Mufti Taqi Usmani – a renowned Islamic scholar – sheds light on the rulings pertaining to celebrating of the Prophet’s (sa) birthday.
Rabi-ul-Awwal is the most significant month in Islamic history, because humanity was blessed with the birth of Prophet Muhammad (sa). Before his birth, not only the Arabian Peninsula but also the so-called civilized nations of Rome and Persia were in ignorance, superstitions, oppression, and unrest. The holy Prophet (sa) came with the eternal truth of Tauheed (oneness of Allah), the only faith that provided a firm basis for the real concepts of knowledge, equity and peace.
Thus, the birth of the holy Prophet (sa) was the most significant and remarkable event in human history. Had there been room in Islamic teachings for the celebration of birthdays or anniversaries, the birthday of the Prophet (sa) would have undoubtedly deserved it more than that of any other person. But that is against the nature of Islamic teachings. That is why, unlike in Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, there are very few festivals in Islam – two Eids (Eidul-Fitr and Eidul-Adha). The dates of these two Eids do not correspond to the birthday of any outstanding person in Islamic history, nor can their origin be attributed to any particular event of Islamic history.
Both of these Eids are to pay gratitude to Allah (swt). The first event is the completion of the fast of Ramadan, and the second is the completion of Hajj. The manner prescribed for the celebration of these two Eids (festivals) is also different from non-Islamic festivals. There are no formal processions, illumination or other activities showing formal happiness. On the contrary, there are congregational prayers and informal exchange of visits.
Islam has not prescribed any festival for the birthday of any person, however great or significant. True that the prophets of Allah are the persons of the highest status amongst all, but even the birthday of the holy Prophet (sa), although the happiest day for the mankind, was neither celebrated by the holy Prophet (sa) himself, nor by his blessed Companions.
The Companions of the holy Prophet (sa) remained alive after him for about a century, and despite their unparalleled and profound love for the Apostle (sa), they never celebrated his birthday or death anniversary. Instead, they devoted their lives to promoting the cause of Islam, bringing his teachings into practice, and conveying his message to the four corners of the world to establish Islamic order in all works of life.
The Origins of Christmas
In fact, commemorating the birth of a distinguished person has never been prescribed by any religion that attributes itself to divine revelation. Originally, it was a custom prevalent in pagan communities. Even Christmas, the famous Christian feast commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, finds no mention in the Bible or in early Christian writings. It was only in the 4th century after the ascension of Jesus Christ that Christmas was recognized as a regular Christian feast. To quote the 1994 edition of Collier’s Encyclopedia:
“It is impossible to determine the exact date of the birth of Christ, either from the evidence of the gospels, or from any sound tradition. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, there was considerable opposition in the Church to the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays, although there is some indication that a purely religious commemoration of the birth of Christ was included in the feast of Epiphany. Clement of Alexandria mentions the existence of the feast in Egypt about the year A.D. 200, and we have some evidence that it was observed on various dates in scattered areas. After the triumph of Constantine, the Church at Rome assigned December 25 as the date for the celebration of the feast possibly about A.D. 320 or 353. By the end of the fourth century, the whole Christian world was celebrating Christmas on that day, with the exception of the Eastern Churches, where it was celebrated on January 6. The choice of December 25 was probably influenced by the fact that on this day the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god, and that the Saturnalia also came at this time.” (p. 403)
This quotation is sufficient to prove the following points:
- The commemoration of birthdays was originally a pagan custom, never recognized by a divine scripture or prophetic teaching.
- The exact date of the birth of prophet Isa (as) is unknown and impossible to be ascertained.
- The commemoration of the birth of prophet Isa (as) was not a recognized practice in the early centuries of Christian history.
- It was in the 4th or 5th century that it was recognized as a religious feast and that too under the influence of the pagans, who worshipped the Sun-god.
- There was strong opposition to the commemorating of the birthday of prophet Isa (as) by early Christian scholars like Origin, on grounds that it was originally a pagan custom.
Original Islamic Sources
We do not find any instruction regarding the celebration of birthdays and death anniversaries in original Islamic sources. Many Companions of the holy Prophet (sa) passed away during his lifetime, and so did his beloved wife Khadijah (rta) uncle Hamzah (rta). But the holy Prophet (sa) never observed their birthdays or death anniversaries. Neither did he advise his followers to celebrate his own birthday in Rabi-ul-Awwal.
What is Wrong with these Celebrations?
The reason for abstinence from such celebrations is that they divert peoples’ attention from the teachings of Islam to the observance of a few formal activities. Initially, these celebrations may begin with utmost piety. Yet, experience shows that elements of merry-making are ultimately mixed into the celebration.
The Transformation of Christmas
Christmas is a relevant example. This Christian feast was originally innovated to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ and to remember his teachings. But once the occasion was recognized as a feast, all the secular elements of public festivals crept in. The following quotation from Encyclopedia Britannica is worth mentioning:
“For several centuries Christmas was solely a church anniversary observed by religious services. But as Christianity spread among the people of pagan lands, many of the practices of the winter solstice were blended with those of Christianity because of the liberal ruling of Gregory I, the Great, and the cooperation of the missionaries. Thus, Christmas became both religious and secular in its celebration, at times reverent, at others gay.”
Then, the kind of activities that have been adopted into the celebration of Christmas are mentioned in the next paragraph, of which the following quotation is pertinent:
“Merrymaking came to have a share in Christmas observance through popular enthusiasm, even while emphasis was on the religious phase . . . In the wholly decked great halls of the feudal lords, whose hospitality extended to all their friends, tenants and household, was sailing, feasting, singing and games, dancing, masquerading and mummers presenting pantomimes and masques were all part of the festivities.” (p. 643)
This is enough to show, how an apparently innocent feast of reverence is converted into a secular festival, where merrymaking took preference over spiritual activities. Being fully aware of this human psychology, Islam has neither prescribed, nor encouraged and permitted the observance of birthdays and anniversaries.
The Religion is Complete
The Holy Quran has clearly pronounced at the occasion of the last Hajj of the holy Prophet (sa) as: “This day, I have perfected your religion (Deen as in complete code of life) for you.” (Al-Maida 5:3) It means that all the teachings of Islam were communicated to Muslims through the Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the holy Prophet (sa). No one is allowed to add to or take away from it. Such additions are termed by the holy Prophet (sa) as Bidah or innovation. Thus, no verse in the Holy Quran or any teaching in the Sunnah warrant the observance of the 12th of Rabi-ul-Awwal as a religious feast.
Disagreement about the Date
The observance of the 12th of this month as the birthday of the holy Prophet (sa) is not only an innovation having no Islamic basis, but also the accuracy of this date is questionable. There are different dates suggested in different traditions, but the majority of authentic scholars agree that the holy Prophet (sa) was born on the 9th of Rabi-ul-Awwal. This difference of opinion provides evidence that the observance of the Prophet’s (sa) birthday is not part of Islam; otherwise, the exact date would have been accurately preserved.
No doubt, the life of the holy Prophet (sa) is the most important source of guidance for all Muslims; and every Muslim is under the obligation to learn and study the events of his life and follow the example he set. The narration of his pious biography in itself is a pious act, which invites divine blessings. But the Holy Quran and the Sunnah have not been prescribed for a particular time; rather, to all months and all times. The month of Rabi-ul-Awwal has not been designated by the Shariah as a special season for holding such congregations to commemorate the birth or life of the Holy Prophet (sa). It is thus an innovation (Bidah) to restrict the Seerah meetings to the month of Rabi-ul Awwal, or to believe that the meetings held in this month are more worthy and rewarding than those held on any other date.
Contemporary Seerah Meetings and Shariah
It is often observed, especially in Western countries, that people hold Seerah meetings, where men and women sit together without observing the rules of Hijab. Obviously, in such a situation the teachings of the holy Prophet (sa) are not observed. How can a Seerah meeting be fruitful, when fundamental teachings are openly violated?
In some meetings, the Na’ts (poems) in the memory of the holy Prophet (sa) are recited by women before a male audience, sometimes with music. This is totally against the instructions of the holy Prophet (sa) and is an affront to the sanctity of the Seerah of the holy Prophet (sa).
All other activities often practiced on the twelfth of Rabi-ul-Awwal, such as holding processions, constructing mock tombs of the holy Prophet (sa), illuminating buildings, causing traffic jams and disturbing people by loud speakers, are not warranted by Shariah. Rather, they are based on conscious or unconscious imitation of certain other religions.