From Morocco to Bangladesh, there is usually a folk festival atmosphere when Muslims celebrate the birth of Muhammad. Strict believers smell a similarity with Christmas. This year, on top of everything else, Corona spoils the fun.
In Cairo, processions parade through the streets to the sound of drums; in Turkey, mosques will be festively lit all night; and on the Indonesian island of Java, the party lasts an entire week with funfairs and fireworks: the festival of Maulid an-Nabi, "Birthday of the Prophet," on 12. Sunni Muslims around the world often celebrate exuberantly on the fifth day of the Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal, and Shiites follow them five days later.
To thank Allah for sending them Muhammad as a herald of Islam and a role model for their own lives. This year the day falls on the 29th. October – and overshadowed by the Corona pandemic, standoff rules and assembly bans.
Between party and spirituality
The Prophet himself is said to have always fasted on his birthday. Good food, on the other hand, is a traditional part of Maulid celebrations, as it is at any decent birthday party. Wealthy donors or religious foundations – in normal times – often arrange elaborate banquets, especially for the poor of society. In street processions in Egypt and elsewhere, bakers hand out sugar stuff to spectators.
But for all the party atmosphere, the focus is on the spiritual commemoration of the founder of the religion; the night on Maulid is one of Islam's five holy nights, when supplications are considered particularly auspicious. In mosques and public squares, the faithful commemorate the life of Mohammed with Koran readings and hymns of praise.
Children recited poems about the Prophet on TV programs. Over the centuries, an extensive Maulid literature has developed. Thus, the birth story of Mevlut i-Sherif by the Ottoman poet Suleyman Celebi (d. 1422) among the great works of Turkish national literature.
Origin in 11. Century
The first Maulid celebrations date back to the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty in the eleventh century. Their caliphs were not only driven by piety. With the pompous celebrations, they wanted above all to emphasize their descent from Mohammed and thus their authority. From Egypt, Maulid then spread throughout the Islamic world.
"Precisely because it became so popular, Islamic rulers repeatedly used the celebrations to showcase themselves as leaders with speeches and gestures," says Daniel Roters, a researcher at the Center for Islamic Theology at Munster University.
Popular Islam knows many miracle tales surrounding Muhammad's birth around the year 570 in Mecca. Thus a bright light had shone from Syria over Arabia and nature had begun to blossom. For Muslims, the Messenger of Allah is the most exemplary person in history.
In any case, they must not worship him as a divine being, as Christians do their founder of religion, Jesus of Nazareth. Mohammed is merely the bearer of the divine revelation, the Koran.
Salafists: Festival too reminiscent of Christmas
Rigid currents such as the Saudi Wahhabis or the Salafists are therefore a thorn in the side of the festival. They condemn Maulid as bid'a, a forbidden innovation that distracts the believer from worshipping Allah. After all, he said, the Prophet did not celebrate his birthday either. Worse still, the festival is even reminiscent of Christian Christmas.
Unlike in most Islamic countries, Maulid is strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, at least frowned upon in other Gulf states.
The coincidence of Maulid and Christmas
The majority of Islamic scholars, on the other hand, consider the joyful commemoration of the prophet permissible or even recommend it. "In countries where Wahhabism is on the rise with Saudi support, for example Indonesia, criticism of the boisterous celebrations is growing, to be sure," reports Islamic scholar Roters. "But this does not change the great popularity of Maulid."
By the way, because the festival is based on the Islamic lunar calendar, Maulid and the Christian Christmas have historically fallen on the same day from time to time. Actually a happy coincidence for interreligious dialogue. The next time, however, it will not be until the year 2080 again.