by Doug Howard.
During this Advent season we’ve all been grieving the violence in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, Mali… the list seems endless, some from our American free access to guns, some from acts of terrorism committed by Muslims. Some are both. We’ve heard Donald Trump scream about barring Muslims from the United States. We’ve read about ISIS killing Christians and Yazidis and Alevis and anyone else opposed to their hateful brand of Islam. We wonder, has it always been this way? Have we no common ground for understanding?
This December we are offered an unusual glimpse of reconciliation: as it happens, the Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (called Mevlid) comes this year on Christmas Eve. The traditional Islamic calendar follows a lunar year, so Muslim holy days rotate slowly through the solar year, about three times each century but not exactly. The last time the Prophet’s birthday, the 12th day of the month of Rebi‘ al-Awwal, fell on Christmas Eve was in 1852. In these years the festivals of light– Jewish, Christian, and Islamic–occur in very close proximity.
Hanukkah is the oldest of the three. According to II Maccabees, chs. 1-2, on the 25th day of Kislev Jews commemorated the purification of the temple in Jerusalem after the defeat of the Hellenizing King Antiochus IV, in the second century before Christ. Hanukkah comes between late November and mid-December annually because Kislev fluctuates somewhat from year to year on the solar calendar.
No one knows exactly when Jesus of Nazareth was born, but by the fourth century A.D. Christians in Rome were celebrating his birthday on December 25. Some say that this date was originally chosen to hide behind the days-long Roman celebrations of the winter solstice (the Saturnalia), as well as the birth of the god Mithras on the same day. Others point out that the promise of new life in Christ fits very well in the season when all nature seems to be dying.
Yet the hope for life and light in the midst of death and darkness has to be among the oldest human prayers, older than monotheism. It can be seen, for example, in the megalith passage at Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland, which dates back more than five thousand years to the late Paleolithic. On the days surrounding the winter solstice, the rising sun illuminates an underground chamber through a stone opening.
It might seem at first that, since its traditional calendar follows the lunar year, Islam has nothing to do with this solar celebration, but that’s not quite the case. Of course Muslims like everyone else live within the solar year. But also, Mevlid is just the kind of holy day which, when it falls near the winter solstice, readily draws Muslims into the spirit of the season. In the 1780s Ignatius Mouradgea d’Ohsson, an Armenian historian in Swedish service to the Ottoman Empire, gave a detailed description of the ornate Mevlid services at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, in his Tableau Général de l’Empire Othoman. There were hymns to the Prophet and a sermon. Chanters sang a traditional epic called Vesiletü’ n-Nedjat (The Means of Salvation). This poem, written in 1409, has been translated into numerous languages and is still recited every year around the world on the Prophet’s birthday. It is probably the best-loved work of literature ever written in the Turkish language.
According to d’Ohsson, these Ottoman celebrations were officially introduced at court by Sultan Murad III in 1588. For a long time I wondered about that date–do we know this for sure? 1588 seemed suspiciously close to the millennium—the Islamic year 1000 began in October 1591. But he did not cite the source of his information. My hunch that it had something to do with the solar calendar proved to be correct. The Ottoman historian Mustafa Selanikî, writing about 1600, published the text of Sultan Murad’s decree that for the birthday of the Prophet in the year 996 (1588) and thereafter, the minarets of all the mosques should be lit up with candles and the day honored with hymns and recitations of the story of the Prophet’s birth. (For Ottoman historians who happen to read this, you can find it in the İpşirli edition, vol. I, pp. 197-98.)
Using this online date converter you can see that in 1588 Mevlid fell on January 31, a couple of days before Candlemas (on the Julian calendar, used among Ottoman Christians). In the following years Mevlid cycled through the Orthodox and Roman Christmas seasons and Hannukah, at the winter solstice. In the Islamic year 1000 Mevlid came on December 18 Julian (December 28 Gregorian). Hanukkah ended on December 8. Anyone who remembers the apocalyptic hysteria that surrounded Y2K–the year 2000, the end of the second Christian millennium–can imagine the millennium fever that consumed the Islamic world as the year 1000 approached. In those days people paid close attention to astronomy and astrology (yes, Muslims too) and watched for such signs among the planets and luminaries.
A few years later Sultan Murad III died. His successor, his son Ahmed, was of a different temperament. There were always some Muslims who were uneasy with Mevlid commemorations. Ahmed appointed a new chief mufti who published a screed condemning everything that was wrong with the empire, and he specifically singled out the Mevlid celebrations with their candles. They were too much like what the Christians did. Islam and Christianity were different religions. Other Muslims didn’t care what he said, they carried on with Mevlid.
Yet I would say that in this spectacular convergence of the calendars Sultan Murad recognized something in which we too can find hope in 2015. The festivals of light coincide this year as well, and in them we can turn to our brothers and sisters, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and pagans, and honor our shared human longing for light in darkness, life amidst death, and hope in the face of despair.
Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. He’s almost finished writing a history of the Ottoman Empire.