By Muqtedar Khan
“Indeed, Allah and His angels shower blessings on the Prophet. O you who believe! Ask blessings on him and salute him with a worthy salutation (Qur’an 33:56).”
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is deeply revered in the Islamic tradition. Every time Muslims mention his name and every time they offer prayers, they seek blessings for him. For Muslims, Prophet Muhammad’s actions, words and silences all tantamount to divine law. No human has ever been so revered by so many. Prophet Muhammad is remembered and celebrated all the time by Muslims. After all, his name is Muhammad, which means the most praised one. Muslims glorify him in prayer and poetry:
“Do not ask me, friend; where is Muhammad?
Hidden in my heart, there is Muhammad!
Is there need to wander to Medina?
Here and there — apparent is Muhammad.
In my heart and eyes resides forever
From the day of covenant, Muhammad …”
— Annemarie Schimmel, “And Muhammad is His Messenger“
But all is not well in the Kingdom of Muhammad. There is controversy raging for more than a millennium, surfacing every year over whether Muslims should celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Eid Milad Al-Nabi) or not.
Tomorrow is the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. There are many who will celebrate his birthday (mawlud) with abandon, immerse themselves in cherishing his memory and enjoy moments of spiritual ecstasy singing his praises. From Damascus to Delhi, Tehran to Timbuktu, there will be sweets, music, poetry and celebration. For them it will be as if the entire universe is chanting: Ya Muhammad, Ya Muhammad, Ya Muhammad… (O Muhammad).
Then there are those who will pretend as if there is nothing special about that day. They will scowl, frown, fume, and they will mutter bid’ah, bid’ah bid’ah … (innovation) at those who partake in Mawlud. This day for them sadly, will hold no special joy.
This short article focuses on the two polar positions on mawlud. The views of a vast number of Muslims basically are positioned between these two extremes. There are many who do not celebrate mawlud but they do not frown upon those who do, and many of those who do celebrate it, but in a low-key fashion.
For nearly a thousand years, a minority of Muslim orthodoxy, including some jurists and more recently the followers of Wahhabi Islam (from Saudi Arabia), insist that celebrating mawlud is a bid’ah, or innovation. Their argument is that God the Most High has perfected His religion through revelation and through the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad. This is clear from the Qur’an and some a hadith (prophetic traditions). Thus, any new practice, or ritual addition to the faith is innovation (bid’ah) and therefore must be rejected. Neither does the Qur’an command Muslims to celebrate the birth of Prophet Muhammad, nor did the Prophet or his companions do so. For the anti-party group, therefore mawlud is a bid’ah and unacceptable. Here are some of their sources:
“This day, I have perfected your religion for you, completed My Favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. (Qur’an 5:3)”
“Every innovation is a misguidance, and every misguidance goes to Hell fire. (Sahih Muslim).”
Based on the above sources and other a hadith that forbid innovation, a minority of Muslims not only do not celebrate the mawlud, but also condemn the celebration as un-Islamic and celebrators as those destined to go to hell.
The Party of Muhammad
Many Muslims celebrate Mawlid. The practice began in Egypt in the 11th century and then gradually spread to other parts of the Muslim World. The main advocates of mawlud are the Sufis, through whom this practice became a widespread tradition even as some jurists continued to oppose it.
Traditional scholars have developed a theology of Prophet Muhammad as the most important, most beautiful and the most perfect of all of God’s creations. Using hadith and the Qur’an, they argue that Prophet Muhammad was created from the light of God himself, long before Adam. They maintain that the universe itself was created for Prophet Muhammad long after he was created. They also conclude that the celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday is the celebration of tawhid (oneness of God), the birth of Islam and the birth of the one who is most beloved to God All Mighty.
For these scholars, the very existence of the universe is a celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad, so they find even the suggestion of not celebrating mawlud appalling.
Here are some of their sources:
“There has come to you from Allah a light (Muhammad) and a clear Book (Qur’an 5:15).”
“Indeed, those who pledge allegiance to you, [O Muhammad] — they are actually pledging allegiance to Allah.
“The first thing that God created was my light, and the first thing that God created was my spirit and I was a Prophet while Adam was still between water and clay. (Ahadith-i-Mathnawi)”
I must confess, I find the Sufi narratives on the Prophet Muhammad uplifting and also befuddling. They are at once beautiful and absurd. They are more like the ruminations of a highly imaginative lover than those of a systematic theologian. It’s like saying my beloved is more beautiful than the moon. Wonderful thought — one can sing it to music and also inspire and move people. But what does it mean for a person to be more beautiful than a lump of mud and rock? Many cultures for centuries, however, have marveled at its beauty. Undoubtedly, beauty lies in the heart of the beholder.
Sufi theories are intriguing because they are supported by sacred sources like the verse I cited above (5:15). Without the Sufi imagination, one would think that word “light” in 5:15 was metaphorical, as something that illuminates, meaning the Prophet’s sunnah illuminates the shariah.
The middle path
I agree with the anti-party group, that adding anything to Islam is a bid’ah, and that it violates and compromises the sanctity of divine revelations. But there’s a caveat. We must not forget that rendering what is permitted as forbidden is just as bad as deeming what is forbidden as permitted.
We must be careful about how we define bid’ah. Why deprive Muslims the joy of celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad when we accept so many other things that are neither revealed in the Qur’an nor introduced by Prophet Muhammad? Here is a shortlist to make my point. Isn’t celebrating the Saudi National Day (September 23) bid’ah? Well, they might say, yes, but it is not associated with Islam. How about visas for Hajj, or Hajj fees? Isn’t that bid’ah? The Prophet and his companions never charged a Hajj fee.
Why pray 20 rakah in taraweeh? Rakah is a unit of prayer and taraweeh is the special night prayers in Ramadan. The defence that the second Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) deemed it bid’ah hasanah — the beautiful innovation — complicates the matter further. Clearly this innovation is not leading to hell, since the Prophet himself attested that Caliph Umar was destined for heaven.
What about all the things we have done, since the Prophet’s time, in the name of Islam, which neither the Prophet nor his companions did? For example, writing commentaries on the Qur’an, formulating jurisprudence, inventing innovative legal methods like qiyas and developed the concept of the “Islamic state.” Indeed, the Wahhabis seem to have no problem with monarchy; they condemn the celebration of Prophet’s birthday, but condone Saudi monarchy. Is monarchy not bid’ah? Why permit monarchy and forbid mawlud?
I am not comfortable with these sanctimonious double standards on bid’ah. I think the idea of no innovation applies to Islam alone — Islam as understood from the famous hadith of Islam, Iman and Ihsan. According to it, Islam means tawheed (monotheism), five daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, zakat (distributive justice) and performing the Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca). Any innovation in these categories or apart from them is unacceptable.
I find the Sufi theories of Prophet Muhammad’s excellence very interesting, but too far from sacred texts to be employed in making legal rulings about the permissibility of an act of worship. I find it difficult to imagine celebration of mawlud as a form of divinely ordained worship. We worship Allah the most high, not Prophet Muhammad, who is his messenger.
But, I also want to emphasise that a cardinal rule of Islamic jurisprudence is that “everything is permitted unless explicitly forbidden by either Allah or his Messenger.” It is on this basis that we permit all the technological and institutional innovations, which were not present at the time of the Prophet and his companions. I find nothing in the Qur’an or in the Prophetic traditions that explicitly forbids me from celebrating the Prophet’s life, his teachings, his morality, his manners, his sacrifices, his struggles and his birth.
Hence, I conclude that celebrating Mawlid is not worship, but it is not forbidden either, like putting an air conditioner or an extravagant chandelier in a mosque. They add comfort and beauty to the place of worship, but are not elements of worship.
Muslims have their religion Islam, and they also have their culture. We celebrate marriages, we celebrate national days, independence days, and we celebrate the victories of our favorite soccer and cricket teams. We celebrate our children’s achievements and now many American Muslims also celebrate Thanksgiving as a cultural holiday. Can we not then also celebrate the life of the man who is dearest to us without deeming it as an act of worship?
We do not want any divine reward for celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, celebrating it is reward enough. It is enough that it is a pleasure here and now that neither embellishes the hereafter nor imperils it.
For me the day of mawlud has extra meaning, for my daughter Ruhi was also born on the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal (1423). I consider it a special blessing. Tomorrow, I will go with my family to a nice restaurant for a double celebration. This marking period she got on the distinguished honor roll (all As!), so she picks the restaurant. And, while we enjoy good food, I will regale my family with traditions and stories about the mercy, the wisdom, the compassion and the struggles of the most praised man — Muhammad. Allah did not send him except as mercy to all the worlds (Qur’an 21:107).
We will remember him, and we will celebrate him. Happy birthday Ya Muhammad (saw). Happy Birthday, Ruhi dear.
This article was first published by the AltMuslim blog on Pantheos. Muqtedar Khan is a Professor of Islam and Global Affairs at the University of Delaware and Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs.