The Birth-Date of the Prophet and the History of the Mawlid


Dr. Yasir Qadhi


It is a commonly held belief that the birth-date of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is the 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’, which is the year that the Abyssinian Emperor Abraha attacked the Kaʿbah with an army of elephants. However, most Muslims are unaware that there has always been great controversy over the precise date of the Prophet’s salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam birth, and it is quite possible that the 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal is not in fact the strongest opinion on the matter.

There is no narration in the famous ‘Six Books’ of ḥadīth that specifies when the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam was born. Rather, the only narration that exists specifies the day he was born, and not the date. Abū Qatāda narrates that a Bedouin came to the Prophet and asked him about fasting on Monday, to which the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam replied, “That is the day I was born on, and the day that the revelation began” [Narrated by Muslim]. Therefore, the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam was born on Monday. But Monday of which month, and which year? For that, we need to turn to other sources. Again, no standard source book of ḥadīth mentions any precise date. However, there is a tradition of disputed authenticity, in the Sunan of al-Bayhaqī [vol. 1, p. 79] states that Suwayd b. Ghafla narrated, “The Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam and I were born in the same year, the ‘Year of the Elephant.’” Certain other evidences also indicate that he was born this year. Hence, from the extended books of ḥadīth, two pieces of information can be gleaned: that he was born on a Monday (and this is confirmed), and that he was born in the ‘Year of the Elephant’ (and this is most likely correct).

When we turn to books of history, a number of dates regarding the birth of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallamare found. Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150 AH), the earliest and most authoritative biographer of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), states, without any isnād or other reference, that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was born on Monday, the 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’.1 Between Ibn Isḥāq and the birth of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) lies almost two centuries, so some more proof is needed before this date is settled on.

Another extremely important early source, Ibn Saʿd (d. 230 AH) in his Ṭabaqāt,2 mentions the opinion of a few early authorities regarding the date of his birth. In order, they are:

1) Monday, 10th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, the ‘Year of the Elephant’.

2) Monday, 2nd of Rabīʿ al-Awwal.

3) Monday, no precise date.

4) The ‘Year of the Elephant’, no precise date.

It is interesting to note that Ibn Saʿd, one of the most respected historians of early Islam, does not even list the date of the 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal as a possible candidate. Of course the last two opinions are correct and do not clash with any specific date, but by quoting earlier authorities who only gave this information, it can be noted that the precise birth date of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam was not known to them, hence they only gave the information they knew.

Ibn Kathīr (d. 774), the famous medieval historian, also lists many opinions in his monumental al-Bidāya wa-l-nihāyah regarding the birth-date of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam.3 He states that the majority of scholars believed that the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam was born in the month of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, but differed regarding the precise day of the month. Some of these opinions are:

1. 2nd Rabīʿ al-Awwal. This was the preferred opinion of Abū Maʿshar al-Sindī (d. 171 AH), one of the earliest scholars of sīra, and of the famous Māliki jurist and scholar, Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463). It was also listed by al-Wāqidī (d. 207 AH) as a possible opinion. [Al-Wāqidī is one of the most reputable early historians of Islam, despite his weakness as a narrator of ḥadīth].

2. 8th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal. This was the opinion of the Andalusian scholar Ibn Ḥazm (d. 456 AH), and many of the early scholars. Imām Mālik (d. 179 AH) reported this opinion from al-Dhuhrī (d. 128 AH) and Muḥammad b. Jubayr b. Muṭʿim (a famous Successor), amongst others. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, while subscribing to the first opinion, said that this opinion was the opinion of most historians. Ibn Diḥya (d. ~ 610 AH), one of the first to write a treatise on the birth of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, also considered this date to be the strongest opinion.

3. 10th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal. This has been reported by Ibn ʿAsākir (d. 571 AH) from Abū Jaʿfar al-Bāqir (d. 114 AH), a descendant of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam and an alleged imam of the Shiʾites. It is also the opinion of al-Shaʿbī (d. 100 AH), a famous scholar and student of the Companions, and al-Wāqidī (d. 207 AH) himself.

4. 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal. This is the opinion of Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150), who reported it without any reference. In other sources, it is reported as the opinion of Jābir and Ibn ʿAbbās, but there is no isnād found in any primary source book to them. Ibn Kathīr writes, “…and this is the most common opinion on the matter, and Allah knows best.” I could not find this opinion attributed to any other authorities of the first few generations of Islam.

5. 17th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal. This was the opinion of some Shiʾite scholars, and is rejected by most Sunnī authorities.

6. 22nd of Rabīʿ al-Awwal. This opinion has also been attributed to Ibn Ḥazm.

7. In the month of Ramaḍān, without a specific date, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’. This was the opinion of the famous early historian al-Zubayr b. al-Bakkār (d. 256), who wrote the first and most authoritative history of Mecca, and some early authorities agreed with him.

8. 12th of Ramaḍān, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’. This opinion was reported by Ibn ʿAsākir as being held by some early authorities.

These are the most predominant opinion regarding the date of the Prophet’s salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam birth. However, this is by no means comprehensive – for example, a modern researcher has concluded that the 9th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal is the strongest candidate for the exact date, whereas a few earlier authorities even disputed the very year, claiming that it was ten, or twenty-three, or forty years after the ‘Year of the Elephant’.4

Why is the opinion of the 12th of Rabī al-Awwal so popular?

As can be seen, there are numerous opinions regarding the precise date of the birth of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) some of which differ about the month, and others even the year. However, an overwhelming majority of historians and scholars agreed that he was born on a Monday, in Rabīʿ al-Awwal, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’, which corresponds to 570 (or 571) C.E.

Within the month of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, more than half a dozen opinions exist. Out of all of these dates, the two dates of the 8th and the 10th were in fact more popular opinions in the first five centuries of Islam, and in particular the former opinion was given greater credence. Why, then, is the date of the 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal considered the most popular in our times, so much so that most people are unaware of alternate opinions? This question is all the more compelling in light of the fact that Ibn Isḥāq narrates this opinion without any reference. This can be explained, and Allah knows best, by two factors.

Firstly, the popularity of Ibn Isḥāq himself. His book of sīra is a primary source of information regarding the biography of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Since his bookis a standard reference for all later writings, many scholars simply copied and pasted his opinion, disregarding the other opinions (some of which were given more weight by earlier authorities).

Secondly – and this perhaps is a stronger factor – the first time that a group of people decided to take the birthday of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam as a public day of celebration (i.e., the inception of the celebration of the mawlid) , it so happened that they chose this opinion (viz., the 12th of Rabī al-Awwal). Hence, when the practice of themawlid spread, so did this date. This also explains why Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, writing before the conception of the mawlid in the fifth century of the hijrah, stated that the most common opinion amongst historians was in fact the 8th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal, and yet Ibn Kathīr, writing three centuries later, after the mawlid had been introduced as a public festival, stated that the 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal was the most common opinion.


The exact birth-date of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam has always been the subject of dispute amongst classical scholars. Nothing authentic has been reported in the standard source books of tradition, and this fact in itself shows that it was not held in the significance that later authorities did. The 12th of Rabīʿ al-Awwal is a strong candidate for being the exact birth date of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, but the 2nd, 8th and 10th are also viable and well-respected positions, with the 8th being the weightiest.

As to who was the first to celebrate the mawlid, and how it spread in Muslim lands, that shall form Part II of this article, insha Allah.

It is unanimously agreed upon, by historians, legal specialists and theologians of all groups, that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself never commanded his followers to celebrate his birthday, nor was this practice known for the first few centuries of Islam. Therefore, the question arises as to how this practice was instituted and who were the first group to think of the idea of celebrating the birthday of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him).

The Origin of the Mawlid

The first mention ever made of the mawlid celebrations in any historical work comes in the writings of Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Ma’mūn, who died 587 AH/1192 CE. His father was the Grand Vizier for the Fatimid Caliph al-Amir (ruled 494-524 AH/1101-1130 CE). Although the work of Ibn al-Ma’mūn is now lost, many parts of it were quoted by later scholars, in particular the most famous medieval historian of Egypt, al-Maqrīzi (d. 845/1442) in his monumental Mawā’ī al-i’tibār fī khia Mir wa-l-amār (shortened to theKhia). Al-Maqrīzi’s book is the standard source of information for Fatimid and early Mamlūk Egypt. What makes this work stand out above many others is not only its comprehensiveness, but also the fact that al-Maqrīzī quotes from many earlier references that are now lost, and also takes great care to cite his source, a practice very rare for the time.

Al-Maqrīzī relies upon the work of Ibn al-Ma’mūn for information regarding the social, political and religious policies of the Fatimids during the early part of the sixth century, which was the period that Ibn al-Ma’mūn’s father worked for the Fatimid Caliph. Due to the high position that his father enjoyed, Ibn al-Ma’mūn provided many details that outside historians could not possibly have been privy to.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out some facts regarding the Fatimid dynasty. This dynasty had established itself as a rival dynasty to the Abbasids in Baghdad. They had conquered Egypt in 358 AH/969 CE, and established the modern city of Cairo. They claimed descent from the Family of the Prophet (a claim that all others deemed to be fabricated), and followed the Sevener Branch of Shi’ite Islam, also known as ‘Ismailism’. Their beliefs and customs were so different from other branches of Islam that all Sunnis and even many other non-Ismaili Shi’ite groups deemed them outside the fold of the religion. The Ismailis had reinterpreted the five pillars of Islam to such a level that they would not conform to the regular rituals that other Muslims are accustomed to (such as the five daily prayers). The intellectual (and at times even biological) descendants of the Fatimid caliphs in our times are many. In particular, the Ismaili Aga Khan Imams and the Bohri Imams both trace their direct lineage to the Fatimid caliphs, and the group known as the Druze also are an offshoot of the Fatimid dynasty. It was this dynasty that first initiated the celebration of the mawlid.

To return to our topic, Al-Maqrizi, in his Khia, quotes Ibn al-Ma’mūn as follows, writing about the events of the year 517 A.H.:

Next, the month of Rabī’ al-Awwal arrived, and we shall begin [the events of this month] by mentioning the thing for which it has become famous, namely, the birthday of the Master of the first and last, Muhammad, on the thirteen [sic.] day. And by way of charity, the Caliph presented 6000 dirhams from the fund of najāwa [an Ismailite tithe], and from the dar al-fitra he presented 40 dishes of pastry, and from the chambers of the trustees and caretakers of the mausoleums that lie between the Hill and Qarafa, where the Al al-Bayt lie, he gave sugar, almonds, honey, and sesame oil [as a gift] to each mausoleum. And [his Vizier] took charge of distributing 400 pounds (ratl) of sweets, and 1000 pounds of bread.

The wording of the paragraph clearly suggests that the mawlid was a clearly established practiced by this time.

Another early source that mentions the mawlid is the work of Ibn al-Ṭuwayr (d. 617/1220), in his work Nuzhat al-Muqlatayn fī Akhbārt al-Dawlatayn. Ibn al-Ṭuwayr worked as a secretary for the Fatimid dynasty, and witnessed the change of power from the Fatimids to the Ayyubids, at the hand of Salaḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbi, which occurred 567/1071. His skills were so appreciated that he ended up working for the government of Ṣalāh al-Dīn as well. Ibn al-Ṭuwayr also describes the pageantry and pomp associated with themawlid. He describes in detail [see: Nuzhat, p. 217-219] the large amounts of foods that were distributed on this day, especially around the famous mausoleums of Cairo (some of which would have been considered by the Fatimids as being those of their Imams). The focus of the pageantry, of course, was the palace of the Caliph, and only the elite would get to attend. The celebrations of the day worked their way up to the appearance of the Caliph (who was the living imam for the Ismailites) from a palace window, his face covered in a turban. He himself would not deign to speak – rather, his private attendants would signal to the audience that the Caliph had returned their greetings and seen their love for him. From the courtyard pavilion various reciters and preachers would address the audience, finally culminating in the address of the khatib of the Azhar masjid (which of course, at that time, was the epitome of Ismaili academics).

The mawlid was not the only celebration that was sponsored by the Fatimids. Al-Maqrīzi, in his Khia [vol. 1, p. 490], has an entire section dedicated to Fatimid holidays. He writes, under a chapter heading entitled, “The mentioning of the days that the Fatimid Caliphs took as celebrations and festivals throughout the year, upon which the situation of the people would be improved and their benefits increased,”

The Fatimid Caliphs had, throughout the year, a number of festivals and celebrations. These were: 1. New Year’s Eve, 2. Beginning of the year celebrations, 3. The Day of ‘Āshūrā’, 4. The birthday of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, 5. The birthday of ‘Alī, 6. The birthday of al-Ḥasan, 7. The birthday of al-Husayn, 8. The birthday of Fāṭima al-Zahrā’, 9. The birthday of the current Caliph, 10. The first day of Rajab, 11. The fifteenth day of Rajab, 12. The first day of Sha’bān, 13. The fifteenth day of Sha’bān, 14. The festival of Ramaḍān, 15. the first day of Ramaḍān, 16. The middle of Ramaḍān, 17. The end of Ramaḍān, 18. The Night of the Khatm, 19. The Day of Eid al-Fitr, 20. The Day of Eid of Sacrifice, 21. The Day of Eid al-Ghadīr, 22. The ‘Cloth of Winter’, 23. The ‘Cloth of Summer’, 24. The Day of the ‘Conquest of the Peninsula’, 25. The Day of Nawrūz [Persian festival], 26. The Day of Veneration [Christian], 27. Christmas [Christian], 28 Lent [Christian]

As can be seen, the Fatimids loved their celebrations! The reason why they had so many celebrations is obvious, and is hinted at by al-Maqrīzi in his title. As the main rival to the ‘Abbāsid dynasty, the Fatimids were desperate to try to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the masses, and one of the ways to do so was to shower them with gifts on these days, and to provide an outlet for them to be merry and enjoy. Al-Maqrīzi mentions in detail the types of gifts that would be showered on the people on each of these days, sometimes exotic dishes of meat and bread, most of the time pastries and sweets, and even (on the ‘Cloth’ days) special types of clothes. Anyone who has been to Cairo can attest to the pomp of Fatimid structures, but it wasn’t only through architecture that the Fatimids wished to prove their superiority over the Abbasids.

Another thing to note is that there are many pagan festivals listed as well, for the Zoroastrian and Christian citizens. All of this was done to appease these minorities and prevent them from rebelling against the stage.

A number of factors need to be discussed here.

1) From the above, it appears that the Faṭimids instituted a number of key yearly celebrations, all of which involved much pomp and pageantry. The primary celebrations were the mawlids of the Prophet and Imams, and also the celebration of the day of Ghadīr Khumm (the day that Shi’ites of all stripes believe the Prophet designated ‘Alī b. Abī Ṭālib to be the heir apparent). As mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of so much pageantry was to ingratiate themselves with the masses. Such public celebrations would have been anticipated as public holidays, and as days to revel and enjoy good food and sweets, compliments of the government.

2) We can also venture a rough guess regarding the era that the mawlid was introduced. Without any other sources, it is impossible to reconstruct a precise date on which the Faṭimids initiated the mawlid.[1] However, recall that al-Maqrizī’s history (the Khiat) is merely a compilation of numerous histories that are now missing. Many of these histories, such as those of Ibn al-Ma’mūn and Ibn Ṭuwayr, were written by eyewitnesses. Modern scholars have analyzed the sources of al-Maqrīzi’s history, and shown that for each era, al-Maqrizī relied on specific authors. For events of the third, fourth and fifth centuries, al-Maqrizī took from authors of other works; it was only for events of the sixth century that he quoted Ibn al-Ma’mūn.[2] Therefore, since the first suggestion of the mawlid occurs in the chronicles of Ibn al-Ma’mūn, we can safely venture the hypothesis that the mawlid was first celebrated around the turn of the sixth hijrī century.

3) All of the mawlids introduced by the Fatimids centered around the Family of the Prophet, except for the mawlid of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself. The Shi’ite nature of the Fatimid Dynasty, along with the other celebrations that were practiced, makes it quite clear that the entire concept of celebrating birthdays was a Shi’īte one aimed at exalting the status of the Imams. In fact, these source books mention that on the days of these other mawlids, most of the ceremonies took place around the mausoleums and graves of the Fatimids, and it was at these places where much of the food was distributed. Hence, the Fatimids clearly wished to promote the cult of the Imams and ‘Ahl al-Bayt’, and aggrandize their religious figures. When the Fatimid dynasty collapsed, the other mawlids were simply forgotten, as they held no significance for Sunnis, but the mawlid of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) continued. In other words, the mawlid was originally an Isma’ili Shi’ite festival, even though eventually it lost the tarnish of its Shi’ite origins.

4) The earliest reference (that of Ibn al-Ma’mūn) specifically states that the mawlid was celebrated on the 13th of Rabi’ al-Awwal. Scholars have said that this is either an error (and what proves this is that the later Ibn al-Ṭuwayr correctly writes that it was celebrated on the 12th of Rabī’ al-Awwal), or that it was initially instituted on the 13th, but within a generation was changed to the 12th. In either case, by the middle of the sixth century, the mawlid was an official holiday in Fatimid Egypt.

The question then arises: how did the mawlid spread to Sunni lands, and who was the first to introduce it to lands East and West of Fatimid Egypt? That shall be the topic of the third and final part to this article, insha Allah.

[1] The modern Egyptian author Hasan al-Sandubi, in the only monograph in Arabic on the subject, suggests that th Fatimid Caliph al-Mu’izz was the first to initiate this celebration, but there is absolutely no evidence that he brings to back this claim. Al-Mu’izz ruled from 341 to 365 A.H.

[2] See the editor’s introduction to Nuzhat al-Muqlatayn, p. 3, where he lists al-Maqrizī’s sources for every era.

In our previous two articles, we had discussed the date of the birth of the Prophet, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, and demonstrated that there are over half a dozen opinions, the strongest being that he was born on the 8th of Rabīʻ al-Awwal, in the Year of the Elephant. We also mentioned that the first recorded instance of a public celebration of the mawlid occurred in Shi’ite Fatimid Egypt, around the turn of the sixth century of the hijra. In this article, we shall mention the earliest references in Sunni lands to the mawlid.

 The Mawlid in Sunni LandsThe earliest recorded reference in Sunni lands of the mawlid occurs in a history book written by ʻImad al-Dīn al-Iṣfahānī (d. 597 AH/1200 CE), entitled al-Barq al-Shāmī. This work mentions the main political occurrences of Greater Syria (i.e., Sham) during the last three decades of the sixth Islamic century, in particular the wars of the Muslims against the Crusaders. Unfortunately, the original work remains in manuscript form and has yet to be edited, but a number of summaries exist, the most famous one being Sanā al-Barq al-Shāmī of al-Bundari. It is from this printed work (Sanā al-Barq al-Shāmī, Cairo edition, p. 49-52) that the following is extracted.In the year 566 A.H./1170 CE, Nūr al-Dīn al-Zangī’s (d. 569/1174) brother passed away in Mosul, a well-known city of Iraq. Nūr al-Dīn was the famous leader of the Zangid dynasty, and helped propel Salāh al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī (d. 588/1193) to fame. Nūr al-Dīn visited the city of Mosul in order to quell a dispute regarding the succession of his brother, who had been the governor of the region. There, the historian tells us, he met a certain Umar al-Mulla, who was in charge of a zawiya (Sufi monastery). This zawiya was a popular place for the local leaders and noblemen to visit, and in particular “…every year, during the days of the mawlid of the Prophet, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, he would invite the governor of Mosul, along with the poets, who would come and sing their poems, and be rewarded [by the governor] for this.” (Also see Ibn Kathir, al-Bidāyah wa-l-Nihāyah, vol. 12, p. 782)

This small reference, in passing, is the earliest reference we have to a public mawlid being celebrated in Sunni lands. The person who initiated it, Umar al-Mulla, was a venerated Sufi ascetic, and not a scholar of the religion. We do not know many details of his life or even date of death. And while the historian Imad al-Dīn did claim he was a righteous saint (a claim that was mentioned by all those who copied the story from Imad al-Dīn’s work), another scholar strongly disagreed. Ibn Rajab (d. 795), in his biographical dictionary Dhayl Ṭabaqat al-Ḥanabilah, mentions this Umar al-Mulla, also in passing, in the context of a famous Ḥanbalite scholar. Under the entry of Muhammad b. Abd al-Bāqī (d. 571 AH), a Ḥanbalite scholar from Mosul, he mentions how Umar al-Mulla was greatly respected in the city of Mosul, and a disagreement happened between the two of them, which resulted in Muhammad b. Abd al-Bāqī being falsely accused of stealing, because of which he was beaten. Writes Ibn Rajab [Dhayl, vol. 1, p. 254], “As for this Umar, he outwardly showed himself to be a pious man and ascetic, but I believe him to be [a follower] of the innovated groups. And this incident [with Muhammad b. Abd al-Bāqī] also shows his injustices and transgressions [against others].” And Ibn Kathīr (d. 774 AH) mentions that when Nūr al-Dīn Zangi abolished the unjust taxes that had been levied on the people, Umar al-Mulla actually wrote him a letter chastising him for his decision, and saying that this would lead to an increase of evil in the land. At which Nūr al-Dīn responded back, saying,

“Allah created the creation, and legislated the Sharīʻah, and He knows best what is beneficial for them. So if He knew that there should have been an increase [in revenue from taxes], He would have legislated it for us. Hence, there is no need for us to take more than what Allah has decreed, since whoever adds to the Sharīʻah has presumed that the Sharīʻah is incomplete and he needs to perfect it by his addition. And to do this is arrogance against Allah and against what He has legislated, but darkened minds will never be guided, and may Allah guide us and you to the Straight Path” [al-Bidāyah wa-l-Nihāyah, vol. 12, p. 805].

In what can only be described as a reversal of traditional roles, it was the ruler who chastised the ʻsaint’ when Umar al-Mulla actually encouraged the collection of unjust taxes, while Nūr al-Din sought to abolish it.

Before proceeding, it is noteworthy that the mawlid instituted by Umar al-Mulla involved singing poems in praise of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam, and nothing more than this. Unfortunately, the books of history do not mention the nature or content of these poems; however, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that at this early stage the poems would have praised the Prophet, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam in the manner that he truly deserves, and without the attribution of Divine characteristics to him that later poets are guilty of.

The city of Mosul was located in a relatively small province, and remained under the control of the larger Zangid Empire. Hence, it was only natural that mawlid celebrations performed in Mosul would not garner too much attention nor have a large budget at their disposal to use for the mawlids. Rather, for this to occur, it had to be sponsored by a dynasty that could afford to do so, and this dynasty was found in the neighboring province of Irbil, a city less than a day’s journey from Mosul. As news of the mawlid spread to this city, the ruler of the semi-autonomous province, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn Kokburi (d. 630/1232), took it upon himself to celebrate the mawlid in an extremely lavish manner. It would take another few decades for the mawlid to spread to Irbil, but eventually, sometime in the early part of the seventh century, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn became famous for the extravagant mawlid ceremonies that were sponsored through the State Treasury of his principality.

The historian Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282) mentions that Muẓẓafar al-Dīn was known for his generosity, for he had built many khānqahs (monasteries) for the Sufis to worship in. Ibn Khallikān was also from Irbil, and was a friend of Muẓẓar al-Dīn, and witnessed first-hand the mawlid celebrations. Writes Ibn Khallikān (in his Wafayāt al-Ayān, vol. 5, p. 78-9):

Two days before the mawlid, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn would take out camels, cows and sheep – a large number, beyond counting – and he would send these animals, accompanied with drums and song and other instruments, until they would reach the large open ground [outside the city]. Then, these animals would be slaughtered, and pots would be set up, and all types of different foods would be cooked, until finally it would be the Night of the Mawlid itself [meaning the night before the mawlid]. On that night, he would allow samāʻas [special poems] to be sung in his fort, and then he would descend down [to the people], the procession being led by countless candles. Amongst these candles were two, or four – I forget now – that were so large that each one had to be carried on a mule, and behind it was a man in charge of keeping the candle erect [on the mule], until it reached the Sufi monastery. Then, on the very morning of the mawlid, he commanded that the Royal Robe be taken out from the Palace to the khānqah (Sufi monastery), by the hands of the Sufis. Each Sufi would wear an expensive sash around his hand, and they would all walk in a procession, one behind the other – so many in number that I could not verify their quantity. Then, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn himself would descend to the khānqah, and all of the noblemen and leaders and gentry would gather together. A chair would be placed for the preachers, and Muẓẓafar al-Dīn himself would be in a special tower made of wood [that he had built for the occasion]. It had many windows, some of which faced the people and others faced the open ground, which was a large ground of immense size. The infantry would also gather there, in procession. So Muẓẓafar al-Dīn would listen throughout the day, sometimes looking at the people and sermons, and sometimes at the infantry, and this would continue until the infantry finished their processions. Then, a general tablecloth would be laid out for the poor, and all who wished could eat from it, bread and other types of foods beyond count! And there was another tablecloth laid out as well, for the people of the monastery, those close to the throne, and while the sermons would be delivered, he would call [each speaker] one by one, and the noblemen and leaders and guests who had come for this season: scholars, and preachers, and reciters, and poets, and he would give each of them garments, and they would then return to their seats. Once this was finished, they would all gather at the tablecloth to partake of the food. This would continue until the ʻasr prayer, or even after that, and he would spend the night there, and the samaʻās would continue to the next day. And this would be done every year, and what I have described is in fact a condensed summary of the reality, for to mention it in detail would be too cumbersome and take a long time. Finally, when these ceremonies would be completed, he would gift an amount to every visitor who had come from afar, as provision for his journey home. And I have already mentioned how, when Ibn Diḥya passed by Irbil, he wrote up a work regarding the mawlid, because of what he had seen Muẓẓafar al-Dīn do, and because of this he was gifted a thousand gold coins, along with the generous hospitality he was shown for the duration of his stay.

As can be seen, the ceremony of Muẓẓafar al-Dīn was an extremely lavish and extravagant affair, and would draw large crowds of locals and also visitors. It is clear that the relatively innocuous mawlid of Umar al-Mulla was now being taken to a different level. And because the celebrations of Muẓẓafar al-Dīn attracted more attention than those of ʻUmar al-Mulla, they played a crucial role in spreading the custom of the mawlid and increasing its popularity.

From this, it is clear that the mawlid was imported into Sunni lands at the beginning of the seventh Islamic century, through the actions of Umar al-Mulla and then Muẓẓafar al-Dīn. A contemporary author proves this point beyond a shadow of doubt. Abū Shāmah al-Maqdisi (d. 665) was a famous historian from Damascus. He wrote a number of works, and is most famous for his book Kitāb al-Bāʻith ʻalā inkār al-bidaʻ wa-l-ḥawādith. In it, he follows the opinion that religious innovations can be either reprehensible or praiseworthy (a theological opinion which was and remains the subject of debate amongst scholars, and which deserves to be discussed in another article), and considers themawlid to be a praiseworthy innovation. What concerns us here is not Abū Shāmah’s legal verdict on the mawlid, but rather his historical context. He writes, [Kitāb al-bāʻith, (Cairo print, 1978), p. 24],

And of the best matters that have been introduced in our times is that which occurs in the city of Irbil – may Allah protect it – every year, on the day that the Prophet salla Allah alahyi wa sallam was born. [On this day], charity is distributed, and good [deeds performed], and pageantry is displayed, and happiness [is abundant]. And all of this, in addition to being beneficial to the poor, is an outward manifestation of the love of the Prophet salla Allah alahyi wa sallam and demonstrates respect for him, and honor in the heart of the one who does this [celebration], and thankfulness to Allah for what He has blessed us with in the existence of the Messenger that He has sent as a mercy to the worlds. And the first person who ever did this was [a man] from Mosul, the Shaykh Umar b. Muhammad al-Mulla, a well-known, righteous man, and it was from his custom that the Governor of Irbil, and others besides him, took this act from.

From this passage, it is clear that the custom of the mawlid was already known to Abū Shāmah in Damascus, but he points out that the celebration occurs in Irbil , and not in Damascus. Hence, at this stage, in the middle of the seventh century, news of the mawlid has reached Damascus, which is around 500 miles away, but the city of Damascus itself has yet to start its own mawlid.

It is also striking to note the similarities between the Fatimid celebrations of the mawlid and the ones sponsored by Muẓẓafar al-Dīn: in both cases, the pomp and pageantry and generosity lavished upon the population must have played a vital role in popularizing these rulers amongst the people.

Before moving on, it is relevant to backtrack a few decades and mention another rudimentary version of the mawlid (if it can even be called such). This version is found in the travelogue of Ibn Jubayr (d. 614 AH), who set foot from Andalus to perform the Hajj and spent the next few years touring Muslim lands, finally settling down in North Africa to record his travels. Ibn Jubayr entered Mecca in 579 AH, and he mentions that on the first Monday of Rabīʻ al-Awwal, the house in which the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallamwas reputed to have been born in would be open for visitors, along with some other ancient historic sites associated with the life of the Prophet, and visitors would enter these houses and seek blessings from it [see: The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, ed. M. J. De Goeje, p. 114-5].*

Therefore, it is clear that Muslims of Mecca did do something special on the first Monday of Rabīʻ al-Awwal, and that is to open the house of the Prophet’s birth. Of significance, though, is that that is all they did. There are no celebrations, no festivals, no songs, no ceremonies. All of this was to come later. In fact, in Mecca the mawlid was not even ‘celebrated’ on the 12th of Rabīʻ al-Awwal, but rather on the first Monday of the month. This was the extent of the mawlid in Mecca in the latter part of the sixth century, before the customs of Muẓẓafar al-Dīn were done in the far away city of Irbil. Hence, to quote this as justification for modern-day mawlids is simply not appropriate.

It can be seen, then, that slowly but surely, the practice of celebrating the mawlid spread to other Muslim lands, and as the decades turned to centuries, more and more layers of celebrations were added. For most lands, it is impossible to document the precise date when the mawlid was initiated, or even the person who exported the idea to each land. Sometimes, however, we are provided such clues. For example, we can trace the beginnings of the mawlid in North Africa, and thence to Andalus to the efforts of a certain Abū al-ʻAbbās al-Azafī (d. 633 AH), who wrote a work entitled ʻThe Edited Pearl Regarding the Birth of the Honored Prophet‘. The work was the spearheading effort that eventually legitimized the celebration of the mawlid. In it, Abū al-ʻAbbās clearly states that his purpose in legitimizing the celebration of the mawlid is so that the Muslims desist in the evil and reprehensible act of celebrating Christmas, Nawruz and other holy days of the Christians and pagans that some Muslims of Andalus had begun to adopt. He writes, “I have searched intensively and racked my brains to find something that would distract the attention of the people away from these bidʻahs to something that is permissible, which does not cause the one observing it to sin…Therefore, I drew their attention to the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad…” Later in the work, he refutes those who have criticized this act as being a reprehensible innovation by claiming that the mawlid is a praiseworthy innovation, not a reprehensible one. This in itself shows that there were scholars in Andalus who were opposed to this practice and dissaproved of it, hence al-Azafi was forced to defend the practice. [See: P. Shinar, “Traditional and reformist mawlid celebrations in the Maghrib” in: Studies in Memory of G. Wiet, Jerusalem 1977, pp. 371-413; and N. G. J. Kaptien, Muhammad’s Birthday Festival, Brill, pp. 76-96].

From all the above, we can derive:

1) The very first Sunni to publically celebrate the mawlid was a Sufi mystic by the name of Umar al-Mulla. He seems to be a person of dubious character, and the least that can be said about him was that he was by no means a scholar of the religion.

2) Government-sponsored mawlids in Sunni lands were first introduced by Muẓẓafar al-Dīn, who got the idea from Umar al-Mulla. These celebrations were extremely popular amongst the masses, and helped secure popularity for the rulers.

3) Late in the sixth Islamic century, the mawlid had been introduced to some Sunni lands, but the mainlands of Islam (e.g., Mecca, Damascus, etc.) had not yet begun to commemorate the day with any festival.

4) In Mecca, no festival or public celebration occurred, instead the birth-date was an occasion to open up historic sites for the people. Also, the birth-date itself had not yet been associated with the 12th of Rabīʻ al-Awwal; rather, it was associated with the first Monday of Rabīʻ al-Awwal.

5) The association of the mawlid with the 12th of Rabīʻ al-Awwal was clearly a Fatimid influence, which was later followed by other government-sponsored mawlids.

5 ) The mawlid spread in various lands due to miscellaneous factors. In some lands, it was patronized by the rulers and used as a means of legitimizing their rule. In other lands, it was used as a tactic to divert Muslims from that which was clearly impermissible to a matter that was deemed to be praiseworthy.

Later Claims Regarding the Origin of the Mawlid

It is quite clear that the Fatimid celebration, having preceded the Sunni one by almost a century, was the actual origin of the mawlid. However, most later authorities (most famously al-Suyūtī (d. 911) in his treatise on the subject), either knowingly or unknowingly glossed over the Fatimid origins of the mawlid, and attributed it to the Sunni ruler Muẓẓafar al-Dīn Kokburi. A few modern researchers (such as Kaptein) have theorized that this was done intentionally, in order to cover up the Shiʻite origins of the festival and attribute it to a popular Sunni ruler, viz., Muẓẓafar al-Dīn. But for our purposes it matters little whether al-Suyūtī was aware of the Fatimid origins of the mawlid or not; the fact that cannot be denied is that the origin of a public celebration goes back to their empire, and Muẓẓafar al-Dīn’s suspicously similar festival occurred almost a century after theirs.

Therefore, to attribute the origins of the mawlid to Muẓẓafar al-Dīn, or even ʻUmar al-Mulla, is simply not accurate.


The purpose of this article was to give a brief overview regarding the origins of the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, and some examples of how it spread to other lands. It did not discuss the legal validity for such a celebration, as that is another topic altogether, and one that has been hashed and rehashed on many different sites and forums.

My own leanings, which I have never shied away from expressing, are the same as those of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728) that he mentioned in his work Iqtiḍā Sirāt al-mustaqīm: that the general ruling is that such a celebration is not a part of the religion, but was added by later generations, and hence should be avoided; but it is possible that some groups of people who practice it out of ignorance will be rewarded due to their good intentions. The mawlid of the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam should be celebrated every day, by following his Sunnah and doing in our daily lives what he salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam wanted us to do.

I also stress that even if I disapprove of a public celebration of the mawlid, not all mawlids are the same, and if the only matter that is done on a mawlid is to praise the beloved Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam in an appropriate manner, and mention aspects of his seerah, and thank Allah for blessing us to be of his Ummah, then this type of celebration is permissible, in fact praiseworthy, on any day of the year, and hence even if some groups choose one specific day to do it, others should not be harsh in their disapproval of it. I believe that the fatwas given by such esteemed authorities as Ibn Hajr (d. 852) and al-Nawawi (d. 676) legitimizing mawlids refer, in fact, to such ‘innocent’mawlids. Sadly, it is well-nigh impossible to find such ‘pure’ mawlids practiced in our times!

To conclude, it is appropriate to quote a non-Muslim author who has specialized in the topic of the mawlid and written a doctoral dissertation on it, N. J. G. Kaptein. He writes in his monograph [p. 29],

At the end of this chapter, I would like to draw attention to a number of points that are important for the general history of themawlid al-nabi:

a) the mawlid was originally a Shiʻite festival

b) the mawlid came into being in the sixth hijri / twelfth Christian century

c) in the Fatimid period the mawlid was not always celebrated on the same date: in 517 the mawlid was celebrated on the 13thRabīʻ I, while according to Ibn Ṭuwayr this festival always fell on the 12th Rabīʻ I

d) The mawlid was celebrated during the daytime

e) the ruler played a central role

f) sermons were given and recitations from the Qur’an took place

g) presentations to officials took place

h) by means of these presentations, amongst other things, the Fatimid’s close relationship with the ahl al-bayt was emphasized, in order to cultivate loyalty to the Fatimid imam-Caliph

i) after the fall of the Fatimids, the mawlid continued to exist.

Kaptein’s conclusions are very reasonable and have clear evidence to back them up, as this article has also showed.

And Allah knows best…

* It must be mentioned here, of course, that the practice of seeking blessings from ancient relics was one that was disputed amongst the scholars of Islam, and legal textbooks of the period reference this fact. The more Orthodox scholars disapproved of this practice, and it was generally sanctioned by the masses, and not scholars. However, that is the topic of another paper.


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