As you read these lines, more than 1.5 billion Muslims will be celebrating the birthday of their beloved prophet—or as we know it, Milad an-Nabi or Mawlid—all around the globe. Muslim love and admiration to Prophet Muhammad manifests itself beautifully through these various kinds of religious celebrations blended by local cultures and traditions in these birthday celebrations.
This very special occasion where we remember and honor the life, teachings and legacy of the prophet of Islam is in some ways the Muslim version of Christmas, which supposedly, or at least historically, is centered around Christ’s birthday. I say supposedly because Christmas, although it is still all about Christ’s birth and legacy for so many practicing Christians, has become a Christ-free cultural phenomenon for many Western societies, including the U.S.
None doubt Muhammad’s unique place and role for Muslims as the seal of the prophetic line. The only and final prophet who came after Jesus, who is also considered a noble prophet by Muslims, makes the prophet of Islam one of the most important differentiating characteristics between Islam and the two previous Abrahamic siblings, namely Judaism and Christianity, in the context of prophetic tradition. There is no Islam without Muhammad, and believing in his final Messengerhood is actually what makes someone Muslim. Muhammad’s sayings (Hadith) and his example (Sunnah) constitute the second most important foundational and canonical texts of Islam after the Qur’an. Qur’an describes Muhammad as “mercy to all worlds,” and Muhammad symbolizes that mercy for Muslims. His legacy continues to shape and inform the daily life of more than a billion people from all possible backgrounds.
Then, who is Muhammad for non-Muslims? Or who can he potentially be for a faithful Christian, Jew or anyone else who would like to embrace Islam as a divinely inspired religion? For someone who can learn from Islam and Muslims without the need for conversion, or more importantly, without compromising their own religious identity? It may be easy to give answers from the heart to this question, but it is not that easy to come up with quick, theological answers.
Let me start with how not to honor Muhammad as a non-Muslim. I believe Muslims’ recognition of Biblical prophets, in their own Muslim way, including Jesus and Moses as revered apostles of God, cannot be theologically reciprocated by Christians and Jews about Muhammad. In my opinion, some recent Christian and Jewish efforts in discussing the possibility of accepting Muhammad as a prophet, like other biblical prophets who happen to historically come after Moses or Jesus theologically fall short and shallow. These no doubt well-intentioned modern scholars provide very little explanation in terms of how to reconcile such a revolutionary idea with the overall big picture of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as their suggestion automatically undermines many of the foundational theological claims of both of these religions.
In order to get along, in our sincere attempts to build bridges between our faith communities, I don’t think we need to blur our differences or undermine them. We do not need to indigenize or kosher-ize the dividing factors—Muhammad in this case—by stretching our theologies or even compromising core elements of our own faith traditions. For example, I find certain Muslim attempts to “Islamosize” the Christian doctrine of trinity through the 99 names of Allah similarly counterproductive and potentially harmful to both Christianity and Islam.
Despite this theological reservation and warning, I still believe very strongly that humanity at large still has a lot to learn from Muhammad and his teachings. There are very few people who have been as successful in transforming his or her community both in secular and religious terms and impact history the way Muhammad was able to do. I think famous European historian Lamartine summarizes this point beautifully saying: “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and outstanding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad.”
It was again Muhammad’s amazing accomplishments that allow him to remain number one in Michael Heart’s list of the most influential persons in history. What fascinated these two non-Muslims, and many others, was Muhammad’s ability to bring change in such a short period of time, through very simple and inexpensive means and in such a sustainable way. For example, compare Muhammad’s ability to prevent the consumption of alcohol in his community with Soviet and U.S. attempts to ban alcohol in the mid-20th century. Compare the time, methods, deterrents and investments that Muhammad utilized with the ones that these giant superpowers did. One cannot help but join Lamartine and Michael Heart in awe and admiration of Muhammad.
On his birthday, I invite all my non-Muslim friends, without the need to accept him as a prophet, to pay attention to the many teachings and legacies of the Prophet of Islam. The fact that he is a uniquely and exclusively “Made in Islam” product should not stop anyone from learning from him as a teacher and welcoming his legacy into your life as a potential inspiration.
Happy Birthday, Muhammad. Greetings and blessings to you and all prophets who came before you, and many happy and blessed returns to all humanity.
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P.S. For those looking for a good summary of Muhammad’s life, the PBS documentary “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” is an outstanding one.
Abdullah Antepli is the Muslim chaplain and an adjunct faculty of Islamic Studies. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Abdullah a message on Twitter @aantepli.