Why most Muslims – but far from all – celebrate Mawlid, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday
Most Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on the 12th day of the third month of the Islamic calendar, Rabi’ al-awaal – which starts on the evening of Oct. 7 in 2022. Muslims view the celebration, called Mawlid al-Nabi or simply the Mawlid, like many other Islamic celebrations: as a sign of respect and adoration of Muhammad, whom they believe to be God’s messenger.
According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad was a righteous man born around A.D. 570, whom God designated as his final prophet. He learned God’s message by heart and recited it. Later on, the verses were written down to preserve the text – what is now the Quran.
Most countries with majority Muslim populations, from Pakistan to Malaysia to Sudan, commemorate the prophet’s birthday each year. The most colorful celebrations are carried out in Egypt, with Sufi dhikr poetry commemorating the prophet, and games, toys and colorful sweets given to kids.
Yet not all Muslims will mark the holiday. In a few countries, like Saudi Arabia, it’s just like any other day. The focus of my research is how Muslim societies relate to their faith, including their sense of social justice and their expectations of governments. While most Muslim countries encourage commemorating the Mawlid, the opposite is true in communities shaped by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam, whose global influence has rapidly expanded in recent decades.
The Wahhabi movement was started in 1744 by Muhamed Ibn Abdel Wahab, a religious scholar and reformer in what is today Saudi Arabia. Muhamed Ibn Saud, a political leader considered the founder of the Saud dynasty, legitimized his authority by seeking Ibn Abdel Wahab’s religious opinions. Ibn Saud was eager to wrest more power from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the peninsula at the time.
Since then, Wahhabism has spread across the Muslim world in countries such as Yemen, the post-Soviet states, Tunisia and Egypt – especially after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which spurred Iran’s rise as a regional power and prompted Saudi Arabia to try and compete.
An austere school of Islam, Wahhabism often encourages the literal interpretation of the Quran and is especially suspicious of any practices they see as idolatry. For example, Saudi authorities have clamped down on worship at saints’ tombs and razed some holy sites entirely. In extreme cases, Salafis – a related school of Islam – have claimed that the relics and statues of ancient Egypt should be destroyed. In Saudi Arabia, the religious police, called mutaween, guard the prophet’s burial grounds in Medina during pilgrimage seasons to prevent visitors from touching it or praying close to it.
Conservatives frown upon adoration of the prophet. Wahhabi puritans consider the Mawlid heretical, citing a saying of the prophet, called a hadith: Every heresy is a misguidance, and every misguidance will end in hell. The word for “heresy” here, “bid’ah,” is often used to condemn Muslim practices seen as innovations, like celebrating the prophet’s birthday.
Celebrating with awe
Critics of Wahhabism argue that it compromises people’s relationship with God by cutting off instinctual human behavior, like wanting to honor a prophet.
The Mawlid is celebrated in many ways and forms in the Muslim world, whether it is quietly observed by fasting and reading the Quran, or by kids dressing up in bright colors and getting a tiny horse or a doll made out of sugar. The practices vary, but the one thing they articulate are the admirable qualities of the prophet and how dear he is to his followers.
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