"Indeed in the Messenger of Allah, you have a good example to follow…"
Surah 33:21, The Holy Qur'an.
Almost 14 centuries ago, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) provided us with a paradigm of how to live according to the ethical tradition of Islam. Through his words and deeds, he provided a model of generosity, kindness, piety and respect for all peoples. Today Muslims throughout the world learn from the Prophet's teachings and aspire to follow his example in the way they live their daily lives.
The enormous significance of Prophet Muhammad's life and contributions were commemorated through Milad-un-Nabi events around North America earlier this year. In keeping with the principle of brotherhood, Milad celebrations this year reflected a desire to interact and learn together with members of the wider ummah (Muslim community) as well as those of other religious traditions. The Ismaili Councils for the USA and Canada marked the Prophet's birthday by bringing together people of varying faiths and Muslim traditions to interact, learn and reflect.
Intellectual discourse and cultural experiences melded together in lectures conducted by experts highlighting various areas relating to the life and teachings of the Prophet. The importance of the Prophet's life as an example to Muslims as well as non-Muslims was evident in the diversity of topics selected. At the events, recitations from the Holy Qur'an were complemented by devotional poetry from Muslim traditions such as naats (poetry in praise of Prophet Mohammad) and qasidas (devotional songs) as well as by verses written by Muslim poets.
For all who participated in the Milad-un-Nabi celebrations across the United States and Canada, it was a time to reflect, to deepen personal understanding and to connect with other members of the ummah and the wider community through the teachings and life of Prophet Muhammad.
Specific information on the Milad-un-Nabi commemorations held in centres across North America can be found below:
Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi, a renowned scholar on Shia doctrine from The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, gave the keynote address on “The Prophet of Islam, the Christians of Najaran, and the Universality of the Qur'an-e Shariff.” He discussed the Prophet's respect for the traditions of other faiths, noting that the Qur'an-e Shariff encourages respect between faiths and “that which unites is absolute.” He touched on the notion of openness in interpretation of the Qur'an-e Shariff and encouraged commonality between faiths.
Professor Syed Akbar Hyder of the University of Texas at Austin spoke on “Transmission of Knowledge in Islam,” interspersing his discussion with the poetry of Mohammad Iqbal. In her closing address, Reverend Emilee Whitehurst, Executive Director of the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, discussed the importance of respect and tolerance, and reflected on Mawlana Hazar Imam's desire for different faith-based communities to work together.
The Milad highlighted the Prophet's example of cross-cultural understanding, particularly important in today's world.
Amir Hussain, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, highlighted the importance for Muslims in the West to build understanding not only within the ummah but also with non-Muslim communities. These ties, he said, will help dispel present-day myths and strengthen mutual respect between Muslims and the broader community. Hussain addressed the youth in particular, emphasising the need to work together to build awareness of Muslim ethics and values.
Dr. Michael Sells, Professor of Islamic History and Literature at the University of Chicago, focused on the Sufi poet and scholar Ibn Arabi's perspective on knowledge in Islam. Throughout his address, Sells encouraged the audience to pause and reflect upon the new knowledge of the moment. He said, “To be in a constant state of openness is to be open to the Divine.”
The audience had opportunities to reflect as Janab Amil Bhai Ubai Nooruddin, leader of the local community of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, addressed the first revelation of the Qur'an, which commands Muhammad to “read in the name of Thy Lord.” He said that “[knowledge] is regarded as sacred; the act of seeking it is a cause of merit.”
Following in the Prophet Muhammad's example of celebrating religious diversity, members of the ummah in Dallas gathered to commemorate Milad-un-Nabi and reflect upon the Prophet's life and legacy.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi, Research Associate at The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London and author of several works on Islam. His speech revolved around the universality of the Qur'an-e Shariff, as well as events in the life of the Prophet which mirror this theme.
Shah-Kazemi reflected on the arrival of the Christians of Najran to Medina, saying, “The Prophet did nothing less than establish a spiritual paradigm for interfaith relations… This paradigm put into practice the most universal verses of the Qur'an pertaining to the other, and thereby reveals that those verses are not just to be contemplated as abstract ideals, they are to be concretely enacted whenever and wherever possible. Reverence must always be accorded to the sacred manifestations of the religion of the other. This principle is enshrined in the Qur'an.”
Hussain noted the commonality of human history and cited differing interpretations as the cause of fragmentation. He emphasised that holistic understanding and interaction between faiths can inspire peace and acceptance. Through acquainting ourselves with other cultures, we can capitalize on our similarities and strengthen human ties.
While significantly diverse in culture, language and religious traditions, the guests attending the Milad were united by their love and respect for the Prophet.
Dr. Jill Carroll, Associate Director of the Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University, described in her closing address how she, as a non-Muslim, was moved by the Prophet's piety and courageousness.
A Certificate of Congressional Recognition was presented to Dr. Amirali Popatia, President of the Ismaili Council for the Southwestern United States, by the office of U.S. Congressman Nick Lampson. It recognised the Constitution of Medina as “one of the most diplomatic and equitable charters in all of history, as the Embodiment of Qur'anic Values.”
The value of apology and forgiveness took center stage at the celebration of the Prophet's life in the Milad-un-Nabi event held in Montreal. Mohamed Keshavjee, an Ismaili scholar and lawyer based in Europe, spoke about the universal values the Prophet demonstrated, such as compassion, fairness, equity, tolerance and justice, and their application in resolving today's conflicts and disputes.
Keshavjee highlighted the need to build bridges, not walls, between different faiths and interpretations of Islam. To illustrate this, he focused on the life of the Prophet and the example he set for us, particularly when dealing with dispute resolution. Keshavjee explored the lessons that can be drawn from the Prophet's teachings and the ways in which anyone can put these values into daily practice, particularly through mediation, consensus-building, and controlling anger through wisdom.
Aslan discussed the commonality of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In particular, he focused on the role of Abraham as the patriarch of the three monotheistic faiths, and how today the shared factors allow for a natural bridge for dialogue between the three faiths.
Khan's presentation underscored Aslan's focus on the common elements of the three faiths. She called for Muslims to become better ambassadors of the faith and emphasised the important role of Muslim women, following the example of the first woman in Islam, Bibi Khadija, the wife of Prophet Mohammed.
The keynote address, presented by Dr. Sulayman Nyang, Professor of African Studies at Howard University, Washington, centered on “Challenges facing Muslim youth in the age of globalization.” Nyang compared the identity of Muslim youth to a two-faced coin, and emphasized the importance for youth to embrace their dual identity – national and Muslim. He also stressed the importance of balancing the material and metaphysical aspects of their life, remembering always to serve God and share the wisdom of the Qur'an and the Prophet.
The keynote speaker, Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi of The Institute of Ismaili Studies and author of several works on Islam, addressed the audience on the example of the Prophet's respect for religious pluralism. He described Prophet Muhammad's act of giving up his most sacred worship grounds so Christians could conduct their own prayer, as one that went beyond acceptance. It was an act of sanctioning, and even revering the right of others to worship in their own manner and tradition.
The audience was addressed by Sulayman Nyang, Professor at Howard University and author of numerous works on Islamic, African and Middle Eastern affairs. Both he and Professor Dell deChant, Associate Chair in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, spoke on “Prophet Muhamamd and his Message to Modern Humanity.”
The Director of the Department of Community Affairs for the City of Tampa presented a proclamation from the office of Pam Iorio, Tampa's Mayor, which proclaimed the day as “The Milad-un-Nabi.”
Ahmad Dallal, Chair and Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, engaged the audience in exploring scientific thinking within the Muslim context and encouraged the ummah to understand the impact of science and its relationship to faith.
Dallal, who is currently completing a study entitled “Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth Century Islamic Thought,” has previously published books and articles on the history of science and Islamic revivalist thought and Islamic law.
Different cultures within Islam have distinct ways to express its beauty. One means of expression has been the exquisite forms of calligraphy that have developed through the years. At the Milad-un-Nabi commemoration in Vancouver, Mohamed Zakariya, an American master of Arabic calligraphy, took the audience on a journey into the world of Islamic calligraphy.
Zakariya highlighted diversity as well as the historic continuity in Arabic calligraphy, showing examples of a variety of calligraphic forms and styles. The discussion was complemented by an exhibition of calligraphic and creative works by Muslim artists as well as by a calligraphy demonstration workshop.