The Innovation of Celebrating the Prophet’s Birthday – a Dialogue with Bin ul-Faragh

Celebrating Mawlid in Cape Town, South Africa

By Shafiq Morton

Don’t you people know that the mawlud (the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) is a reprehensible bid’ah (innovation) ? Don’t you people know it’s forbidden to celebrate birthdays!” blurted-out the man (whom I will call Bin ul-Faragh). We were at one of those social gatherings so typical of our community where we sit at hired trestle tables.

We’d been discussing celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) birthday, and Bin ul-Faragh had been unable to contain himself. Every family has its Bin ul-Faraghs. But we were in a cramped space, and there was no such thing as an easy, diplomatic getaway.

I could see those around me shifting uneasily with embarrassment. They knew, like I did, that “you people” was a rhetorical challenge – and the harbinger of unavoidable confrontation. I had to think quickly on my feet to avoid it.

“I agree. The commemoration of the Prophet’s (SAW) birthday is an innovation, you are dead right, brother,” I answered, “if you don’t like it, stay away from it.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Bin ul-Faragh’s head snapped back in surprise. “So you, Shafiq Morton, say mawlud is shirk (polytheism) then? You admit that the mawlud isn’t mentioned in Qur’an and Sunnah (the sayings and actions of the Prophet)? You admit that the Prophet (pbuh) didn’t celebrate birthdays in his lifetime?”

He was now speaking with a raised voice. Others began to fall silent in the crowded room, turning from their chatter to see what the source of the commotion was. Instead of damping the flames, I’d only stoked the fire in Bin ul-Faragh.

“No, I don’t agree that the mawlud is polytheistic,” I said quietly. And facing those at my table asked whether anybody present worshipped the Prophet (pbuh) as Bin ul-Faragh accused us of.

There was an uneasy silence, soon followed by utterances of “astaghfirullah” (May God  forgive me) and very heated denial.

“Surely you’ll concede,” I added, “that the origination of the mawlud celebration is historically derived from the necessity to love – and not worship – the Prophet (pbuh)?”

“Ja, man, but you people are all misguided. You people make mawlud into a Christmas carol,” retorted Bin ul-Faragh.

“You talk about Christmas,” I said, “what about the verse in the Qur’an (19:33) where it says that peace rest upon Jesus (pbuh) on the day he was born? Or (19:15) when God Almighty declares the same about John the Baptist (pbuh)?

“Then what about the admission of the Prophet (pbuh) that he fasted on Mondays because it was the day he was born? He celebrated his own birthday – a blessing for mankind – every week during his lifetime.”

Bin ul-Faragh’s response was to enter into a long monologue in which I was accused of using “pre-Islamic” texts and “Zionist-influenced mischief” to argue about the permissibility of the impermissible mawlud. He suggested that I was drunk with the propaganda of my Sheikhs.

He then quoted Hadith (a saying of the Prophet) in Arabic: “Beware of matters newly begun, for every innovation is misguidance …and every misguidance is in hell.” He had mangled the syntax by inserting a negative “ma” before the first “misguidance”.

“Brother,” I said, “you’ve totally misunderstood the context of this Prophetic axiom. Scholars agree that what’s being referred to here is something new in Islam that’s contrary to the spirit of Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. What do you say if something is not contrary to Sacred Law?”

Bin ul-Faragh glowered as those at my table tut-tutted. I went on to say that tarawih (the prayers in Ramadan), the Islamic calendar, the compilation of the Qur’an – as well as some of the utterances in the prayer – were all innovations introduced by the Prophet’s (SAW) noble Companions.

“Are people such as Sayyidina ‘Umar (ra) in hell?” I asked.

I borrowed Shaikh Nuh Keller’s commentary on the Shafi’i scholar, Naqib al-Masri’s The Reliance of the Traveller, to explain.  The principle was that whatever was introduced to Islam in contravention of Sacred Law would be discarded, but whatever was regarded as good (and not contrary to Sacred Law) would be beneficial.

“That’s the distinction you can’t make. There’s bad bida’h and there’s good bid’ah. Good innovation is lexically an innovation, but legally speaking is actually an inferable Sunnah,” I said to Bin ul-Faragh.

“And no, I’m not going to argue that the mawlud is an issue of Fiqh (the application of Sacred Law) when it clearly isn’t, and that it might be obligatory, which it isn’t too. It’s a question of choice, a question of respect for the Prophet (pbuh) and a noble way of remembering him.

“The mawlud – which is usually a recitation of the Prophet’s (SAW) life combined with the remembrance of Allah – is a social gathering that carries with it the power and grace of good intention. By its very nature it does not contravene Sacred Law.

“This is what ‘ulama over the centuries, together with the various Caliphs of the Islamic realm, have acknowledged,” I said.

I pointed out that until the 19th century the scholars of Makkah had visited the house of the Prophet (pbuh) and walked to the Haram in a procession on the night of the Prophet’s (pbuh) birth.

“But you people make haraam (wrong things) at these gatherings…you commit extravagances instead of giving to the poor,” argued Bin ul-Faragh.

“Is extravagance for the sake of the Prophet (SAW) a blameworthy trait?” I asked. “Has any poor person ever been denied access to a mawlud? And what about people who give sadaqah, or charity, at the mawlud?”

Bin ul-Faragh reddened with indignation, but the tide was turning. I could sense that the room was now against him. Cape Town, with its strong mainstream Sunni ethos and 300-year legacy of tasawwuf (or spirituality), was not the best place for narrow-minded petro-dollar Islam.

“I think everybody here will agree to disagree,” I said. “Nobody is forcing you to attend a mawlud, so you should not condemn those who do celebrate it as misguided.”

“But you are misguided! There are no birthdays in Islam, period. You people are going to roast in hell,” shouted Bin ul-Faragh, rising to his feet and stumbling over those sitting next to him as he rushed for the door.

Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town based award-winning photo-journalist who hosts Voice of the Cape’s daily Drivetime current affairs show. From 2009-2012 he has been included in the list of the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by the Royal Jordanian Strategic Studies Centre. This year he launched his second book, Surfing behind the Wall, My Palestinian Journey.