January 20 marks the end of the month Rabi-ul-Awwal in the Islamic Calendar. Rabi-ul-Awwal literally means ‘the first month of Spring’, and is important to Muslims because the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday falls on the 12th of Rabi-ul-Awwal. The 12th is celebrated as our third major festival, or Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi (Festival of the birth of the Prophet).
We don’t have a Santa Claus for our Prophet’s birthday, but we do get together and celebrate. For years, my mother has been inviting all our friends and family to her house for a milad (which literally means ‘birth’ but is also used to describe the celebration of birth). When I was very young, I remember a milad organised by members of our family that was so large, they had to have it at a community hall. The younger generation sang naats (songs of praise for the Prophet) and read passages from Sufi poetry, verses that venerate the Prophet and God. Odd as that sounds, it’s a tradition that is incredibly fun. Not only is the poetry inspiring, some of my cousins have great voices, and since these naats are sung without music, the voices have to be pretty darn good.
Eventually, as more and more families joined the ever-growing Pakistani diaspora across the world, the attendance at the family milaads shrunk, and my mother was one of the few people who kept the tradition going. About a decade ago, a spate of Wahhabism spread across the country—an ideology imported from Saudi Arabia that strips cultural manifestations from religion. Wahhabis consider milads, and all things Sufi, to be aberrations created by man and believe that they are unIslamic. Many people stopped going to milads, stopped singing naats and actually believed that celebrating a birthday, even that of the Prophet Muhammad, was the path to hell. Attendance at my mother’s milads dwindled.
My mother never gave up, however. She stubbornly held the milad every year, stubbornly invited everyone she knew, even those who had told her that she was going to hell for venerating a man (the Prophet) when she should only be praising God. She doggedly engaged with everyone she met, pointing out the flaws in their logic (and because she’s read the Quran thoroughly, with multiple translations, she has the knowledge that most of the Wahhabi ‘converts’ seem to lack. They teach their followers that ordinary Muslims are incapable of understanding the Quran by themselves, and that they must defer to a scholar or an Imam for an in-depth understanding of Islam’s niceties. The Quran, in reality, is meant to be read and understood by all individuals, as it says repeatedly in its 54th chapter. Thus their minions are unable to refute logical arguments when on their own.). She was rewarded this year with full attendance at her milad. Every young girl in the family had a naat that they wanted to sing, and several young boys recited verses from poems that, over the past decade, were deemed ‘unIslamic’ but have thankfully remained intact in our culture.
This was one of the best celebrations we’ve had in quite a while. For the first time in years, everyone joined in to sing the naats with the children, and no one seemed to have an issue with the event. The mood was festive and light, for the most part…
I’m not sure how it all started, but as people started to take their leave, one of my cousins, Ammad, went on a rant about music being a curse, a tool of the devil.
To be clear, there is no such injunction in the Quran, nor was music ever banned in Islam until about 150 years ago. Abdul Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) obviously realised that voices of dissent primarily come from artists, from poets, musicians and writers. One of the most pervasive tenets of the Saudi/Wahhabi culture is to strip religion down to a dry set of rules without nuance or context. This particular cousin seemed to have joined their mission.
With the memory of a lovely evening still ringing in my ears, I was in no mood to get into a lengthy debate when Ammad suggested that, as Muslims, we had a duty to NOT listen to music; to take down the art on our walls (both my sister and I went to art school, and most of our work still hangs in my mother’s house); to stop reading trashy novels (my other cousins and I were trading books after the milad) and to tune out non-Pakistani channels on our TV.
I suppose if my mother hadn’t laughed in his face, I would probably have smashed a painting on his head. For some reason, I kept thinking of the character of Reverend Shaw Moore from Footloose. I could almost picture Ammad righteously paving the path to salvation with the ashes of books and CDs that he’d burned. He had retained enough of our culture, however, to restrain himself in front of his elders (he’s 22). Instead he quietly slunk out of the room, sulking as he went.
By the time the evening wound down and Ammad and his family had departed, I had my iPod out and I was listening to a song from Natalie Merchant’s latest self-titled album, Giving Up Everything. I thought it was appropriate in the context of Ammad’s ravings. I also want to do my part to mess up his philosophy by not only listening to as much music as I’d like, but by also sharing it. So, as odd as it may seem to have a song by Natalie Merchant at the end of a post about a religious festival, I feel it’s important to not let Abdul Wahhab’s soulless form of religion prevail.
Natalie Merchant has long been one of my favourite singers. Her voice is like a silk veil that drops down over you, barely skimming over your skin yet touching it so deeply that your bones shiver with delight. Giving Up Everything was the first song she released in the album (and the first original song released in thirteen years), and like everything she writes, deserves to be listened to in a dark room with your eyes closed and a glass of deep red wine at hand.
I’m not sure if Ammad’s list of the devil’s tools includes the Internet, but in case it doesn’t, I hope he’s reading this, because this song is dedicated to him.