Mawlid al-Nabi: The Birth of a Prophet

Quick Facts

  • Summary: an Islamic festival commemorating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad
  • 2018 Date: 20th November (Sunni), 25th November (Shi’a)
  • Celebrated by: Muslims, most Islamic countries around the world
  • Linked Holidays: Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, Christmas

Background and Theological Significance

Mawlid al-Nabi al-Sharif (in Arabic, مَولِد النَّبِي, literally meaning ‘the birth of the prophet’) more commonly called Mawlid al-Nabi or simply Mawlid, is an Islamic observance of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad is the founder of Islam and is believed by Muslims to be the greatest and final prophet of God. He was born in around the year 570 CE in the city of Mecca on the Arabian peninsula. The exact date of Muhammad’s birth is not recorded in early Islamic tradition, but a custom of celebrating his birth on a particular day evolved and grew over the centuries. In Sunni Islam Mawlid is most commonly celebrated on the Twelfth Day of Rabi’ al-Awwal (the third month in the Islamic calendar), whereas in Shi’a Islam it is celebrated on the Seventeenth Day of Rabi’ al-Awwal.

There are only two universal holidays within Islam, which are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. However, Mawlid is one of a number of observances that are recognised as important days within Islam. Although most mainstream Muslims celebrate Mawlid on an annual basis, it is rejected by some conservative denominations such as Wahhabism on the ground that it is a ‘bid’ah’, a religious innovation without basis in the Qur’an or Islamic tradition.


History

According to the Hadith (accounts about the life and teachings of Muhammad) the Prophet was born on an unspecified Monday during the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal, probably around the year 570 CE. However, he did not encourage his followers to celebrate the day of his birth. In the early centuries of Islam it became common for Muslims to hold special events to honour Muhammad with poetry and readings, which may have been the origin of the later Mawlid celebration. It has been suggested that these customs arose as a parallel to the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Many historians believe that the celebration of the Mawlid proper began under the Fatimid caliphate, which ruled over northern Africa between the tenth and twelfth-centuries CE. The term ‘mawlid’ is often used in parts of the world, and particularly in northern Africa, to refer to the birthday observances of any important figure. One example is the mawlid of the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic Ahmed al-Badawi, which is held in Egypt every year and often attracts up to three million people in attendance.

The exact date of Mawlid al-Nabi is debated between different strands of Islamic scholarship, with most Sunni Muslims celebrating it on the Twelfth Day of Rabi’ al-Awwal, whilst most Shi’a Muslims celebrate it on the Seventeenth Day of Rabi’ al-Awwal. Rabi’ al-Awwal is the third of the twelve lunar months in the Islamic Hijri calendar. Although the name of the month translates as ‘the first of spring’, the ten-day divergence between the Islamic calendar and the solar calendar means that Rabi’ al-Awwal can fall at any time during the year. Therefore, the dates of Mawlid are brought forward by approximately ten days each Gregorian year.

What Happens?

Mawlid al-Nabi is celebrated in almost every Islamic country around the world as a public holiday, and is additionally celebrated in many countries with a significant Islamic population. Two major exceptions are Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which typically hold to the ultraconservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Wahhabism discourages the celebration of festivals or events that it perceives as unnecessary and potentially damaging additions to Islam. As with other Islamic holidays, Mawlid begins at sunset on the day of the festival (in this case the Twelfth or Seventeenth Day of Rabi’ al-Awwal) and finishes at sunset the day afterward.

Celebrations of Mawlid were originally influenced by the practices of Sufi mysticism, and were celebrated in both Sunni and Shi’a countries. The festival was marked by joyful celebrations, music, feasting, torchlit processions, sacrifice and listening to sermons about the life of the Prophet. Many of these customs are still important features of Mawlid today. It is usually marked by street carnivals and processions, sharing fellowship with friends and family, and taking time to honour Muhammad as the bringer of God’s revelation to the world. The word ‘mawlid’ can sometimes refer to the texts that are read out during Mawlid or at other times of the year to honour the Prophet and remember his life and teachings. Although Mawlid is not an official holiday of the Islamic faith, it has become one of the most important events in the yearly calendar for many Muslims around the world. It is a time to celebrate the founder of their faith and to share that joy and celebration with one another.

Al-mawlid an-nabawîy Tunis 2015 03‘ by Touzrimounir is licensed under CC by SA 4.0

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