Once again, my purpose was to come up with a story that would be suitable for use in a Unitarian Universalist worship service, to show that many great religious leaders and prophets have legends of miraculous births. The legends about Muhammad’s birth (peace be upon him) interest me because they appear to be less important than the miracles told of Jesus’s birth (whcih make it into two of the four Gospels) or of Buddha’s birth (which make it into the Jataka tales) or of Confucius’s birth (which make it into the cultic traditions of Confucianism). Thus, when referring to miracles in this story, I have tried to use statements like “some people say,” etc.
At Christmas we like to remember the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But did you know that there are other miraculous birth stories of other great religious leaders? Today I’m going to tell you about the birth of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and I’ll tell you some of the legends that some people tell about his birth. See if you think these legends are at all like the legends that are told about Jesus’s birth.
The Miracles at the Birth of Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Once upon a time, many many years ago, far away in the land of Arabia, there lived a man named ‘Abdel Muttalib. As this story begins, ‘Abdel Muttalib was about 70 years old, and was the foremost leader of the city of Mecca. His son ‘Abdallah was then 24 years old, a young man renowned for the beautiful light shining in his face. ‘Abdel Muttalib took his son ‘Abdallah to some distant relatives, and gave him in marriage to Amina, the daughter of Wahb. Amina was said to be pure in her thoughts and deeds. (1)
The wedding took place at the home of the bride, as was the custom. After they were married, ‘Abdallah stayed with Amina for several days. Soon Amina was pregnant, but ‘Abdallah had to set forth on a journey with a caravan of merchants traveling to the distant city of Ghazza. As the caravan returned to Mecca, while in the city of Medina, ‘Abdallah became ill. He stayed there with cousins on his father’s side.
When the caravan finally got back to Mecca, they went to ‘Abdel Muttalib to tell him that his son was ill, and had stayed in Medina. ‘Abdel Muttalib sent Harith, another of his sons, to go and take care of ‘Abdallah. But when Harith arrived in Medina, he learned that ‘Abdallah had died a month after the caravan left, and was now buried in the Bani Adi quarter of the city. Harith returned to Mecca, and ‘Abdel Muttalib and all the family mourned ‘Abdallah’s death.
Amina had not yet given birth. Abdallah had left the house in which he had lived, five camels fed on wild shrubs, a flock of goats, and a slave girl called Omm Ayman. He left nothing more than this; but Amina’s simple habits required no more; and indeed in that time and place, all those goats, and that many camels, and a slave to help care for the new baby provided a measure of prosperity and comfort to Amina. (2)
One day when Amina was pregnant with her baby, she fell into a dream. A voice said to her, “The child you bear is the best of all humankind, and he will be a leader of his people. When he is born, give him the name of Muhammad, which means ‘Highly Praised’.” This voice said that her baby’s name is Ahmad in the Torah and in the Gospels, but in the Qu’ran his name will be Muhammad. (3) Some people say that this voice that Amina heard was the voice of the angel Gabriel. They go on to say that unlike most pregnant women, Amina felt no discomfort during her pregnancy. (4)
Now many legends have been passed down about the time when Amina was giving birth. One legend says that as Amina was in labor, a white bird came and lay its wing across her, helping her to keep her confidence; later came Birds of Paradise, with their ruby-red bills and emerald-green wings to sing to her. Some people say heavenly music came from out of the air, and a sheet of cloth came down from heaven to give Amina privacy; Amina grew thirsty, and a hand appeared, presenting her with a cup filled with a delicious drink that was white as milk and sweet as honey; beings from the heavens scattered beautiful aromas around Amina. (5)
Another legend says that at the moment that Amina gave birth, a light came from her and her baby, a light which was so bright that it lit up distant palaces, so that Amina could see the necks of the camels in Bosra. (6) Then the baby raised himself up, saying, “There is no God but Allah, and I am his prophet.” His aunt Safia, who was there with Amina, said that she did not have to cut the baby’s umbilical cord. (7) And some people say three personages, as bright as the sun, appeared: one presented a silver goblet to the child, one an emerald tray, and the third a silken towel; these three personages washed the baby seven times, then blessed him, calling him the Prince of Humanity. (8)
But many people, perhaps most, don’t really believe all these myths and legends. Instead, they tell a simpler tale of a special baby born to a recently widowed mother. And they would go on to finish the story like this:
After the baby was born, Amina sent to ‘Abdel Muttalib, who rejoiced upon hearing that he had a grandchild. The grandfather took the baby in his arms, and carried him to the Ka’bah, the holiest place in Mecca. ‘Abdel Muttalib walked around the Ka’bah seven times with the baby, and on the last time around he announced that the baby would be called Muhammad, just as Amina had wanted. (9)
And indeed, this little baby did grow up to be the great prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who founded the religion of Islam. He taught the importance of doing right, of giving alms to those who were poor, and of praying each day so that we may keep our minds on that which is best in the world. Today billions of people, whom we call Muslims, still follow the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
(1) The Life of Mahomet vol. 2, by William Muir (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1861] pp. xiv ff. Images of Muhammad: Narratives of the Prophet in Islam Across the Centuries, by Tarif Khalidi (New York: Random House, Inc., 2009), p. 66. Amina was said to be sexually pure, which would have been important in the Arab cultures of the time.
(2) Muir. “Mohammed,” unsigned article in Lives of the illustrious: The Biographical magazine, Volume 7, [J. Passmore Edwards,] (London: Partridge, Oakey and Co., 1855), pp. 53-54.
(3) A Biography of the Prophet of Islam, in the Light of the Original Sources: An Analytical Study, Volume 1, by Mahdi Rizq Allah Ahmad, trans. Syed Iqbal Zaheer (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2005), p. 99. The Life and Work of Muhammad, by Yahiya Emerick (Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2002), p. 29.
(4) Khalidi. Katib al Wackidi, quoted by Muir. “Mohammed,” p. 54.
(5) “Biographies of Mohammed for India,” anonymous review of The Ennobled Nativity by Maulud Sharif, in the Calcutta Review, Volume 17, January-June, 1852 (Calcutta: Sanders, Cone, 1852), p. 404. The reviewer says Sharif records “traditions of a late fabrication.”
(6) Khalidi, p. 68. Muir.
(7) “Biographies of Mohammed for India,” p. 404.