In a few days, Christians following the Gregorian calendar will greet Christmas Eve – the 24th of December. But on Christmas Eve this year, there is another, different date that will be marked – the day of the birth, according to many Muslim historians, of the seal of Prophets, Muhammad. For in 2015 of the Common Era, and 1437 of the Hijri calendar, the 24th of December and the 12th of Rabi’ al-‘Awwal – the ‘First Spring’. How much symbolism encapsulated in one convergence – and how much pain – and how much joy.
Most Western Christians will be celebrating, those in the West as well as those following the Christian churches of the west – a number of Eastern Christian congregations and denominations follow other calendars to mark the birth of the Messiah, which will happen in January.
As for Muslims, their calendar shifts every year, as it is a lunar calendar – and in any case, they tend not to mark the birth of the Prophet on the 12th of Rabi’ al-Awwal alone anyway. The celebrations, or remembrances dedicated to noting the birth of the Prophet happen all year round in traditional Muslim communities, from California to China, from Brunei to Bosnia, from Turkey to Tanzania. Despite the impact of purist Salafism, that disavows the established convention, most Muslim religious authorities continue to follow the canonical positions. Those positions allow or praise the celebration of is considered in Islamic thought as the ‘mercy to the worlds’.
But ‘mercy’ is not generally what jumps to mind in contemporary parlance when the Islamic faith is mentioned. Yet, in this month of December, there are times in recent history that do provoke the mention of mercy.
Five years ago
Five years ago, something stirred within the Arab world – a call for freedom from tyranny, and the opportunity to build a future that was more just. Five years on, it has become en vogue to disavow those sentiments, due to chaos that followed it. It is a peculiar reaction, to be sure – for the uprisings were simply an inevitable response to tyranny. If the uprisings were something to be avoided, blame is upon those who could have removed the reasons for the uprisings in the first place – the leaders of these countries where the uprisings took place.
Five years ago, we already saw that counter-revolutionary forces were unwilling to give in. In this month when those who celebrate the birth of the Messiah, and the birth of the Prophet, Egyptians in 2011 were still reeling from the massacre at Maspero, where a largely Christian protest was set upon by state forces in Cairo. No accountability for those deaths has been actioned – nor for state-led killings before them, nor for those killings thereafter. The Christian leftist activist, Mina Daniel, was one of those who fell. He was 20 years old. 20. 20. 20.
In the aftermath of those deaths, a man called Emad Effat, who was 52 years old, publicly agitated against the military council that ruled Egypt at the time. He warned Egyptians against falling into sectarianism, and allowing such a conflict, which was morally wrong, and would strategically extend military rule.
On the 15th of December, four years ago last week, Shaykh Emad Effat himself was killed, as he protested against the military authorities. Effat was one of Egypt’s most noted religious authorities – and a unique one. He was cautious and reticent about the political instrumentalisation of religion for partisan ends, and warned against those who would do so from the pro-Brotherhood camp at the time. At the same time, even though he served as one of the muftis in Dar al-Ifta’ al-Misriyyah, one of the state’s main religious institutions, he was clear in his edicts against police brutality.
How rare such a man is, when it is considered that religion of Islam is now used to bolster support for both the partisans of Morsi and the Brotherhood, and the sycophants of the current ruling establishment in Egypt – claiming divine support for either side, as though religion is another political apparatchik.
A month from now, nevertheless, we will see the fifth anniversary of the 25th of January revolutionary uprising in Egypt. It is also in vogue to deny the extraordinary aspects of those eighteen days of uprising – but it was, indeed, a time of great respect for pluralism. Christians protecting Muslims at prayer, Muslims protecting Christians at prayer, and Muslims and Christians protecting each other from those who would drive them apart. Much of that spirit has been lost, in the chaos of the past few years – but that original disposition should not be cast into the dustbin of history, as though it never happened. It did. I was there. So were many others – and they do only themselves a disservice if they allow themselves to forget.
The last time Mawlid al-Nabi, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, and Christmas Eve came to be on the same day, was in 1852. Egypt was already becoming prey to foreign intervention, and not long thereafter later, British troops formally landed in Egypt, and remained there until 1952. The colonial heritage of that time in Egypt continues to impact the country today, as it does so much of the Arab world. But rather than harkening back to what is now distant, and often mythical past, the Arab world remains in need of looking forward – to root itself in the traditions that made those eighteen days of uprising, and the pluralism therein, possible. The alternative, alas, has already been seen in the black flags over the so much of the glorious countries of Syrian and Iraq, and the tyranny of rulers that made such instability all but inevitable.
But this region remains the birthplace of Prophets; the heartlands of the great monotheists religious dispensations of the world; and, if one is a believer, the stuff of miracles. It may well be again – after all, miracles are hardly expected before they come.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is Senior nonresident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in DC, and Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.