The Prophet Muhammad's Birthday Celebration

By: Dr. Rifyal Ka'bah

The month of Rabi’ al-Awwal (the First Spring Season) of the Islamic Calendar is well known in the entire Muslim world as Shahr al-Mawhid (the Month of Birth) of the Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h. The precise date of his birth is disputed among the historians, but 12 of Rabi’ al-Awwal is acknowledge in Indonesia to be the date and it is officially stated as a national holiday. This year that date matches June 26, 1999.

As a matter of fact in Islam there are only two holidays: Idul Fitri (the first day after the fasting month Ramadan) and Idul Adha [(the 10th day of Zuhijjah (the month of pilgrimage)]. The question is: Why do the Muslim ummah make other days during the year as the Islamic holidays? Why the Prophet’s birthday is celebrated and considered as a holiday?

Going deeply into the seerat (biography) of the Prophet Muhammad, nobody can trace the tradition of Mawlid (the Prophet’s birthday) celebration or other celebrations of very important days in Islamic history. Never the Prophet nor his close companions or people who followed him and his companions encouraged people to make his birthday as a special day.

Nobody knows exactly when the first celebration of the Prophet’s birthday was celebrated or marked as a holiday. Noted in history that the celebration was found during the reign of Wazir al-Afdlal (487-515 AH/1095-1121 CE) of the Fatimite regime in Egypt. The celebration was held during the day time and attended by government officials and Muslim spiritual leaders in town. The Fatimite amir as a head of state sat in the balcony of the palace and three speakers in sequence delivered their Mawlid speeches. They talked about Muhammad’s origin, his birthday and his life. Celebration was not only for the Prophet’s birthday but also the birthday of Ali (the Prophet’s cousin), Fatimah (his daughter) and the Amir as the present imam of Shi’ite Muslim. The influence of the Shi’ite doctrine of the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday was very clear and is still eminence in modern Egypt even today. Foreign tourists who visited Cairo several times or anybody who ever stayed there for a long period will note that Husain’s birthday (the Prophet’s grandson) was celebrated more thoroughly and illimuniously than the Prophet’s birthday, in the meantime the majority of Muslims in Egypt today adhere to Ahlu as-Sunnah’s Islam.

Ibnu Khalikan’s historical report says that Ahly as-Sunnah version of the Prophet’s birthday celebration was introduced in Egypt by Al-Malik Muzaffar Ad-Din Kukburi in 604 AH/1207 CE. Kukburi was brother of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (Saladin). These were the days of Crusade where almost 200 years waves after waves of crusaders from Europe came to the heart of the Muslim world in the Middle East to fight Muslims in their own countries.

During the crusade a process of acculturation took place. Both Islamic and Christian culture exchanged views on many things and each tried to put its influence on the other. Christians brought sciences, technologies and wisdom of the East to Europe, and Muslim imitated some festivals and feasts of the Christians who lived among them. One of these feasts is the tradition to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h as Christians celebrated the birthday of Jesus Christ, known as Christmas.

This Christian impact is clearly seen in the use of wax light in Maulid festival, torchlight procession, mass entertainment’s, special cakes and foods on the occasion etc. A bigh festival was organized and attended by a huge number of people from Cairo and its vicinities. The Amir as a head of the stated and the Shufi orders played a significance role in the festival.

A tower made of wood for the Amir was erected in the courtyard of the palace. People attending the festival were entertained by groups of musicians and singers of various kind. Week after week during the month of Mawlid streets of Cairo were overcrowded by people who celebrated the occasion. On the eve of Mawlid, after Maghrib prayer, people under the command of the Amir paraded on the street of Cairo starting from the Citadel proceeding to the Palace. In their hands were torches. On the Mawlid Day all citizens assembled in the courtyard of the Palace where a tower made of wood had been erected. Beside the tower stands a pulpit for the speakers who would sermon the audience and narrate the story of the Prophet’s birthday. The Amir was not only able to see the whole audience from the tower but also watched the troops who parade on one corner of the courtyard. Guests of honor were received by the Amir on the tower and were given jubbah of honor (long dress for man). On the evening the Amir and officers of the state celebrated the Mawlid with shufis in their zawiyah (place where the shufis preferably offer their rituals and shufis practices).

From Egypt the tradition of Mawlid was spread to Mecca and the land of Hejaz in Arabia. From the Holy City where Muslim peoples of different nationals assembled during the hajj season each year, the tradition was spread to North Africa, Morocco and Andalusia (Spain). To the north it was spread to Syria, Irak, Turkey and Balkan peninsula, and to the south, to Yemen and Hadramaut, and to the east, to Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

It was well known in history that Indonesia took its Islamic religious and cultural root from Egypt and Mecca. From the beginning, Mecca had been the center of Islamic heritage and tradition for Indonesian Muslims. Their first intention was to Mecca a pilgrimage, and then stayed in the holy city to seek Islamic studies. Among those pilgrims there were some great teachers of Indonesia’s origin in Mecca who taught Islamic studies to their won countrymen. Later, especially after the opening of the Suez canal for international maritime, Cairo became important as the center of Islamic studies for Indonesian students.

Today, without knowing its origin, the Mawlid celebration and commemoration has become part of religious and cultural life of Indonesian Muslims. Even in some rural areas, the Mawlid celebration is identical with parties to commemorate a child’s birthday, the day of child’s circumcision, marriage, etc.

In fact, the Mawlid celebration is not part of the Islamic religion. It is a cultural side of the Muslim life. Islam is not against culture. Islamic culture was born through cultural activities of the people who adhere genuinely and properly to Islam. In another words, there is nothing wrong for the Muslims to commemorated the Mawlid, if it is done to remind Muslims of the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh and the celebration is held within the framework of Islamic doctrines.

The Prophet Muhammad and all prophets from Allah are the reminders for their ummah of the way of Allah. Qur’an was sent down to earth as a reminder (al-zikra) and the ummah who supported the call of the past prophets of Allah were called “people of the reminder” (ashab al-zikr). The tradition to celebrate the Mawlid can go on as long as its aim is to remind the people of the way of life brought by the Prophet Muhammad from Allah the Almighty. By this kind of celebration, the Muslim ummah are supposed to be more convinced of the Muhammad’s universal message as the mercy for the whole world (rahmatan li al’’alamin). The Qur'an says: "Thus We have appointed you a middle nation. that ye may be witness against mankind, and that the Messenger may be a witness against you.” (Qur'an 2:143).

The Muslim nation is the best example for the whole world in promoting the truth, establishing justice, enjoying the good, and preventing the bad.

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