Mawlid ennabawi, a non-canonical Muslim holiday, commemorates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. It is celebrated on the twelfth day of Rabi al-awwal (literally, in Arabic, “the first spring”), the third month of the Muslim calendar, corresponding this year to September 28.
Also called “Aid al Mouled” in the Maghreb and Africa, “Mawlid an Nabi”, “Milad an-Nabi” in Egypt, “Mevlid Kandili” in Turkey or even “Gamou” in Senegal, this festival is celebrated in all communities Muslims of the world, both Sunni and Shiite.
Unlike the two great canonical festivals that are the two Eids, the Mawlid has for centuries been the subject of controversy as to its theological “validity”: some rigorous doctors of the law have considered it as a reprehensible innovation, while others see in this celebration a laudable innovation and an opportunity to meditate on the life of the Prophet and redouble charitable acts in the footsteps of the “virtuous example” embodied by Muhammad.
The oldest evocation of the Mawlid, without speaking of celebration, refers us to the blessed place (the House of the Prophet) which opens its doors to the public every Monday in the month of Rabi al-awwal.
According to historians of the 7th century, on the day of Mawlid ennabawi, the faithful traditionally do not engage in any commercial activity and rush to visit the birthplace of the Prophet. On this day, the Kâ’ba is open to the public and visited. These elements are confirmed from the 8th century by Ibn Battûta, who mentions the distribution, on this day, of food in the form of an offering. (sadaqat) to the descendants of the Prophet as well as to all the inhabitants of Mecca.
Like Christmas, celebrating the anniversary of the Nativity, Mawlid ennabawi was never celebrated in his time, neither by his companions, nor by the Sunni Muslims of the first centuries. Due to the fact that it was not regulated by Tradition, this festival rather takes on the character of a civil solemnity with strong popular roots.
A historical anchor, but also political
It is established, in fact, according to Islamic historiographical sources, that the Mawlid was celebrated much later at the beginning of the 7th century AH (13th century A.D.) by the prince of ‘Irbil, nicknamed Al- Moudhaffar.
It was under the reign of this vassal of Saladin that the Mawlid truly took on its Sunni features. It is both an official ceremony and a popular festival which attracts visitors from Mosul, Nisâbîn and Baghdad, because the prince organizes it with the support of local mystical circles. It is the latter who open it, probably under Christian influence, with a procession of candles. It continues late into the night with a spiritual concert.
The festival is also an opportunity to strengthen the authority of the prince who distributes gifts to religious dignitaries and descendants of the Prophet (shurafa’).
However, earlier traces of this celebration exist in Shiite tradition, notably during the Fatimid dynasty. It was in fact in Fatimid Egypt of the 11th century that the tradition of commemorating the birth of the Prophet was born. It is a palatine festival intended exclusively for the religious and political-military elite. It immediately presents specificities which distinguish it from the future Sunni Mawlid introduced under the Ayyubid dynasty founded later by Saladin in 1171.
Among the Fatimids, the prophetic Mawlid is only one among the six other celebrations which form the system of veneration of the House of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt): the Prophet, his cousin and son-in-law ‘Alî, his daughter Fâtima, her two grandsons Hassan and Hussein, as well as the reigning sovereign (who also descends from ‘Ali, ancestry from which he draws his legitimacy); Ayyubid Sunnis only keep the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
It was also under the Ayyubid dynasty that the Mawlid ennabawi was transformed into a popular nocturnal festival, contrary to Shiite traditions and customs (daytime celebration intended for the elite). The royal custom of distributing gifts to the ulemas (religious scholars) as well as to the descendants of the House of the Prophet is perpetuated. This usage, born in Egypt, then gradually spread throughout the Ayyubid empire (in Mosul, Aleppo and Irbil, between 1150 and 1200), before reaching the Muslim West (Maghreb and Spain) then the Indian subcontinent.
It is particularly in the post-Almohad Muslim West (late 13th century) that the Mawlid is most invested by the powers in place. Multiplying genealogical arrangements to link themselves to the Ahl al-Bayt (family of the Prophet), the ‘Azafid (Ceuta), Marinid (Fez), Nasrid (Granada), Ziyyanid (Tlemcen) and Hafsid (Tunis) dynasties established a real political cult to the Prophet, established as a guarantor of their legitimacy.
This celebration returned in force a few centuries later under the Ottoman Empire where in 1910, Mawlid obtained the official status of a national holiday.
A popular and sociocultural anchor
The historical events of this celebration do not detract from its popular and socio-cultural roots throughout the Muslim era. Without being strictly speaking a religious festival, Mawlid ennabawi is above all an intense moment of sharing and conviviality during which Muslims pay homage to their Prophet.
Mawlid is not recognized by many Muslims as an integral part of the religion, but rather as a popular tradition of Muslim life. However, the faithful have been commemorating the birth of the Messenger of Islam for centuries in almost every country in the world. The event, for them, is significant, it is the precious opportunity, naturally, to evoke the life and behavior of the one they consider to be “the model of virtue par excellence”.
In most Muslim states, Mawlid Day is now a public holiday. The media devote extensive coverage to it (sacred songs, Koranic exegesis, etc.); it is also often an opportunity for viewers, particularly in Algeria, to rewatch The Message (A-‘Rissala)a cult film that all Muslims know well.
The day before this event, Quran chanting competitions (tajwîd) are traditionally organized and the imam also takes this opportunity to recall the prophetic Sira (biography). The mosques are full and parents sometimes take the opportunity to circumcise their boys.
The spread over the centuries of the celebration of Mawlid seems to be closely correlated with the influence of Sufism, for which the mystical reference to the Prophet Muhammad constitutes a central element. It is through the brotherhoods (turuq, sg. tarîqat) that the diffusion of Mawlid and its integration into popular religious practices takes place successfully.
It should be noted that the evocation, exaltation and love of the Prophet are all themes at the very heart of this celebration. This is the function in essence of numerous panegyrics dedicated to the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, his life, his merits, his miracles, his virtues. Islamic literature about the one who was “sent as mercy for the Universe”in the words of the Koran itself, is rich in this regard. Al-Burda (The Cloak)an edifying poem composed by the great poet al-Busîrî in the 13th century, is one of the major works still frequently sung today during the Mawlid.
Generally speaking, many Muslims take advantage of this opportunity to renew their pact, their love and their vision with regard to the Prophet Muhammad and his Sunnah. They do not forget that the love of God and his Prophet are intimately linked. And that the best way to obtain God’s approval is through following the path traced by His last Messenger.
* Kamel Meziti, historian and author of notably The Feasts of God, Yahweh, Allah (collective, Bayard) and Mission Jihad (Dot the I’s)