On a chilly December evening in late Rabbi Ul Awwal, warm hearts gathered for a Mawlid (birth celebration) in Euston, London. Such being the time of the year, gatherings in praise of the Prophet are popping up not only in London, but all over the world. This event appears to be a little different though; as it has been composed and put together with the intention of displaying through poetry, music, singing and storytelling the strength and power of Unity and Love.
Such is the month of Rabbi Ul Awwal, the month in which the Last Messenger, peace be upon him, was born. A month in which we find praise of the Best of Creation increases and desire to learn about him increases. The Rabbani Project is a very active organisation dedicated to projects which build on the Prophetic Legacy of love and light. Founded by sisters Rabiah and Sakinah who also make up the nasheed duo Pearls of Islam, every month Rabbani Project runs a Salaam Cafe event, providing a platform for different groups to run dhikr and prayer circles. But during Rabbi Ul Awwal, for the last 4 years, Salaam Cafe has taken on an Ensemble performance to re-tell the story of the Blessed life of Prophet Muhammad. And for the first time between 8th-10th December 2017, in partnership with the Love Muhammad Campaign, an organisation who focus on Sunni-Shia unity and Penny Appeal, a humanitarian charity who also sponsor various media and creative projects, this production went on its first 3 City UK tour.
There was a rather special feeling in the room at the first show on Friday 8th December. I found myself with the artists pre-performance assisting with the sound check, in London Euston’s Friends House. As I entered the room I was met by Jumana Moon, Storyteller royal who greeted me with jubilation. Truth be told, I’ve been fangirling Jumana (rather blatantly!) for the last 3 years since I first heard her tell the story of Rumi’s teacher Shams at an interfaith event in Kilburn. I dare anyone to sit in a storytelling session with Jumana and not leave a fan! Indeed, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to know that being told a story by Jumana as an adult is just as mesmerising as being read a bed time story by your parents! Perhaps what makes her unique talent stand out even more is the fact that Jumana has a very down to earth manner when speaking to you, as if unaware that she is the very glue that brings productions like this together! Jumana introduced me at once to Abdullah Mufa, lovingly referred to as ‘uncle’ by the team – the percussionist.
Uncle Abdullah’s style of drumming and flute playing indicates someone with decades worth of experience, who, when coupled with the storytelling, is able to encapsulate the emotion of the story of the seerah [biography of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh)] in a way like no other. From the flute playing softly at the story of the young Muhammad being taken to the desert and given to Haleema to the strong drum solo that beats as a bridge to indicate the strength of the Prophet on the night journey.
Not long after, I bump into the softly spoken Ahmad Ikhlas, known for his epic album entitled "Night Journey”, where every song is told in a clearly recognizable Jamaican accent and a tune so unique, you continue to hear the melody in your sleep. Ahmad brings a suave soul to the group and is very good at winning over the audience to his form of Praise for the Prophet peace be upon him.
Ali Al Hadi, a young dynamic singer from Denmark was a fresh addition to the Ensemble group, whose deeply powerful voice brought a different kind of variety. Ali is a highly regarded singer of Lebanese decent who as a representative of the Love Muhammad campaign travels the world bringing his voice to collaborative events in hope of greater understanding between Sunni and Shia communities. I found his traditional Arabic style of singing really stood out but at the same time complimented the other array of genre and styles of singing and poetry. Ali really impressed the crowd as he sang in three different languages; Farsi, English and Arabic, once again tying into one of the themes of the tour which was the unity in diversity.
The Ensemble was completed by Pearls of Islam; British Caribbean sisters who were able to bring both Arabic and English traditional songs of praise to the concert, their well-known song ‘Mawla Ya Salli’ which could be described as a contemporary version of the traditional poem Qasida Burdah, not only brought together all of the artists and musicians on stage as each artists had a feature on the song but even more stunning was the crowd that immediately joined in and sang throughout the whole song. I was blown away by the ability of the Pearls to always create an intimate atmosphere of joy wherever and whenever they perform, regardless of how big or small the crowd may be.
With the sound check complete, I sensed a positive anticipation to share with the community, this fusion of talents, cultures, languages and modes of praising the beloved.
And so the room filled with eager ears and warm souls, keen to hear the Seerah in a way like no other. The effervescent Qur’an reciter Hassan Rasool opened the London show with Quran, and as Jumana Moon re-told the story of the Revelation of the Qur’an, it was purely chilling to hear Hassan Rasool recite the first verses of revelation from Angel Gibraeel, "Iqra”.
This tour was successful in its encouragement of local contribution too and every location has a locally renowned Quran Reciter. As the tour moved to the Sangam Centre in Bradford, the team were joined by Shaykh Hafiz Abd-Allah Daudi Mohammad as well as Shah-e-Mardaan, a local Qawwalli band, of intensely passionate proportions. Shah-e-Mardaan added a subcontinental accent to the Bradford show – with their strong voices and drumming – a group to surely watch out for. A highlight of this stop was also witnessing how keenly the many children engaged with the storytelling and the songs, clearly big fans of the Jamaican nasheed scene – many of them knew Ahmad Ikhlas’ songs by heart! When a production can bring together elderly, professionals, students, parents and children alike, I hope it is an indication of success in reviving the Love of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him.
The final stop of this tour was the Andalus Centre in snowy Glasgow, where Sister Madinah Javed joined the group on stage and once again added more diversity as a female Quran reciter, much to the appreciation of the audience. Diversity too was seen in the reaction of the audience as they journeyed with the artists through the Story of the Beloved. From anticipation, as the story of his blessed birth is told, I see some in the audience smile while others can only wipe away tears at the imagination. The tale of two mothers takes us to a story we learn as youngsters, the washing of the Prophets heart. As Jumana grabs the audience’s attention once more with her detailed description of the night journey, pure awe turns to joy as the whole group end singing Tala Al Badru Alayna to symbolise the Messenger’s arrival in Madinah – it is then I realise that this production has also taken us on a journey of diversity in emotions within our own selves.
And that is what this tour hoped to achieve – to give a platform for a completely diverse yet unified Mawlid and expression of love for the final Messenger, our Beloved Muhammad peace be upon him – regardless of gender, age, skin colour, language, Islamic identity – the Prophet came as a mercy for all, and this unifying diversity of the Ummah is what stood out on stage, time and time again.
I have attended Salaam Cafe’s Story of the Beloved every year over the last 4 years and was blessed to join them on tour this year. I anticipate this production growing not just as an amazing event, but as a much needed platform of praise, where everyone is represented on stage, and welcome in the audience, to be reminded of him, peace be upon him, who was sent to perfect character, and gain an opportunity to join in the diverse yet unified voice of praising him. I hope you will join me in congratulating the Rabbani Project and Love Muhammad teams on this fresh perspective and encouraging them to take this to more cities next year, to enlighten more hearts and unite more of the Ummah under the banner of love for the Messenger!