One of the words that is often used to condemn certain religious activities in our community is the word bid’ah. Of course, a bid’ah is something new that was brought into Islam after the demise of Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s.). There are many things that we do that were brought into Islam later, and without those things our practice of Islam would be extremely difficult. The madhahib (Schools of Thought), the vowelling on the Qur’an, the 20 Tarawih prayers in congregation are all later developments but they have been of inestimable value in our practices.
Without the madhahib we would be floundering all over the place in our religion, and without the vowelling in the Qur’an most of us would be unable to recite. The 20 Tarawih prayers in congregation, of course, was introduced by Sayyiduna Umar (r.a.) after consultation with the other Companions. In exactly the same way the celebration of the birthday of Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s) as we know it today was also a later development in Islam. It was introduced primarily to help in the revival of Islam after there had been massive degeneration in Muslim society.
The first indication of the remembrance of this birthday was by the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.s) himself. He fasted every Monday because it was his birthday. Later people used to visit the house in which he was born in order to obtain barakah. It was, however, the mother of Haroun al-Rashid (about 160 years after the Hijrah) who changed the house into a small mosque. On his birthday, the house was kept open the whole day and large numbers of people visited there. This “celebration” was not as we know the Mawlud today. It appears that the celebration had its origins in Egypt during the Fatimid period. This was about 500 years after the hijrah. The Fatimid period was a period of Shia rule in Egypt, and the celebration covered the birthdays of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.w.s.), Sayyiduna Ali (r.a.), Sayyidatuna Fatima (r.a.) and the reigning Shia khalifahs. These celebrations later disappeared with the destruction of the Fatimid rule. About 600 years after the Hijrah, the Mawlud celebration was revived by the brother-in-law of Salahudin in Egypt and it was closely connected to the sufi movements. People used to come in from the countryside to take part in these celebrations and on the day of Mawlud they were feasted and entertained, and lectures were delivered.
Under the influence of the sufi movements the celebrations spread to Makkah and to the rest of the Muslim world. During the time of Sultan Murad III it was introduced throughout the Ottoman Empire. The celebrations later took the form of qasidas about the life of Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) and his character. Lectures were given and adhkar and duahs made. There have been differences of opinion as to the validity of the Mawlud. Scholars such as Suyuti and Ibn Hajar al-Haitami declared it to be a bid’ah hasanah (a good innovation). Others such as Ibn Taymiyah and Muhammad Abduh condemned the celebrations.
With the spread of Islam to Africa and Asia, these celebrations accompanied the spread. During the period of Colonialism, and here I am talking mainly of the 1600s to the 1800s, large numbers of Muslim slaves were sold at the Cape or were brought to the Cape with political exiles and criminals. Of course, they brought these celebrations with them. It appears from my study of history that the celebrations were mainly brought by sufi shaykhs. It is difficult to say whether Tuangs Abdurahman and Mahmud of Constantia celebrated Mawlud here because they were mainly in chains and how, in any case, were they going to determine the date of the Mawlud. It appears, however, that Shaykh Yusuf celebrated Mawlud and so he might have been the first person to have brought it here. With the coming of other sufi shaykhs over the years (and also Cape scholars who had trained in Makkah) this celebration has become entrenched in our community. There are very few mosques that do not have these celebrations at the Cape. Today it takes the form of lectures on the history of Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s), the recitation of qasidas, ashrakal, and other adhkar. In some cases rose water is sprinkled over the congregants to make them smell nice and small packets of chopped up rose leaves are distributed.
I remember very distinctly how the Mawlud used to be celebrated during my childhood. In the Tennyson Street mosque in Salt River they used to have two Mawlud “teams” who would stand in different parts of the mosque, and each team would recite salawat at the top of their voices. Up to today I do not know why they did that, and I do not know if this is still happening in parts of the Western Cape. I hope not. There are in the Cape a large number of ladies-only Mawlud groups and they have annual Mawlud celebrations. The ladies dress up in their finery and they go to mosques where a large number of ceremonies are held. The origins of some of these ceremonies are unknown but I know that they prepare the small packets of cut up rose leaves, amongst other things.
Before ending off there is one matter that I would like to raise and that is the major divisions in our community over the reciting of salawat on Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s). The salawat is perhaps one of the greatest spiritual presents granted to Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s.) by Allah Almighty, and we have major divisions over this. Should we recite it on a Friday after Jumu’ah or not? Should we stand or should we sit? There is a tradition which says that the Messenger of Allah said: “Recite considerable salawat on me on the Day of Jumu’ah.” In many mosques today people stream out when the salawat begins and in many cases they argue that it is because people are standing when they are doing this. The salawat is so precious that we should start moving away from these differences and if people want to stand or sit or lie on their sides, let them do so, as long as we celebrate praises together on Nabi Muhammad (s.a.w.s.). I find it unbearable that people stream out of mosques when the salawat is about to be recited. It would be better for them to remain and sit. Perhaps they would understand later why greater respect is shown by standing.
And Allah knows best. And I ask repentance if I had made any mistakes in what I have written.
(Reference: Gibb, HAR & Kramers, JH, 1991. Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam. EJ Brill: Leiden)
by Sheikh Yusuf Da Costa