IT has to be supremely ironic that Creation’s most significant event is recognised as being one of the most controversial issues in Islam today.
This event was the birth, the mawlud, of Adam (as) when a God-fearing jinn called Iblis suddenly became resentful. Space does not allow me to dwell on Creation, but suffice it to say that the cursed Satan was the first to condemn mawlud.
His pride told him that Adam, carrying the torch of Muhammad (s), was a muddy mass of inferior deoxyribonucleic acid.
I’m certainly not connecting any dots, but mention the word ‘mawlud’ today and squadrons of literalists will storm indignantly over the horizon. Mawlud – now understood as the commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s (s) noble birth – is seen at worst as polytheism, and at best as bida’h, an undesirable innovation.
‘The Prophet (s) never celebrated his birthday during his life-time,” these rationalist-materialists will exhort you, forgetting that the premise of their argument – what the Prophet (s) did not do – holds about as much water as a sieve in terms of Sacred Law and custom.
For if all the things the Prophet (s) had not done during his life had to be the guiding principle of Islam, then Islam would have been petrified in rock by the seventh century.
And if this tatty dogma had to be the guiding light of the Sunnah, the way of the Prophet (s), then our friends would have to step out of their Nikes, strip off their Calvin Klein y-fronts, peel off their Woolworths’ socks and vests, and take off their Edgars trousers and golf shirts.
You see, the beloved Prophet (s) wore none of these garments during his lifetime. Even the kurtah would have to fly. And nor for that matter did our blessed Prophet (s) eat ice-cream on the beach during his life-time. Technically eating ice-cream at the beach is a bida’h.
Of course, this literalist obsession with innovation arises out of a massive misunderstanding of the Prophetic Tradition, one which states that the one who introduces to Islam what is not of Islam, is rejected by his Lord.
Of course, tampering with the tenets of the daily prayer is not of Islam, but wearing modest clothes – even if the Prophet (s) never wore them – is. So what about ice-cream and the beach? Are they part of Islam?
Well, yes, they are. And so are kurtahs, socks, shoes and even y-fronts. This is because the asl, the foundational principle of Allah’s Creation is its permissibility – not its prohibition. This is because Allah, the Highest, has created everything in His Sight.
And this is why Imam Izz ud-Din as-Salam, the great seventh century savant, classified bida’h into five divisions, with three of them being expressly permissible categories.
Permissibility is the very grace of Allah, the permission for the universe to exist as it does. Indeed, the question of ijtihad – reasoning by the best scholars – has to be one of the greatest mercies of Islam, a dynamic unfolding Deen that fits comfortably into any era.
Ijtihad doesn’t mean that everybody is going to agree all the time, but it does mean that humankind – gifted with reason – will be able to seek the guidance of Qur’an and Prophetic Tradition to reach informed opinion.
Furthermore, the great Shafi’ite scholar, Imam Nawawi, states in his Forty Hadith that the reward of an action depends upon its intention. Good intentionality, then, is the basis of sound action.
That, very simply, is the principle of the mawlud, a gathering of people to venerate the nativity of Prophet Muhammad (s) – something he did during his life-time when he expressly told his Companions he fasted on Mondays to honour his own birth.
And if that isn’t enough for the materialist cynics who usually treat the beloved Prophet (s) like a post-man, we are shown that the Prophet (s) marked anniversaries. For why did he also fast on ‘Ashura and visit the martyrs graves at Uhud annually?
The Prophet’s belief was that if others celebrated anniversaries relevant to Islam, our celebrations had to be better. “Musa akhi,” the Prophet had said on hearing about the Jewish ‘Ashura celebration of the Israelites escaping Egypt, “Moses is my brother, and I have more right over Moses.”
Naturally, those who try to reduce the issue of the mawlud to one of Shari’ah are hugely misguided. The mawlud cannot be dragged into the halls of Sacred Law to determine its permissibility, or otherwise.
The mawlud is merely a public gathering (a bida’h hasanah, a sound innovation) motivated by its intention of bringing believers together. Public gatherings, per se, don’t contravene the Shari’ah. Public gatherings advancing good cause uphold the Shari’ah – but they are not Shari’ah.
The point is that the mawlud is not wajib. It’s not law. It’s not compulsory. It also doesn’t have to take place on 12 Rabbi ul-Awwal – the date of the Prophet’s (s) birth – and can be performed at any time of the year.
Historically, the mawlud misanthropes have always trotted out the tired chestnut that the mawlud was instituted by the Shi’ah Fatimids in the ninth century. This statement is left mischievously, and annoyingly, open-ended with an unsavoury inference of impropriety.
The truth is that the mawlud originated in Makkah, the city of the Prophet’s (s) birth, over 1, 200 years ago. The seventh century historian, Abul ‘Abbas al-‘Azafi, noted that on the beloved Prophet’s mawlud no activities were undertaken except by the inhabitants of Makkah visiting his birthplace.
The ‘Abbasid dynasty also honoured the house in the eighth century, a full one-hundred years before the Fatimids held their gatherings in Cairo. This was when the wife of Caliph Harun al-Rashid converted it into a mosque so pilgrims could visit it.
Other scholars and travellers who observed first-hand that the mawlud was an openly approved public custom in Makkah were Al-Azraqi, Al-Naqqash, Ibn Jubair and Ibn Battuta.
But what got us going in Cape Town this year on the mawlud were the utterances of a person whom I will only call the ‘learned Shaikh’ and the animated responses of a person whom I will only call our ‘learned legal friend’.
The learned Shaikh, already familiar with dispute on the question of shrines in 2001, got into hot water for sharply criticising the ‘extravagance’ of Gatesville mosque’s mawlud. That he did from within the halls of the institution thoroughly rankled its caretakers.
Of course, the word ‘extravagance’ is a loaded one. Not unlike bida’h it has good and bad connotations. For was it not the Prophet (s) who said about the ‘Eids that Muslims should bath, perfume themselves, don their finest clothes and proceed to the mosque. Is that extravagance?
Or his exhortations for people to enjoy the wedding feast? Extravagance again?
There are two salient points here. Firstly, the well-intentioned (and sometimes recommended) public extravagance of Islam has traditionally never excluded the poor. A public event is de-facto a communal sadaqah, a public charity.
Secondly, if we were to excoriate ‘extravagance’ from Islam we would have to demolish the madrasah of Bukhara, the arabesque domes of Isfahan, the Taj Mahal in India, the Alhambra in Spain, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and even the Haram in Madinah.
Finally, given the above, perhaps the greatest challenge for those who have misgivings about the mawlud is for them to stop their harping on petty points, or as some even do, consigning their fellow Muslims to hellfire. There is a blessing here, it’s called freedom of choice. If you don’t like the mawlud, why force others to dislike it too?