 9:128; al-Wali, "the Friend"; and al-Haqq, "the Truth" amongst others. A Muslim mystic was once moved to exclaim that the Prophet's beauty is the mirror of the Greatest Name of Allah, an indication of the extent to which reverence for the Prophet in Islam has come alongside the worship of Allah. In many modern printed Qur'ans the ninety-nine names of Allah are reproduced at the start of the book and the ninety-nine names of Muhammad appear in similar format at its end. These names are all displayed in their Arabic originals, usually in circles incorporating each respective title.


Among Semitic nations a name has usually meant far more than it has in the histories of other peoples. Biblical names usually indicated something unique about the bearer and in Islam the names of the Prophet have also come to mean far more than they would simply as titles or appellations. The very recital of the name Muhammad is believed to bring a great barakah ("blessing") upon the reciter and his name accordingly obtains a great reverence in Islam. Mystical writings state that Adam named him by his own name after seeing his name inscribed in the heavens and interceded with Allah through it, that both the Angel Gabriel and the Prophet Abraham addressed him by that name in his mi'raj, and that the Angel of Death wept at the mention of his name when he came to call him to rest.

The great Muslim scholar of the ninth century of Islam, Jalaluddin as-Suyuti, made much of the root meaning "Praised", stating that he is both Muhammad and Ahmad, that his people are a people of praise (hamd) and that the prayer-rite of his people opens with praise. On the Day of Judgment Muhammad would carry the Banner of Praise and he would be raised to al-Maqam al-Mahmud, namely "the Station of Praise" (Surah 17:79).

It appears that the first title given to him in his own lifetime was al-Amin, "the Trustworthy" and that he was so known among his people even in his childhood "because of the good qualities which God had placed in him" (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasulullah, p.81). This name accordingly became one of his foremost attributes and many Muslims carry the name Amin as a proper name or surname.

A number of the chapters of the Qur'an have a few Arabic letters preceding them. Their meaning is unknown but various interpretations have been given to them. The two letters ha-mim appear at the start of Surahs 40 to 46 and in time these came to be understood to be a short form of the devotion to the Prophet, Habibi Muhammad, "my Beloved Muhammad". These words are often found inscribed in decorative forms where special attention is given to their calligraphy. The similar letters ­ta-ha and ya-sin appearing at the start of Surahs 20 and 36 respectively have also been applied to Muhammad in Islamic history. Ta-ha is said to be an abbreviation of tahir meaning "pure" and hadi meaning "guiding". He has thus been called Taha in Islamic poetry, the Pure Guide, and is also very regularly called Yasin as a proper name.

It is the name Muhammad, however, which gains the greatest awe and reverence in Islamic piety. Because it is believed to contain a very considerable blessing (barakah), many children are given the Prophet's name or a similar derivative of it. Ja`far as-Sadiq, the sixth of the great Shi'ite Imams, is recorded as saying that everyone who bears the name of Muhammad shall, by that virtue alone, be entitled to enter Paradise. In the same way there is a tradition in Morocco that states that if in any house or tent there is a man with the name Muhammad, angels will always be present to protect the home and its inmates unless a black dog or band of musicians drives them away.

In many poems it is said that the very mention of the Prophet's name will bring blessings on the reciter but some poets and mystics have cautioned against its familiar use, saying that very few are qualified even to pronounce his pure and holy name. One said in a poem that even though he might wash his mouth a thousand times with musk and rose water it would still be an absolute impudence to mention his name.

One of the commonest names of the Prophet, especially in the folk songs of the Muslim masses, is al-Mustafa, "the Chosen One". Also in common use is the name al-Mujtaba, "the Elected One", both names having become proper names for Muslim children.

During religious ceremonies and festivals numerous praises are sung to the honour of the Prophet and invariably his personal name and the other titles given to him are an essential part of the devotion. The deep reverence he obtains throughout the Muslim world may not be immediately apparent to a non-Muslim observer but it is essential to appreciate it if Muslims are to be sincerely understood.





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After ten years in Medina Muhammad finally leads ten thousand Muslim warriors in an assault on Mecca. The city capitulated peacefully once he had undertaken to honour it and keep alive almost all its inhabitants.




Not only is the name of Muhammad revered throughout the Muslim world but his very personality is regarded as a perfect archetype of human conduct and behaviour. For centuries faithful Muslims have sought to emulate the sunnah of the Prophet, namely his way of life and example. A text of the Qur'an is taken as the basis of this express purpose to follow him in every aspect of his character and life:

You have indeed in the Apostle of Allah a beautiful pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and who engages much in the praise of Allah. Surah 33:21

The verse addresses the Prophet as uswatun hasanatun, "a beautiful example", and anyone who does not follow his pattern is regarded as not truly belonging to him. In the early centuries of Islam numerous attempts were made to discover the historical Muhammad from the surfeit of myths and traditions that had been handed down through the years and gradually an agreement was reached as to his life and behaviour. This covered many aspects of his conduct, in particular his actions (fi`l), his words (qaul) and his tacit approval of certain deeds (taqrir). Each of these was considered to have a binding authority over the lives of true Muslims and his sunnah was regarded as second only to the Qur'an in importance.

This led to a deep veneration of the Prophet in popular Islam and he often appears as a kind of paternal figure who had perfect wisdom and whose guidance could be depended on without reserve. It was believed that the key to all happiness was to follow his example and to imitate him in every aspect of his being, even down to fine points like using an olive twig (miswaak) to clean the teeth just as he had done. All his comings and goings were regarded as of the utmost importance for correct living and much research was done to rediscover his movements and manner of rest, his eating and sleeping (to the point of determining which side he slept on), his speech and walk, and his manners and courtesies. The observance of the basic regulations of Islam became supplemented with a moment-by-moment repetition in daily life of his customs and ways.

For this reason it is common to meet many thousands of Muslims anywhere in the Muslim world who go to great lengths not only to imitate their prophet in wearing a beard and sandals but even to scrupulously ensure that their beards maintain the length his was recorded to have been. Many relics have been carefully preserved of his footprints, beard, shawls, head-coverings and cloaks, irrespective of whether these are really authentic or not.

The emphasis on his example falls on his physical appearance as well as his spiritual character. It was said that his bodily appearance had a fragrance and mystery about it and that women even took his sweat and perspiration to use as a perfume. He was so pure that not even flies would dare to sit on him and he was so luminous that he did not even cast a shadow. Such legends prevail all over the Muslim world. Even a physical defect such as a mole or protuberance was transformed into a thing of unique beauty, in his case as a proof and seal of his prophethood. A typical tradition on his appearance reads:

Al-Bara' reported that Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) had the most handsome face amongst men and he had the best disposition and he was neither very tall nor short-statured. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.4, p.1249)

The abhorrence of idols and images had led Muhammad to express revulsion at the art of human representation and Muslim artists have not easily represented their prophet in their works, usually showing him without his face being portrayed. Nonetheless they found another way to set the example of his being before them in the form of the popular hilya, a small poster which carries Arabic inscriptions of his name and details of his personal qualities. It is believed that in beholding a hilya a Muslim beholds the face of the Prophet himself and that the viewer who longs for a sight of its object will be satisfied and will never see the flames of hell. In Muslim homes, especially in Turkey, these posters are kept as forms of protection and sources of blessing.

Islamic tradition knows no limits in projecting him as a perfect example for all mankind. His spiritual qualities are regarded as the finest ever known in human history. It might surprise Western readers to learn that the two characteristics most frequently mentioned are his kindness and humility. He is said to have generally maintained a friendly but serious attitude and, though he laughed rarely, did so very loudly and heartily. He had a heart for the weak and is not recorded as ever striking his servants or his wives. He was, for all his religious intensity, a most pragmatic man. On one occasion, when a Bedouin asked him if he should not just let his camel roam loose as a sign of his trust in Allah's provision, he replied that he should first tether it – and then trust in God! He was also constantly said to be very modest in his behaviour and disinclined to reject anyone who came to him seeking help or personal advice. Modesty was also claimed as one of his prime virtues and it was said that his dislike for anything could be seen immediately in the expression on his face. A tradition testifying to his modesty reads:

Masruq reported: We went to `Abdullah b. `Amr at the time when Mu`awiya came to Kufa, and he made a mention of the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) and said: He was never immoderate in his talk and he never reviled others. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.4, p.1244)

Yet to myriads of Muslims there is something far more important than emulating his behaviour as a means of gaining favour with Allah and that is the hope of the Prophet's intercession on the Day of Judgment when the sins and secrets in the hearts of all men will be revealed and judged accordingly.


The Qur'an in principle denies that there is any intercession with Allah save that which he alone gives: "You have no one besides Him to protect or intercede: Will you not then receive admonition?" (Surah 32:4). It was the conviction of the pagan Quraysh that their idols would intercede for them that made Muhammad speak so emphatically against this concept (Surah 10:3). Nonetheless there are a few passages such as this one which seem to indicate that Allah can allow someone to intercede with him in certain circumstances:

His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there that can intercede in His presence unless He allows it? Surah 2:255

It was the exception at the end of this verse that opened up the belief that Muhammad himself could become an intercessor with Allah on behalf of his own community, his ummah. In another verse even more support was found for the view that Muhammad, and he alone, had the right to mediate with Allah:

And those whom they call on besides Allah have no power of intercession, except him who bears witness to the truth, as they are aware. Surah 43:86

To the Muslim commentators of the Qur'an it was quite obvious that it was Muhammad himself who alone could be the witness to the truth of whom this passage spoke and in consequence a doctrine of intercession became established in Islam. The Qur'anic word for this power is shafa`at and the Prophet accordingly, among his many titles, is also called Shafi`. It also seemed evident that this intercession could only be on behalf of his own people and traditional Islam has always taught that, although such intervention could be for the upright and reprobate alike, they would have to be Muslims for no other people could expect to be favoured by a prophet whom they had not acknowledged. His authority to intercede is well established in the tradition literature:

Abu Musa reported the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) as saying: Make intercession to me, you will be rewarded, for Allah decrees what He wishes by the tongue of His Prophet. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.3, p.1421)

Anas b. Malik reported the Prophet (peace be upon him) as saying: My intercession will be for my people who have committed major sins. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.3, p.1326)

A common theme in Islamic poetry is the sublime hope of a vision on the Day of Resurrection when the Prophet will appear with a green banner with which to cover his people and assure them of his intervention on their behalf with Allah. Going before them with this green banner of praise they can confidently enter the gates of Paradise knowing that they are fully protected by his presence.

Nonetheless there is another source of intercession other than the Prophet's direct appeal that Muslims believe will avail them. It is a small amulet or charm known as the "Seal of Prophethood" which contains praise to God in various ways including salutations such as Ya Allah (O Allah!), Ya Rahman (O Compassionate!), Ya Subhan (O Praised One!) and Ya Sultan (O Ruler!). It is commonly believed that, if this amulet is placed in the shroud or grave of a deceased Muslim, he will never experience the pain of the grave and that Allah will forgive all his sins and fill his grave with light.

To ensure Muhammad's intercession it is essential that a faithful Muslim implore the blessings of Allah upon the Prophet. The Qur'an states that Allah and his angels send their blessings on him and Muslims will actually never mention his name without some salutation of peace and will, through many prescribed prayers, invoke their own request for the favour of Allah upon him. "Bless our master Muhammad and grant him mediation and merit and high rank and that praiseworthy station which you have promised him" is a typical prayer of this kind.

While the usual word for intercession is shafa`at, there is another word in the Qur'an which is used in a similar context, namely wasila. It appears only twice in the book (Surahs 5:34, 17:57) and its meaning is to gain access to Allah or to obtain a special favour with him. In Islamic tradition this word appears often as a comparable means of obtaining intercession with Allah. In this case it really appears to mean the right to a position of honour near the throne of Allah rather than a granting of pardon or a mystical union with him. The nearer a Muslim's position to Allah, the more likely it is that he will obtain a good recommendation.

In all this Muhammad becomes absolutely central to the hopes, desires, convictions and yearnings of the average Muslim. Over the many centuries of Islam his image has taken on messianic proportions and, while all Muslims will boldly state that they worship Allah alone and that their prophet was only a faithful messenger, it is obvious that his status in the world of Islam is such as to place him almost as an essential mediator between Allah and his people.





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The Prophet, while beholding all the horrors of hell, sees those who were violent and oppressors while on earth being tormented by various demons.



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Here he sees the fate of the hypocrites who feigned religious fervour solely to gain temporal favours. They are guarded by a demon breathing out fire.




The legend of Muhammad in popular Islam has transformed him from being an ordinary man called out to be a prophet to the greatest of all God's creation whose essence was the first thing God ever generated and from which all angels, prophets, saints and mortals were formed. The myth is that he was first created as a glorious light and this spiritual existence before the creation of anything else is known popularly as the Nur Muhammad, the "Light of Muhammad".

The story differs slightly in the traditional writings of Islamic folklore but the general belief is that Allah first created light from the eternal darkness and that from this he created the Nur Muhammad. From this he created sweet water and set a blessing in it. Then he divided it into ten parts and from the first he created the Great Throne (al-kursi) of the heavens which he set above the waters. The he created the Pen (al-qalam) and commanded it to circumambulate the throne for a thousand years. The Pen saw the name of Muhammad inscribed on the throne. From the other parts he set the rest of creation in motion. None of these other forms of creation came into being, however, before the Light of Muhammad had first praised Allah for seventy thousand years.

The transformation of Muhammad into a celestial being of primal importance in the order of creation appears to be an imitation of the logos of John's Gospel (John 1:1-18) and particularly of the Hebrew Kabbalistic concept of the Adam kadmon who is represented in the Kabbala as the first divine manifestation and the source of all other forms and ideas. Here too the things that existed before the creation of the world are split up into many parts including the Throne of Glory, the Messiah, Paradise and Hell. The whole legend of the "Light of Muhammad" seems to be an adaptation of this theme in the interests of giving the simple prophet of Arabia an exalted status.

In some Islamic writings the myth is taken further and adapted to the nativity stories in the Christian Gospels. The Light of Muhammad was taken one Friday night in the days of the Arabian pilgrimage and placed in the womb of Amina, Muhammad's mother. The angels of heaven were glad and rejoiced while a wondrous light (like the Star of Bethlehem) passed through the heavens till it came to rest over her abode. When Abdul Muttalib, Muhammad's grandfather who had seen the light, knocked at her door he was greatly distressed because the Light of Muhammad had disappeared. He asked he what had become of it and she replied simply that she had just given birth to a son.

There is a passage in the Qur'an which might have given rise to the legends surrounding the Light of Muhammad for here he is said to have been sent by Allah as a shining lamp (siraj-munir):

O Prophet! Truly We have sent you as a witness, a bearer of glad tidings, a warner, as one who invites to Allah by His leave, and as a bright-shining lamp. Surah 33:45-46

Another Quranic text is interpreted to refer to the Nur Muhammad, namely the statement that Muhammad "saw him on another occasion" (Surah 53:13) which is interpreted to mean the vision which the Light of Muhammad had of the face of Allah prior to creation. The text, when read in context, however, clearly refers to a second vision of the celestial being which Muhammad saw on Mount Hira at the beginning of his mission. From early days in Islam Muhammad is spoken of as a luminous prophet and many statements in which he speaks of his sublime rank as the great Light are attributed to him. He is even addressed as the nur al-anwar, "the light of lights", and this is said to explain the other legend that his body did not cast a shadow.

An early Muslim commentator, Hallaj, was probably the first to speak of the twofold nature of the prophet and he explained it simply like this: As the siraj nubuwwa, the "lamp of prophethood", he was the eternal light from which all other things were created; but his status as the last risala, "the messenger", began with his appearance on earth as an ordinary human being. Parallels with Christian beliefs about Jesus Christ are quite obvious and it is probable that the Islamic legend is dependent on these beliefs to a large extent.


It is not surprising, after analysing the myths surrounding the Nur Muhammad, to find that one of the greatest of all blessings in popular Islam that a Muslim can hope to experience is a vision of the Prophet known as ru`yatu an-nabi. It can come in a number of ways to a faithful Muslim and it is one of the great longings of the Muslim masses. The vision of his beloved face might come fi`l manam – "in a dream" – in which the devotee sees an actual representation of the prophet before him, or he may appear as a Muslim awakes to normal consciousness after sleeping by which he becomes a testifier to it (mushahada), or it may simply be a vision of the heart, a continual gaze (muraqaba) not on the actual face of the Prophet but rather on his essential being.

In the early Hadith literature there are traditions speaking of seeing the face of Muhammad and these have been used as the basis for the hope of an actual manifestation. They are attributed to Abu Hurairah who recorded most of the traditions which have a mystical element. One reads:

Allah's messenger (may peace be upon him) is reported to have said: By Him in Whose Hand is the life of Muhammad, a day would come to you when you would not be able to see me, and the glimpse of my face would be dearer to one than one's own family, one's property and in fact everything. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.4, p.1260)

There is believed to be great merit in longing to see the face of Muhammad and Muslim writings state that the best way of obtaining such a vision is by calling down blessings upon him. It is maintained that when a Muslim in prayer greets Muhammad with a salutation of peace, Allah returns his spirit to his body so that he may return the greeting. He hears the blessing of the company of his followers and knows them and, as the true devotee concentrates on his names and calls down blessings upon him unceasingly, the Prophet's graces are poured into his soul till a union of spirit with him ensues and he is then able to see him at all times whether awake or asleep. Another tradition attributed to Abu Hurairah reads:

I heard the Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) say: He who sees me in a dream will see me when awake (or, as if he will see me when awake), for the devil does not take my likeness. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol.3, p.1396)

A Muslim should actually pray that Allah will, in his mercy, grant him to see the face of the Prophet who ever beholds the face of Allah and he should even imagine him standing before him and that he is near for he is ever close to those who seek him and the imagination of his being is simply a prelude to an actual manifestation of his presence.

The great Egyptian scholar Jalaluddin as-Suyuti himself claimed to have had an actual vision of the Prophet. He said that it occurred one night while he was fulfilling the number of blessings to be called down upon him. Suddenly the Prophet came through the door and the whole room was filled with his light. He then beckoned to him to give him the mouth that had blessed him so often that he might kiss it. As-Suyuti's modesty would not let him kiss it so he turned aside and the Prophet kissed him on the cheek instead. He awoke trembling and so did his wife whereupon they discerned that their house was filled with the fragrance of his scent. His cheek too carried that fragrance and it did not depart from him for eight days.

In so many ways the Muhammad of popular Islam has become an exalted, mystical being far removed from the simple prophet of the Arabs. In many parts of the Muslim world it is the very name, thought and presence of the Prophet that dominates the hearts of the faithful. No Christian should be ignorant of his image in the hearts and lives of common Muslims and it is obvious that he should be respected and not be reviled in any way in conversation with Muslims.

Nonetheless it has to be conceded that the phenomenon of the great Light of the universe, as Muhammad has come to be regarded, is a great stumbling block to the Gospel and one which has somewhat confused the true image of Jesus who really was many of the things that have wishfully been attributed to the Prophet of Islam.





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Muhammad leads his followers in prayer for rain before the Battle of Badr. The Quraysh had cut off their water supply by taking control of the well at the site. The Muslims won the battle even though outnumbered.




One of the great popular festivals in the Muslim world is the maulid an-nabi, a celebration of the birth of Muhammad. Although the actual date of his birth is not known it has traditionally been fixed as the date of his death, the 12th day of the Islamic month Rabi al-Awwal. The festival is extremely popular throughout the Muslim world. It was introduced to Morocco in 1291 by the Merinid ruler in Fez and has been widely observed in the Maghrib (the Western region of North Africa) ever since. Many of the dynasties of this area claim direct descent from the Prophet and the attachment to his memory has become very strong.

The ceremony is also very popular in Egypt and has taken on a distinctly Indo-Islamic character in the Indian sub-continent. Here, where the celebration of a saint's death is observed through an `Urs festival, the maulid an-nabi is commemorated in the same way. One of its typical characteristics is the illumination of a mosque or other appropriate venue with coloured lights and a festive atmosphere prevails. The proceedings commence with readings from the Qur'an, especially the recitation of the Fatiha (the opening chapter), and thereafter much time is given to the reading of mystical Islamic poetry in honour of the Prophet.

Great emphasis is placed on preparing special foods for communal consumption though in Turkey the day is spent in fasting until sunset. One of its characteristic features during the evening ceremonies is the singing of ghazal songs to venerate the Prophet and often the praise he receives is so profuse that the music almost borders on giving Muhammad equal status with Allah himself.

Throughout the Middle Ages the maulid was popularly celebrated even in Mecca itself but, after the conquest of the city by ultra-orthodox Wahhabis in the last century, the practice became forbidden. In other parts of India, however, it takes on a local character and the first twelve days of the month are devoted to ceremonies, processions, feasting and qawwali songs in honour of the Prophet. On the last day a great feast follows and food is distributed to the poor in the same manner as the commemoration of a festival day of any particular Muslim saint. In some parts of India relics of the Prophet are given special attention at this time. Any hair of the Prophet is put on public display and in many homes impressions in stone of his footprint are brought out. The plates on which these are kept are covered with brocades and the qadam-i-mubarak (the "blessed stone") is then carefully placed in a holder surrounded with fly-whisks usually made of peacock feathers. The house is illuminated, ghazals are sung and music is played, incense is burnt, and the fly-whisks are waved over it. Five or six participants in the festival then follow a fourfold procedure of commemoration. A marsiya is recited to honour the birth of the Prophet to be followed by durud being his benediction, an account of mu`jizat being his miracles, and a wafatnama being a recollection of his death. The last is even recited in the local Hindustani so that all bystanders might share in the sorrow of his demise.

In 1912 the day of the Prophet's birthday, the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal, was declared a public holiday in the Ottoman Empire and it remains so in Pakistan to this day. In this country cities are decorated with lights, banners, flags and streamers while radio and television programs devote the day to the honour of Muhammad. In Egypt popular poetry honours him in fanciful legends about his birth. Birds and animals are said to have competed with one another to care for the Prophet after his birth and were disappointed when his wet-nurse Halima was given the precious task. Stars congratulated one another at his birth while emissaries are said to have come from afar to behold the phenomenon. Trees sprouted leaves immediately and gardens blossomed and even the sky is supposed to have attempted to touch the priceless earth from which he was made.

Even an orthodox scholar such as Ibn al-Jauzi writes in his book on the maulid that Gabriel and all the angels proclaimed his birth, that the Throne of heaven trembled, that the houris, the youthful maidens of Paradise, came out of their quarters to greet it while fragrance spread everywhere. Ridwan, the angel who keeps the gate of Jannat al-Firdaus, the "Garden of Paradise", called for the highest heavens to be adorned while flocks of birds were to go forth and each drop a pearl in Amina's apartment. When Muhammad was born she is said to have seen a great light which extended over the earth while the angels surrounded her and sung songs of praise to Allah.

These legends and many others have given great impetus to the celebration of Muhammad's birth and although attempts have been made to modernise the ceremony, these colourful and fanciful traditions have remained an integral part of the festival. The miracle of the Prophet's birth will continue to be venerated throughout the Muslim world and the love of his memory will also proceed to be implanted in the hearts of Muslim children from year to year. Like many other popular ceremonies its observance is one of the obligations of generations of Muslims and it will remain a part of the popular legend of the founder of Islam.


Despite its popularity, however, the maulid is not universally approved. Orthodox Islam has steadfastly maintained that Muhammad, though the greatest of the prophets, was yet only a human being and a creation of Allah and therefore all such praise and honour should be given to Allah alone. The maulid an-nabi is considered to be a bid`ah, an "innovation" in Islam, and as such cannot be approved. To conservative Muslims the laws and practices of Islam were defined shortly after the death of Muhammad through an ijma, a "consensus" of orthodox Muslim theologians and jurists, and the duty of subsequent scholars was simply to maintain what had already been decided upon and determined about the Prophet and his religion. There was no room for such an innovation or heresy such as the maulid, especially when its popular character elevated Muhammad to a status contrary to his traditional prophetic model.

The origin of the ceremony is not certain but it is known that it became prominent in the twelfth century. According to Sunnite historians the first celebration was arranged by Muzaffar ad-Din Kokburu, a brother-in-law of the famous Egyptian ruler Saladin. With the growth of Sufism in Egypt the maulid soon became widely popular and its spread to other Muslim countries followed.

The theologians of orthodox Islam, while respecting the intended reverence to the memory of the prophet, became alarmed at new practices contrary to the time-honoured traditions of Islam. Ibn Taimiyya, a very conservative Islamic jurist who died in the early fourteenth century, strongly condemned the introduction of new festivals, in particular the ceremony dedicated to birth of the Prophet. His contemporary Ibn al-Hajj was especially critical of the participation of women in the ceremonies and a sharp division between the ulama of Islam (the conservative theological leaders) and the festive-loving masses soon arose.

Just as the widely respected Islamic theologian al-Ghazzali had a few centuries earlier reconciled the mystical Sufi movement with orthodox Islam – an understanding which generally prevails to this day – so another great Islamic scholar was to find a point of reconciliation between the various factions on the maulid ceremony. Jalaluddin as-Suyuti, an authority on almost all aspects of Islam, was at one time asked to address the thorny issue of the maulid and to give a decree, a fatwa, on it. He researched and considered it as objectively as he could and he came to decision which, even if it was not openly accepted by all parties, nonetheless obtained tacit approval and led to a general truce on the subject and a tolerance by the orthodox of the ceremony.

He acknowledged that it was an innovation without any form of precedent in the original texts or records of Islam but decreed that it was, nevertheless, a harmless practice that could well strengthen the Muslim masses in their love and esteem of Muhammad. He determined it to be a bid`ah hasanah, a "good innovation" for which one might well be rewarded because of the honour shown for the memory of the Prophet. No one could really object to a spontaneous expression of joy and happiness at his coming into the world and, as long as the festival consisted of a meeting of Muslims who gathered to recite portions of the Qur'an and the records of his wondrous birth followed by a banquet of celebration and nothing else, there could hardly be any disapproval of the observance.

He responded to the sentiments of the orthodox Muslims who stated that they could find no authority for the festival in either the Qur'an or in the sunnah of the prophet. He was particularly concerned to answer the scholar al-Fakihani who objected strongly to the music of men whom he considered to be mere idlers interested only in filling their stomachs, and women whose singing and swaying were simply gestures of lust and passion calculated to destroy the fear of the Day of Judgment. His response was that although a matter might not be found in the original sources, this did not mean it was not known. He found support in the traditions of al-Baihaqi who quotes a tradition from one of the companions of the Prophet, Anas, to the effect that Muhammad had on occasion performed the aqiqah sacrifice for his own birth. Nonetheless he expressed his disagreement with the excesses such as those so vehemently disapproved of by al-Fakihani.

The ceremony came to be generally accepted in time and despite recent attempts to reprobate it, it will remain a feature of popular Islam.





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In his mosque at Medina Muhammad announces to the Muslims gathered there that he knows death is near. Their grief is apparent in their faces. He passed away after being indisposed by an intense fever for some days.




One of the great fictions of popular Islam is the belief that Muhammad performed a number of fantastic miracles, many of which are recorded in the Hadith literature. Nonetheless the Qur'an is quite explicit on the subject and, being the earliest source material of Islam, its teaching that he did not claim the power to work miracles has to be taken as proof that he did not. A typical text on the subject reads:

And the Unbelievers say: "Why has a sign not been sent down to him from his Lord?" But you are only a warner and to every people a guide. Surah 13:7

As the pagan idolaters had already rejected the signs (ayat) that had been performed by previous apostles it was hardly necessary that more signs should be shown to them. The Qur'an constantly reasons against the arguments of the unbelievers that Allah should send proofs of his guidance and thus accredit his prophetic messengers. It appears the Quraysh even retorted to Muhammad that they could not understand why, if Allah really wanted to communicate with them, he should call out an ordinary man like themselves whose credibility was hardly self-evident. In reply the Qur'an states that, if angels had been walking the earth, He would have indeed sent an angel to them – they rejected their human messenger not because his message was unconvincing but because of their own unbelief and ingratitude (Surah 17:94-99). In a similar passage they challenged Muhammad with numerous wonders they wished to see performed and his answer to them again was that he was only a messenger of Allah's truth and as a human being had no extraordinary miracle-working powers:

They say: "We shall not believe in you unless you cause a spring to gush for us from the earth, or have a garden of date trees and vines, and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst carrying abundant water, or cause the sky to fall in pieces, as you have declared against us, or bring Allah and his angels face-to-face before us, or have a house adorned with gold, or mount a ladder up to the skies. Even then we shall not believe unless you return with a book for us to read". Say: "Glory to my Lord! Am I anything more than a man, an apostle?" Surah 17:90-93

Had Muhammad been a miracle-worker, indeed had all the fanciful legends of his miracles in his childhood in the tradition literature been true, it would have been a simple matter to respond to such challenges. Yet throughout the Qur'an, whenever the question of whether he could emulate the signs of the prophets before him arises, the answer is always in the form of a denial.

There is one tradition which supplements the teaching of the Qur'an and in this case the justification for his inability to work signs and wonders is simply that, whereas the former prophets needed such signs to prove their divine calling, the Qur'an itself in his case was such a unique phenomenon that no other evidence of his vocation needed to be given:

It is narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) observed: There has never been a Prophet amongst the prophets who was not bestowed with a sign amongst the signs which were bestowed (on the earlier prophets). Human beings believed in it and verily revelation has been conferred upon me (the Holy Qur'an) which Allah revealed to me. I hope that I will have the greatest following on the Day of Resurrection. (Sahih Muslim, Vol.1, p.90)

Despite all this plain teaching the tradition literature is replete with stories of great miracles performed by the Prophet and, as these are popularly believed in by great masses of Muslims throughout the world, it will be useful to record some of the more well-known incidents.


Some of these miracles are very legendary in character and many relate to the ability of nature and animals to communicate with him and acknowledge him as a true prophet of God. The folk poets of earlier centuries loved recounting the story of a gazelle which had been trapped by a very cruel hunter. As Muhammad passed by he found the antelope in tears because two of her offspring in the desert were dying of thirst. The plight of the hapless animal has been relayed in various works of poetry and in them Muhammad is found discoursing with it and, after hearing its woeful tale, releases it. When the hunter returns and confronts him about her escape, he states that the gazelle undertook to return and, as his own name was Muhammad Amin, the Faithful, if she did not he would be her substitute. Meanwhile the gazelle returns with her offspring and, after they have all bowed and kissed the Prophet's feet, the hunter being convinced of the miracle promptly embraces Islam. Similar stories are told of large snakes and other creatures conversing with Muhammad and poets and artists have dwelt liberally on the theme.

Muslims who seek to justify the records of his miracles allege that at least one is based on the Qur'an, namely an occasion where the pagan Quraysh in Mecca provoke him to prove his mission and, in response, he promptly splits the moon in half. The text used to support this incident from the Qur'an reads:

The hour has drawn nigh, the moon is split. Yet if they see a sign they turn away and they say "a continuous sorcery". Surah 54:1-2

This incident, following the words used in the Qur'an, has come to be known as Shaqul-Qumar, "the splitting of the moon". Many modern Muslim scholars teach that, when the text is read in the context of the passage which it introduces in the Qur'an, it is obvious that it is intended to be one of the signs of the imminence of the Day of Judgment. The "hour" referred to is clearly meant to be the Final Hour and, although the past tense is used in the verse, it is clear from other passages that the last times are spoken of historically as a definite way of declaring the irreversible nature of the future conclusion of all things.

Others have argued that, if such an amazing thing as the splitting of the moon had ever actually occurred, there should have been numerous reports of it. Likewise, when challenged as to his inability to perform signs, the Prophet should surely have produced this phenomenon as a sufficient proof. Nonetheless, although this interpretation can be traced to early times, the belief that it was an actual miracle goes back even further. A tradition from the Hadith literature reads:

Anas narrated that the people requested Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) to show them a miracle, and so he showed them the splitting of the moon. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.4, p.533)

The story basically states that when the Quraysh actually called upon Muhammad to split the moon in two parts, he enquired whether they would become believers if he did. They responded that they would. He then prayed to Allah that the miracle might be performed and forthwith it was divided in two. He then commanded the bystanders to bear witness to the phenomenon, in particular as the two parts were so far apart that Mount Hira could be seen between them. They replied, however, that it was pure sorcery and, as no other people subsequently reported seeing it, it was obviously an optical illusion of his own divination.

Some of the miracles attributed to Muhammad appear to have been modelled on Biblical parallels in the lives of Jesus and the former prophets. The traditions have a story similar to the feeding of the five thousand by Jesus with five loaves and two fishes:

Once the journey food diminished and the people were reduced to poverty. They went to the Prophet (may peace be upon him) and asked his permission to slaughter their camels and he agreed. `Umar met them and they told him about it, and he said, "How would you survive after slaughtering your camels?" Then he went to the Prophet and said, "O Allah's Apostle! How would they survive after slaughtering their camels?" Allah's Apostle ordered `Umar, "Call upon the people to bring what has remained of their food". A leather sheet was spread and all the journey food was collected and heaped over it. Allah's Apostle stood up and invoked Allah to bless it, and then directed all the people to come with their utensils, and they started taking from it till all of them got what was sufficient for them. Allah's Apostle then said, "I testify that None has the right to be worshipped but Allah, and I am his Apostle". (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.3, p.401)

This tradition is typical of the spirit of popular Islam where the Prophet of Islam has been elevated beyond his historical role as nothing more than a messenger into that of a philanthropist, mystical saint, miracle-worker and perfect model for the whole Muslim world. In this case the plagiarism from an attested miracle in the life of Jesus is obvious and so is the attempt found in so many facets of his popular image to raise him from the level of an ordinary human being to messianic status.

Another popular tradition well-known throughout the Muslim world has Muhammad working a miracle to pass water through his fingers:

Narrated Anas bin Malik: I saw Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) when the `Asr prayer was due and the people searched for water to perform ablution but they could not find it. Later on (a pot full of) water for ablution was brought to Allah's Apostle. He put his hand in that pot and ordered the people to perform ablution from it. I saw the water springing out from underneath his fingers till all of them performed the ablution (it was one of the miracles of the Prophet). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol.1, p.118)

A story that has been a great favourite with poets and has been told over and over again through the centuries is that of the hannana, the sighing palm trunk. In the early days in Medina Muhammad used to lean on this trunk while preaching but later on a mimbar, a pulpit, was erected in its place. Having been made redundant the trunk sighed heavily as it longed for the touch of the Prophet's hand and, hearing of its grief, he duly brought it back into his presence to console it.

The Muslim masses, in their deep love for their Prophet, have without questioning recounted and accepted these folktales for centuries. It appears that any story that enhances his image will be freely accepted on this ground alone. The image of Muhammad in popular Islam today reflects more of the fantasies of generations of credulous devotees than the original that projects him as no more than an ordinary man singled out solely as the communicator of Allah's final message to mankind. The transformation from a prophet like all the others into a messianic figurehead is not immediately apparent in the face that Islam presents to the world but is one which the enquirer will soon discover once he probes the status of the Prophet in the hearts and minds of most of the ordinary Muslims of the world.





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A painting representing one of the many miracles attributed to the Prophet of Islam in the Hadith literature. A gazelle pleads for his help on behalf of her thirsty offspring against a hunter who had trapped her.