The Birth of The Prophet Muhammad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam

THE BIRTH OF THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD
  • Book Title:
 The Birth Of The Prophet Muhammad
  • Book Author:
Marion Holmes Katz
  • Total Pages
284
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About the book – The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad

In the medieval period, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (the mawlid ) was celebrated in popular  narratives and ceremonies that expressed the religious agendas and aspirations of ordinary Muslims, including women.

 Mawlid celebrations expressed the hope for salvation through the relationship of love and mutuality with the Prophet, rather than exclusively through obedience to Islamic Law.

The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad: Devotional piety in Sunni Islam examines the mawlid from its origins to the present day and provides a new insight into how an aspect of everyday Islamic piety has been transformed by modernity.

 The book demonstrates that medieval popular Islam was coherent and meaningful, not just a set of deviations from scholarly norms. It gives a window into the religious lives of medieval Muslim women, rather than focusing on the limitations that were placed on them. Elite scholars attempted to co-opt and discipline these forms of piety, but were not able to control or suppress them, and popular narratives about the Prophet’s birth remained a powerful counter-canon for centuries.

In the twentieth century, social and economic change transformed the ways in which Muslims imagined the Prophet Muhammad, and the celebration of his birthday was marginalized by political forces.

Combining textual and historical analysis, this book is an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary Muslim devotional practices and will be of great interest to graduate students and researchers of Islam, religious studies, and medieval studies. Marion Holmes Katz is Associate Professor at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, New York University, USA. Her research interests are Islamic law, ritual, and gender.

Introduction

The origins of the mawlid celebration are widely considered, both among Muslim and secular scholars, to be well known. Even the most avid supporters of the celebration admit that it is an innovation (bid‘a) that originated centuries after the life of the Prophet; no serious efforts have been made to obfuscate the practice’s belated origins, or to project it into the distant Islamic past.

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Furthermore, although many details remain obscure, there are a number of historical accounts, contemporary or near-contemporary in origin, that trace several stages of the celebration’s early history.1 These have been exhaustively discussed by N.J.G. Kaptein in his monograph Muhammad’s Birthday Festival. The Fatimid dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 358 AH/969 CE to 567 AH/1171 CE, is known to have celebrated the Prophet’s birthday as a state occasion.

The observance, which differed little from other festivals sponsored by the Fatimid dynasty,2 involved the distribution of sweets to state and religious functionaries and a brief ceremonial viewing of the ruling Fatimid imam.3

 The celebration’s obvious function, within the religious agenda of the Shi’ite Fatimid state, was simultaneously to exalt the Prophet’s family and to emphasize the Fatimid imams’ status as members and patrons of that lineage.

 Thus, the birthday of the reigning imam was celebrated along with those of the Prophet’s most important kin. The exact chronological limits of Fatimid celebration of the mawlid are unknown. Kaptein infers that they began no earlier than 415 AH, the end point of his last source that fails to mention them; the earliest preserved descriptions of Fatimid mawlid ceremonies describe events no earlier than the beginning of the sixth century AH/twelfth century CE, the only firm terminus ante quem.4 Whether the celebrations ceased with the fall of the dynasty itself, or had gained sufficient acceptance among the Egyptian population to survive the return to Sunni rule, is unknown.5

It is, however, known that some prominent Sunnis observed the Prophet’s birthday around the time of the fall of the Fatimid dynasty. These celebrations combined feasting and sufi audition (sama‘ ) with various kinds of literary production.

The Syrian ruler Nur al-Din (d. 569 AH/1174 CE) observed the Prophet’s birthday with festivities including night-time feasting and illuminations and the presentation of poetry in honor of the occasion.6

 Nur al-Din was the devotee (muhibb) and patron of a holy man known as ‘Umar al-Malla’, who enjoyed a wide following including many members of the scholarly and political elite. Despite his poverty, ‘Umar was known for his hospitality, which included receiving crowds at his zawiya for a multi-day celebration of the Prophet’s birthday.7

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‘Umar al-Malla’ is also known to have been the author of a lengthy compilation dealing with the life and habits of the Prophet entitled Wasilat al- muta‘abbidin fi sirat sayyid al-mursalin.8 An incomplete manuscript of this work, written during the lifetime of shaykh ‘Umar, is provided with a notation that it was read in the presence of the author during several sittings, the last of which was held on Tuesday, the 6th of Rabi‘ al-Awwal, 569 AH/1174 CE.9

The fact that Wasilat al-muta‘abbidin was publicly presented in the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal suggests a connection with the celebration of the mawlid. However, in terms of form and content the text is not a mawlid in the later sense of the term; it does not primarily consist of a narrative of the Prophet’s pre-creation, lineage, and birth.10

 The celebration of the mawlid in the later sixth century AH/twelfth century CE was not limited to northern Mesopotamia. The traveler Ibn Jubayr describes the celebration of the occasion in Mecca in 579 AH/1183 CE, which involved the open- ing  of  the  holy  places  and the  veneration  of  the  site of  the  Prophet’s birth.11

However, the evidence (though sparse) suggests that the celebration of the mawlid continued to flourish in the region that had seen the festivities of Nur al-Din and ‘Umar al-Malla’. The next recorded Sunni mawlid celebration was the mawlid of Muzaffar al-Din Kökbüri, a member of the local Begteginid dynasty, held in Irbil in the opening years of the seventh century AH/thirteenth century CE. As Kaptein points out, these festivities occurred a mere 80 kilometers from ‘Umar al-Malla’s location in Mosul.

 A contemporary, and probably eyewitness, description of this celebration was preserved for posterity by the historian Ibn Khallikan (d. 681 AH/ 1282 CE), a native of Irbil. The celebration attracted huge numbers of people from the surrounding region and involved spectacular outlays of money on the part of its patron.

The preparations involved the erection of multi-leveled pavilions for the accommodation of various notables, each of which also featured ensembles of musicians and entertainers.

The celebration culminated with a night-time session of mystical audition (sama‘ ) and a banquet where both invited guests and masses of the needy were fed.12

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 Ibn Khallikan also notes the participation of the Andalusian poet and scholar Ibn Dihya, who composed in honor of the occasion a work entitled al-Tanwir fi mawlid al-siraj al-munir al-bashir al-nadhir.13

Unfortunately, this work has not been preserved. On the basis of this data, Kaptein hypothesizes that the celebration of the mawlid was initiated by the Fatimid dynasty and spread to Syria and the Jazira by the time of its fall.

The practice then swiftly spread among Sunnis, probably due to its popularization by influential figures such as ‘Umar al-Malla’, Nur al-Din, and Muzaffar al-Din Kökbüri, whose lavish and well-attended celebrations attracted guests from many different places.

The observation of the Prophet’s birthday in Mecca would have come to the attention of even greater numbers of visitors, who may then be assumed to have disseminated it at home.14

Authoritative Sunni authors ignored the Fatimid antecedents of the celebration, of which they were almost certainly aware; thus, Abu Shama

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