Fireworks commissioned by the Zabbar Parish Church
(public domain / wikipedia.org)
NEW YEAR celebrations are generally marked by excess and glitz. The midnight sky over big cities in most countries is lit up with firework displays, and most people seek out crowds and companionship as the chimes of midnight sound. We talk of “seeing in” the New Year, as though the infant year were in need of our attentive midwifery. The Chinese go further, nurturing the lunar New Year right into its adolescence by celebrating and feasting for 15 days.
There is a kind of superstitious anxiety beneath all the merry-making. We seem to think that if we see in the year with good things, the following 12 months will pattern themselves on those auspicious beginnings. Of course, it never quite works out that way; capricious nature, money markets, and subprime mortgages being what they are. But nevertheless we party on, every glass of champagne and every rocket shot into the sky a testimony to the triumph of hope over experience.
When Muslims celebrate Awal Muharram, there is none of the indulgence and consumerism we tend to associate with New Year celebrations. The day is one for sober reflection on the past, and gratitude for what God has done for humanity.
The month of Muharram is believed to be the month in which God created the world, and when Adam was exiled from paradise but nevertheless forgiven by God. Noah stepped out of the ark on to dry land in this month, and it was in Muharram that Jonah was delivered from the belly of the whale. The Exodus of Moses and the children of Israel from Egypt took place in Muharram, and the Commandments were given to Moses during this month.
Awal Muharram marks the hijrah, the migration of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. The Quran alludes to this event in Surah at-Tawba: 40, “Even if you do not help the prophet, God helped him when the unbelievers drove him out: when the two of them were in the cave, he said to his companion, ‘Do not be sorrowful, God is with us.’ God sent His tranquility down to him, aided him with forces invisible to you, and brought down the unbelievers’ plans. God’s plan is higher.”
In the Quranic account of the hijrah, the prophet is a refugee, driven out by the unbelievers of Mecca. His isolation is underlined by the fact that he has only one companion (unnamed in the Quran, but identified as Abu Bakar in the biographies, or sirah, of the prophet). So precarious is his situation that he has to hide in a cave.
(© Benjamin Earwicker / sxc.hu)
The sirah literature tells us more. The prophet is not just a refugee but a fugitive. He flees Mecca because of a plot to kill him, and his foes send men to pursue him. The prophet is saved only because of God’s miraculous intervention. A spider spins a web at the entrance of the cave in which he and Abu Bakar are hiding, and pigeons build their nests there as well, giving the pursuers the impression that no one has entered the cave in a long time.
The story of the prophet’s flight from Mecca is full of riches, but the underlying theme is that of the prophet’s vulnerability and God’s saving action. At this key moment in his prophetic career, Muhammad is shown to be in dire need, a refugee and a fugitive, marginalised by his own townspeople and kin.
As the Muslim New Year dawns, it is not the strength of the prophet that is being celebrated, but the care that God had for him in his time of need. It is because of his faith in God’s concern for the vulnerable and the persecuted that Muhammad is able to say to Abu Bakar, in the midst of mortal peril, “La tahzan” — “Do not be sorrowful.”
We are drawn to the strong, the rich, and the powerful. Our cultures celebrate success and celebrity. Even our religious faiths can become an excuse for us to lord it over others, whether it is a case of Christian clericalism, or theories of “ketuanan”, or “Hindutva“.
Supplicating pilgrim at Masjid Al-Haram. From the Hajj in 2003, Mecca (© Ali Mansuri / wikipedia.org)
The prophet Muhammad’s hijrah tells us that our concern should instead be focused on the poor, the marginalised, the refugees, the victims of injustice and violence. Over and over again in the Islamic tradition, as in Surah at-Tawba: 40, we read of “invisible forces” sent to aid the prophet and the Muslims in time of need. Surely we are called to be the agents of God in this respect. When the poor need a helping hand, or the silent victims of injustice need eyes to witness to their distress and voices to cry out for them, it is my hands, my eyes, my voice, that God uses.
Whether we want to admit or not, our human condition is a vulnerable one. We are stalked by death and dissolution from the moment of our birth. The accumulation of wealth and power is but a doomed denial of our essential vulnerability. At the beginning of the New Year, the prophet’s hijrah reminds Muslims of this vulnerability, but also fills them with hope: “Do not be sorrowful, God is with us.”
“Do not be sorrowful”
The Roman author Terence said, “Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.” I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me. The world is a broken place, and we can live in it in two ways. We can retreat into tribalism and self-interest, I/my family/my community against everyone else. Or we could embrace our vulnerability, and, by doing so, realise that it is also the point of our most profound solidarity as human beings.
Leonard Cohen (© Rama / wikipedia.org)
During this festive season, I find myself listening frequently to Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. Something about it resonates with me at this time far more than the sappy Christmas songs that flood the airwaves. The chorus goes:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
May we all speak to one another the words of the prophet Muhammad, “Do not be sorrowful, God is with us,” and may those words of solace be matched by deeds of courage and compassion.
See also: The Muharram dilemma
Aloysious Mowe, SJ is an International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He is a Jesuit priest with an academic interest in Islamic law and history.