by Andrew Booso
The soliloquy has an inspirational English history, from its use in the writings of Shakespeare to Gang Starr’s Soliloquy of Chaos. In the same way that Shakespeare and Gang Starr present contrasting forms of western art, one does not often connect a mawlid (the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) with the Prophetic Mosque in modern-day Madina, as summed-up in the contrasting perspectives of Sufism and Wahhabism; but my reading of the wonderful Soliloquy of the Full Moon: An Original English Mawlid (Nur al-Habib Productions, 2015) by Noor Yusuf in such a blessed and apt location represented to me how polar opposites can be so often crossed in significant part if we truly communicate with one another. This eloquent and moving piece of art—inspired by Barzanji, the Dala’il al-khayrat, Shakespeare and Milton, amongst others—is a testimony to the importance of original and good Islamic art in English in this age, especially if the art aims to uplift people’s spiritual essences and not merely entertain.
There is no better introduction in English to the mawlid than Marion Holmes Katz’s The Birth of the Prophet Muḥammad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam (Routledge, 2007). She argues that Sunni mawlid works developed after the Shiites, and the earliest Sunni work of this type seems to be by Quda‘i (d. 454/1062), while Ahmad Sa‘ad argues in the Soliloquy’s preface that Waqidi (d. 207 AH) and Abu Bakr ibn Abi ‘Asim al-Shaybani (d. 287 AH) wrote such works—yet Katz talks of the ‘pseudo-Wāqidī narrative’ (p. 37). Nonetheless, Katz highlights the later widespread practice of such celebrations in the Muslim world and the many treatises that were composed for public performance on such occasions. The Soliloquy of the Full Moon seems to be the first original English attempt along the lines of the texts popular in Muslim lands (as noted by Muhammad Isa Waley in the foreword to the Soliloquy), such as the mawlid of Barzanji (translated into English by my old dear friend and teacher Dean Othman, Manaqib Productions, 2009). Thus the Soliloquy covers many of the conventional mawlid topics: the lineage, birth, nursing, Ascension, features and character of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him); and is then interspersed with songs (qasidas).
The back-cover tells us that the author was 15 years old when she composed this work over ‘twelve nights in Rabi al-Awwal 1436H’, and it consists of a thousand lines. An elusive poetic acknowledgement gives thanks to ‘The Ward of manuscripts for close critique’ (Waley, perhaps?) and ‘The Sayyid for confirming it sahih [authentic]’ (Sa‘ad, maybe?), so it seems to have been reviewed quite thoroughly. As noted by Asim Yusuf (aka Abu Noor (the father of the author Noor), aka Talib al-Habib) in a section entitled ‘Navigating Poetry’, this work was composed for ‘recitation rather than simple reading, and hence follows the rhythmic structure of long-form panegyric poetry’; and he sets out the various metres used throughout the work. The performance of the Soliloquy by Asim Yusuf can be seen from 32 minutes 40 seconds onwards at the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTZBu-DQEfE.
This work is firmly placed within the scholarly Sufi tradition, and attempts to provide numerous justifications for certain stances through recourse to footnotes that explain points of contention. For example, after saying ‘A soul he made from His own light,’ the corresponding footnote states, ‘Doctrinally, this means that God created a light from His uncreated, pre-eternal attribute of Nur [Light], not that God’s light was somehow “split”. In similar fashion, the Quran speaks of God “blowing something of His spirit” into Adam n. The phrase signifies a special honour’ (p. 55). Furthermore, there is an attempt to use the scholarly tradition to provide rarely considered positions; for example, rendering dall (Quran 93:7) as ‘a single, flowering tree’, in light of a narration in Qushayri’s Tafsir (p. 58), or when choosing an opinion quoted by ‘Ayni that the second revelation was Surat al-Qalam (Quran 68) so that the text can flow (p. 71). In addition, many of the descriptions of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) are referenced to famous collections of narrations or works that attempt to sift through narrations for authentic ones: chapter seven (‘Reflections’) is based on Bukhari; chapter nine (‘The Ascension’) on the works of Salihi and ‘Alawi; chapters ten (‘A Pen Portrait’) and eleven (‘His Exalted Character’) on various narration sources. One will also find in the footnotes scholarly comments from major Hadith scholars, like Ibn Hajar on the understanding of ma in the Prophet’s statement ma ana bi-qari (p. 68) or Ibn Abi Jamra (p. 69). Nonetheless, when the Companions are said to differ, then the poem refrains from taking a stance, as when Ibn ‘Abbas and ‘A’isha (may God be well pleased with them both) differed on whether the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) saw God on the Ascension (p. 82; and quoted below).
Despite such strong narration-foundations, numerous non-Sufis and a minority of Sufis might deeply object to certain aspects: the presence of Asiya and Maryam the mother of Jesus at the Prophet’s birth (p. 58; a popular story in mawlid literature, but which Katz states ‘do not seem to be rooted in the reports on the subject accepted by Sunnī textual scholarship… [and] seems to never to be supplied with an isnād [chain of transmission]’, pp. 36-9); the standing (qiyam) at the mention of the Prophet’s birth on p. 58 (which although a popular Sufi practice, it has its Sufi detractors as well; see Katz, pp. 128-139, and Brannon D. Ingram, Revival from Below: The Deoband Movement and Global Islam (University of California Press, 2018)); the seeking of the mediation of the Prophet (tawassul) on p. 103 (which is actually not a controversial subject amongst the Four Schools of Sunni law, but has popular detractors amongst Wahhabis); or even the idea of a mawlid in a formal sense (with Sufis such as the Deobandis opposing it in general; see Ingram, pp. 66-80). Nonetheless, this work can be still utilised, in significant part, by those who oppose such concepts. Or maybe it should be an inspiration for them to produce their own revised versions. Every Muslim is overjoyed by hearing about the birth of the Prophet and his life and fine characters, right? So, should not all the groups have their own versions of such texts that are supposed to be for the general public, even if they are not to be sung in a group performance?
The eloquent and moving passages are many; and here is a personal selection, which should be appreciated by all Muslims, from Sufi to Wahhabi and all that is in-between:
The tidings were spread through the lands and the seas;
Creation rejoice! The Reviver is here!
How blessed the dawn! How blessed the morn!
Believers, give thanks, for Muhammad is born! (p. 60)
There was silence a while, in which Waraqah died,
And the Prophet did wait in despair
That Allah was displeased and withheld revelation;
He turned to the Cave, waiting there.
Then, at last, as he walked in the wilderness, saw he
Gibril ‘twixt the heavens and earth,
His pure splendour surrounding, his glory resounding:
He spoke to the Prophet… (pp. 70-1)
Gibril did falter, all did fail.
The Prophet rose beyond the veil,
To hear the scribbling of the quills,
On tablets, God’s eternal will.
Enshrouding clouds around concealed,
As God Almighty was revealed.
We silent stand; we say no more.
A secret lay beyond that door.
And say we naught; if uttered aught,
Then none but speech that He has wrought.
‘No vision may encompass Him;
For vision He encompasses.’ (p. 82)
If one held out their hand to him, his hand he’d not refuse,
Nor would he then withdraw until themselves they would excuse.
How honoured were his fellowship! He made them feel at ease.
He’d sit amongst them and they would converse on what they pleased.
These bless’d companions weren’t repressed, and never were they harsh;
Together, they’d sing poetry with him, they’d joke and laugh. (p. 95)
We have rejoiced in gladness, celebrating his advent,
Delighting in remembrance … yet still do I lament
For loneliness; I tremble in address, my tears fall.
I wonder when we’ll meet again, or if we will at all? (p. 101)
Every culture needs songs and art, and this explains the widespread success of the mawlid over history and the limited success of many modern movements whose method of revival is arguing over theology, politics or law. English-speaking Muslims need to develop an English Islamic expression, as we can talk of an Arabic or Urdu or Turkish religious expression which does not revolve around texts of Islamic law on prayer and theology. Whilst the singing of Arabic classics by English-speaking Muslims is a spiritually enlightening practice, it still keeps the religious expression rather narrow and, dare I say it, foreign. Therefore we should support quality artistic expressions in English—like those of Nur al-Habib Productions, who show the same brilliant creativity that the early Mountain of Light productions displayed under Yusuf Islam’s guiding hand—as opposed to cheap imitations of popular western culture which entertain for a moment but seem to fail to truly inspire one’s spirit. Of course, such cultural and artistic expressions need not be the same. For instance, I would expect to witness diversity between what comes from the Muslim communities in the working-class projects of Queensbridge, New York, and the wealthy countryside of England—as we can contrast Shakespeare and Gang Starr as artistic reflections of different worlds—in the same way that I would expect Sufi and Wahhabi art, for example, to differ. Thus maybe when we stop being so monolithic about the potentials for religious expression we will start to run in these western lands, rather than seeming to always be lost at sea, not even swimming against the tide. To God we turn and ask for success!
The dear author and her father kindly presented me with a copy of this charming work shortly after it was published, upon having a delightful meeting at their home. I had been excited to get my hands upon a copy as soon as I heard about its publication; and I quickly read it upon my return home, and loved it. It was my intention to immediately pen some words on the book’s importance. However, I never got around to composing my thoughts. Nonetheless, it remained firmly on my conscience for years, as project after project went by. Then a blessed God-given opportunity away from all editing and book production presented itself, and it seemed that Madina was the most appropriate place to re-read the work, with the purpose of formally penning something upon my return to my English retreat. And only by God do I have success!
Original post: https://www.facebook.com/notes/safeenah-fellowship/reflections-by-andrew-booso-on-the-soliloquy-of-the-full-moon-by-noor-yusuf/2409967519016280/