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The celebration of the birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid al-nabawī) in the Muslim world and the West: debates, practices and representations

A publication project proposed by Farid Bouchiba and Myriam Laakili


Every year, the mawlid is the subject of heated debates within the Muslim community, provoking dissensions among the faithful. Some consider it a blamable innovation (bid‘a), while others see it as a sacred occasion to celebrate the love of the Prophet and recall his teachings.

While in recent decades, the mawlid has been the subject of numerous works (Kaptein, 1993; Halima, 1995; Gril, 2003; Katz, 2007; Zarcone, 2013), as a festival it continues to raise many questions to which this dossier wishes to provide new answers. It will address the doctrinal debates, as well as the practices and written and artistic productions related to the mawlid, addressing issues which have received little attention from researchers. We will also offer the opportunity to think about the circulation of practices and about debates and controversies through the Muslim worlds and in the West. To address these questions, this thematic issue will consist of a first part on the “Doctrinal debates surrounding the mawlid through history”, then, a second part will explore a “socio-anthropological approach to the mawlid practices”; finally, a last section will focus on “Literary and artistic expression”.

The most generally accepted date for the birth of the Prophet is Monday the 12th of rabī‘ al-awwal, which is the third month of the lunar calendar. It seems that this festival did not begin until quite late. According to some scholars, the first historical record of this commemoration is found in Egypt during the time of the Shī‘a Fatimid dynasty (Kaptein, 1993). The mawlid is said to have been celebrated for the first time in the Sunni world by al-Malik Muẓaffar al-dīn Gökburī, brother-in-law of Ṣalāḥ al-dīn in 604/1207 in Irbil, Upper Mesopotamia, becoming increasingly popular thereafter. Many scholars have highlighted the very important role of religious brotherhoods in popularizing the celebration (Geoffroy 1995, Chih 2017). If the Sufis were able to convince the majority of Muslims to accept the mawlid as an expression of reverence towards the Prophet of Islam, this celebration was met and is still met today with a strong opposition from those who deem it a blameworthy innovation (bid‘a). They reproach the Sufis for having introduced heterodox practices, such as promiscuity between men and women, which seems contrary to propriety, the practice of singing, or, for having imported certain practices from Christianity (processions with lamps, for example). These disagreements, which seem to have reached their peak in the 8th-9th / 14th-15th centuries, reappear regularly.

The Wahhābis, who draw some of their arguments from Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), have, since the eighteenth century opposed all Sufi orders along with the celebration of the mawlid. This new “anti-Sufi brotherhood” Islam also fought fiercely against the celebration of other festivals, the mawlids of the saints (awliyā’). In contemporary times, the supporters of this movement deploy considerable energy on social networks every year in the weeks preceding the month of rabī‘ al-awwal, in order to dissuade Muslims from celebrating this holiday.

In France, some mosques or brotherhoods celebrate the mawlid in a commemoration that has a particular significance for many Muslims who reproduce on this occasion the traditions observed in their countries of origin; this is for example the case in Senegalese or North African communities in Marseille or elsewhere in the country.

In the last chapter of her book The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Marion H. Katz seems to suggest that the mawlid will soon disappear, as it belongs to a “pre-modern model of piety” marked by gift reciprocity and emotion (the author refers to M. Mauss and K. Reinhart) in which Muslims exchange worldly goods for salvation in the hereafter. The multiplication of celebrations in recent decades however, seems to contradict this forecast.

As some Islamic scholars point out, devotion to the Prophet of Islam is a story that has yet to be written (Amry, 2017). In this context, it seems necessary to restore both the historical and legal components of the mawlid, while paying as much attention to sociological or anthropological factors. It is for this reason that we will focus on the multifaceted character of this devotional event by questioning the different branches of Islam (Sunnism, Shiism, Ibadism, Zaydism, etc.) and the various geographical contexts (countries where Islam is the majority, but also where Muslims live in diaspora).

This call is open to multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences (Islamic studies, anthropology, sociology, history, political science, visual and graphic arts, cinema, etc.). Based on well identified sources and/or fields and clearly explaining the methods and approaches chosen, contributions to this issue of the REMMM will preferably fall within one of the following three areas:


Axis 1. Doctrinal debates around the mawlid throughout history

This first axis will question the scriptural and doctrinal foundations of the mawlid al-nabawī. Attention will be paid, for example, to ‘orthopraxic’ positions, which defend a celebration of the mawlid free of practices deemed contrary to sharia (Johansen, 1996; Pierret, 2012). Although the mawlid is not a canonical festival, its celebration has been adopted by a large number of scholars as a ‘good innovation’ (bid‘a ḥasana), even if it has been regularly challenged by some scholars. Contributions will therefore examine the arguments used by scholars (Ibn Bāz, Ibn ‘Uṯaymīn, Ibn Ǧibrīn, etc.) who condemn this practice as associationism (širk) and therefore as blameworthy (bid‘a). Contributors will inquire into the profile of those who condemns the mawlid as well as into the arguments these critics put forward. Does criticism of the mawlid change over time or does each generation repeat the condemnations of its predecessors? Conversely, what are the arguments mobilised by the imām-s, fuqahā̂’, ‘ulamā’ in order to legitimise the celebration of this festival (Suyūṭī, Ibn Ḥaǧar, al-Kawṯarī, Ibn ‘Āšūr, ‘Alawī al-Mālikī, al-Būṭī, al-Qaraḍāwī, ‘Alī Ǧumu‘a, Ṭāhir ul-Qādrī, al-Ḥabīb ‘Alī al-Ǧifrī, etc.)? What do Islamic legal sources (sunna, fiqh, etc.) reveal about this issue? Do we find traces of these debates in journals and the press in the early twentieth century (Rašīd Riḍā, al-Manār; Ibn Bādīs, al-Šihāb; etc.)? What is the position of the ministries of religious affairs in Muslim countries? How much of this debate is taking place online (for example, the proliferation of YouTube videos warning against this holiday every year a few weeks before the mawlid may be mentioned)?

Axis 2. Practices of the mawlid: a socio-anthropological approach

For the second axis we will focus on individual and collective practices during the mawlid, an aspect that remains under-studied. The aim of this axis is to observe the use that the faithful make of this commemoration. Furthermore, the different terminologies used to designate this ritual (mawlid, mevlid kandili, gamou, garebeg mulud, sekaten, etc.) bear witness to the diverse views surrounding this practice. Thus, it will be necessary to consider the plural forms of ritual practices and theirmeanings, as well as the beliefs linked to the observance of the mawlid in various sociological environments, across different periods and throughout the Muslim worlds as well as in the West. The practice in the context of immigration would also be of interest to observe: what are their forms of adaptation in the host country?

Moreover, to what extent is it an individual or collective phenomenon? Is this event celebrated in places of worship or in private spaces as a blessing in the home (Katz, 2018)? What meaning can the celebration of the Prophet’s birth have in terms of the different symbolic representations that clash or are negotiated? What is the role of women in celebrating the mawlid (Katz, 2018 p. 177)? To what collective manifestations do these celebrations give rise: processions, banquets, etc.? Are prophetic relics displayed on this occasion? Is there a link between the Prophet’s mawlid and the celebrations of saints?

While the mawlid is sometimes observed as a public holiday, it is officially celebrated in some Muslim countries among elites (political, economic, religious) who regularly attend this ceremony as they did in the past (al-Ṭwīlī, 2015 and Frenkel, 1995). The celebration allows social elites to reinforce their symbolic power where it is especially used as a political tool to assert legitimacy (Parvez Fareen, 2014, Pierret, 2011, Woordward, 1991). The question here will be about the types of power that take advantage of this occasion to assert or reaffirm their authority.

The mawlid moreover, can also serve as a pretext for uniting various religious groups, as has been the case for several years in Iran, where this festival brings together Sunnis and Shiites. How can the celebration of the mawlid help to overcome doctrinal divisions and reconcile religious groups?

Finally, we will also look at the economic aspects of the mawlid.

Axis 3. Literary and artistic productions

The third part aims to analyse the literary and artistic works produced on the occasion of the mawlid. The aim is to shed new light on the genesis of the production of these works and the path they have taken over time.

The mawlid al-nabawī is based in part on the chanting of songs and poems combining the praises and miracles of the Prophet. These specific poems are called mawlidiyyāt. We have a great many pieces, originally based on the famous Bānat Su‘ād of the Prophet’s companion Ka‘b b. Zuhayr, the most famous of which is that of al-Būsīrī (d. 697/1298), al-Burda. Contributors will take stock of its transmission, commentaries and translations, as well as its artistic aspects (manuscripts decorated with illumination, sung recitations). The didactic purpose of these poems (such as the ‘Iqd al-ǧawāhir of al-Barzanǧī d. 1179/1765, or for the Turkish-speaking world, that of Süleymān Celebī d. 825/1421), which aim to instruct Muslims, as well as their curative virtues, will also be examined. The recitation or chanting of this special kind of panegyric has been an important form of expression of the mawlid and it would be interesting to see its diverse registers and modes of deployment in the countries where it is celebrated, such as the Mawlid al-Barzanǧī chanted from the Maghreb to Indonesia, even todayday.

In this part, particular attention will also be paid to any other artistic expression that centres on this celebration: theatre, pictorial arts, music, cinematographic expression, etc.

This list of axes of reflection is obviously not exhaustive and we will examine all proposals for articles related to the general issue of this REMMM dossier.

Submission schedule

Please send your article proposal (4000 characters maximum, including spaces), together with a short biographical note, to Myriam LAAKILI before 1st September 2022.

Authors will be notified by the end of the following month. Articles may be written in French or English and should not exceed 45,000 characters, including spaces. The final version will be due on 1st March 2023. For more information concerning the style guidelines and the editorial process, please click here :


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