views updated


MAWLID is an Arabic word that literally means the time and place of a birth, but the word is used in particular for the birth of the prophet Muammad (mawlid al-nabī ). In some Islamic countries it also refers to the festival days of local saints (walī s). The actual birth date of the prophet Muammad is unknown, but the anniversary of his birth is celebrated on 12 Rabīʿah al-Awwal of the Islamic lunar calendar, a day prior to the anniversary of his death (in 632 ce).

Muammad is portrayed in the Qurʾān as a messenger of God who was an ordinary mortal in other respects. Only in later centuries did many Muslims begin to assert a higher sanctity for his person. The first recorded celebrations of his birth occurred during the latter part of Fatimid rule in Egypt (9091171). As Shīʿī Muslims who held descendants of the Prophet in particularly high esteem, the Fatimid elite similarly observed the mawlid s of Muammad's son-in-law ʿAlī, his daughter Fāimah, and the reigning caliph. Palace dignitaries and religious notables held daylight processions and delivered sermons, a practice briefly prohibited but later revived. The Sunnī majority in Egypt took no part in these ceremonies.

The first popular mawlid occurred in 1207. Muaffar al-Dīn Kökbürü, brother-in-law of the famed alā al-Dīn (Saladin), arranged for a festival in Arbalāʾ, a town near Mosul in present-day northern Iraq. As described by the historian Ibn Khallikān (d. 1282), a native of the town, the mawlid became an elaborate annual event, attracting scholars, notables, preachers, and poets from throughout the region. The deeds and person of Muammad were celebrated in religious poetry and songs and culminated on the eve of the mawlid in a torchlight procession led by the prince. Followers of ūfī orders were also prominent in the celebrations, and gifts were lavishly distributed to participants.

Some aspects of early mawlid s appear to have been influenced by Middle Eastern Christian traditions of the period, such as lavish entertainments and nighttime processions in honor of saints. Even as mawlid s also developed for saints and other holy persons, especially in Egypt, the Prophet's mawlid continued to be the most elaborate. Mawlid s quickly became highly popular occasions associated with mysticism, during which ūfī orders congregated in public, reciting rhythmical chants in praise of God and in some cases entering into trance. From Egypt, mawlid s spread to many other parts of the Islamic world.

The popularity of mawlid s met initial resistance from some theologians. Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328) and others condemned the Prophet's mawlid as a harmful innovation (bidʿah ). After considerable discussion, most theologians, except those precursors of the later Wahhābī movement, who espoused Islam in its most idealized and fundamental form, tolerated the mawlid as a praiseworthy innovation (bidʿah asanah ), since it inspired reverence for the Prophet. The central activity of mawlid s is the recital of long panegyrical poems and legends commemorating Muammad and his deeds, recitations so popular that they are repeated on festive occasions throughout the year.

The acceptance of popular practice by theologians shows the Islamic principle of consensus (ijmāʿ ) at work. A key doctrinal tenet in Islam is that the community of believers cannot agree upon error. The legal opinions of religious jurists appear to have had minimal influence in reducing the popularity of mawlid s, so that most jurists were encouraged to accommodate theological doctrine to social realities.

As with other Islamic celebrations and rites of passage, mawlid s show considerable differences throughout the Islamic world. In some contexts, the mawlid is minimally distinguished from other festive occasions; elsewhere, it is one of the most important annual religious events. In nineteenth-century Cairo, mawlid celebrations started on the first day of Rabīʿah al-Awwal. Large tents were pitched in one of Cairo's quarters and decorated with lamps and Qurʾanic inscriptions. Each night ūfī orders carried their banners in procession to their tents, where they chanted the name of God, recited poems in praise of Muammad, and provided refreshments to guests. In the daytime, dancers, clowns, and storytellers entertained the audience in a carnival atmosphere. Festivities climaxed on the eleventh and twelfth evenings of the month, with elaborate poems and songs in praise of Muammad that continued until morning. In recent times government restrictions against large public gatherings sought to curtail these events. Nonetheless, the Prophet's mawlid and to a lesser extent those for local saints continue to be large communal festivals attracting hundreds of thousands of people in Egypt's larger towns.

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, religious orders play a less central role in mawlid festivities. In Morocco, the month in which the Prophet's birthday occurs is popularly known as mulūd, the local pronunciation of mawlid. Children born during this month are considered especially fortunate and are often named after it, and it is a good time to circumcise boys. Celebrations last a week, culminating with recitations of panegyrics of Muammad in decorated and illuminated community mosques. On the final night, recitations continue until daybreak. Some families offer a feast and distribute food to the poor; women decorate their hands and feet with henna and visit cemeteries. In Java, a feast is offered for the mawlid, which is one of the two most important calendrical ceremonies in a region given over to elaborate festival cycles. A popular Javanese belief is that the giving of feasts for the Prophet's birthday and the end of Ramaān distinguishes Muslims from non-Muslims and humans from animals; this view of the importance of the occasion is not necessarily shared by those Javanese who have a more elaborate understanding of Islamic doctrine and ritual.

The symbolism of the mawlid is especially highly developed among Swahili-speaking East African Muslims. In the town and island of Lamu, located off the northern coast of Kenya, most Muslims hold that the prophet Muammad, created of dust, like all other persons, carried "light" to the earth in this month. The discipline of fasting during the month of Ramadan emphasizes the separation of nature and culture and the distance between actual human society and the Islamic ideal. Likewise, the month of Muammad's birth is regarded as a joyous occasion that emphasizes life as lived here and now, combined with belief in the Prophet's willingness to intervene on behalf of his people and to accept them in full recognition of their individual shortcomings. It is said that during this month the Prophet lives on the earth like a human being and loves and hates just as they do. The first twelve days of the month are marked by processions, singing, and the music of tambourines and flutes. Intense competitions are held on successive evenings in the mosques and religious associations of the various quarters in Lamu. Each quarter vies in enthusiasm to praise Muammad's life and deeds in song and prose and to show its love for the Prophet. Sharīf s, descendants of Muammad, are especially honored in Lamu during this period.

Sharīf s are invited to recite poems in praise of Muammad in most of the nineteen mosques of Lamu town. In beautiful performances on successive evenings, assemblies of young boys from mosque schools and musicians perform songs and poems that have been rehearsed for months. Brightly colored tunics, donated by wealthy Muslims, are worn for the ceremonies. The freeborn and the ex-slaves, members of two important local social categories, compete with one another during these celebrations to express a willingness to use earthly wealththe offer of food and refreshments to guestsand talent to show their love for the Prophet. If not enough effort is put into the preparations for quarter festivities, the sharīf s are said to participate with less enthusiasm and to attract fewer blessings for the quarter. Love of the Prophet is said to join together the world of nature and the world of culture. Ceremonies include the sacrifice of cows, highly valued on the island, visits to cemeteries, and the distribution of rose water by sharīf s to symbolize Muammad's ability to cleanse his followers of their sins. Until the 1970s distinctions between freeborn and ex-slave and sharīf and commoner remained significant for many East African Muslims, although in recent years such distinctions have been eroded under pressure from reformist Muslims.


In his Muhammadan Festivals (New York, 1951) G. E. Von Grunebaum discusses the early history of the mawlid and includes translations from original source materials. For the mawlid in more recent times, see Edward W. Lane's An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 3d ed. (1846; reprint, New York, 1973), which includes a description of the celebrations as he saw them in Cairo in 1834. Michael Gilsenan's Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt (Oxford, 1973) provides a brief commentary on contemporary Egyptian practices. For Morocco, Edward A. Westermarck's Ritual and Belief in Morocco, vol. 2 (1926; reprint, New Hyde Park, N. Y., 1968), remains the best-documented ethnographic account, while Pessah Shinar's "Traditional and Reformist Mawlid Celebrations in the Maghrib," in Studies in Memory of Gaston Wiet, edited by Myriam Rosen-Ayalon (Jerusalem, 1977), pp. 371413, provides a richly analytic account of how mawlid practices have changed over time throughout North Africa. In The Religion of Java (Glencoe, Ill., 1960) Clifford Geertz mentions the mawlid only briefly but fully situates it in a highly elaborate ritual context. By far the most extensive discussion of the symbolism of occasion as elaborated in one local context is Abdul Hamid M. el-Zein's The Sacred Meadows: A Structural Analysis of Religious Symbolism in an East African Town (Evanston, Ill., 1974).

Dale F. Eickelman (1987)