The Celebration of Mawlid, The Birthday of the Prophet

Friday, January 2, 2015 - 6:25am
Photo by A. Majeed

The Celebration of Mawlid, The Birthday of the Prophet

Lots of people argue over Christmas, whether it is the holy day to honor the birth of the Jesus or a commercial, secular holiday. (And at least to Neil deGrasse Tyson, the birth of Isaac Newton).

Muslims are no strangers to arguments, and have their own debates. No, not the debates over whether Muslims should celebrate Christmas, which is something of an annual ritual for Muslims living in Western societies.

I am speaking about the other important debate, the one over whether Muslims should honor the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. And this Friday night, January 2nd, Muslims begin celebrating the birth of Muhammad.

Stay with me here. ☺

Muslims cross a decorated street during Eid-e-Milad-un-Nabi celebrations in Karachi, Pakistan.

(Rizwan Tabassum / AFP/Getty Images.)

Historically speaking, many Muslims have honored the birth of Muhammad in a ritual called the Mawlid. These popular practices are festive occasions, often with decorations all over cities, featuring tents in which sweets and candy are handed out.

People walk under decorations erected ahead of the celebrations for al-Mawlid al-Nabawi in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

(Mohammed Huwais / AFP/Getty Images.)

Connected to these festivities is a whole tradition of devotional songs that portray Muhammad not simply as the deliverer of the last divine dispensation (the Qur’an) but as a being of cosmic significance, an opening of a channel of divine mercy onto this world, and a means of intercession for us sinners.

Muslim Sufis play music in the streets in the southern port city of Sidon, Lebanon in celebration of Mawlid.

(Mahmoud Zayat / AFP/Getty Images.)

It was this Muhammad — the cosmic Muhammad who served as the cause of creation, the Muhammad that God so loved that were it not for him creation would not have been (according to the Sacred Hadith, “Wa law laaka…” ) — who was and remains the object of Muslim devotion. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so does Muhammad reflect the light of God onto the cosmos.

Perhaps the most famous of these devotional Mawlid poems is a Turkish version that dates back to about 700 years ago. Written by Suleyman Chelebi, this Mawlid poem (referred to in Turkish as the Mevlut) offers a somewhat rare point of view in Abrahamic traditions: a chance to see a central religious narrative from the point of view of a female character — in this case Muhammad’s mother, Amina.

In this rendering of a scene from 1787, Muslims take part in an official prayer to celebrate the birth of Prophet Muhammad in the presence of the sultan and other supreme officials at the mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul.

(Ottoman Imperial Archives / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

The narrative is something of a “super best friends” episode of great luminous women of religious history: Muhammad’s mother, Asiya (who raised Moses), and Lady Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Some have said that of these charming three

One was Asiya of moonlike face,

One was Lady Mary without doubt,

And the third a houri beautiful.


Then these moonfaced three drew gently near

And they greeted me with kindness here;
Then they sat around me, and they gave

The good tidings of Muhammad’s birth;

Said to me: “A son like this your son

Has not come since God has made this world,

And the Mighty One did never grant

Such a lovely son as will be yours.


You have found great happiness,
O dear
For from you that virtuous one is born!
He that comes is King of Knowledge high,

Is the mine of gnosis and tawhid [monotheism].

For the love of him the sky revolves,

Men and jinn are longing for his face.


This night is the night that he, so pure

Will suffuse the worlds with radiant light!
This night, earth becomes a Paradise,

This night God shows mercy to the world.

This night those with heart are filled with joy,

This night gives the lovers a new life.


Mercy for the worlds is Mustafa,

Sinners’ intercessors: Mustafa!’"

Kashmiri Muslims watch as an unseen priest shows a relic believed to be a hair from the beard of the Prophet Muhammed at the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar.

(Tauseef Mustafa / AFP/Getty Images.)

As has been characteristic of the Muslim tradition, the paramount quality of Muhammad emphasized here is that of rahmatun li ‘l-‘alamin (“a mercy to all the worlds”), a direct reference to Qur’an 21:107.

The next section of the poem is referred to as the great “Welcome,” in which all of the cosmos joins in welcoming the newborn Muhammad.

Iraqi Sufi Kurds celebrate the holiday of Mawlid al-Nabawi in the Kurdish town of Akra, 300 miles north of Baghdad.

(Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images.)

This Muhammad is much more than simply a child; he is the cure for pain, one who is not separated from God, and a saintly being (“friend of God”), whom all will call upon to deliver them from sin in the days of the Hereafter:

Welcome, O high prince, we welcome you!

Welcome, O mine of wisdom, we welcome you!

Welcome, O secret of the Book, we welcome you!

Welcome, O medicine for pain, we welcome you!

Welcome, O sunlight and moonlight of God!

Welcome, O you not separated from God!

Welcome, O nightingale of the Garden of Beauty!

Welcome, O friend of the Lord of Power!

Welcome, O refuge of your community!

Welcome, O helper of the poor and destitute!

Welcome, O eternal soul, we welcome you!

Welcome, O cupbearer of the lovers, we welcome you!

Welcome, O darling of the Beloved!

Welcome, O much beloved of the Lord!

Welcome, O Mercy for the worlds!

Welcome, O intercessor for the sinner!

Only for you were Time and Space created…

Riding horses with other children who have passed khatam (a Qur'an reading class), children take part in the festival of Mawlid celebrating Prophet Muhammad's birthday. The observance is held yearly in Genurit, Kawengen, East Ungaran, Central Java. The procession is followed by friends of the Qur'an reading (ngaji) class, family members, and close neighbors. To distinguish between the khataman kids and other ngaji pupils, those who have passed the class are decorated with special clothing and flowers.

(Chris Inno / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Here is where the Mawlid goes from being a nativity poem to an everyday occasion of connecting to God. Muslims can celebrate Muhammad’s birthday anytime.

In fact, many Muslims hold Mevlut ceremonies during the course of the year. Why? Because the cosmic Muhammad is not born just once a year, but offers an opening to the divine anytime — here, now. So the nativity poem to honor Muhammad is and can be recited at any time: in weddings, for example, or anytime that Muslims want to feel connected through God through the overflowing fountain of Muhammad's mercy.

An Egyptian woman and her daughter buy a "bride" doll during a visit to the Sayida Zeinab neighborhood market in central Cairo, Egypt during the celebration of Mawlid.

(Mohammed Abed / AFP/Getty Images.)

So if the Mawlid/Mevlut is a chance to honor Muhammad, why would some Muslims object to such a celebration? Why would the Muslim blogosphere break out every year with debates over the properness of the Mawlid? For some Muslims, the objection is mainly an objection to the presentation of the cosmic Muhammad, which they feel glorifies Muhammad beyond his mere human dimension.

For other Muslims who object to the Mawlid, it is based on a notion of objecting to religious practices that have no sanction in Muhammad’s own practice. In other words, since Muslims are to emulate Muhammad’s own paradigm, the argument against the Mawlid is that Muhammad never celebrated his own birthday, neither did his immediate contemporary community. To put it in comparative context, it would be akin to arguing that Christ never celebrated Christmas, so neither should Christians.

Aicha Belkebir works on one the 13 candles which will be carried by volunteers around the town of Sale, Morocco prior to the Eid al-Mawlid celebrations marking the birth of Muhammad, the final prophet of Islam. AFP PHOTO / ABDELHAK SENNA (Photo credit should read ABDELHAK SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

(Abdelhak Senna / AFP/Getty Images.)

The Mawlid gives us a useful chance to see the range of interpretations and practices marked as Muslim. As paradoxical as it sounds, it’s all about the love, even the disagreement. For the Muslims who honor Muhammad’s Mawlid, it’s the deep love for Muhammad that brings them closer to God. For those who identify as Salafi, and wish to abide only by practices that they believe originate in the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad, it is a way of honoring the desire to practice Islam as Muhammad would have wanted us to do, without what is deemed to be later accretions and potentially dubious practices. As the Prophet himself is to have said, disagreement among the scholars is a mercy.

And here’s a fun little thought: next year, the birthday of Muhammad will fall even closer to…the birth of Christ. Whatever brings you closer to God, Christmas and Mawlid, may it be blessed.

Members of the Hassounia brotherhood celebrate the birth of Prophet Mohammed with music in Sale, Morocco.

(Abdelhak Senna / AFP/Getty Images.)
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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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17Reflections

Reflections

A truly beautiful explanation of Eid-ul-Milad-un-Nabi, as it is called and celebrated in South Asia.
I really appreciate the manner in which the writer bridges the divide between different interpretations of one desire - the love of our Lord and the Prophet (pbuh).
A beautiful tribute to the light of the worlds - may the author continue to illuminate our existences, and we in turn, spread love into the hearts of every believer.

This is a welcome explication. Thank you.

Omid--Thank you for this. I am a friend of Carl and Judy's (Judy was a high school classmate in Tillamook, OR--too many years ago). You and I exchanged e-mails some time ago. I am an aging WASP learning so many new things from Carl and Judy and now your posts. Happy New Year. Best, Willa

dear Willa, Carl and Judy are dear and much beloved friends. I am so glad that you have their friendship, and that now we are connected here. all the best, omid

I am in a Daughters of Abraham book club with members of the three Abrahamic Faiths. This is a part of Islam I do not know much about. Thank you for the lovely poem and good information

This is one of the best essays I read about Muhammad's birthday celebration. It's persuasive, expository , and insightful . The writer transcends the the worn out tedious argument among Muslim factions and smoothly leads his readers into the right interpretation. No wonder, Profesor Omid is always resourceful.

Please also view these articles of Prophet Muhammad's birthday - Maulid, Milad
Thanks Omid for spreading hope!

Milad-e Nabi – Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday – Milad-un Nabi Maulid Mevlid
Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday – Maulid — by Annemarie Schimmel
Significance of the celebration of the Birthday of Prophet Muhammad

The above articles can be read at:

Thank you so much Amaana, may it be that we all commit ourselves to being agents of hope and goodness.

you are indeed a man of resourceful, thank you for your comprehensive explanation. The love of Muhammad illuminate in everyone practice and believe. once again thank you.

Sometimes, when experiencing the bounteous celebration, which Christmas has become... I wish, not for such a holiday. I knew nothing of the celebration or controversy of Mawlid, but feel I now might understand better a reason for not celebrating Christmas but more so, living everyday with the idea of following the life of Jesus with my life, and letting that be my Christmas and Easter... . I can see how in such celebrations becoming common, also the way we celebrate becoming common, as our choices for remembering become common. The most horrible thing I can imagine, if you are a follower of Jesus or Mohammed, is for your life to become common in the practice of that faith you have through those who have lived inspired lives.

My daughter and I created a Mawlid Al Nabi Good Deeds Centerpiece to honor Muhammad (pbuh). Please check it out and let me know if you make one too!

Dear Professor Omid
Thank you for your illuminating thoughts on the Mawlid. I love the way you show flexibility and openness in Islamic thinking at a time when people are becoming more narrow minded and extreme and intolerant. I would love to read more of your work and maybe insha'Allah one day I can join you on your trip to Turkey.
Best Regards,
Sally

Dear Omid: How wonderful of you to share this history with us. I will reread, study and relish this new adventure you offer to me.

Thank you so much for this explanation
I second you in thought
While Sunni extremists criticize Shiites for going OVER THE TOP with their devotion to Allu Al Bait ,,,, They on the other side are going UNDER THE GROUND with glorifying and honoring our Holy Prophet his family and companions, Islamic holy sites Islamic holy days, Islamic holy celebration and Islamic holy practices.
Shouldn't we practice such things in accordance with the proper guide lines of Islam to at least ensure that the future generations of Muslims know their religion and most of all their Holy Prophet peace be upon him and his family and companions
or is it better to celebrate Christmas and every other religious celebration in our SO CALLED MUSLIM COUNTRIES in the name of religious tolerance ( and our kids are the first to celebrate)
I am All for respect among the religions and the right for anyone to practice their religion anywhere in the world in accordance to the rule of the land
But that will only happen when we RESPECT our own RELIGION
So Yes To Celebrating The MAWLID

Professor Safi, this is a well thought out article. Does celebration of a religious holiday brings anyone closer to God? Once a year, a group of people get together to celebrate a religious holiday. If it is only a celebration without living, it has no substance. The substance is not in the celebration, but in the living. "This Muhammad is much more than simply a child; he is the cure for pain, one who is not separated from God, and saintly being ("friend of God" ), whom all will call upon to deliver them from sin in the days of the Hereafter." On whose merit, can any man present himself faultless before God? Since this is a civil conversation, I would like to look at the above quote from a Biblical perspective. Listen to this; "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59: 3). Every human being is separated from God because of Adam's sin! Hence, Adam can no longer commune with God before the fall. Listen to what he said; "...I hid myself" (Genesis 3: 10). The word "saint" is derived from a Greek verb (hagiazo). The basic meaning is to "set apart." Among the human race, Abraham was the only person God called a friend. Listen to this; "And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God , and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God" (James 2: 23). Abraham was "set apart" by God. Listen to this; "Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee" (Genesis 12 : 1). Listen to this too; "PAUL, a servant (bond slave) of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God" (Romans 1 : 1). Every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is a saint. Listen to this; "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints..." (I Corinthians 1: 2 ).

What better time to celebrate.