Celebrating the birthday of the Prophet of Islam
Brief attention to the celebrations connected with the birthday of Muhammad may help to clarify these issues. Known generally as mawlid al-nabi, ‘the birth of the prophet’, the celebration of this day does not have an official status in Islam; that is, this commemoration of the day is not recorded in the classical texts of Islamic law and has no connection to the sunna. When jurists did contemplate it in later centuries, they often termed it a bid‘ a hasana, a commendable innovation. Historically, the present festival is thought to stem from the twelfth century; this is when the historians of the period start to record various practices related to the twelfth day of the month of Rabi‘ I, which was designated as Muhammad’s birthday. The activities within the celebration are characteristic of the general Muslim approach towards honouring local saints. Mawlids were, and still are, held for the most popular holy men and women of Islamic history as a part of mystical devotion. A holy day emerges from its connection with a holy person, a day on which celebrations and devotions may be expected to bring great merits and benefits. The central events of such days are processions (frequently lit with candles or the like), chanting, singing and telling stories. A fair is often organized for the children. The celebrations culminate in religious devotions to the holy person, producing ‘exaltation, fervor, rapture and in many a tranquil contentment’. Today, in most of the Muslim world, the birthday of Muhammad is celebrated in a similar manner. Each area has its own particular form of celebration and in many countries it has become an official state holiday. This official character is reinforced by the presence of the head of state, who will frequently attend the festivities held at the main mosque in the capital city.
Characteristic of the celebration is the recitation of poetry in praise of Muhammad, often known as mawladiyya. Much of the material found in the poems recited today is derived from classical sources, which emphasize the observation above concerning the continued role of and devotion to the learning of the past. Despite many people’s consciousness of the existence of more ‘modern’ biographies—those that downplay Muhammad’s miracles and emphasize his human qualities as previously explored—the image of Muhammad as portrayed in the older works continues to be a vital piece of the practiced faith.
As well, the characteristics of the poetry reveal a definite mystical element which has permeated Muslim belief. One example of the Sufi influence may be seen in the theory espoused in much of the poetry regarding the pre-existent ‘Muhammadan Light’, an element of the miraculous but also the salvific nature of the conception of Muhammad through which this world is connected to the divine domain. A typical poem contains the following lines:
The lights of Muhammad streamed upon us,
The full moons have hurried away; we have never seen such beauty.
Only you are the face of happiness.
You are a sun; you are a full moon.
You are light upon light.
You are an elixir, very precious
You light up [our] hearts, my Beloved Muhammad.
You are the bride of both East and West
You are firmly backed [by God] and honored,
You are the Imam of the the two qiblas.
Whoever gazed upon your face felt elated.
You are from distinguished parentage and your background is peerless.
Along with the recitation of poetry in honour of Muhammad on these occasions, a more definitive element of Sufi practice creeps in. The poetry is often followed by a dhikr, the repetition of mystical litanies often formed around the name of God. This will not always be the case on the actual day of the celebration of Muhammad’s birthday but frequently occurs on other occasions on which the person of Muhammad is invoked for blessing, such as in marriages. The performance of the mawlid poetry becomes the task of entertainers hired for the purpose. The poetry is not limited to praise of Muhammad, but that theme always ‘brackets the proceedings’.
Reactions against the mawlid
The entire celebration of the mawlid, whether connected to Muhammad or to specific Sufi saints (the latter celebration often referred to by a variety of names), frequently raises the ire of Muslims who wish to “purify” Islam of all elements that cannot be explicitly supported by the regulations of the Qur’an or the practice of Muhammad. This attitude is often one which is also the most suspicious of past learning, seeing the scholars of earlier times as having made things too difficult.
However, the power of Sufism, both in its institutionalized form and in the way that its general influence is felt in Islam as a whole, suggests that this Fundamentalist vision of Islam certainly does not represent anywhere near a majority of Muslims. Recent anthropological studies especially have shown that, throughout the Muslim world, Sufi brotherhoods remain a vital part of the religious environment. The desire for an emotional aspect to religious life, in combination with the appeal of images which glorify Muhammad and, indeed, the divine, has a substantial place in Islam and this is frequently provided by the Sufi tradition. Grouped around a spiritual leader and following certain practices designed to stimulate the experience of God, Sufi brotherhoods flourish throughout the Muslim world, even if they are not always condoned by governments or establishment religious forces.
Celebrating the birthday of the Prophet of Islam