By Donny Syofyan
January 17 2014
A lot of pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) and Majlis Taklim (Quran study groups) hold recitations of Zikr (religious chants) every time they commemorate the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s birth (Mawlid). In a somewhat different way, the Sasak natives in Lombok, who are mostly Muslims, wash their keris (traditional daggers) in nearby Lake Sagara Anak, a ritual called pekelem, to mark the Prophet’s birthday.
Multiple ways of celebrating the Mawlid of the Prophet Muhammad signals that respect for the Prophet cannot be separated from cultural pluralism. Due to his noble personality, love and respect for the Prophet cannot be restricted to one single religious celebration.
In principal, assorted Mawlid celebrations by diverse groups of Muslims indicate that they have shifted into more personal and cultural expressions instead of purely religious manifestations. Take the Mawlid of al-Barzanji, for instance, one of the classics of traditional Islamic culture. It is a sung celebration of the birth and greatness of Muhammad, traditionally recited on the anniversary of his birth.
Despite opposition to it from some Islamic movements, the recital of al-Barzanji has its own legitimacy, not simply because it possesses elements of Sufi — which is a part of Islamic traditional science — but also because it accentuates the cultural expression of Muslims’ love for the Prophet Muhammad.
Strong cultural pressure makes particular groups of Muslims’ love for the Prophet long-lasting. While the staged approach through delivering sermons might have a boring effect on people since they only suit those with a strong religious consciousness, the frequent recital of al-Barzanji ingrains respect for the Prophet in Muslims.
I have accustomed myself to the al-Barzanji tradition since I was a child. My personal repertoire and mental image of the Prophet, to a serious degree, has been shaped by listening to the recital because it narrates a lot of the Prophet’s noble characteristics, among others his siding with the poor, his very humble lifestyle, his habit of sewing his own sandals and clothes, his shy personality, his not being puffed up, his compassionate attitude to his family and so on. My deep love for and mature comprehension of Muhammad are inseparably linked to this tradition.
Furthermore, a diverse celebration of the Prophet’s birthday betokens Muhammad’s plural personality. Muhammad is not a monolithic figure. Rather he is a multidimensional man with a distinguished degree of success in all the roles played; ordinary man, husband, father, religious leader, general and many others.
His diverse personality trait has invited Muslims’ vast and heterogeneous response to his charm. In a nutshell, multiple ways of celebrating Mawlid suggest that Muslims assign great importance to the Prophet in different ways.
In Yogyakarta, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is celebrated with the Sekaten festival with the intention of bringing people together to recite the Shahadah, to witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Prophet. In a ceremony known as Kondur Gongso, the sultan attends a commemoration of Prophet Mohammad’s birthday at the mosque to listen to the story of the Prophet being read out aloud. Cultural festivity is central to Mawlid celebration there.
For people around Mt. Lemongan in East Java, the Mawlid celebration is held through activities such as re-greening Mt. Lemongan, cultural art performances and a local Javanese procession to clean the village, passed down through generations. While this is valuable social capital for development, the re-greening activity is inspired by the very essence of Muhammad’s coming as a blessing for the entire universe (Rahmatul Lil ‘Alamin), figuring in the environment.
Even under the Fatimid government in Sunni Islam, the Mawlid celebration had a social and political function. At that time, the place in political and social hierarchy of the host organizing the Mawlid celebration was expressed through the value of the gifts received.
Last but not least, with the Mawlid being celebrated in different places in different ways, it remains a hope that it encourages Muslims to maintain this country as a beneficial laboratory of tolerance.
We might learn how Muslim descendents of the king’s guard live in peace in Bali. In the land of temples, Puri Pemecutan in the Badung kingdom and the Muslim community in Kampung Islam Kepaon have maintained a special relationship. When the mosque celebrates Mawlid, the king from Puri Pemecutan is invited. In Kampung Islam Kepaon, the houses of the Hindus do not have Sanggah (small temple) out front and no dogs roam around, as a sign of mutual respect for their Muslim neighbors.
The celebration of the Prophet’s birthday is a reminder that we have to live in tolerance as he himself taught.
Donny Syofyan is a lecturer in the School of Cultural Sciences at Andalas University.