Mawlid al-Nabi

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Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad's Birthday, Birthday of the Prophet, Mulid al-Nabi, Maulid al-Nabi, Maulidi, Mawlid an-Nabi)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Muslim)
Date of Observation: Usually August or September; twelfth day of the Islamic lunar month of Rabi al-Awwal
Where Celebrated: Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, West Africa, South Africa, Turkey, and throughout the Islamic world
Symbols and Customs: Attending Mosque, Burdah, Dhikr, Food, Gifts, Poems, Processions
Related Holidays: Laylat al-Miraj, Laylat al-Qadr


Mawlid al-Nabi, the Birthday of the Prophet, is a holiday in the religious tradition of Islam, one of the world's largest religions. According to some estimates, there are more than one billion Muslims worldwide, with major populations found in the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. In Europe and the United States, Islam is the second largest religious group, with some seven million adherents in the United States. During the early years of Islam, the faith spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula into regions that are today occupied by Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Contrary to popular opinion, however, Muslims are not just Arabs. Muslims-followers of Islam-are found in many different ethnic groups all over the globe. In fact, Arabs make up less than twenty percent of Muslims.

The word Islam is an Arabic word that means "surrender to God." Its other meanings include peace, safety, and health. The central focus of Islam is a personal commitment and surrender to Allah, the Arabic word for God. In Islam, the concept of Allah is universal and eternal. Allah is the same in every religion and throughout the history of humankind. A person who follows Islam is called a Muslim, which means one who surrenders or submits to Allah's will. But Islam is not just a religion of belief; it is a religion of action. Five specific deeds are required of followers; these are called The Five Pillars of Islam. They are 1) Shahadah-confession of faith; 2) Salat-prayer/worship; 3) Zakat-charity; 4) Sawm-fasting; and 5) Hajj-pilgrimage. Mawlid al-Nabi

The message of Islam was brought by Muhammad (570-632 C . E .), who is considered a prophet of Allah. The holy book of Islam is the Qur'an (also sometimes spelled Koran or Alcoran). According to Islamic belief, the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad by Allah over a period of twenty-three years. Authorship of the Qur'an is attributed to Allah, and not to Muhammad; Muhammad merely received it. Muslims believe that because it originated with Allah, the Qur'an is infallible.

There are two main sects within Islam: Sunni and Shi'ite. Sunni Muslims are the majority (estimated at about eighty percent). They recognize the authority of the first four Caliphs, including Ali, and they believe that the Sunna (the example of the Prophet Muhammad) is interpreted through the consensus of the community. Shi'ite Muslims also look to special teachers, called imams. The imams are the direct descendants of Muhammad through Fatimah and Ali. These individuals are believed to be inspired and to possess secret knowledge. Shi'ites, however, do not recognize the same line of Islamic leaders acknowledged by the Sunnis. Shi'ites hold to a doctrine that accepts only leaders who are descended from Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and her husband Ali. Many Shi'ite subsects believe that true imams are errorless and sinless. They receive instruction from these leaders rather than relying on the consensus of the community.

Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Born in Mecca on August 20, 570 C . E ., he was a shepherd and a trader who began to receive revelations from God when he was forty years old. Over the next twentythree years, he not only established the Islamic religion, but also brought an unprecedented degree of political unity to the Arab tribes. His birth is considered an event of major importance in the Muslim world because he was the last of the prophets and the one to whom the Qur'an (the holy book of the Islamic faith) was revealed.

Joyful but low-key observance of the Prophet's birthday dates back to early centuries of Muslim history. These observances grew larger and more complex over time. The biggest Mawlid al-Nabi celebrations in the Middle East usually take place in Egypt. Official Egyptian celebrations can be traced back to the time of the Fatimid Dynasty (909-1171), whose rulers traced their own ancestry back to Muhammad. In those days, the festivities began with prayers at the al-Azar mosque and concluded with readings from the Qur'an given in the royal palace. Poor people, mosque guardians, and religious officials who attended the palace event were given specially prepared sweets.

The first evidence of major celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi comes from the city of Irbil (then Arabala), a town now located in the nation of Iraq. These celebrations took place in the year 1207. The town's Sufi community was very active in these festivities. Sufi missionaries are credited with spreading the festival to East Africa. Later that century, the Mamluk sultans (1254-1517) expanded the Mawlid al-Nabi celebrations. They ordered the streets to be decorated with lamps and large swaths of silk cloth. They also hosted a festival at Cairo's Citadel in which musicians, Sufi groups, and singers were invited to perform. In addition, poor people, soldiers, and government workers were given presents of clothes and money.

In the fifteenth century, the Sultan Qaitbey acquired an enormous outdoors tent that was erected every year to serve as headquarters for the festival. Sufi groups marching behind large banners converged on the tent, accompanied by drummers, singers, and other musicians. Army and government officials brought up the rear. Once assembled, the crowd settled in to eat, listen to speeches, and to pray. As in previous generations, the sultan gave away money and gifts.

In the sixteenth century, the sultans got rid of the tent and tried to dismantle the celebrations. The Sufi groups continued their processions and celebrations, however, and invited the king to join them. They issued these invitations right up until the reign of the last king of Egypt, King Farouk (r. 1936-52). Over time, the idea of celebrating the Prophet's birthday spread from Egypt to other areas, first in the Middle East and then wherever Muslims live.

Today, Mawlid al-Nabi is a public holiday in more than forty countries around the world. Muslims gather together in groups to remember Muhammad on his birthday. They honor the birth of Muhammad in a wide variety of ways that reflect their heritage, culture, and local customs. In Lebanon, for example, the celebration includes nine days of fairs and parades. Children are told stories about the night when Muhammad was born in Mecca-particularly about the 7,000 angels who brought Muhammad's mother a golden vessel filled with dew to bathe the holy infant. In Egypt, Muhammad's birthday is celebrated by illuminating the city of Cairo and with special ceremonies and performances, including a DHIKR .

Other common means of celebrating the Prophet's birth include singing songs, reading POEMS , and ATTENDING MOSQUE for special recitations or lectures concerning the life and teachings of the Prophet. Public PROCESSIONS take place in some Muslim countries. F OOD and GIFTS are important elements for many. Still, conservative and fundamentalist Muslims, especially those in the Wahhabi sect, do not celebrate Muhammad's birthday. They criticize Muslims who do celebrate for adopting a festival that is not authorized in the Qur'an or the hadith. Nevertheless, in much of the Muslim world, large numbers of believers mark the twelfth of Rabi alAwwal with recitations and festivities.

Muslims gather together in groups to remember Muhammad on his birthday. They tell each other the story of his life, his character, and his sufferings. These socalled "Mawlid gatherings" take place throughout the month of Rabi al-Awwal. Another popular way of celebrating this day is to take part in large processions, often led by colorfully decorated elephants. Mawlid al-Nabi


Attending Mosque

Many Muslims attend mosque on Mawlid al-Nabi to pray and listen to special recitations. The celebration of the Prophet's birthday usually includes a recitation of the Qur'an and stories about the life of the Prophet, often in verse or in a combination of poetry and prose. These recitations, called mawlids, may have been inspired by the sermons given at the festivals of Christian saints. They might focus on a variety of topics, including the life of the Prophet, the example he set, his teachings, his character, his sufferings, and his mission. Some mosques might also include lectures on other important religious or social topics. Mawlid poems, of which many have been written in both Turkish and Arabic, have become so popular that they are sometimes recited on other festive occasions as well.


Burdah refers to one of the Prophet's cloaks or mantles, which was made out of goat hair. It was the inspiration for two famous poems-one by a contemporary of Muhammad named Ka'b ibn Zuhayr and the other by the thirteenth-century poet Muhammad ibn Said al-Busiri. In the first poem, the Prophet gives away one of his many cloaks to Ka'b ibn Zuhayr, an outlaw who repents and asks for Muhammad's pardon. The mantle given to Ka'b became part of the national treasury after the poet's death, and today it is kept in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. In the second poem, al-Busiri describes the nature of the Prophet and praises him for his virtues. It is customary to recite this poem during the celebration of the Prophet's birthday.


The word dhikr means "remembrance" in Arabic. Among Sufi Muslims, dhikr refers to the chanting of certain words or phrases in praise of God. Its purpose is to induce an ecstatic experience or momentary union with God. Although the actual sequence of phrases can vary, the pattern is always the same. Such phrases as "There is no god but Allah," or "God is greatest" are repeated innumerable times to a certain rhythm, sometimes to the accompaniment of drums or pipes. Although dhikr meetings are held frequently by the Sufi, or dervish, fraternities, these litanies are particularly associated with the celebration of Mawlid al-Nabi.


Feasting is an important part of Mawlid al-Nabi. Muslims in different regions prepare their own special foods in honor of the Prophet's birthday. In Egypt, for example, people celebrate with hummus, special sweets, and candy dolls. In Kenya, Muslims enjoy shrimp pilaf, curried eggplant, cassava with coconut sauce, mango chutney, and roasted red pepper. In Pakistan, Muslims feast on rice with meat and spices, as well as sweet rice. Candy and other sweet treats are on the menu in many areas. Other favorite foods served on this day include tabboul, made from grains of wheat that have been boiled and mixed with chopped mint, onions, parsley, and tomatoes, then mixed again with olive oil and lemon juice; djaje mihshi, or roast chicken filled with rice, spices, and ground lamb; and baclava a typical Mawlid dessert made from thin layers of pastry with crushed nuts and honey in between.


Giving gifts is a tradition for some Muslims. Families often honor the day quietly at home by giving friends and neighbors gifts of peanut, pistachio, or hazelnut candy. Children receive candy dolls, made from hot, molten sugar poured into special molds. Girls often get female figures, while boys usually receive the figure of a man seated on a horse. Giving gifts to the poor is a frequent part of Mawlid al-Nabi.


One of the main features of the holiday in many countries is the recitation of long poems or litanies that express gratitude toward both God and Muhammad and praise the Prophet in the highest possible terms. In fact, this practice gave rise to a special genre of poetry. In Turkey and lands once under Turkish rule, a poem called the al-Burdah ("The Mantle") is a traditional favorite recited every year on Mawlid al-Nabi. It was written by Muhammad ibn Said al-Busiri (1213-1295), a Berber poet born in Cairo, Egypt. His inspiration came to him in a dream that occurred during a period in his life when he suffered from paralysis. In his dream, Muhammad approached him and wrapped his own mantle, or cloak, around him. Upon waking, al-Busiri discovered that he had been cured. In gratitude, al-Busiri composed "The Mantle." The poem recounts the life story of the Prophet and attempts to describe his exquisitely beautiful nature and his profound spiritual gifts. A famous line from the poet asserts that he is

Like a flower in tenderness, and like the full moon in glory, And like the ocean in generosity, and like all Time brought into one point (Glassé: 80).

Over the years, both gifted poets and ordinary devotees have written poems praising the Prophet. These poems, too, may be read or recited around the time of the Prophet's birthday.


In some countries, Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet in a public fashion, by walking in large street processions and singing hymns. There might also be a public celebration in a town square, where Muslims may decorate the area and set Mawlid al-Nabi

up tents or booths for nighttime entertainment. These celebrations might also be held at a Sufi shrine. Sufi dancing, music, and devotional chants would fill the night air and create a mystical feeling.


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Mawlid an-Nabi: The Celebration of Prophet Muhammad's Birthday, Islamic Supreme Council of America bday.html

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

Valuing our Differences: Celebrating Diversity, University of Kansas
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Mawlid al-Nabi (Maulid al-Nabi; Prophet's Birthday)

12th day of the Islamic month of Rabial-Awwal
Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birth of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Born in Mecca around 570, he was a shepherd and a trader who began to receive revelations from God when he was 40 years old. Over the next 23 years he not only established a religion but brought an unprecedented political unity to Arab tribes. Muhammad's birth began to be observed as a public holiday about the 12th century, except by conservative sects such as the Wahhabis who do not celebrate any human. They believe that to do so would detract from the worship of God. It is celebrated with the recitation of litanies in mosques, and with firecrackers and gift-giving throughout the Middle East and countries with prominent Muslim populations. In Burkina Faso and parts of Ghana the holiday is called Damba and in Indonesia, Sekaten. The Prophet's birthday is a legal holiday in more than 30 countries around the world.
AnnivHol-2000, p. 234
BkFest-1937, p. 237
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 79
BkHolWrld-1986, Dec 3
ConEncyIslam-1991, p. 263
DictWrldRel-1989, pp. 365, 348, 468, 498
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 561
HolSymbols-2009, p. 561
OxYear-1999, p. 732
RelHolCal-2004, p. 145
UndIslam-2004, p. 275
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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