Also called Eid Milad ul-Nabi or Mawlid, this holiday commemorates the prophet Muhammad, celebrated on his birthday. Muslims celebrate the holiday on the 12th or 17th day of the Islamic calendar’s Rabi’ al-awwal, the third month of the year, depending on whether it is the Shi’a or Sunni Muslim celebration. However, Muslims worldwide celebrate Mawlid during this time. The celebration often starts the day before and carries on into the next day.
Prophet’s Birthday was believed to be first celebrated in Mecca, Muhammad’s birthplace, during the 8th century. However, the oldest text to mention the holiday is from 12th century Persia, and was not an established tradition until the following century. Ancient celebrations differ from contemporary ones. Today, Prophet’s Birthday is mostly celebrated during the nighttime, but older celebrations occurred during the day. These included religious services, such as sermons and Qur’an readings, and sometimes animal sacrifice. They were also centered around the high-ranking citizens, giving gifts to caliphs and often dedicating religious services to them.
Prophet’s Birthday Today
Today, Mawlid is celebrated widely by traditionally Islamic countries and Muslims all over the world. It is typically celebrated with prayers, feasts or fasts, parades, mosque decorations and other celebrations. Celebrators often ruminate and tell stories about the life of Muhammad. Another tradition is to hold informational lectures about Islam or Muhammad to non-Islamic people in order to spread awareness about the Islamic faith.
Many countries publicly celebrate the holiday—Saudi Arabia and Qatar is the only Islamic country that does not commemorate the holiday officially, forbidding the celebration instead. This is because many Muslims believe the holiday is sacrilegious, as there are many prophets besides Muhammad and many early significant leaders in the religion did not celebrate it or establish a celebration of Mawlid, including Muhammad himself or his close followers. Although the holiday is tied closely to the Islamic religion and often includes religious services, it is mostly associated with Islamic pride and celebration of Muslim identity. It also has ties to the mystical side of the religion.
Along with fasting, feasting is a prominent part of the celebration. The meal may include traditional Islamic foods, including Buraniya, a spice and/ or meat filled pastry, seasoned lamb, eggplant pancakes, or Badinjan Muhassa, eggplant prepared with nuts and seeds.
Not all readings and recitations include passages from the Qur’an, but also poetry books and other works of literature that praise or talk about Muhammad. Poetry that praises Muhammad is considered its own genre, called Na’at.
The specifics regarding Prophet’s Birthday celebrations depend on the location:
- Pakistan: this country is known for displaying Pakistan’s national flag on certain buildings and giving either a 21 gun salute or a 31 gun salute. Theaters are required to show religious films. Pakistan is known to have the largest Mawlid celebration on the night before the 12th in which celebrators gather at Minar-e-Pakistan Lahore, or the Tower of Pakistan.
- India: even as a non-Muslim country, India holds significant Mawlid celebrations, setting out the relics of Muhammad for prayer.
- United States: due to the heavy tradition of Christmas, many Muslims in the U.S. have come to view Prophet’s Birthday as a Muslim version of Christmas, marked by giving gifts, singing, and religious services.
- Egypt: here, the holiday is more closely associated with mystical Islamic tradition, with a carnival style celebration in the streets and prayer.
Sri Lanka: celebrators of Prophet’s Birthday in Sri Lanka center on readings of books detailing the life, word, and teachings of Muhammad.
Muhammad, a main prophet of Islam, was a military and political leader along with a religious one. He was born in Mecca around 570 AD. An orphan put into the care of his uncle, he made money as a merchant and shepherd in his early life, marrying at 25. He reported his first revelation from God at age 40 while visiting an isolated cave he frequented for meditation and prayer, publicly talking about these revelations three years later. This initial revelation said that the only way to please God is to completely surrender yourself to God and that Muhammad was a prophet.
After collecting followers, Muhammad fled to Medina to escape persecution from tribes in Mecca. This is what would come to be known as Hiijra, the start of the Islamic calendar. Muhammad found more success in Medina, where he drafted the Constitution of Medina—one of his more political acts, as this charter included Jewish, pagan, Christian groups as well in the agreement of religious freedom.
After his success in Medina, Muhammad took control of Mecca peacefully using his now much larger group of followers in what is known as the Conquest of Mecca, ridding the city of pagan idols and temples. Muhammad then sent his followers to continue this demolition of the pagan religion to other pagan centers throughout Eastern Arabia. Muhammad died of illness in 632 shortly after going to Mecca for The Farewell Pilgrimage, during which Muhammad believed he was on his last pilgrimage before his death.
Muhammad’s legacy credits him with the spread of Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula, uniting the area under a single religion that ended up intertwining itself closely with politics. The result was a united area that had been previously plagued by religious and political division.