The Maulid Festival – The Birthday of Muhammad
Linguistically maulid is the time, place and celebration of anyone’s birthday but particularly that of Muhammad. From the time that Islam left him as the preaching figure found in the Quran and began to award him with supernatural qualities his birth has become meaningful to Muslims. Although the actual date of his birth is not known it has been traditionally fixed as the date of his death the 12th Rabi’ al-Awwal, the third month of the Islamic calendar.
One place that began to be sanctified was the place of his birth, the maulid al-nabi in the Souk al-Lail (The Night Market) in Mecca. The third-century historian al-Azraqi, mentions as one of the many places in Mecca in which the performance of salat is desirable is the house where Muhammad was born.
The house, which is in present-day Al-Qashashia Street is said to have belonged to Muhammad’s father ‘Abd Allah by inheritance from his father Abd al-Muttalib, and then passed on to Muhammad. It is also said that Muhammad passed it on to his cousin Aqil ibn Abi Talib who in turn sold it on to Muhammad ibn Yusuf the brother of al-Hajjaj. He expanded it and when al-Khaizuran (died 173 A.H) the mother of the caliphs Musa al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid performed pilgrimage, she transformed it from a humble house to a place of prayer, in later times it was developed in a fittingly architectural style.
The festival is very popular in the Muslim world and to a certain extent the local character of the country depicts how it is celebrated. One element in particular is very prominent and it is the most characteristic part of the later celebrations and this is the recital of the maulids i.e. panegyrical poems of a very legendary nature which start with the birth of Muhammad and praise his life and virtues. The maulid is the finest expression of reverence for Muhammad yet despite this many strict orthodox Muslims consider it bida’, a religious innovation. However, as with many things, practice has proved stronger than dogmatic theory and the festival has been received by consensus amongst the people and recognised as bid’a hasana, a good innovation. With this consensus the legitimate ground for opposition was removed. The opposition then focused on the outward forms of the festival and its development but its supporters responded by calling attention to the merit that lies in feeding the poor, in the increased frequency of reading the Quran, and expressions of joy over the birth of their prophet on such an occasion.
The height of the struggle between these two groups seem to have occurred in the 8th and 9th centuries but we do know that the festival became prominent in the 12th century. It became very popular in Egypt and its celebration was arranged by Muzzafar ad Din Kokburu, a brother-in-law of the famous Egyptian ruler Saladin. With the growth of Sufism in Egypt the maulid soon became very popular and spread to other countries. It is significant that the character of the opposition objects to the very forms which show the influence of Sufism (dancing, sama’, ecstatic phenomena, and its use of illumination and lights).
In 1912 the Prophet’s birthday was declared a public holiday in the Ottoman Empire and it remains so in Pakistan today. In Egypt popular poetry honours him in fanciful legend when birds and animals are said to have competed with one another for the honour of caring for the baby but they expressed their disappointment when the role was awarded to Halima. Angels proclaimed his birth, trees sprout leaves, gardens blossomed and stars congratulate one another with such legends as these the maulid celebrations are passed down to the present generation of children.
A more modern impetus of opposition came with the coming of the Wahabbi’s. The cult of the Prophet is in complete contradiction with their fundamental principle of the restoration of the ideal purified primitive Islam.