Posted by: Titus Presler | February 19, 2013

Songs in praise of Prophet Muhammad both solemn and festive

A lyrical observance to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad was held here at Edwardes about a week ago under the auspices of the College’s Na’at Society, for which the faculty adviser is the head of our Islamic Studies Department.  Na’at is a song composed specifically in praise of Prophet Muhammad, and the practice, instituted in Baghdad during the 11th Muslim century, is especially popular among Muslims of south Asia.

The festival of the birth of the Prophet, Eid Milaad al-Nabi, was observed as a public holiday in Pakistan on Friday, Jan. 25 (though on Jan. 24 in many other parts of the Muslim world).  The musical observance at Edwardes, called Milaad Sharif, was held a couple of weeks later and was impressive.

The stage in the Edwardes Old Hall Theater was decked out in lovely colors, festooned with rose petals, and adorned with dozens of small oil lamps burning.  That was the festive side.  Among the dozen students seated on the stage with cushions and prepared to sing were several women, one of whom was the emcee for the occasion.

The na’at singing began after an introductory reading from the Qur’an.  Na’at has no accompanying instrumental music, so the singing was all solo voice, with the singer sitting or kneeling in front of a stationary microphone.  Most of the Na’at were in Urdu, a few in Arabic, and one or two in Pashto.

What stood out for me was the solemn and devotional tone of the singing.  Na’at was being sung, yes, but spiritually it was being offered – as a form of prayer, as an expression of praise, as an outlet for longing.  There was no stagey-ness, for that would have been regarded as self-regarding and hence disrespectful of the Prophet.  Each song was a performance, obviously, but with none of the usual accouterments of performance.  Instead, it was pared down simply to the singing of the song, with as little attention as possible invited for the performer.

The music itself was often mesmerizing – long and complicated chants reaching upwards and downwards, sometimes with thrilling codas that communicated passion, reflection and longing.

Longing – that’s the second time the word has come up in this reflection.  So longing for what?  Longing for a more direct experience of the Prophet and longing to be where the Prophet walked and talked – by extension, a more direct experience of Allah, God.  Medina figures prominently in many na’at: it is the city to which Muhammad repaired in 622 after being driven out of Mecca, and where he attracted most of his initial followers.

Here’s a sample of some lyrics in very rough translation:

I would love to walk in Medina.  It is shining because the Prophet walked there.

I am nothing if I am not devoted to the Prophet.  The world was blessed by the coming of the Prophet.  What if he had come to my house?

I am always lost in thoughts of Medina.  How will I ever be there?  I wish to be traveling only to Medina, nowhere else.  I wish to die in Medina, close to the Prophet’s grave.

Now it is time to go to Medina.  When I go to Medina I will look for footprints of the Prophet.  There must be some sign of him in the streets.

If you want to know the love of the Prophet you must color yourself in his love.  I wish to see the Prophet’s face in my dreams.  The Prophet’s love is a binding force, and it will get you through the night.

Those who love the Prophet – when they go to the grave their clothes will not be dirty.  As when the dew kisses the flowers and they stay fresh, so the heart kissed by love for the Prophet will always be fresh.

Each musical offering was greeted by the audience not with clapping but with murmurs of prayerful approval – “Mashala!”

Na’at – a window into Muslim spirituality.

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