Celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday in Thailand

opinion March 07, 2015 01:00

By Imtiyaz Yusuf
Special to The

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This weekend through Monday, Thai Muslims celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi - the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. This year, the annual nationwide celebration will be opened by HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, representing HM the King. His Majesty has opene



For Thai Muslims, like their co-religionists in Southeast Asia’s other Buddhist-majority countries, Mawlid is a symbolic reminder of the historical presence of Islam in the country. It is also represents an annual opportunity to reaffirm Muslims’ status as Thai citizens and their allegiance to the monarchy. 
In keeping with tradition, this year’s Ngarn Mawlid Klang – the main festival – is being held in the grounds of the office of the Chularajmontri, Thailand’s Islamic spiritual leader, in Nong Chok, Bangkok. 
The Chularajmontri is official representative of the 7 million Thai Muslims – 7 per cent of the country’s population and made up of different ethnicities and sects. Forty-four per cent of Thai Muslims reside in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, while the rest are spread across the nation.  
The Islamic world normally celebrates Mawlid on the 12th day of the third Muslim calendar month – January, this year. But in Thailand there is no fixed date, with tradition decreeing the festival be held in the run up to the holy month of Ramadan, which is June this year. 
For the Muslims, the Prophet Muhammad is an example of a perfect human being, worthy of emulation every day and not only on the date of his birth. The Koran describes Muhammad as a “mercy for the world” – a role model for Muslims to remember and follow in the religious, personal and public domains of life. For Muslims, the celebration of Mawlid is an act of devotional reciprocity between humans, God and the Prophet.  
But that shining face of mercy has been obscured in recent years, as the world views Islam through the lens of gruesome events occurring in the Middle East and largely connected with the politics of petrodollars and energy resources, the death of the pro-democracy Arab Spring, Sunni-Shia sectarianism and the rise of political-religious fundamentalism. Islam, a significant contributor to the development of world civilisation, has been reduced to a dry set of legalistic do’s and don’ts. The beauty of Islam as embodied in the mercy-oriented life of the Prophet Muhammad has been eclipsed. However, the long centuries of Mawlid celebration are a reminder to practice and pass on the beauty of Islam and the compassion of its prophet in the present and for future. 
As elsewhere in the world, the celebration of Mawlid in Thailand includes Koran reading competitions and the reciting of poetry that honours the example and Muhammad’s human and humane qualities. The Ministry of Culture’s Islamic Department gives awards to Muslims who have contributed to the promotion and development of Thai life in their roles as citizens, as educators and as social workers. In Bangkok, the Ngarn Mawlid Klang main festival is a vibrant showcase for the Thai Muslim community and their lifestyles. Booths display the history and cultural life of the diverse Thai Muslim community and the embassies of Muslim countries offer a flavour of their own unique cultures, arts and commercial life. Meanwhile stalls offer religious artefacts, Muslim fashions and Thai Muslim dishes from the north to the south of the country.
By illustrating the cultural mosaic of Thailand, the festival plays an important role in maintaining and enhancing religious, cultural and ethnic diversity and the peaceful coexistence of different communities in Thailand. 
As such it is unfortunate that Ngarn Mawlid Klang is not well known among the rest of the Thai community. The roots of that obscurity lie in the prevailing ethno-religious identities of Islam and Buddhism in Thailand, where the Muslims are known as “khon khaek”, as distinct from “Thai Buddhists”. Thai Muslims still have a lot of public relations work to do in popularising Ngarn Mawlid Klang as part of Thailand’s cultural calendar. 
Globalisation has brought challenges of recognising and living with diversity, and the Thai Muslim community is exhibiting a rise in exclusivist tendencies, which is not a healthy sign. Instead, it has to use its cultural resources like the Mawlid to sustain itself and engage with the world at large. Otherwise, it will end up insulated and out of touch with reality, a situation that will create obstacles to social integration rather than solving them. No religious community today can exist as an island, for the future is multicultural and inter-religious. 
In recent years, Mawlid in Thailand has been a subject of internal Muslim debate over its religious validity. The festival was instituted during the 11th century by the Fatimid Shia Caliphate in Egypt, but the religiously puritan state of Saudi Arabia, established in the 1930s, has banned Mawlid on the grounds that it is an innovation. Fortunately, Thai Muslim religious leaders of all shades of opinion have so far been able to weather this wider debate without stormy conflict. And the enthusiasm with which a large number of Thai Muslims participate in Mawlid every year will keep it robust. For them, the festival is a significant event in the evolution of the Thai Muslim community over the decades and an integral part of Thailand’s social mosaic. 
 
Asst Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is director of the International Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.