Last Tuesday was Mawlid, the Islamic celebration of Muhammad’s birth. As with all Muslim holidays, it began the evening before (Monday) at sunset, and the holiday moves back several days each year relative to our Gregorian calendar. Mawlid is a major holiday in the Islamic faith, celebrated by Muslims around the world as a way to express love for their great prophet. The holiday probably began with relatively small gatherings at Muhammad’s birth home on the date of his birth. While the underlying meaning and basic observances have remained the same over the centuries, the holiday often takes on the unique spirit of the surrounding culture. Nowhere is that more evident than in Indonesia, where Mawlid boasts a distinct Javanese flair.
The actual birthplace of Muhammad is well-known, and he has a mostly-agreed-upon birth date. Muhammad was born in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) on the 12th day (or maybe the 17th day) of Rabi’ al-awwal (the third month of the Islamic calendar) in about 570 CE. His birth home was owned by his father. Since Muhammad’s father died before the prophet was born, Muhammad essentially inherited the home as an infant. When Muhammad and some of his followers moved to Medina to escape persecution in about 632 CE, the house passed into the hands of family members who were also early Islamic leaders. By the late 700’s the home had passed into the hands of al-Khayzuran, the wife of a powerful caliph. She turned the home into a place of worship.
Over time, Muslims increasingly gathered at Muhammad’s birthplace on his birthdate to honor the prophet and his holy work. By the late 12th century, these gatherings were growing in size, particularly within the Sufi tradition. By 1250, the holiday was being actively promoted by some religious leaders in Northern Africa, and the tradition spread from there.
Mawlid is a joyful holiday that has always included singing, prayers, and recitations from the Qur’an. Nowadays, the holiday can also include processions, decorated mosques, and poetry readings. A local Muslim friend who attended a mawlid at a New York City mosque last Tuesday claimed, half-jokingly, that he could celebrate Mawlid every week. Many Muslim children would probably agree. After all, it’s a birthday party! Kids hear stories about the life of Muhammad, eat treats, and play games. Older children can participate in the celebrations by reading poetry. And everyone shares in the blissful admiration of the prophet.
The rather carnivalesque atmosphere of Mawlid is enthusiastically embraced on the island of Java, Indonesia. My friend who grew up in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of Java, has fond childhood memories of Mawlid celebrations there. The holiday period is called “Sekaten,” which stems from shahada, the creed said when one converts to Islam. One of the highlights is a night-market, organized by the Sultan and set up in front of his palace many days before the prophet’s actual birthday. The night market brings together Indonesians from all walks of life as they stroll past the head-spinning array of traditional food, sweet treats, toys, games, and other goods sold from brightly-lit stalls. Friends and family members meet to share in the joyous event, while singers, dancers, gamelan music, and carnival rides all contribute to the overall sense of delight.
Sekaten culminates in an early morning procession, on Malwid itself, that ends at a local mosque. One of the more delightful (and delicious) features of the procession is a cone-shaped tower of fruit- and rice-based treats, called a gunungan. The gunungans are carried high above the crowd, and when they are finally taken apart, everyone tries to grab a piece since they can bring blessings in the upcoming year.
There is some controversy associated with Mawlid. Highly conservative scholars and leaders in the Muslim world claim that Malwid is bid’ah, an innovation appended to Islam that is forbidden. The Qur’an did not command followers to celebrate the prophet’s birthday, and there is no evidence that he and his friends engaged in such festivities, so the addition is an abomination and should be condemned. Even in Indonesia, some Muslims voice concern that people care more about the Javanese aspects of the holiday and/or having fun than in honoring the prophet Muhammad.
Like Christians on opposite sides of an issue who pull out their Bibles and cite passages to support their views, Muslims, too, cite holy verses to defend their claims. Those against the holiday cite verses like:
And the most evil affairs are their innovations; and every innovation is error.” (Hadith, Book 4 (Sahih Muslim), #1885)
This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. (Qur’an, one line from Surah 5, Verse 3)
This is one of the verses cited by those who favor the holiday:
Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet: O you that believe! Send your blessings on him, and salute him with all respect. (Qura’n, Surah 33, Verse 56)
In the end, Mawlid is a national holiday in every Muslim-majority nation in the world except for Saudi Arabia. Even there, eliminating it has been an uphill battle. Everyone loves a happy holiday, and Mawlid, the world over, seems to fit the bill.
One of the most widely-cited poems on Mawlid is the Qasida al-Burda (Poem of the Mantle), a beautiful ode to Muhammad written by a 13th century Sufi poet. It was penned after the poet was cured of his paralysis when the prophet appeared to him in a dream and wrapped him in a cloak. Here are a few lines from a couple different translations:
He is our Prophet, who enjoined us to do good, and who prohibited us from doing wrong. There is none parallel to him and no one more truthful in saying “no” or “yes.”
He is the most beloved of Allah, whose intercession is to be hoped for in every kind of surprising distress.
He called the people to Allah; so those who cling to him, cling to a rope which never snaps.
He surpassed all the prophets, both in physical and moral qualities; and they cannot come near him either in knowledge or in noble kindness.
All of them obtained from the Messenger of God merely handfuls of water from the ocean, or a few sips from continuous rains.
They stop before him at their assigned limits: either of a point of knowledge or to gain one wisdom from his wisdom,
For he is one in whom both the inward and the outward form attained to perfection, and the creator of all creation chose him as His most beloved.
He has no equal in his magnificence, for the substance of goodness in his nature is indivisible….
For he is the sun of virtue and they are its stars, which show their lights to the people, only in the dark.
So that when the sun rose, his light spread over the world, giving life to all nations….
How noble are the physical qualities of a prophet, adorned with good nature; who was invested with beauty, and distinguished by a good temperament.
He is like a blooming flower in its freshness; and the full moon in its splendor; and the ocean in generosity; and time in its irresistible courage….
Abdul Hamid Siddiqui. Sahih Muslim. Trans. Web. 17 Jan. 2014. <http://www.searchtruth.com/ hadith_books.php#muslim>.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.
More on the Mawlid controversy
English translations of the Qasida Burda
There are also numerous You Tube videos of the Qasida Burda being sung/recited in English (and many other languages).