“A Mercy to All of Creation” Celebrating the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad

By Zachary Markwith, Education Director

October 17, 2021

This week many Muslims in the US and around the world are celebrating the Mawlid or birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Sunnis will observe the Mawlid beginning on the evening of Monday, October 18th, while Shi‘a will commemorate the occasion beginning on the evening of Saturday, October 23rd. These dates correspond to the 12th and 17th of the Islamic lunar month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal. This is a festive week that is often celebrated with communal gatherings wherein the noble character and actions of the Prophet are recalled, prayers and poems are recited in his honor, and people are encouraged to engage in additional acts of devotion and charity.

Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad because he inspires noble character in our daily lives.[1] The Quran refers to him as “a mercy to all of creation” (21:107), whose merciful example is recorded in extant texts from the period and more importantly in the hearts of those Muslims who seek to emulate his Sunnah or example, including his words, actions, and virtues.

The Prophet’s Birth and Early Years

Muhammad ibn ‘Abd Allah was born in the year 570 CE in the city of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula. His father, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib, died before he was born, while his mother, Aminah bint Wahb, passed away when he was just six. He was thus orphaned at an early age, which inculcated an enduring affection for orphans, widows, and the poor amidst the unforgiving conditions of premodern life and society. He would later advise his companions to, “Bring orphans close to you…and feed them with the same food you eat. It will soften your heart.”

As a young man, Muhammad was known to be truthful and trustworthy. He was employed by Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a successful merchant, to drive and trade her caravan of goods in Syria. Impressed by his character, Khadijah initiated a marriage proposal, which Muhammad accepted, despite the fact that she was 40 and he was 25. This successful and independent businesswoman certainly shaped Muhammad’s views on women and the new rights they were afforded when he became a leader of the Muslim community, including the right to an education, the right to work and keep their wealth, the rights to choose who they marry and to divorce, and the right to inherit. Moreover, Khadijah’s support for Muhammad would become pivotal in later years.

The Prophet’s Divine Mission

At the age of 40, Muslims believe that Muhammad was visited by the Angel Gabriel who revealed the first verses of the Qur’an or the “Recitation,” which is regarded by Muslims as the Word of God. Overtaken by this powerful visitation, Muhammad carefully considered the origin of these revelations and sought counsel from Khadijah. She was the first to believe that he was visited by the Archangel with divine revelation. She then advised that they consult her cousin Waraqah ibn Nawfal, a learned Christian, who confirmed that Muhammad was indeed a messenger and prophet of God.[2] Supported by his wife and a Christian, Muhammad would come to defend the freedom of religion and religious pluralism in and beyond Arabia, including for Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. The Quran itself states that “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). While the Quran and the Prophet opposed the pre-Islamic polytheism of Arabia—due in part because it was connected to an unjust social hierarchy—people of other faiths were allowed to practice them in peace and security. Moreover, the Prophet issued a series of covenants and declarations to ensure that the rights of Christians and Jews were observed and protected by Muslims until “the day of judgment and the end of the world.”[3]

The Prophet’s Divine Message

Subsequent revelations of verses and chapters of the Quran emphasize the unity of God, the reality of angels, other divine revelations, including the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel, a chain of prophets sent to humanity, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, the day of judgment, and divine destiny. The Quran and the teachings of Muhammad also have a strong social dimension that encourage giving charity to the poor, freeing slaves, caring for orphans and widows, and teaching others to read and write. In pre-Islamic Arabia, some people would bury their newborn daughters because they preferred sons, a practice which the Quran and Prophet strongly condemned and prohibited.

The Quran and the Prophet also have profound reflections on nature and the rights of animals, plants, and the Earth. The Quran actually refers to three types of divine revelation or “signs”: holy books, the natural world, and human beings. The Quran states, “In the Earth are divine signs (ayat) for those who are certain, and in yourselves. What, do you not see?” (51:20-21) The cosmos is a theatre for human beings to reflect upon as divine signs that indicate the One who creates, sustains, and embraces all life. Moreover, the Earth and human beings are interdependent; when we harm nature, we harm ourselves. The Prophet himself first received divine revelation while contemplating on a mountain in the outskirts of Mecca. He would later institute laws that preserve trees, ration water, and only permit the eating of meat if the animals are treated and slaughtered humanely. In a prophetic saying that speaks to the environmental crisis, the Prophet stated, “If the day of judgment arrives while someone is planting a tree, let him continue to plant it.”

The Prophet’s Promotion of Peace

The Prophet promoted peace and reconciliation throughout his life. Before his prophetic mission, he was chosen to arbitrate among rival leaders. During the Meccan period, he and his early followers nonviolently endured assaults, torture, and sanctions because their new faith challenged the unjust social order. After migrating to Medina to flee religious persecution, the nascent Muslim community was given permission to defend themselves against the invading Meccan army, but were commanded not to initiate hostilities, nor attack noncombatants, women, children, or the elderly. Upon their victorious return to Mecca, the Prophet declared a general amnesty and forgave those who had persecuted and waged wars against the community. He is recorded to have said, “Shall I tell you of something you can do to make you love one another? Spread peace among yourselves.”

Many Muslims around the world remember and celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad because his life inspires us to treat others—men, women, and children, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, friends and enemies, humans, animals, plants, and the Earth—with compassion and mercy. He was oriented towards and received revelation from God, described repeatedly throughout the Quran as “the Compassionate” (al-Rahman) and “the Merciful” (al-Rahim), and as a result reflected those qualities in the world as “a mercy to all of creation” (rahmatan lil-‘alamin). The Quran states that the Prophet is “closer to the faithful than they are to themselves.” (33:6) Those who celebrate, love, and follow the teachings of Muhammad, as well as those prophets who preceded him, discover a paradigm of human virtue that shines forth in their own words, deeds, and hearts. In loving him, peace be upon him, we love the best part of humanity and ourselves.

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The Prophet’s example inspires our work at ING as a peace-building organization committed to education about Muslims and other misunderstood groups. We are afforded opportunities to teach about Islam and learn about the faiths of others to enhance understanding and dispel stereotypes. To schedule a presentation, explore lessons plans and frequently asked questions about Islam and Muslims, and other resources, view ING’s Educator Toolkit here.

[1] It is true that some Muslims do not celebrate the Mawlid and consider it to be a prohibited innovation. There are valid differences of opinion among scholars on this question and Islam in general that should engender respect for those who hold opposing views. Muslims are encouraged to follow the Sunnah, recall the life and teachings of the Prophet, and invoke peace and blessings upon him whether they choose to celebrate the Mawlid or not.

[2] Craig Considine, People of the Book: Prophet Muhammad’s Encounters with Christians (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2021), 21-25.

[3] John Andrew Morrow, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (Tacoma: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2013), 229.