YESTERDAY BRITISH Muslims joined millions of fellow believers throughout the globe in celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed. In 47 countries (not including Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan) the day - known as the Mawlid - is officially a national holiday. In Egypt, sugar dolls are sold on the streets; in Java, kettle drums are beaten in jungle villages and in Zanzibar, exotic sweetmeats distributed to the faithful. In mosques everywhere, 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, with an enthusiastic audience joining in repeated choruses. All these aspects of the festival have one purpose: to inculcate love of the Final Prophet in the hearts of ordinary Muslim believers.
In Britain, however, celebration of Mawlid has, until now, been fairly low-key. But next month will see the launch of a translation into English of the greatest poem in classic Arabic in praise of the character and exalted rank of the Prophet Mohamed, the 13th-century Mamluke composition by Sharafuddin Muhammad Al-Busiri known as the Burda (The Poem of the Cloak). The translation by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson, a renowned American scholar, has already been described as "moderate Islam's secret weapon". Sung by the Fez Singers from Morocco, embellished by the beautiful work of the American master calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya, and produced in rural Essex, the Burda package (three CDs and an 80-page booklet) may well chase the success of the Gregorian chants in the charts. More importantly it should lead more and more young Muslims in the West to rediscover the magic, power and joy of the Mawlid.
There is, of course, far more to the Mawlid than song and dance. Traditionally it is the time to take stock of the state and condition of the community as Muslims measure themselves against the exacting standards of the Blessed Prophet, whom we believe to be the perfect example of our humanity. The exercise in soul-searching ought to be particularly painful and traumatic in our present world.
It would be easy for Muslims to dodge this and see others as to blame. We live with the fear of the revived spectre of fascism in the whole of Europe throughout which Muslims endure the enormous stress of living in what remains essentially a racist and Islamophobic society. We feel pain and anger at events taking place in the Muslim world particularly in Palestine. Here in Britain the tone of the debate on race, immigration and political asylum betray the extent to which this society is slowly but surely losing its Christian and humanistic understanding of sharing and caring. …