In this second part of a two-part article, Ustadh Salman Younas discusses the mawlid and its role in strengthening identity and belonging, and as a source of knowledge acquisition and consolidation.
Discussions on the mawlid and its permissibility often occur in a context where the focus is primarily directed towards determining the strict legal merits of this practice. Commonly, the questions asked in this legal context relate to understanding the notion of sunna, defining innovation (bidʿa), identifying the textual sources supporting or repudiating this practice, and forwarding the opinions of classical jurists. It is seldom the case that people attempt to analyze the mawlid beyond strictly and narrowly defined legal considerations and recognize it as a rather complex social and cultural phenomenon.
This is despite the fact that non-legal considerations are often essential to the issuance of a sound legal judgment. Though debates surrounding the mawlid are often presented in rather simple terms today, several classical scholars sought to view this practice in a broader light when trying to determine its legal status and merits. One of the considerations they took into account was the pedagogical and cohesive power of the mawlid, and the concerns they expressed prove to be quite relevant to Muslims today.
The Modern Crisis of Identity and Belonging
The modern world has ushered in several monumental shifts. One does not have to look very hard to see that religion has increasingly found itself against the ropes where it is inflicted with repeated blows from the defining ideologies and myths of our times – secularism, liberalism, humanism, progressivism, nationalism, capitalism, consumerism, equality, freedom, evolution, science, etc. These have left their mark on virtually every level – from the way political institutions are defined to peoples’ basic social and cultural expressions.
This has had a profoundly negative effect on the believer, the way he identifies himself and understands his faith, and his ability to navigate life meaningfully according to the dictates of religion. In place of an overarching unity comes an incoherent multiplicity. The community (umma) is replaced with the nation-state. Humans are no longer the custodians of the world but exploiters of it. Rituals have been set aside for endless amusement and mindless play. Truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance, and a culture rooted in the divine has been mutated into trivial culture. There is one word that describes this state of man: heedlessness, or ghafla. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf succinctly describes heedlessness in his commentary on Matharat al-Qulub (p.73):
The ultimate trauma of heedlessness, then, is not seeing things the way they truly are. It is choosing a way of living that allows divine signs to pass one up without notice. The Prophet supplicated that God the Exalted show him things in their reality, distinguished and clear: ‘Show me the truth as truth and give me the ability to follow it; and show me falsehood as falsehood and give me the ability to avoid it.’
Divine signs pass by man at every moment of his existence for as Aldous Huxley remarked, humans have “an infinite appetite for distractions.” (Brave New World) Though distractions are many, it is entertainment and pleasurable indulgences that are arguably at the top of the list. Certainly, the tools of distractions have multiplied in the modern era. Television is an obvious example. The internet is another. There is also the so-called “festival boom” identified with the 20th century that arose as a result of economic and social advancements: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day, and Easter are but a few of the more popular ones. They often reflect the values of society and instill them in the hearts of people. Independence Day, for example, fosters patriotic fervor, national identity, and national unity, and it does so effectively because it is a communal event that elicits happiness and rejoicing. It is no surprise that society as a whole is drawn to these events and often take on-board the values and messages they convey. And such events and celebrations are now everywhere, recurring month after month, year after year.
While several of these cultural festivities seem fairly harmless, the questions a believer should ask himself are: What are these actions rooting me in? How are they meaningfully connecting me to God? Where are they turning my gaze towards? These are what define the Muslim. Indeed, the salient feature of the believer – as individual and community – is possessing a worldview rooted in God, cognizant of Him, guided by His instruction and wisdom. The worldly and mundane are not always perilous, but they often take one down a road of heedlessness and ignorance. The positive identity, purpose, and sense of belonging characterizing the individual as a member of a godly community of believers is lost, buried under increasing layers of distraction and confusion. It is only ameliorated through knowledge, which tethers one to God and His Prophet (blessings upon him).
The Mawlid and Knowledge Acquisition
Just as knowledge has the power to generate emotion, emotion also motivates one in the acquisition of knowledge and plays an important role in its consolidation. Classical scholars recognized this in the context of the mawlid and the appeal of “foreign” festivals. Abu al-ʿAbbas al-ʿAzafi authored a text entitled al-Durr al-Munazzam fi Mawlid al-Nabi in which he directs his concern towards the interest ordinary Muslims display for Christian festivals on the occasion of the birth of Jesus and Yahya, peace be upon them. On these days, Muslims partake in lavish meals with their Christian neighbors, exchange gifts, markets are shuttered, and even Qur’an schools grant pupils a holiday. Consequently, Muslims become firm devotees of these festivals and express a keenness to inform themselves of the histories that surround them.
According to al-Azafi, the love and attachment Muslims exhibit for these festivals is rooted in childhood and, as expressed by Marion Katz, “rests on the pedagogical power of pleasurable indulgences.” There is a power in festivals and joyous events that is not always present in simple religious instruction. Indeed, al-Azafi describes how he visited various schools to teach children about the prophetic sunna and the concept of innovation. He quickly realized, however, that his approach and method was insufficient in establishing these points of knowledge in their hearts and minds. An alternative to Christian festivals had to be created, one rooted in Islamic traditions that produce happiness and rejoicing in a manner people find memorable and inspiring: “Festivals are an occasion of delight, joys, permissible play and licit amusement… and the things [people] rejoice in are established in their minds like engraving in stone.” (al-Durr al-Munazzam)
The mawlid in the eyes of a scholar like al-Azafi served a more fundamental purpose. It was a powerful pedagogical tool that sowed a pious love for the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, in the hearts of people, an interest in his life and teachings, and a deep connection to his person. It provided an opportunity for the community to come together not just as participants in a mundane festival, but a festival rooted in faith that centered around spiritual self-cultivation and spreading love of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, through both discursive means, such as reading of the sira and poems, and material delights. Indeed, these two means complimented each other with permissible pleasures creating a space and paving the way for knowledge acquisition. As the great jurist and imam of the Zaytuna Mosque, Muhammad ibn Qasim al-Rassa’ (d. 894/1489), advised while approving the mawlid:
Everyone who feels longing and love [for the Prophet] ought to manifest delight and gladness (al-surur wa-al-bishara) on that night and the following morning and treat his children and wife to whatever he can afford in order to receive its blessings. He should entertain them and teach them that he did so simply out of love for that night, delight in it, and concern for its merit. He should explain to them that it is the noblest of nights in the eyes of God, because on it the Messenger of God was born, and mention to them the description of the Messenger of God, his beauty and comeliness, his perfection, virtues and moral qualities, his speech and eloquence, his generosity and magnanimity, his character and clemency, his forgiveness and tolerance, his miracles and signs, everything that endears him to their hearts and exalts him. He should also teach them poems praising and extolling him. I and every other person who loves the Prophet consider this to be judicious and well-considered (min husn al-ra’y wa al-nazar), because teaching something [to a person] in his youth is like carving in stone – especially since youths are enamored of wonders, and [the Prophet’s] miracles are among the most wondrous things. (Tadhkirat al-Muhibbin, trans. M. Katz)
Al-Rassa’ continued by stating that the positive atmosphere surrounding this event should be extended beyond the domestic sphere. School children should be asked to dress in fine clothing, their classes should be decorated, and gifts presented to their teachers. All people should partake in the benefits of the mawlid. Charity should be given, and people instructed in the life of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him.
In a time where Muslim children and adults find themselves enticed by a never-ending barrage of mindless entertainment and idle-amusement, the mawlid serves as a spiritual and religiously-rooted alternative. By appealing to the very same emotions and proclivities humans possess towards pleasurable indulgences and rejoicing, the practice of the mawlid has for centuries directing the Muslim collectivity towards something more transcendent, pure, and eternal. Its role in creating a community confident in its identity, united in its outlook, and grounded in love for its Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, should not be underappreciated, nor go unrecognized.
While the mawlid is not a panacea to the problems Muslims face, which are many, it has the potential to serve a valuable purpose in our society today when correctly practiced. Just as the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, replaced the festivals of Jahiliya with those of Islam, and just as the religion in general recognized the value of joyful celebration in creating a godly community of believers, the mawlid functions to replace the prevalent idle-distractions and amusements of our time with something more conducive to peoples’ faith and practice.