Mawlid in History
Throughout history the celebrations connected with the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad's birth have been an important component in the religious and social life of Islamic countries; these incredibly colorful and elaborate ceremonies were held as demonstrations of political legitimacy or as an indication of religious identity and awareness.
The word Mawlid means "the place and time of birth", but in Islamic literature this term is used to indicate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad and the celebrations held in commemoration of this day, as well as indicating works written in commemoration of the Prophet's day of birth. Later the term Mawlid took on wider meanings in Sufi circles to encapsulate the birthdays of saints.
It is generally agreed that Prophet Muhammad was born in the year of the Elephant Incident, which occurred when the Abyssinian governor of Yemen, Abraha, attacked Mecca to destroy the Kaaba. Taking into account Arab traditions, this year falls in 569 AD, while it has also been calculated as 570 or 571. It is generally accepted that Prophet Muhammad was born on the 12th day of Rabia Awwal and was born during the day. There are sound hadiths that he was born on a Monday.
Prophet Muhammad never requested or ordered that the anniversary of his birth be celebrated in such a way when he was alive. There is no evidence of a Mawlid celebration during the time of the Four Righteous Caliphs or during the Umayyad or Abbasid eras. The time of the first two caliphs was marked by conquests, while that of the last two was overshadowed by internal conflict; conditions under the Umayyads and Abbasids were not appropriate for such a celebration, as it could have given rise to support for the descendants of Prophet Muhammad. When the Shi'ite Fatimid state was being established in Egypt, Muiz Lidinillah (362-365/972-975), started to officially celebrate the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad's birth with the claim that he was a descendant of Prophet Muhammad. In addition to this, the births of Ali, Fatima, Hasan, Hussein and the caliphs of the time, as well as the kandils (holy days) in the months of Rajab, Shaban and Ramadan, and the two ‘Eids were all celebrated with an impressive festival. However, these celebrations were held during the day and high-level officials participated; it can be understood that the people did not join in or enjoy the celebratory atmosphere in what was essentially a state ceremony. In particular, it is known that the Sunni majority did not participate in these activities.
During the time of the Fatimids the celebrations of the births of Prophet Muhammad and the members of his family took on importance as a form of political legitimization. Efdal, one of the Fatimid viziers, during the reign of caliph Musta'li Billah (487-495/1094/1101), forbade four mawlids, allowing only those of Hasan and Hussein. However, after Efdal died the new vizier began the ceremonies again.
During the time of the Ayyubids (1171-1462) many holidays and ceremonies were eliminated and not much attention was paid to the Mawlid; it can be understood that the people celebrated this occasion at home. However, it is known the brother-in-law of Salahaddin-i Ayyubi, Begteginli Muzafferuddin Kokbori (586-629/1190-1232), who was a well-known philanthropist, celebrated the Prophet's Mawlid. This celebration was not only prepared for in a way that differed from that of the Fatimids, but the preparations were spread over a long time and the role of the members of Sufi orders was brought to the fore.
The Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubair tells us that when he came to Mecca in 579 (1183) the house in which the Prophet was born had been opened for visiting and the people went there to celebrate the day.
During the Mamluk period (648-922/1250-1517) the celebrations of the Mawlid continued in Egypt in all their magnificence. The Mawlid tradition in the Ayyubi and Mamluk periods was not only an indication that these regimes had inherited power from the Fatimids, but it was also necessary as a means of identification for the Muslim people who were facing attacks by Mongol hordes and Crusaders.
From the Mamluk period on the term mawlid began to be used for celebrations for all leading personalities, staring with the saints. A significant proportion of these mawlid celebrations marked the death of the saint rather than his birth.
While earlier there had been no tradition of Mawlid celebrations in North Africa, Abu'l Abbas Ahmed b. Muhammad b. Hussein as-Sabti al Azafi (d. 633-1236), a sheikh, judge and scholar, began to introduce the Mawlid in order to prevent the celebration of Christian holidays by Muslims. With time this practice became widespread in North Africa and Andalusia, and the rulers and administrators gave great importance to the celebrations of the Mawlid.
It is known that not although the ceremony held in 966 (1588) by the Ottoman sultan Murad III was the beginning of the official Mawlid celebrations, such occasions had been marked in the Ottoman Empire before this time, although not officially, and Suleyman Chelebi's famous Mawlid poem was written in 812 (1409). At the official celebrations held in the Blue Mosque the sultan, the grand vizier, the sheikh-ul-Islam, the viziers, the military judges for Thrace and Asia Minor, other civilian and military officials and scholars were present in their official garments. After sermons were read by the sheikhs of Haghia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and other sheikhs the Mawlid poem would be read; at this time sherbet and incense was distributed among the congregation and those who had fulfilled a duty in the celebrations were given a robe of honor and gifts. In general, the Mawlid ceremonies that were first held at the Blue Mosque were later carried out at the Beyazıt Mosque, the Nusretiye Mosque, the Beylerbeyi Mosque, the Hamidiye Mosque and other mosques. From the time of the Tanzimat on, the earlier protocol regulations were followed, but there were some changes. The entrance and exit of the sultan to the mosque was accompanied by a military parade, the minarets, palaces and other official buildings were illuminated, cannons were fired from the artillery and ships five times, and there were other innovations. From 1910 on the Mawlid was promulgated as an official holiday of the Ottoman Empire, but after the declaration of the Republic it was abrogated.
Today, other than in Saudi Arabia, the Mawlid is widely celebrated in Muslim countries from North Africa to Indonesia, some officially, some unofficially.
There has been much discussion among scholars about the religious legitimacy of the Mawlid, which was not celebrated until a few centuries after Prophet Muhammad's death. The Maliki canonical legal expert, Ibnu'l Hajj al-Abderi (d.737/1336) gave much room to bidah matters (innovations) in his work called al-Madhal, and started a chapter concerned with the Mawlid by stating that this occasion was not celebrated at the time of the Prophet or during the time of the Companions or that of the Second Generation, all of whom were very faithful and devoted to the Prophet. Thus, Ibnu'l Hajj was strongly opposed to the Mawlid, seeing it as a bidah that had been added to the religion. In addition, he went into lengthy explanations about how the playing of instruments, the singing of songs and dancing, and the fact that men and women were in the same areas during these celebrations, all of which accompanied the reading of the Quran (qiraat), the chanting of Allah's names (dhikr) and other forms of worship, were matters that were forbidden by the religion and for this reason the Mawlid was haram. Ibnu'l Hajj states that even if one was to avoid the forbidden activities and merely worship, give friends meals, read hadiths, etc., celebrating the Mawlid in this manner was superfluous to the religion and thus was a form of bidah. In place of such actions he recommends that it would be better to fast, without the intention of marking the Mawlid, and act in a way that showed the respect for the month in which Prophet Muhammad had been born. Ibnu'l Hajj wrote this work at a time in which the Mongol invasion and the Crusades had opened the way to political unrest and there was an ever-increasing devastation in both the social and economic life; it is clear that he was concerned with correctly informing Muslims about their religion, as there were many traditions and customs that ran contrary to religious norms, as well as deviations and excesses in social life.
Ibn Marzuk al-Hatip (d. 781/1379) adopted two different approaches about the matter of the Mawlid, taking into account the Maghrib scholars' positive and negative approaches; Ibn Marzuk states that it is best to be occupied with good actions on this night and to avoid bad behavior. In the discussion of whether the Mawlid was superior to the Night of Power (the Night of Power), Ibn Marzuk preferred the first.
Ibn Taymiyye, who separated bidah matters into the good and the bad, was opposed to the Mawlid, and he was supported by the Wahhabi scholars who followed him, as well as by his contemporaries, like Muhammad Abduh. Rashid Riza lengthily criticized the ugly practices that were displayed at the Mawlids in Egypt and criticized the scholars for remaining silent on this matter. In addition, he stated that the celebration of the Mawlid was not bad in itself, but it was the bad behavior that was indulged in at this celebration to which he was opposed, thus trying to find a way to save the Mawlid. From contemporary scholars who were members of the Wahhabi tradition, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad b. Ibrahim Ali Sheikh, Abdulaziz b. Abdullah b. Baz, Hammud b. Abdullah at-Tuvayciri and others opposed these types of Mawlid celebrations and wrote a variety of treatises on the subject. However, even when the reformist scholars in some countries, like Algeria in North Africa, opposed the Mawlid tradition, the new generations continued to celebrate the Mawlid with a number of different activities with the aim of strengthening belief and national consciousness.
In contrast to this, scholars like Abu Shama al-Makdisi (d. 665/1267) Ibn Ayyad an-Nafzi (d. 792/1390), Shamsaddin Ibnu'l-Jazari, Ibn Nasiruddin ad-Dimashki, Ibn Hajar al-Askalani, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, Shamsaddin as-Sahavi, Jalaladdin as-Suyuti, Shihabuddin al-Kastallani and Muhammad b. Yusuf ash-Sham stated that even if this celebration had not existed in the early periods of Islam, people should be pleased that Prophet Muhammad had been sent by Allah to this world as a mercy and the celebration of the anniversary of his birth, if spent in worshipping, helping the poor and needy, reading the Quran and poems that were concerned with love of Prophet Muhammad, and wearing clean and nice clothing to show one's happiness, all of which are good actions, was not bidah, and that it was necessary to separate and prevent those actions seen among the people that the religion opposed; however, these actions did not make the day haram - that would be the same as suggesting that the incorrect behavior exhibited by some people at the Juma or tarawih prayers made these occasions haram. When Prophet Muhammad was asked about the blessings of fasting on a Monday, he answered "That is the day on which I was born and on which the Revelation was sent to me"; this suggests that there is importance in this day, from one point of view. As the Sehavi and the Christians had large celebrations for their prophet's birthdays the Muslims were also seen to be deserving of such a celebration. When Prophet Muhammad saw that the Jews in Medina were fasting on the 10th of Muharram he asked them the reason why; they told him this was the day on which the Pharaoh had drowned and Moses had been saved. The Prophet said that it was more appropriate for him to fast on this day and ordered the Companions to do the same.
This shows that it is a good action to perform actions of faith as a sign of commemoration or thanksgiving on a day when blessings were received or on which a person was extricated from a dangerous situation.
Finally, it can be said that to celebrate the Mawlid with a number of different forms of worship and acts of charity as a sign of our love and devotion to Prophet Muhammad is religiously legitimate. Moreover, it is clear that those scholars who opposed such celebrations were actually criticizing the unofficial attitudes and behavior that were seen, emphasizing that it was necessary to avoid the celebrations at which such behavior was exhibited.