Manama: This is a question that invariably surfaces around this time of the Islamic calendar: Should Muslims celebrate the birthday of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him)?
The answer depends on who you ask.
On one side, there are those who see in the celebration an expression of great love and profound respect. On the other, are those who believe it is an unwelcome innovation that has nothing to do with the Islamic religion.
Yosra was happily singing in the fluorescent-lit kitchen as she was preparing assida, the chocolaty-looking sweet made from Aleppo pine seeds that Tunisians love to make to commemorate the event.
Celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, or Milad as we call it in Tunisia, is a way of demonstrating our love and veneration for God’s Messenger. We are proud to hold the day in special significance. We are aware that neither he nor his companions or early Muslim communities celebrated birthdays, but we see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate our admiration for the man whose high ethics and compassion, alongside so many other attributes, we would love to emulate throughout our lives
It was a Friday, a day off for Yosra, a Tunisian expatriate teacher in Bahrain, and she was diligently working on the uniquely Tunisian mixture of pine seeds extracts, flour, water and sugar that requires long, elaborate and tricky preparation. She wanted to be fully ready for Tuesday, the D-Day.
“Celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, or Milad as we call it in Tunisia, is a way of demonstrating our love and veneration for God’s Messenger. We are proud to hold the day in special significance. We are aware that neither he nor his companions or early Muslim communities celebrated birthdays, but we see it as an opportunity to reinvigorate our admiration for the man whose high ethics and compassion, alongside so many other attributes, we would love to emulate throughout our lives,” said Yosra, an economics teacher.
“I do not see anything wrong with the celebration. We are not doing anything against God or His teachings. Socially, and should we emphasise the context of the arguments about the commemoration, it is like saying today that Christians should not celebrate Christmas since Jesus himself did not celebrate his own birthday.”
Muslims mark the birthday on the 12th day of Rabi Al Awwal, the third month of the lunar-based Islamic calendar. Muslims have for centuries celebrated the Milad, or birth, through religious gatherings, popular events, festive practices and special sweets.
Not far from her home, the imam of the all-white mosque in old Muharraq, Bahrain’s second largest city, was asking worshippers not to commemorate the birthday of the Prophet, arguing it was bidaa, an innovation, that was not condoned in Islam.
The debate between the opposing sides is taken to mosques, print media and, most importantly, social media and the blogosphere.
The rituals of the celebration take different forms in different regions of the Muslim world.
It is not clear when the tradition started or who started it and where, but today Sufis lead the way in organising grandiose public celebrations with chants that praise the Prophet’s unique status as a channel of divine mercy to all the worlds who intercedes for sinners.
Most Muslim countries give the public sector the day off and, on its eve, hold religious lectures about the life, ethics and messages of the Prophet.
In Bahrain, the Justice and Islamic Affairs Ministry said it would hold a special event at the country’s largest mosque where speeches about the Prophet will be delivered by the minister and two senior scholars.
In Algeria, Mohammad Eisa, the Minister of Religious Affairs and Endowments, last week said the country has moved beyond arguments regarding the commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday, dismissing any form of opposition to the celebration of the Milad.
“We are currently working on consolidating our deep-rooted traditions that emanate from our Islamic religion and the life of the Prophet. We are a moderate country and we will not tolerate onslaughts on our way of life.”
The education ministry in his country said elementary, middle and high schools should commemorate the occasion through a “rich programme and a variety of functions”.
In neighbouring Tunisia, the Ministry of Religious Affairs last week announced that it had prepared 12,489 religious events that include lectures, lessons, and competitions to memorise the Quran and the Hadith (Prophet’s sayings) to be held across the North African country.
In Sudan, the celebrations start on the first day of Rabi Al Awwal and reach their peak on the 12th day.
“It is a celebration for all, from the various Sufi schools to families to young children. The popular fervour in fact ranks third after the two eids celebrated by Muslims annually,” Saleh, a Sudanese living in Bahrain, said.
“Confectioners boost their sale of traditional sweets that young children are keen on receiving as gifts from parents or relatives. Squares are vividly decorated and people in a celebratory mood flock to them to listen to lectures or to watch events.”
The companions of the Prophet never celebrated his birthday and since they are our role models, we must follow their example
But, across the Muslim world, not everyone is in a celebratory mood. There are those who object to practices that did not exist in the time of the Prophet or his immediate Muslim community.
“The companions of the Prophet never celebrated his birthday and since they are our role models, we must follow their example,” Shaikh Al Abidine Bin Hanfiya, an Algerian religious scholar, said. “This celebration cannot be an expression of love for the Prophet because love requires obedience.”