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PREMIERE PARTIE - La célébration de la naissance du Prophète (al-mawlid al-nabawī)

The Celebration of the Birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid al-nabawī)

Introduction to the special issue
Farid Bouchiba et Myriam Laakili
p. 29-48

Texte intégral

1Every year, the celebration of the birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid al-nabawī) is the subject of heated debate within the Muslim community, sometimes causing many disagreements between the faithful (Svensson, 2013). Some consider it to be a reprehensible innovation (bid‘a), while others see it as a sacred opportunity to celebrate the love of the Prophet and remember his teachings.

2The dimensions of the Mawlid celebration are ever-changing, as are the angles from which it can be approached. Work on this field of study is legion, with pioneering articles published in the middle of last century, mainly in the Maghreb, taking ethnographic, historical and literary approaches (Loubignac, 1946; Sandūbī, 1948; Salmi, 1956; Hadj-Sadok, 1957). Prior to these, in the 1930s an article on the Mawlid was published in Bosnia (Bajraktarević, 1937). The author studied was Hafiz Salih Gašević (d. 1899), who wrote the first Mawlid in the Bosnian language at a time when the Ottoman Empire was waning and being replaced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For reasons of identity, it was therefore important to offer Bosnian Muslims a text in the vernacular language for the celebration of this festival. In the middle of the twentieth century, another article (Németh, 1950) tells us about the Mevlud in Vidin (Bulgaria). We learn that the story of the birth of the Prophet was also read on the seventh and fortieth days after a funeral, in the months of rabī‘ I and II, during the three months preceding Ramadan as well as on Fridays, but also on other occasions such as moments of celebration, army victories and so on. The short article by Marius Canard published in France in 1946 is also worth mentioning in this regard (Canard, 1946).

  • 1 This work contributes significantly to studies on the Mawlid by devoting an entire chapter (compris (...)

3Additionally, in recent decades there has been renewed scholarly interest in the Mawlid, as evidenced by multiple publications on the subject (Knappert, 1988; Kaptein, 1993; Ferhat, 1995; Moussaoui, 2002; Gril, 2003; Holmes Katz, 2007; Pierret, 2012; Chih et al., 20231). This historiographical and methodological revival is reflected in historical and sociological studies on the subject, as well as in a more precise periodization that attests to the vitality of the most recent work. Let us take a look at the most recent of these studies and the authors who have carried out multiple investigations on the subject.

4Marion Holmes Katz is one of the authors who has published the most work on the Mawlid. She focuses in particular on women and their practices (2008; 2018), pointing out that Muslim women have often been seen as a category that has cultivated ritual activities that fall outside the framework of so-called “normative” Islam as defined by elite male scholars, activities that are frequently referred to as “popular”. According to Holmes Katz, clerics tend to stigmatize practices such as the Mawlid by considering them as customs of the uneducated masses. She shows how in Sanaa, Yemen, professional Mawlid singers adopt different approaches to assert the religious value of the Mawlid celebration by placing it within “popular Islam”, as part of a newly valued national heritage (2008).

5A year prior to her 2008 work, Holmes Katz published an important study on the Mawlid (2007). In the final chapter, she seems to suggest the imminent disappearance of the Mawlid, which belongs to a “model of premodern piety” which she believes is marked by the reciprocity of the gift and the emotion (she makes reference to Marcel Mauss and Karl Reinhardt) where Muslims exchange goods of this world for salvation in the afterlife. According to Holmes Katz, nowadays the Mawlid is the victim of attacks by Wahhabis and Reformers. The latter see it as a celebration not adapted to Western modernity. However, the proliferation of celebrations in recent decades seems to prove this hypothesis wrong. As well as this, specialists in the sociology of religion have demonstrated the importance of emotion as a significant factor in the upholding of religious festivals. Today, any Muslim believer is inspired by the model of the Prophet of Islam and the Mawlid is an opportunity to remind oneself of his exemplary behaviour. Moreover, the question of modernity is not necessarily a sign of the disappearance of the religious factor: on the contrary, as Jean-Paul Willaime points out, in a modern and postmodern society, religiosity can be transformed, but does not disappear because religion is part of society. Whether we describe this new era as “postmodern” or “ultramodern” (Willaime, 2012, p. 104), faced with these dissolutions of traditional values, religious reinvestment is a new form of self-definition. This is what Willaime describes as the transition from “modernist certainty” to “ultramodern uncertainty”. The ideals of a few decades ago no longer have a unifying effect on people. He states: “In such a situation, religion tends to be reinvested as a place of memory at the societal and individual level (as if it were a question of responding to the destructuring of spaces and times) and as a provider of collective and individual identities, of celebrations and of rites”.

6Samuli Schielke wrote his book on the Mawlid in contemporary Egypt (2012) from an anthropological perspective. Rather than focusing on doctrinal debates, he studies the relationships between the Mawlid and different conceptions of social order. He argues that the mawlids are characterized by a utopian impulse (in Foucault’s sense of the term) towards the extraordinary that disrupts the great patterns of order and the State’s concern to order an “orthodox” Islam. This “orthodox” Islam seeks to reform the mawlids and impose predictability, clarity and well-defined hierarchies on them as part of a broader project of organizing society and the dispositions of its citizens (Schielke, 2012, p.178). It is not an opposition between the state and civil society, nor a division between Islamists and secularists, but rather a competition between different perceptions of what constitutes a complete view that forms the central line of conflict in contesting celebratory culture. His work offers an in-depth reflection on discursive formation, habitus and the different modes of religious practice in today’s Egypt. Concepts such as society, modernity, religion, class, social order, moral subjectivity and the subjective are examined through their intersections and transformations.

7An article published in the same year by Thomas Pierret (2012) comprehensively shows how the Mawlid can be used as a staging tool to legitimize the authority of the ulema, through a ritualized spectacle showcasing their authority. The spatial organization of the ceremony and the reception of noteworthy individuals, merchants in particular, make the clerics appear as the dominant element of an idealized social order. According to Pierret, to maintain this hierarchical pattern, the ulema must contain the common people’s quest for emotion. On this topic also, Schielke writes that “if the Mawlid in its traditional form is a utopian time of the extraordinary, the state Mawlid in its spectacular form is a space of ideal normality – but a normality that is limited to a few privileged locations” (Schielke, 2012, p. 194).

8Among the most recent publications, that of Kameliya Atanasova (2023) on the Maghreb in medieval times deserves mention here. It offers an original approach, moving away from the dichotomy opposing Sufism and towards a dominant religious discourse which discredits the celebration of the Mawlid. It has long been claimed that Sufism was often considered illegitimate in the legal discourse of a certain orthodoxy, and because of this the Mawlid was the subject of attacks because it was considered a bid‘a sayy’a (“reprehensible innovation”) celebrated by Sufis. As such, if the Mawlid was celebrated by the Sufis, it was considered as a mistake or an innovation in the pejorative sense. However, Atanasova’s work clearly highlights how Sufism is fuelled by fiqh and vice versa, as well as how the role of Sufi metaphysics plays an important role in the construction of a Sufi legal discourse in the Maghreb in the medieval era through the example of the Mawlid. Atanasova argues against the idea that Sufism played a subordinate role in Maghrebi legal discourse. Based on an analysis of, among others, Wansharīsī’s compilation, she questions the hypothesis of a categorical distinction or tension between Sufi metaphysical discourse and jurisprudential discourse, and instead highlights an important common ground between the two areas of expertise.

9Thus, we see how the religious fact is “a social fact” (Durkheim, 1960, p. 610) in the sense that it participates in the intellectual, social and political life of a city. We should therefore free ourselves from any Manichaeism by analysing this celebration in depth, taking into account the social and historical context of its deployment.

10To conclude this overview, we shall cite some literary studies which are equally important, for the Mawlid as a form of oral and written literature must be taken into consideration. Amina Šiljak-Jesenković (2012) analyses a Bosnian poem from the Ottoman period in which the theme of the Prophet’s Ascension into the heavens emerges. There is also Halid Bulić’s analysis of Mirza Safvet-beg Bašagić’s Mawlid, one of the most significant mawlids written in the Bosnian language (2017). He analyses this text from the perspective of literary pragmatics, taking into consideration the relationship between the author and the narrator in the text and the management of voice in Bašagić’s Mawlid. Lastly, a contribution by Burhanettin Tatar (2022) offers a philosophical analysis focusing on the relationships between the poems of a book by Süleyman Çelebi (Sulaiman Chalabi) in his Vasila al-Nejat and their musical recitals. The relationship between words (poetry) and music in the recital of the Mawlid sometimes becomes an area of interaction involving conversational activity.

11This special issue is a continuation of this vast field of study whose theme crops up from time to time in the news within Muslim communities. It therefore seemed important to us to structure it around Islamology and the social sciences. We seek to understand the religious field within the framework of our object of study by discussing the issue of clerics, the sacred, prohibitions, rites, collective and individual beliefs and what we can call “scholarly religion” as opposed to “popular religion”. Doing so has required observing the interactions between various religious practices and social actors, that is to say the modalities of deployment in the social and intellectual world of the celebration of the Mawlid. Consequently, the articles in this special issue aim to offer some keys to understanding this religious phenomenon and the diversity of its approaches and its foundations.

  • 2 Reference is also made to the 2nd, 8th, 10th and 18th of the month of rabī‘ al-awwal, see Ibn Diḥya (...)

12The most generally accepted date for the birth of the Prophet is Monday the 12th of rabī‘ al-awwal2, which is the third month of the lunar calendar in the Sunni world. The Shiites celebrate it on the 17th of rabī‘ al-awwal. Although there remains disagreement over the exact date of the birth of the Prophet, we can cite the 1858 study by Maḥmūd al-Falakī (1815–1885), entitled Mémoire sur le calendrier arabe avant l’islamisme, in which he attempts to ascertain the exact date of the birth of the Prophet of Islam. He points out that there are many opinions on this subject, none of which are acceptable to all scholars. He first discusses the opinions of scholars on the birth of the Prophet, specifying that most of them agree on the fact that it took place in the month of rabī‘ al-awwal, the year of the elephant (‘ām al-fīl). However, there are differences over the exact date of his birth. The 8th, 10th and 12th of the month of rabī‘ al-awwal are the days that are mentioned in the sources to which al-Falakī refers. It would seem that al-Falakī drew upon Sunni sources, ignoring the opinion of the Shiites who often recognize the 17th of the month of rabī‘ al-awwal as the Prophet’s birthday. Nevertheless, al-Falakī’s approach is innovative in some respects, particularly in his use of historical astronomy. This 19th-century Egyptian astronomer, who spent nine years in Europe, combines historical testimonies (chronicles and works of sīra), of which there are of course multiple, with astronomical data provided by the same sources (as well as orientalist writings) and other evidence (eclipses and planetary conjunctions) that he has the means to date precisely (Shaikh, 2016). It is interesting to see how the Prophet’s date of birth could be ascertained using scientific sources from astronomy, as well as Arabic sources.

13Furthermore, it seems that the celebration of the Prophet’s birth did not begin until quite late. According to some researchers, the first historical trace of this commemoration can be found in Egypt at the time of the Shiite Fatimid dynasty (Kaptein, 1993). Back then it was a celebration intended for the religious and political-military elite. This would explain why so few Sunni scholars mention it in their writings: among the historians of Fatimid Egypt, we find mention of it in works by al-Qalqashandī (d. 821/1418) and al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442). In addition to the Prophet’s birthday, the Fatimids also celebrated five other Mawlids: ‘Alī, Fāṭima, Ḥasan, Ḥusayn and that of the caliph. According to Frederick de Jong, who rejects the continuist theory, the memory of these festivals dissipated before the first Sunni celebration of the Mawlid (E.I.2 art. “Mawlid”). Kaptein (1993) maintains that the Ayyūbids celebrated the Mawlid in continuity with the tradition established by their Fatimid rivals.

14The Mawlid was celebrated for the first time in the Sunni world in 604/1207 in Erbil, Upper Mesopotamia, by al-Malik Muẓaffar al-Dīn Gökburī, brother-in-law of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn. We should point out that later authors draw upon the account of the historian Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282), also born in Erbil, when they tell us of the splendour with which the Mawlid was celebrated. According to the chronicles of the time, it was a kind of festival which attracted crowds and which owed much to the Sufis of the region. Then, from the 7th/13th century, the festival spread throughout the Muslim world, fairly quickly influencing a large part of the population and Sufi customs. Many researchers have highlighted the eminent role of religious brotherhoods in the popularization of the event (Salmi, 1956; Geoffroy, 1995; Boloix, 2011). We can also still see the important place that these brotherhoods occupy today in the organization and continued existence of this festival (Gril, 2022). Attention should also be drawn to the key role played by different dynasties in the spread of the celebration of the Mawlid (Brown, 2014), sometimes for the purposes of legitimizing their power (Frenkel, 1995; Garcia-Arenal, 2012).

  • 3 On the criticisms of the Mawlid, of interest is the fifth chapter (“Mawlids under attack”, p. 169–2 (...)

15Although the Sufis were able over time to make the Mawlid accepted by the majority of Muslims as an expression of reverence towards the Prophet of Islam, this celebration has met with – and continues to do so today – strong opposition among certain believers who label it a reprehensible innovation (bid‘a sayy’a)3. They criticize the Sufis for having introduced heterodox practices, such as promiscuity between men and women, the practice of singing, or even for having imported certain practices from Christianity such as processions with candles (Loubignac, 1946; Zarcone, 2013; Manssouri, 2017). These disagreements, which seemed to reach their peak in the 8th–9th/14th–15th centuries (Fākihānī, 1987), resurface regularly.

16Later, the Wahhabis, who draw some of their arguments from Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), opposed all Sufi orders and the celebration of the Mawlid (Ukeles, 2010). This new “anti-brotherhood” Islam, which presents itself as the representative of a “pure” Islam, also fights fiercely against the celebration of other festivals, the Mawlids of the saints (awliyā’) (Schielke, 2006). In recent times, supporters of this movement have devoted a great deal of energy to asserting their position in the weeks leading up to the month of rabī‘ al-awwal. Each year, they convene numerous fatwās and also become active on social media in order to dissuade Muslims from celebrating this holiday (Svensson, 2013).

17Although several studies have endeavoured to show that devotion to the Prophet of Islam is not considered shirk by a large number of Muslim scholars (Addas, 2015; Amri, Chih and Gril, 2017; Amri, Chih and Reichmuth, 2023), the subject is far from having been exhausted. It therefore seems necessary to restore both the historical and legal component of the Mawlid, paying equal attention to sociological, anthropological and literary and artistic factors. Thus, three main strands of study structure this themed issue, their main objective being to question anew the doctrinal debates, as well as the practices and written and artistic productions relating to the Mawlid.

18In this regard, studying the Mawlid is an opportunity for immersion, so as to observe the religion that is lived on a daily basis. This can be done by analysing the practices of the actors in order to understand their modalities, in a given society and in their different facets, not just the most visible ones. As such, the aim of this issue is to contribute to the exploration of new avenues that shed light on the scope of the Mawlid, as an event celebrated at the crossroads of a historical social evolution of the Muslim worlds (Shinar, 1977) and the doctrinal and legal divergences that animate them, by proposing new epistemological approaches to the “Islamic fact”.

  • 4 Pioneering biographical works include the epistle of Shaykh al-Kattānī (d. 1382/1962). He lists one (...)

19The articles in this special issue demonstrate the need for interdisciplinarity, which is essential to better understanding the Mawlid as an object of study. The contributions gathered here highlight the multitude of approaches and methods inherent to this celebration by bringing Islamology and the social sciences into dialogue with each other. However, studies on the Mawlid being a vast field of research, these contributions in no way claim to be exhaustive. Many aspects remain to be explored in order to expand and refine our knowledge of this institution, whether it concerns the foods consumed on this occasion, or the place given to children in the celebrations, for example. Many manuscripts would also merit being edited and translated. However, before that must come an essential step: conducting a historiographical assessment of the existing Arabic sources4 and the works in Arabic on the Mawlid, which have increased in number over the last few decades. We therefore put forward many questions which constitute avenues of research available to scholars, and which each deserve special attention.

The Scriptural Foundations of the Mawlid

  • 5 Let us cite for example the following scholars: ‘Imād al-Dīn Ibn Kathīr (700–774/1300–1373), Abū l- (...)

20This first strand of study aims to question the scriptural and doctrinal foundations of the Mawlid. Although the Mawlid is not a canonical festival, its celebration has, over time, come to be adopted by a large number of scholars as a “good innovation” (bid‘a ḥasana), despite being regularly contested by other scholars (As‘ad, 2019). These controversies have become better known to us over the past twenty years through studies focusing on various geographical and doctrinal contexts: those of the Swahili coast in Kenya (Harries, 1958; Kresse, 2006), the Malay archipelago (Rosman et al., 2018), al-Azhar (Schussman, 1998) and the situation among the Omani Ibadis (Jordan, 2023). Different writings enable us to learn about the arguments used by those who approve of the celebration of this festival5, but also of the counter-arguments of its detractors (Fākihānī, 1987; Suyūṭī, 2014; Sulaiman, 2021). We can also observe that although the criticisms of the Mawlid have evolved, each generation tends to repeat the condemnations of its predecessors.

21Ahmed Oulddali’s contribution to this special issue offers a deep historical anchor which highlights how far back debates on the Mawlid go. He focuses on Maliki literature from the late Middle Ages in the Muslim West, and his article looks at the divergent opinions of North African and Andalusian jurists by bringing together the fatwā-s compiled by al-Wansharīsī (d. 914/1508). Although the celebration of the Mawlid in the Nasrid Emirate of Granada has given rise to a certain amount of research, the article is innovative in that it brings together Maliki fatwā-s on this subject. These are around ten texts containing the opinions of jurisconsults who lived between the end of the 7th/13th and the 9th/15th centuries. These texts are a significant source of information insofar as they come from jurists who took an active part in the debates surrounding the Mawlid. The answers provided reflect the questions and divergences of these scholars. Moreover, the fatwā-s analysed in no way demonstrate a unanimous position. Three issues lie at the centre of this investigation: the waqf (pious foundation) dedicated to the celebration of the Mawlid, the candles offered to schoolteachers during the festival, and the Sufi imams who participate in the festivities. Oulddali’s study presents the evolution of the Maliki position as well as the sometimes-controversial way in which this festival was celebrated by some Sufis.

22Still on the question of the Mawlid from a legal point of view, Nejmeddine Khalfallah’s article studies a short treatise written by the Tunisian scholar Ibn ‘Āshūr (d. 1393/1973). The epistle’s objective is to show the faithful the legitimacy of the celebration of the Mawlid. The text by Ibn ‘Āshūr studied here was intended to be solemnly recited during the ceremony attended by the Beys of Husainid Tunisia (1705–1956). This jurisprudential demonstration aimed to establish not only the conformity of the celebration to the precepts of Islam, but also its highly recommendable character (mandūb). In his epistle, Ibn ‘Āshūr, Maliki Shaykh al-islām of Tunisia, uses several types of arguments, bringing together scriptural statements, finalist deductions (maqāidī-s) and logical reasoning. He closes his plea by stating that this commemoration is a maslak ḥasan (beautiful way). Finally, let us remember that Ibn ‘Āshūr, who was a senior official of the Beylical State, endeavoured to produce a religious norm that fit in with the social dynamics of the Regency of Tunis, then under the yoke of the French Protectorate (1881–1956). The defensive and polemical tone of the epistle leads us to believe that the arguments deployed by Ibn ‘Āshūr serve to justify his opinion in the face of the rise in power of the Wahhabi movement in Tunisia, which refutes this celebration.

  • 6 Such as the first Thursday of the month of rajab.

23As such, on the subject of the Wahhabi position, we cannot ignore the thought of Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328). Following on from an article on this same subject (Ukeles, 2010), Mehdi Berriah’s contribution provides a great deal of nuance by comparing the two pro- and anti-Mawlid currents which both make reference to Ibn Taymiyya in order to give their discourses more depth. However, these antagonistic positions produce confusion as to Ibn Taymiyya’s true opinion. Comparing how both detractors (Salafi-Wahhabis) and supporters of the Mawlid approach the issue with Ibn Taymiyya as a central source is very enlightening and helps us to understand that in reality, the issues actually lie in the discursive strategies of the religious actors. The analysis of a sample of positions taken by contemporary scholars, drawing on audiovisual media and online content, shows that both sides use Ibn Taymiyya’s words when debating the celebration of the Mawlid. The comparison of the discourses reveals a selection or even a distortion, either on purpose or involuntarily, of Ibn Taymiyya’s words, always going in the direction of the position defended by each of the opposing parties. Although Ibn Taymiyya considers the Mawlid as a bid‘a (innovation), he is not unaware of the importance of the feelings that many Muslims who participate in this event have about the Prophet. He also adds that these believers will likely be rewarded for their intention and their respect and love for the Prophet. Note that despite the innovative nature of the Mawlid, Ibn Taymiyya does not call for it to be banned at any time, unlike other celebrations.6 Analysing the different modes of legitimation at work within the framework of a religious discourse enables us to understand how a religious actor legitimizes his specific way of “believing” in connection with our theme here. We can therefore see, among other things, how these discourses produce a certain normativity.

24The contributions that make up the next strand of study enable us to analyse how the religious fact is inseparable from the social fact, and how these complement and feed into each other.

A Socio-Anthropological Approach to the Celebration of the Mawlid: From the Intimate to the Public

25Our second strand of study looks at how the celebration of the Mawlid is expressed through individual and collective practices. We focus here on sometimes-little-known sociocultural practices rather than on the discourses produced by religious elites. However, it is also interesting to observe the use that Muslims make of this commemoration in different geographical spaces. Highlighting the celebration of the Mawlid in varied socio-political (Bourmaud, 2009; Parvez Fareen, 2014; Binaté, 2015; Aubin-Boltanski, 2023) and identity (Ougouag-Kezzal, 1978; Philipova, 2001; Moussaoui, 2002; Bria, 2021) contexts shows us how complex the celebration is.

26The article by Macoumba Diop, which begins this second section, tells us how from the 2000s, the Shiites of Senegal, a very small minority, made their contribution to the celebration of the birth of the Prophet, called gamou in Wolof. Before this, this festival was a particularity of the Sunni brotherhoods and especially of the zāwiya Tijāniyya started by El Hadji Malick Sy, the founder of the zāwiya of Tivaouane, in 1902. Upon his death in 1927, the caliphs who succeeded one another at the head of the brotherhood continued the tradition. The gamou became a national holiday that transcended the borders of El Hadji Malick Sy’s zāwiya. All the religious brotherhoods – including the Mourides, the Layènnes, the Qadirī and the Niassenes – join the Tijanis at the commemoration. The event is a public holiday in Senegal, and Tivaouane, the capital of the Senegalese Tijāniyya, welcomes disciples from several regions of the country.

27Shiites celebrate the festival in a different way. Although they celebrate it by following the tradition of the brotherhoods, they set themselves apart in that they do so on a different date (the 17th of rabī‘ al-awwal ), and, most importantly, that at the same time they celebrate the birth of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin. Diop’s article shows us how these new religious actors use the Mawlid to negotiate with institutions and deploy strategies aimed at legitimizing themselves and imposing themselves in the religious field, without coming into conflict with the Sunni currents which dominate the Senegalese religious landscape.

28When we talk about the Mawlid, we also think of the holiness of the Prophet and his soteriological function (Jones, 2006). This is what Azzedine Kinzi’s article shows, by shedding new light on how sacredness is navigated in a Berber-speaking village in Algeria in connection, in particular, with the Mawlid. Little is still known about how believers celebrate this festival. Kinzi explains and analyses it via an ethnographic description of a local ritual in a specific temporal and geographical context (villages in Kabylia in October 2022). His article, which adopts an anthropological perspective by analysing individual and collective practices (processions, display of the flag, sacrifices, offerings, therapeutic rituals, ceremonial meals), draws on data from observations and interviews conducted during a field survey. This celebration shows ritual practices in their festive dimension, here linking the sacred and the profane, in connection with the idea of “popular festivals in Kabylia”. Above all, this example of celebrating the birth of the Prophet also appears in correlation with the celebration of a holy founder. It reveals and reinforces the place of the saint in the constitution of a tribal group: the saint, his history (genealogical stories in particular) and his mausoleum structure how territory and community is organized in various ways. It was important to understand why this festival – which takes place in a Kabyle sociocultural context (and more broadly in the rural Maghreb) and is considered a “popular festival” with intense festive rituals situated between sacred and profane – is so successful. It seemed to us that the explanation lies in the social function that this religious celebration performs.

29Indeed, what meaning does the celebration of the birth of the Prophet take with regard to the different symbolic representations which it confronts or negotiates? Sadek Sellam’s article focuses on the reformist current (iṣlāḥ) in Algeria, led primarily by the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulemas (AOMA, founded in 1931), renowned for its fight against so-called “popular” festivals mixed with the cult of the saints. On the contrary, this article shows that, during the colonial period, the ulema movement celebrated the birth of the Prophet, placing it within a patriotic trend with educational objectives. Sellam cautiously contextualizes the celebration of the Mawlid during the colonial era. He explains that this festival suffered the effects of the decline of previous religious institutions during the conquest, such as the service led by a mufti specialized in preparing commemorations of the birth of the Prophet. He also notes that the colonial administration, in this case the directorate of indigenous affairs of the general government, in a report by Augustin Berque entitled “neo-Wahhabism”, labelled the then newly-created AOMA as dangerous because it was affiliated with Wahhabism. However, in their fight against reprehensible innovations, the Wahhabis tended to assimilate the celebration of the birth of the Prophet with shirk (associationism). Due to the emphasis placed on analogies with part of Wahhabi preaching, we expected to see AOMA advise against, or even prohibit, the celebration of the Mawlid, but this was not the case. For example, on the front page of the 11 June, 1937 issue of al-Chihab, the organ of the AOMA, a poem of around forty verses by Sheikh Benbadis, entitled “Hail to the Noble Nativity”, was published. Sellam translates all of these verses which were recited at the celebration of the Tarbiyya wa-Ta‘līm (“Education and Instruction”) Association in Constantine. They provide a refutation of the administration of the time which sought to demonize the AOMA, particularly in the eyes of the marabout brotherhoods, by affiliating it with Wahhabism. Sellam’s article also reveals that the Andalusian Maliki theologians inspired the Algerian Iṣlāḥ much more than the neo-Hanbalite authors favoured by Wahhabism.

Literary and Artistic Works

30This special issue’s third and final strand of study looks at the literary and artistic works produced relating to the Mawlid. Several articles offer stimulating avenues of exploration on the belles-lettres (Hadj-Sadok, 1957; Jirārī, 1977; Boogert and Stroomer, 1993; Molina and Basanta, 1994; Atlansoy, 1999; Ahmed, 1999; Kleinmichel, 2009; Weinrich, 2022a) and the vocal aspects (Çagatay, 1968; Fārūqī, 1986; Bulić, 2017; Köksal, 2023) encountered during this celebration. This section of the special issue aims primarily to shed new light on the production of certain original works in the wake of previous works in order to enrich the field of studies on these subjects.

31A great deal of research has already demonstrated that the Mawlid is based in part on the chanting of songs and poems combining the praises and miracles of the Prophet. These poems are commonly called mawlidiyyāt. We have many pieces, which were originally inspired by the famous Bānat Su‘ād of the companion of the Prophet Ka‘b b. Zuhayr, the most famous of which is that of al-Būṣīrī (d. 697/1298), al-Burda. After al-Burda, the second most read text during the Mawlid in the Muslim world is the Mawlid of al-Barzanjī (d. 1179/1765), analysed in this section by Antonio Cuciniello. All of these texts have a clear didactic aim. As we can see from reading them, they aim to instruct Muslims about the qualities and conduct of the Prophet. Among the works of Arabic literature relating to the Mawlid genre, al-Barzanjī’s ‘Iqd al-jawāhir is a text which gained great popularity and spread quite quickly throughout the Muslim world. By highlighting the miraculous and marvellous aspects of the Prophet’s life until his death, it has been a reference text for religious devotion across Islamic societies for more than three centuries (Ahmed, 1999; Mashur, 2017). In his article, Cuciniello provides a systematic analysis of the content of the ‘Iqd al-jawāhir, in particular the different sections of the prose text (nathr), focusing on the Koranic references, as well as those linked to the sunna and the sīra nabawiyya. Following a model that aims to emphasize and praise the exterior and interior characteristics of the Prophet, al-Barzanjī’s Mawlid describes him as the most perfect man in the history of humanity (akmal al-nās) at the levels of form, character, essence and attributes. This mawlid reminds us that every believer must identify with this perfect model to hope for God’s salvation. This type of text also has a thaumaturgical function which remains little studied.

32The Arabic sources that we have remind us that the commemoration of the Mawlid very regularly gave way to important festivities in places which were never chosen at random. Obviously, the pomp given to this celebration was a strategy of domination to legitimize one’s authority in a context marked by competition for power (Bonnef, 1974; Woodward, 1991). Many important local figures and foreign dignitaries were invited to take part in the celebrations. Sami Benkherfellah’s article analyses the ways in which the marquee was used as a badge of power to showcase the wealth and power of the Mamluks during the Mawlid. The article looks at the various testimonies transmitted by the Egyptian historian Ibn Iyās (d. 928/1522), which enable us to reconstruct the origin and evolution of this practice, which was very popular at the Mamluk court, particularly during the reigns of Sultans Qāytbāy and al-Ghawrī. In his chronicle, Ibn Iyās was full of praise for this marquee, which he recognized as being “one of the wonders of this world”. In the marquee, which was erected in the courtyard of the Citadel of Cairo, chanters and preachers entertained the guests around a banquet, among the most important served during the year. However, it seems that these lavish celebrations eventually petered out with the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517.

33Lastly, we wanted to give space to the gendered dimension of the Mawlid celebration (Tapper and Tapper, 1987; Kalinock, 2003; Nuotio, 2006; Holmes Katz, 2018). For a long time, historians have wondered about the place accorded to women in these festivities. Some studies have been able to demonstrate that the religious field can be a space of expression and action for women, occasionally recognizing the importance of the role of female believers in religious transmission and education (Holmes Katz, 2008). Ariana Tondi’s article is enlightening in this regard. She decided to study the Kitāb al-anwār attributed to the enigmatic Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bakrī, which still remains a mysterious text centuries after its publication. While some researchers consider that this author probably lived in the 3rd/9th century, others maintain that he is pure literary fiction. The traditionist (muḥaddith) al-Dhahabī (d. 748/1348), the first author to write a biography of him, describes him as a liar and a forger of stories. As Tondi explains, the K. al-anwār accounts for the creation and transmission of prophetic light (nūr) following the tropes of the popular novel. Her article focuses on one of the characteristics of this work, namely the careful presentation of female characters and their emotions in their devotional practices. She also maintains that the narrator would certainly be biased towards female emancipation, which is a topos of folk literature, with the aim of seducing the female audience who, in the Middle Ages, actively participated in the Mawlid celebrations. To corroborate her theory, Tondi compares the different handwritten versions (the first copy was made in Dénia in 695/1295) and printed versions of K. al-anwār, which enables her to conclude that the themes linked to women are much more elaborate in later versions of the work.

34As such, this final article offers us the opportunity to rethink, through the celebration of Mawlid, the place of “affect” and “emotion”, often set in opposition with “institution” or “tradition” in the “study of religions” by the social sciences (Favret-Saada, 1994). The field of emotions is regularly assigned to non-institutionalized religion, in other words to popular, so-called non-scholarly religion. This dichotomy can pose a problem when we approach the Muslim religion as a religious fact, because talking about popular religion is a way of classifying this belief as illegitimate.

35Although this special issue by no means claims to have exhausted all the questions that may exist on the subject of the Mawlid, it does explore new avenues of research and makes use of new sources, showing the vitality of this field of investigation and the benefits of taking different historiographical approaches. It would therefore be interesting to carry out a comparative study of different types of Mawlids and to create almost a typology between the traditional Mawlid, the political Mawlid, the women’s Mawlid, and so on.

36To conclude, this journey to the heart of the celebration of the birth of the Prophet of Islam shows the vitality and continued progress of research which requires us to turn increasingly to all of the humanities and social sciences in order to make new discoveries.

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1 This work contributes significantly to studies on the Mawlid by devoting an entire chapter (comprising four articles) to it.

2 Reference is also made to the 2nd, 8th, 10th and 18th of the month of rabī‘ al-awwal, see Ibn Diḥya, al-Tanwīr fī Mawlid al-sirāj al-munīr wa l-bashīr al-nadhīr, Kuwait, Dār Fāris, 2021, p. 241-247.

3 On the criticisms of the Mawlid, of interest is the fifth chapter (“Mawlids under attack”, p. 169–207) in Marion Holmes Katz’s 2007 work. She reviews the criticisms of both the Wahhabis and the Reformers.

4 Pioneering biographical works include the epistle of Shaykh al-Kattānī (d. 1382/1962). He lists one hundred and twenty-five titles (epistles, books, poems) on the Mawlid (not necessarily relating to the celebration of the festival) classified in alphabetical order and spanning from the 3rd/9th century until his time. See al-Kattānī, Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Ḥayy, 2011, al-Ta’ālīf al-mawlidiyya (introduction: al-Talīdī, ‘Abd Allāh), Tangier, Dār al-ḥadīth al-kattāniyya.

5 Let us cite for example the following scholars: ‘Imād al-Dīn Ibn Kathīr (700–774/1300–1373), Abū l-Khayr Muḥammad Ibn al-Jazarī (751–833/1350–1429), Taqī l-Dīn Abū l-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Maqrīzī (766–845/1364–1442), Shams al-Dīn Abū l-Khayr Muḥammad al-Sakhāwī (830–902/1427–1497), Abū l-Faḍl ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (849–911/1445–1505), Shihāb al-Dīn Abū l-Faḍl Aḥmad Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī (773–852/1372–1449), Abū l-‘Abbās Aḥmad al-Qasṭallānī (851–923/1448–1517), Abū l-‘Abbās Aḥmad Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (909–974/1504–1567), Mullā ‘Alī al-Qārī (930–1014/1524–1606), al-Maqarrī, Muḥammad al-Zurqānī (1055–1122/1645–1710), Muḥammad Amīn Ibn ‘Ābidīn (1198–1258/1784–1842), Muḥammad al-Ṭāhir Ibn ‘Āshūr (1296–1393/1879–1973), and so on. Many of these scholars unanimously represent orthodoxy in the Sunni world, which is not without problems for opponents of the Mawlid, who present themselves as the undisputed heirs of Muslim orthodoxy.

6 Such as the first Thursday of the month of rajab.

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Farid Bouchiba et Myriam Laakili, « The Celebration of the Birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid al-nabawī) »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 155 (1/2024) | -1, 29-48.

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Farid Bouchiba et Myriam Laakili, « The Celebration of the Birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid al-nabawī) »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 155 (1/2024) | 2024, mis en ligne le 07 juillet 2024, consulté le 21 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Farid Bouchiba

Nantes Angers Le Mans University, History; Cnrs, TEMOS, Angers, France; bouchiba[at]

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Myriam Laakili

Aix-Marseille Univ, Cnrs, Iremam, Aix-en-Provence, France; myriam.laakili[at]

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