Just like all natural things, religions are also part of an evolution process that undergo series of change during the course of the history. The face of any religion, when founded, starts changing when it assimilates different ideas, culture, people and traditions. What the shape of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism or Christianity was thousands of years ago may not be the same today as countless historic events moulded them and preserved their modern identity. The same goes with Islam that was introduced in Arabia more than 1,400 years ago.
Akin to the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth on 25 December, many Muslims around the world celebrate the birthday of their prophet Muhammad every year. The 12th day of the third month of Islamic calendar, Rabi-al-Awwal, is marked as the birthday of Islam’s last prophet. Though the event was never celebrated during Prophet Muhammad’s life or by his successors, the descendants of Prophet Muhammad called Fatimids introduced the festival in 8th century to boost their support among the masses and undermine the role of the clergy.
Prophet Muhammad’s birthday was arbitrarily fixed by tradition as the 12th day of the month of Rabi-al-Awwal which incidentally is also the day of his death. Many historians and scholars are of view that his original date of birth is 9th Rabi-al-Awwal and prove it according to the early Islamic traditions. However, the event was not celebrated by the Muslim masses until about 13th century.
At the end of the 11th century in Egypt, the ruling Shiite Fatimids who are the descendants Fatimah. She was the most beloved daughter of Prophet Mohammed and was wedded to Caliph Ali. The Fatimids observed four birthdays including that of Prophet Mohammed, Ali, Fatimah, and the ruling caliph. However, the festivals were mere processions of court officials that consisted of sermons and poetry eulogising the holy personalities.
Since then, this festival has gained popularity after accepting cultural and cross religious influences. Today, it is a national holiday in many Muslim countries and is observed by both religious and secular minded people.
The Sufi order of Islam helped the tradition spread like wildfire across the Muslim world by making it more of a personal experience and involving the use of poetic expression, chants, meditation and a dance that focuses on the mystic nature of the religion.
Recitation of the poetry that eulogises Prophet Mohammed is the major highlight of the birthday festival. Poetry written in Arabic called Qaseeda is sung in his honour while the audience listens and appreciates the proceedings. The most famous poetic expression is the Qaseeda al-Burda or Poem of the Mantle which was written by renowned 13th century Arabic Sufi poet Busiri. The poem praises Prophet Mohammed and celebrates his life as the messenger of God and messiah of humanity.
As it is not a mainstream Islamic event, the festivities are as diverse as the terrain of the Muslim world that ranges from the shores of Atlantic in Northwest Africa to the Pacific Islands of Indonesia. All the celebrations include taking out of a procession where people design various floats embellished with religious writings and carry them in a parade.
The Mawlid celebrations are more carnival in nature where traditional gathering take place. The event is also observed in the Balkans by Albanian and Bosnian Muslims which is known as Mevlud. The event serves as a get together where friends and families meet up in the evening accompanied by a dinner.
Many people also gather at places said to be housing relics that belong to the last messenger of Islam. One such gathering takes place at the holy shrine of Hazratbal on the outskirts of Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir where tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims offer special prayers on 12th of Rabi-al-Awwal and line up to view a relic believed to be a hair from the Prophet’s beard.
Every large and small mosque across the Muslim world is decorated with festive lights where the faithful gather throughout the day to pray, meditate and read passages from the Holy Quran.
An illuminated mosque in Karachi, Pakistan. Buildings are especially decorated and illuminated during night time as part of the festival. While such arrangements are visually eye-pleasing, it puts a lot of strain on the electricity supply to the cities with bills often not paid by the organisers. Critics say it is contrary to the teachings of Islam which emphasises on simplicity and substance.
While it is an expression of religious devotion, the event can also be a reflection of the strength of certain political parties that seek to make Islam the basis of the laws and regulations of the land by imposing Shariah.
The event is also celebrated in countries where Muslims form a large minority. India is one such nation where Muslims are almost 14% of the billion plus population. Such festivities help promote community spirit and understanding and strengthen the ties between various sects and religious groups. However, the chances of isolated outbreaks of violence cannot be ruled out.
Mawlid is also an occasion when culture intricately weaves with religion and produces a fascinating fabric that represents the diversity and depth of the society. One such example is the procession of the royal servants of Yogyakarta Palace who carry “gunungan” that is filled with natural resources. Known as the Sekaten Ceremony, the event is annually held on the 5th day of the 3rd month of the Javanese calendar. It extends to a week and culminates with the Gerebeg Maulud Ceremony. Sekaten is the commemoration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Javanese believe that by celebrating Sekaten in general and listening to gamelan in particular they will be rewarded with good health and prosperity.
Children equally take part in the festivities often putting on new dresses and reciting poems in gatherings at schools and community centres. Their inclusion is ensured in order to pass on the traditions of the religion and introduction to the values of Islam.