Celebrating the Prophet’s birthday in Islam

January 6, 2015

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Celebrating the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (al-mawlid) is a very controversial practice in Islam on which reputable scholars disagree. Misunderstanding over this issue evokes strong emotions and often leads to bitter arguments among the common Muslims. As such, we need to place this topic in scholarly perspective and remember to behave kindly and mercifully to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

In this article, I will attempt to fairly represent the scholarly views of those who celebrate the Prophet’s birthday and those who oppose it, as well as rebut the extreme and uninformed reactions of some lay Muslims on both sides.

For those who oppose celebrating the birthday, the primary evidence against it is the fact that it is a religious practice not instituted by the Prophet nor practiced by his companions. Thus, they have classified this celebration in the well-known category of forbidden religion innovations (bidah).

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ أَحْدَثَ فِي أَمْرِنَا هَذَا مَا لَيْسَ فِيهِ فَهُوَ رَدٌّ

Whoever innovates something into this matter of ours which does not belong to it will have it rejected.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 2550, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

The trustworthy scholar As-Suyuti, although he supports celebrating the birthday, admits that it was a practice that was instituted several centuries after the Prophet and his companions.

As-Suyuti writes:

وَأَوَّلُ مَنْ أَحْدَثَ فِعْلَ ذَلِكَ صَاحِبُ إِرْبِلَ الْمَلِكُ الْمُظَفَّرُ أَبُو سَعِيدٍ كُوكْبُرِي بْنُ زَيْنِ الدِّينِ عَلِيِّ بْنِ بَكْتَكِينَ أَحَدُ الْمُلُوكِ الْأَمْجَادِ وَالْكُبَرَاءِ الْأَجْوَادِ وَكَانَ لَهُ آثَارٌ حَسَنَةٌ

The first to institute celebrating the birthday was the ruler of Irbil, the king Muzhaffar Abu Sa’eed Kukbari ibn Zain al-Din ibn Baktagin, one of the great and noble rulers who left behind many good works.

Source: Husn Al-Maqsad fi Amal Al-Mawlid

Therefore, all scholars agree that the birthday was not celebrated by the Prophet and his companions, and this fact alone is enough for those who oppose it. In their view, all innovations in religion are forbidden and blameworthy.

In addition, they invoke the well-known principle in Islam that Muslims are forbidden from imitating the rituals of other religions.

Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ تَشَبَّهَ بِقَوْمٍ فَهُوَ مِنْهُمْ

Whoever imitates a people is one of them.

Source: Sunan Abu Dawud 4031, Grade: Hasan

They draw an analogy between celebrating the Prophet’s birthday and the religious festival of Christmas in Christianity and similar festivals in other religions.

Ibn Taymiyyah is perhaps the most famous representative of this position. He uses both of these points in his argument against celebrating the Prophet’s birthday.

Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

وإنما يفعل مثل هذا النصارى الذين يتخذون أمثال أيام حوادث عيسى عليه السلام أعياداً أو اليهود وإنما العيد شريعة فما شرعه الله اتبع وإلا لم يحدث في الدين ما ليس منه كذلك ما يحدثه بعض الناس إما مضاهاة للنصارى في ميلاد عيسى عليه السلام وإما محبة للنبي صلى الله عليه وسلم وتعظيمًا له والله قد يثيبهم على هذه المحبة والاجتهاد لا على البدع من اتخاذ مولد النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم عيداً

Indeed, what they do is like the Christians who have taken the various days of Jesus, upon him be peace, as celebrations, as well as the Jews. The celebrations in Islam are legislated by Allah to be followed and nothing should be invented in the religion that does not belong to it. Such is the case of what some people have invented, either in imitation of the Christians who celebrate Jesus’ birthday or out of love for the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and exalting his status. Allah may reward them for this love and their reasoning (ijtihad) but not for the innovation of which they take the birthday of the Prophet as a celebration.

Source: Iqtida As-Sirat Al-Mustaqeem 1/294

This is without a doubt the safest opinion because it absolves Muslims from performing a deed that is doubtful in Islam. The general rule concerning doubtful things is that they should be abandoned.

Nu’man ibn Basheer reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

الْحَلَالُ بَيِّنٌ وَالْحَرَامُ بَيِّنٌ وَبَيْنَهُمَا مُشَبَّهَاتٌ لَا يَعْلَمُهَا كَثِيرٌ مِنْ النَّاسِ فَمَنْ اتَّقَى الْمُشَبَّهَاتِ اسْتَبْرَأَ لِدِينِهِ وَعِرْضِهِ

Verily, the lawful is clear and the unlawful is clear, and between the two of them are doubtful matters about which many people do not know. Thus, he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in regard to his religion and his honor.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 52, Grade: Muttafaqun Alayhi

Even so, some Muslim in our time go further than Ibn Taymiyyah by condemning supporters of the birthday as heretical innovators and even cutting them off from the community of Islam, whereas Ibn Taymiyyah acknowledged the good intentions of the scholars with whom he disagreed and he hoped that Allah would reward them for their love of the Prophet.

In contrast, those who support celebrating the birthday invoke the Prophet’s instruction to initiate good practices in Islam.

Jareer reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

مَنْ سَنَّ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ سُنَّةً حَسَنَةً كَانَ لَهُ أَجْرُهَا وَأَجْرُ مَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا مِنْ بَعْدِهِ مِنْ غَيْرِ أَنْ يُنْتَقَصَ مِنْ أُجُورِهِمْ شَيْءٌ

Whoever institutes a good practice (sunnah) in Islam will have its reward and the reward of whoever acts upon it without detracting from their rewards in the least.

Source: Sahih Muslim 1017, Source: Sahih

On this basis, Imam Ash-Shafi’ee made a principled distinction in his school of thought between praiseworthy innovations which agree with Islam and blameworthy innovations which oppose Islam.

Ash-Shafi’ee said:

الْمُحْدَثَاتُ ضَرْبَانِ مَا أُحْدِثُ يُخَالِفُ كِتَابًا أَوْ سُنَّةً أَوْ أَثَرًا أَوْ إِجْمَاعًا فَهَذِهِ بِدْعَةُ الضَّلَالِ وَمَا أُحْدِثُ مِنَ الْخَيْرِ لَا يُخَالِفُ شَيْئًا مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَهَذِهِ مُحْدَثَةٌ غَيْرُ مَذْمُومَةٍ

Newly invented matters are of two types. Whatever is invented that differs from the Book, the Sunnah, the reports, and the consensus, then this is called an innovation of misguidance. Whatever goodness is invented that does not differ in any way from those, then this is called an innovation that is not blameworthy.

Source: Fath ul-Bari 6849

On this basis, the scholars who celebrate the Prophet’s birthday consider it a praiseworthy innovation as it involves many practices condoned by the Sunnah, such as reciting the Quran, remembering the Prophet’s life, and giving charity.

As-Suyuti is perhaps the most famous representative of this position. He wrote a short treatise on this issue in which he argues that celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, although a new practice, is in fact a praiseworthy innovation.

As-Suyuti said:

عِنْدِي أَنَّ أَصْلَ عَمَلِ الْمَوْلِدِ الَّذِي هُوَ اجْتِمَاعُ النَّاسِ وَقِرَاءَةُ مَا تَيَسَّرَ مِنَ الْقُرْآنِ وَرِوَايَةُ الْأَخْبَارِ الْوَارِدَةِ فِي مَبْدَأِ أَمْرِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَمَا وَقَعَ فِي مَوْلِدِهِ مِنَ الْآيَاتِ ثُمَّ ُمَدُّ لَهُمْ سِمَاطٌ يَأْكُلُونَهُ وَيَنْصَرِفُونَ مِنْ غَيْرِ زِيَادَةٍ عَلَى ذَلِكَ هُوَ مِنَ الْبِدَعِ الْحَسَنَةِ الَّتِي يُثَابُ عَلَيْهَا صَاحِبُهَا لِمَا فِيهِ مِنْ تَعْظِيمِ قَدْرِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَإِظْهَارِ الْفَرَحِ وَالِاسْتِبْشَارِ بِمَوْلِدِهِ الشَّرِيفِ

In my view, the basis of celebrating the birth of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, on which the people gather and recite from the Quran and narrate the stories regarding the beginning of the affairs of the Prophet and the signs that occurred on his birth, then food is placed before them of which they eat to their satisfaction, this is among the good innovations (al-bida’ al-hasanah) of which the participants will be blessed, as within it is celebrating the great status of the Prophet and showing joy and happiness at his noble birth.

Source: Husn Al-Maqsad fi Amal Al-Mawlid

As we have said, some Muslims go further than the position of Ibn Taymiyyah by denouncing those contemporary scholars and their follower who celebrate the Prophet’s birthday, even cutting them off from the Muslim community. However, it is unlikely that you would see any of them condemn As-Suyuti, whose piety and contribution to Islamic scholarship is well-known. You would not see them prohibiting and burning his beneficial works such as Tafseer Al-Jalalayn, Jami As-Sagheer, or Itqan fi Ulum Al-Quran. If they respect As-Suyuti in this way, then they should also respect those who follow his scholarly opinion.

The extreme opponents of the birthday note that early scholars were harsh with innovators, so they believe we should be harsh with those who celebrate the birthday. At issue here is their failure to distinguish between an incorrect practice and a heretical innovation. An incorrect practice is when a Muslim commits a mistake when performing a deed in Islam, in which case they deserve to be advised and corrected with gentleness, fairness, and humility, whereas a heretical innovation is a newly invented deed that suppresses and persecutes the Sunnah and causes sectarian strife.

Ibn Taymiyyah provides an example of this, saying:

وَالْخَوَارِجُ هُمْ أَوَّلُ مَنْ كَفَّرَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ يُكَفِّرُونَ بِالذُّنُوبِ ، وَيُكَفِّرُونَ مَنْ خَالَفَهُمْ فِي بِدْعَتِهِمْ وَيَسْتَحِلُّونَ دَمَهُ وَمَالَهُ وَهَذِهِ حَالُ أَهْلِ الْبِدَعِ يَبْتَدِعُونَ بِدْعَةً وَيُكَفِّرُونَ مَنْ خَالَفَهُمْ فِيهَا

The Khawarij sect was the first to declare Muslims to be unbelievers because of their sins and they declared as unbelievers whoever differed with them in their innovations. They made lawful the spilling of blood and the taking of wealth. This is the condition of the people of innovation, that they invent some religious innovation and then they excommunicate whoever disagrees with them regarding it.

Source: Majmu’ Al-Fatawa 1/278

The Kharijite and Mu’tazilite sects were considered innovators because they invented new doctrines that opposed the prophetic tradition and they persecuted whoever did not accept their views. The Kharaijites were known for killing ordinary Muslims who disagreed with them, whereas the Mu’tazilites were known for oppressing great Imams such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal who refused to accept their doctrine of the creation of the Quran. It was because of their violence and sectarian hostility that the early scholars harshly denounced their innovations, not simply because they were committing incorrect practices.

Al-Barbaharee was an early scholar who was particularly harsh against the heretical innovators of his time. His words are often used today to denounce ordinary Muslims who celebrate the Prophet’s birthday, yet he makes clear in his writings the context of his condemnation against violent sects.

Al-Barbaharee writes:

انقلب الزمان وتغير الناس جدا وفشت البدع وكثر الدعاة إلى غير سبيل الحق والجماعة ووقعت المحنة في كل شيء لم يتكلم به رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ولا أحد من الصحابة ودعوا إلى الفرقة وقد نهى الله تعالى عن الفرقة وكفر بعضهم بعضا وكل دعا إلى رأيه وإلى تكفير من خالفه فضل الجهال والرعاع ومن لا علم له وأطمعوا الناس في شيء من أمر الدنيا وخوفوهم عقاب الدنيا فاتبعهم الخلق على خوف في دينهم ورغبة في دنياهم فصارت السنة وأهل السنة مكتومين وظهرت البدعة

When times changed and people greatly deteriorated, innovations proliferated and there arose many callers inviting away from the truth and the united community. People were tested with things that were not said by the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, and his companions. People called to sectarianism although the Messenger of Allah had forbidden sectarianism. Each group declared the others to be unbelievers. Everyone called to his own opinion and declared those who disagreed with him to be unbelievers. The ignorant masses and even those with knowledge went astray. They made people desire the worldly life and fear worldly punishment, so people followed them out of fear for their affairs and desire for this world. The Sunnah itself and the people of the Sunnah were suppressed, and innovations became widespread.

Source: Sharh As-Sunnah 70

Al-Barbaharee makes clear that he was condemning sects who attempted to overthrow Muslim societies and persecute the Muslims who were practicing the Sunnah. To apply such harsh condemnations against Muslims who celebrate the birthday and to categorize them with the worst sects in Islam is most unjust.

At the same time, some of those who celebrate the birthday go to another extreme by claiming the Muslims who refuse to celebrate it actually hate the Prophet. In reality, Muslims who do not celebrate the birthday refuse to do so because they believe it is not an appropriate way to express their love of the Prophet.

Some supporters of the birthday also commit gross exaggerations in their praise of the Prophet and in celebrating his birthday. Some have gone so far as to say celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is the greatest event in Islam, even greater than the fast of Ramadan. No doubt there is absolutely no textual evidence or precedent to support this claim.

Still others will cite fabricated or questionable narrations to exaggerate the status of the Prophet, imagining that by doing so they are respecting him. For example, a commonly quoted narration says:

لَمَّا اقْتَرَفَ آدَمُ الْخَطِيئَةَ قَالَ يَا رَبِّ أَسْأَلُكَ بِحَقِّ مُحَمَّدٍ لَمَا غَفَرْتَ لِي فَقَالَ اللَّهُ يَا آدَمُ وَكَيْفَ عَرَفْتَ مُحَمَّدًا وَلَمْ أَخْلُقْهُ قَالَ يَا رَبِّ لأَنَّكَ لَمَّا خَلَقْتَنِي بِيَدِكَ وَنَفَخْتَ فِيَّ مِنْ رُوحِكَ رَفَعْتُ رَأْسِي فَرَأَيْتُ عَلَىَ قَوَائِمِ الْعَرْشِ مَكْتُوبًا لا إِلَهَ إِلا اللَّهُ مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ

When Adam committed his sin, he said: O Lord, I ask you by the right of Muhammad to forgive me. Allah said: O Adam, how do you know Muhammad when I have not created him? Adam said: O Lord, when you created me with your hands and blew into me your spirit and I raised my head, I saw written on the Throne: There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.

Source: Mustadrak ‘ala Saheehayn 4159

This narration was declared weak by Al-Bayhaqi in Dala’il An-Nubuwah 5/489 and Ibn Hajar in Ittihaf Al-Muhrah 12/97 as well as others, not to mention that it contains a very controversial formula of supplication. Such traditions are cited in praise of the Prophet but these Muslims should remember that whoever deliberately lies about the Prophet will enter Hellfire, even if those lies are to praise the Prophet.

Abdullah ibn Amr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

وَمَنْ كَذَبَ عَلَيَّ مُتَعَمِّدًا فَلْيَتَبَوَّأْ مَقْعَدَهُ مِنْ النَّارِ

Whoever intentionally lies upon me will take his seat in Hellfire.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 3274, Grade: Sahih

Likewise, the Prophet warned us about exaggerating his status and he advised us to refer to him with the simple yet lofty titles of “the servant of Allah” and “the Messenger of Allah.”

Umar ibn Al-Khattab reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَا تُطْرُونِي كَمَا أَطْرَتْ النَّصَارَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ فَإِنَّمَا أَنَا عَبْدُهُ فَقُولُوا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ وَرَسُولُهُ

Do not exalt me as the Christians have exalted the son of Mary. Verily, I am only a servant, so call me the servant of Allah and his messenger.

Source: Sahih Bukhari 3261, Grade: Sahih

We should remember that all heretical innovations began as small innovations and in this context we should be clear that if those who celebrate the Prophet’s birthday are not strictly careful, even though they do so with good intentions, they may potentially fall into fabrications against Islam.

To conclude, the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday is a matter of legitimate scholarly disagreement. Both sides invoke established principles in Islam, although they disagree about which principle should take precedence in this case. Yet, followers and preachers on either side sometimes go to extremes in denouncing others or including baseless practices on this day, both of which harm the unity and harmony of the Muslim community.

We should remember to behave with each other with gentleness, fairness, and humility, and to remain united in our love of Prophet Muhammad and Islam even if we strongly disagree on some issues.

Allah said:

وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا

Hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided.

Surat Ali Imran 3:103

We ask Allah to unite our hearts in the love of Allah and His Messenger and in following the prophetic teachings in the best manner.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.