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PREMIERE PARTIE - La célébration de la naissance du Prophète (al-mawlid al-nabawī)
Partie 1 : Débats doctrinaux à travers l'histoire

Ambiguity and confusion around the celebration of the Mawlid.

On Ibn Taymiyya’s position and its use in contemporary religious debates
Ambiguïté et confusion autour de la célébration du Mawlid. À propos de la position d'Ibn Taymiyya et de son utilisation dans les débats religieux contemporains
الغموض والحيرة حول الاحتفال بالمولد النبوي: حول موقف ابن تيمية واستخدامه في المناقشات الدينية المعاصرة
Mehdi Berriah
p. 87-104

Résumés

À l’approche de la date supposée de la naissance du Prophète Muḥammad, le débat au sein de la communauté musulmane sur le caractère licite ou non de la célébration de la naissance du Prophète (Mawlid) a lieu chaque année : bidʿa (innovation) condamnable pour certains étant donné que ni le Prophète ni ses Compagnons ne l’ont célébrée de leur vivant ; bidʿa ḥasana (bonne innovation) pour d’autres qui voient dans cet événement une occasion de montrer leur respect et leur amour pour le Prophète en rappelant ses traditions (sunan) et certains épisodes de sa vie. En plus de la Sunna, les deux parties de ce débat contemporain s’appuient sur des auteurs médiévaux qui ont discuté de la question de la célébration du mawlid al-nabawī à leur époque. Parmi ces savants médiévaux, Ibn Taymiyya (m. 728/1328), l’un des théologiens médiévaux les plus clivants et les plus influents dans la pensée islamique contemporaine, semble être un cas particulier. En effet, ses écrits sont cités à la fois par les partisans et les adversaires du Mawlid pour donner plus de poids à leurs discours. L’utilisation de la même source pour conforter des positions antagonistes entraîne finalement une confusion quant à la position réelle d’Ibn Taymiyya sur la question, puisqu’il est tantôt présenté comme un partisan du Mawlid, tantôt comme un farouche opposant. L’objectif de cet article est double. Le premier est d’analyser la réception des propos d’Ibn Taymiyya sur le sujet, la manière dont ils sont utilisés et intégrés dans le discours des acteurs religieux contemporains impliqués dans le débat sur le Mawlid. Le second objectif est, en comparant les sources, de faire la lumière sur la position d’Ibn Taymiyya sur la question du Mawlid qui est sans doute l’une des plus présentes dans les débats actuels au sein de la communauté religieuse musulmane.

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Texte intégral

1Italiqe lodel

Introduction*

  • * * I want to thank Mustafa Banister for his careful proofreading and valuable comments.

2Every year, as the supposed date of the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad approaches, the same question is the subject of a heated debate among Muslim religious actors: is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet of Islam (al-mawlid) lawful or unlawful? This question pits two groups against each other: those who support the celebration of the Mawlid against those who consider it a blameworthy innovation (bidʿa).

3For the proponents of the Mawlid, its celebration should be considered a bidʿa ḥasana (good innovation). It is an opportunity for Muslims to show their respect and love for the Prophet by recalling his traditions (sunan) and recounting certain episodes from his life. For the second group, the anti-Mawlid, composed notably of people claiming to belong to the salafiyya, the celebration of the Mawlid is a blameworthy innovation that must be condemned. Their first argument is the absence in the Qur’ān and Sunna of any incitement to such a practice. The second argument is that there is no evidence that the Prophet and his Companions celebrated the Mawlid during their lifetime. Finally, the third argument, which is a corollary to the two previous ones, is that if the celebration of the Mawlid was beneficial, then the Qur’ān would have mentioned it or, at least, the Prophet would have mentioned and celebrated it.

  • 1 Among the best known are al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833/1429), Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1 (...)

4To support their respective positions, both sides call upon the opinions of medieval ulama on the issue. It should be noted that many of the latter considered the celebration of the Prophet’s birth to be lawful and legitimate.1 Among those ulama who gave their opinion on the question, that of Hanbalite theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328) seems to constitute a particular case.

5Indeed, as Raquel Ukeles has shown, Ibn Taymiyya is cited as a discursive element of primary importance by both supporters and opponents of the Mawlid, such as the Sufi and Salafist tendencies (Ukeles, 2010: 319-322). This is a strange paradox when one considers the strong dichotomy between these two trends on the issue of the Mawlid and in religious discourse in general. Using the same source to support antagonistic positions results in confusion about Ibn Taymiyya’s actual position on the issue, as he is sometimes presented as a supporter of the Mawlid and sometimes as a fierce opponent.

6Such a finding necessarily leads to the question: in concrete terms, what is Ibn Taymiyya’s position on the Mawlid? Is he explicit on the issue? Are contemporary religious actors who quote Ibn Taymiyya faithful to the text and spirit of the author? How can we explain that their interpretation of the same writings of Ibn Taymiyya leads to antagonistic positions? What are the modalities of interpretation?

7Despite the momentum of Taymiyyan studies over the last two decades, it seems that the question of the celebration of the Mawlid in Ibn Taymiyya’s work has attracted little attention from scholars in the West. In the introduction to the translation of al-Ṣuyūṭī’s fatwā on the celebration of the Mawlid, Tayeb Chouiref quotes a short passage from Ibn Taymiyya’s Iqtiḍā’ al-ṣirāt al-mustaqīm in which the latter states that celebrating the Mawlid would lead to a reward from God (al-Ṣuyūtī, Le Mawlid: 15).

8Raquel Ukeles has devoted an article specifically to Ibn Taymiyya’s position on the celebration of the Mawlid. For her, Ibn Taymiyya’s position is subtle. Indeed, it differs both from those who forbid it and consider it a bidʿa and those who, conversely, allow and encourage it and see it as a bidʿa ḥasana. Ibn Taymiyya distinguishes between Muslims who, on the one hand, celebrate the Mawlid out of imitation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus by Christians and, on the other, those who celebrate it because they sincerely love the Prophet (Ukeles, 2010: 324-325). Despite the innovative nature of the celebration of Mawlid, Ibn Taymiyya considers that the second category of Muslims can obtain a reward from God. Raquel Ukeles notes that two opposing trends within contemporary Islam, namely, Sufis and Salafis (especially those claiming the legacy of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb) have appropriated Ibn Taymiyya’s position to support their respective discourses. (Ukeles, 2010: 320-322).

9As Jon Hoover explains, Salafis emphasise the passage in which Ibn Taymiyya criticises the celebration of the Mawlid and omit to quote the passage on the reward because the latter does not fit their image of Ibn Taymiyya as the defender of sharī‘a against any religious innovation (Hoover, 2019a: 67). Lastly, in her article on Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Dimashqī (d. 842/1438) and his Radd al-wāfir, Caterina Bori refers indirectly and without giving further details to Ibn Taymiyya’s position on the celebration of the Mawlid, a position that is the opposite of Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn’s, who was a proponent of the Mawlid (Bori, 2021: 107).

10The aim of this article is twofold. The first is to analyse the reception of Ibn Taymiyya’s words on the celebration of the Mawlid and the way they are used and integrated into the discourse of contemporary religious actors involved in this debate; the second objective is to highlight Ibn Taymiyya’s position on the celebration of the Mawlid. To do so, I will rely on a corpus composed of three types of sources: 1) Ibn Taymiyya’s writings, in particular his famous Iqtiḍā’ al-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm li-mukhālafat aṣḥāb al-Jaḥīm and a small section of his Majmūʿ al-fatāwā; 2) writings, lectures and sermons of some late twentieth/early twenty-first century scholars belonging to the Wahhabi current who addressed the issue of the Mawlid and condemned its celebration; 3) some websites of different tendencies, which participate in debates over the Mawlid in which Ibn Taymiyya is used as an authority to corroborate their position.

11We will opt for a two-stage method of analysis. In the first stage, we will analyse how religious actors use Ibn Taymiyya in their discourse on the Mawlid. Secondly, we will examine these discourses in the light of Ibn Taymiyya’s writings to understand the modalities of interpretation of the different religious actors. Finally, by comparing Ibn Taymiyya’s writings with the content of the various media mentioned above, we will attempt to shed light on the position of Ibn Taymiyya, one of the most divisive and influential medieval theologians in contemporary Islamic thought, on the question of the Mawlid.

Ibn Taymiyya as a tool of the Wahhabi discourse

  • 2 His division of tawḥīd is as follows: tawḥīd al-rubūbiyya (oneness of lordship), tawḥīd al-ulūhiyya(...)

12After Ibn Taymiyya’s death, his work continued to be both influential and, at the same time, refuted by the ulama (El-Rouayheb, 2010: 305-311; Anjum, 2012: 173-188; Bori, 2018: 87-123). Undeniably, Ibn Taymiyya’s thought continues to influence contemporary Islam. In Syria, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī (d. 1914) revived Ibn Taymiyya by editing and teaching several of his works in the late Ottoman Empire period (Coppens, 2021a: 21-61; Coppens, 2021b: 63-97). It is now well established that Ibn Taymiyya was a major source in the preaching of Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (al-Matroudi, 2006: 158-161). One of the most notorious elements of the influence of Taymiyyan thought on that of the founder of Wahhabism is the latter’s reworking of Ibn Taymiyya’s tripartite conception of tawḥīḍ (oneness of God)2 in his opuscule al-Uṣūl al-thalātha (The Three Foundations), a cornerstone of Wahhabi literature.

13Ibn Taymiyya’s thought continues to influence Wahhabism and the treatment of the issue of the Mawlid – among others – by the ulama of this trend proves this. To illustrate my points, I have chosen to analyse the positions and utterances of four Wahhabi ulama as a case study: former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz b. Bāz (d. 1999), Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ b. al-ʿUthaymīn (d. 2001), Ṣāliḥ al-Fawzān (b. 1935) and former Saudi minister of Islamic Affairs Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh (b. 1959). The reason for the choice of these ulama is that they were, and still are, among the most prominent authorities of the Wahhabi current.

  • 3 Ibn Bāz, Risālatān: 1-11; Ḥukm al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ruling on the celebration of the (...)
  • 4 Al-shaykh bin Bāz: Ibn Taymiyya lā yujawwiz al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ibn Taymiyya does no (...)

14What these four ulama have in common is that they are strictly opposed to the celebration of the Mawlid and consider it a bidʿa (religious innovation) as it has no origin in the Qur’ān, the Sunna or even in the practice of the salaf (first three generations of Muslims).3 The other commonality is that Ibn Taymiyya features prominently in their arguments, since all of them have cited his Iqtiḍā’ al-ṣirāt al-mustaqīm in support of their opinion.4

  • 5 Radd Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh ‘an shaykh al-Islām b. Taymiyya ajāza bidʿat al-mawlid (“Ṣ (...)

15The only nuance is found in Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh’s interpretation of Ibn Taymiyya’s Iqtiḍā’. Like his aforementioned colleagues, Āl al-Shaykh sees that Ibn Taymiyya’s words leave no doubt that he considered the celebration of the Mawlid a bidʿa, hence the following syllogism applies: A) any religious innovation is unlawful; B) the unlawful cannot be rewarded; C) the celebration of the Mawlid being an innovation it cannot be rewarded. Yet, Āl al-Shaykh admits that in Ibn Taymiyya’s view, people who celebrate the Mawlid because they sincerely love the Prophet are rewarded by God, not for celebrating the Mawlid (for the reason explained above), but for the love they feel for God’s Messenger.5

  • 6 Other examples exist but listing them all would be difficult and unnecessary. The current Mufti of (...)

16These four case studies6 clearly demonstrate that within the broader context of the Wahhabi movement, Ibn Taymiyya’s excerpt from his Iqtiḍā’ constitutes a central argument against the celebration of the Mawlid. However, the same Ibn Taymiyya is used by the proponents of the Mawlid, who also incorporate him into their discourse disseminated via newspaper articles (Ukeles, 2010: 321), audiovisual media, and specialised websites, which are the subject of the next section.

Ibn Taymiyya as an argument in the debate on websites

17I do not pretend to provide a complete picture of the sites in which Ibn Taymiyya is quoted on the subject of the Mawlid. As with the previous section, I will analyse the content of a few sites as case studies that will give a general idea of how Ibn Taymiyya is integrated into the debate around the Mawlid on the web.

  • 7 « Falsifications et manipulations des avis d’Ibn Taymiyya et d’Ibn Kathir concernant le Mawlid », 1 (...)

18The first example is the pro-Sufi francophone website sunnisme.com. The (anonymous) author of the page consulted reproaches al-ʿUthaymīn for only quoting the excerpt from the Iqtiḍā’ in which Ibn Taymiyya called the Mawlid an innovation, while failing to cite another passage from Ibn Taymiyya’s Majmūʿ al-fatāwā which expresses satisfaction with the celebration of the Mawlid as proof of the honour bestowed on the Prophet.7 A similar criticism follows as to Ṣāliḥ al-Fawzān’s condemnation of the Mawlid on the basis of a passage in the al-Bidāya wa-l-nihāya by Ibn Kathīr (d. 772/1373), a student of Ibn Taymiyya. Al-Fawzān makes Ibn Kathīr say that he condemns the Mawlid whereas it is known from Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī that he compiled an epistle in favour of the Mawlid entitled Dhikr mawlid rasūl Allāh (“Remembering the birth of God’s Envoy”).

  • 8 « Ibn Taymiyyah a dit que célébrer le Mawlid apporte une grande récompense », Islam Sunnite, 13 nov (...)
  • 9 This anti-taymism is evident in the brief introduction to the author presented in a “useful informa (...)

19The Iqtiḍā’ is also quoted in another Ash‛arite and anti-Wahhabi francophone website, islamsunnite.net.8 The author(s) of the site’s contents are fierce opponents of Ibn Taymiyya, as evidenced by the fact that whenever Ibn Taymiyya’s name is mentioned, it is almost systematically followed by the term “al-mujassim.” This term is used, particularly among the Ash‛arites, to designate those who attribute to God a direction, de facto attributing to Him a body (jism).9 This accusation of corporealism (tajsīm) had already been made against Ibn Taymiyya during his lifetime, for which he was imprisoned in Cairo between 705/1306 – 706/1307 (Hoover, 2019b: 469-491; Hoover, 2022 :653-667).

20Similarly to the abovementioned opinion of Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh, some Salafi-Wahhabi websites take into consideration the equivocal position of Ibn Taymiyya on the Mawlid (i.e., his condemnation of the celebration as an innovation vs his acknowledgment of a possible reward for participants who have a sincere intention and feel a love for the Prophet) to provide a more nuanced position while upholding the idea that Ibn Taymiyya rejected it. On the anglophone website madeenah.com, for example, the author provides a translation of an excerpt from the passage dedicated to the celebration of Mawlid in the Iqtiḍā’, followed by a list of Ibn Taymiyya’s beneficial teachings which are the arguments usually raised in Wahhabi discourse to reject the celebration of Mawlid. In conclusion, the author writes:

  • 10 The underline is not mine.
  • 11 Abul Abbaas Naveed Ayaaz, “What did Ibn Taymiyyah really say about Mawlid an-Nabee?”, 8 November 20 (...)

It can be concluded from the words of Ibn Taymiyyah that he does not approve of the innovated Mawlid and the possible reward he mentioned is only for the intention10 of an ignorant person in loving the Prophet – and not the actual action of the Mawlid, which is sinful and therefore punishable. Finally it is important to note, had Ibn Taymiyyah actually approved of the Mawlid, the other scholars of Ahlus Sunnah would have also disapproved of his statement as the Sunnah is more beloved to us than any individual.11

21The last two sentences are interesting: in order to drive the point home, the author explains that even if Ibn Taymiyya was a supporter of the Mawlid, this would in no way change its innovative character. Ibn Taymiyya does not enjoy any preferential treatment compared to the Sunna and the majority of scholars who claim to be followers of it.

22To better understand why both anti- and pro-Mawlid factions legitimise their respective positions by deriving arguments from Ibn Taymiyya, it is necessary to read these contemporary discourses in the light of the writings of the Damascene scholar himself.

The Mawlid as a historical event in the writings of Ibn Taymiyya

23Ibn Taymiyya did not only draw upon the Sunna to support his arguments but also explored aspects related to the Prophet himself, including the concept of ʿiṣma (impeccability) (Zouggar, 2011: 63-89). Following the case of the Christian called ʿAssāf, who was accused of insulting the Prophet, Ibn Taymiyya wrote his book al-Ṣārim al-maslūl ʿalā shātim al-rasūl (The sword drawn against him who insults the Prophet) (Laoust, 1960 :11-12). The last major polemic he initiated about visiting the graves (ziyārat al-qubūr) led him to write in part about the Prophet (Olesen, 1991 :145-192; Taylor, 1999 :180-185; Al-Matroudi, 2006 :96-98; Talmon-Heller, 2019: 227-251; Hoover, 2019a: 68-70).

24Ibn Taymiyya makes very little mention of the Mawlid in the literal sense of the term, namely the birth of the Prophet. An analysis of the Taymiyyan corpus reveals three occurrences. The first, in his Jawāb al-ṣaḥīḥ when he tells the story of Abraha’s expedition from Abyssinia to destroy Mecca with his army and war elephants (Robin, 2010: 213-242; Robin, 2018: 1313-1376), hence the Qur’anic appellation of “asḥāb al-fīl” (the people of the Elephant) to refer to this army in Sura 105 (Ibn Taymiyya, al-Jawāb al-ṣaḥīḥ: vol. 1, 318). According to the Muslim tradition, it was in this year called ʿām al-fīl (the year of the Elephant) that the Prophet was born (Ibn Hishām, al-Sīra: vol. 1, 117-118).

25The second mention of the Mawlid is found in the epistle that Ibn Taymiyya writes to the Shiites of Iraq. In this letter, he asserts that God may ordain that an important person is born on the same day as a blessing that signifies gratitude to Him or a trial that demands patience. He illustrates this with the example of the 17th day of the month of Ramadan, which marks both the day of the victory of Badr and the assassination of ʿAlī. However, the most apparent example according to Ibn Taymiyya is the day and month of the Prophet’s birth which also corresponds to the day and month of the Hijra and of his death (Ibn Taymiyya, Jāmiʿ al-masā’il: vol. 3, 95). Finally, the last reference to the Prophet’s birth is found in his al-Ṣārim al-maslūl. Ibn Taymiyya reports that the house of the Prophet’s father, in which the latter was born, was confiscated and then sold by his cousin ʿAqīl b. Abī Ṭālib after the Hijra (Ibn Taymiyya, al-Ṣārim al-maslūl: 156-157).

26As can be seen, Ibn Taymiyya mentions the Mawlid as a historical event only on very rare occasions. The same is true of the celebration of the Mawlid, except that Ibn Taymiyya further elaborates on the religious consideration and legality of a festival that became popular in his time.

A Nuanced position on the celebration of the Mawlid

27The Majmūʿ al-fatāwā provides the following information about Ibn Taymiyya’s opinion regarding a ritual practice that was specifically performed on the day of the Prophet’s birth:

  • 12 Translation by the author.

And he (Ibn Taymiyya) was asked about the one who every year completes the reading of the Qur’ān on the night of the day of the birth of the Prophet – prayers and salvation of God upon him – is it appreciable (mustaḥabb) or not? He (Ibn Taymiyya) replied, “Praise be to God. The gathering of people for meals on the two feast days and the days of doubt (of the month of Ramadan) are part of the Sunna and are among the precepts of Islam that the Prophet – prayers and salvation of God upon him – instituted for Muslims and a help for the needy by feeding them during the month of Ramadan. This latter action is a tradition of the traditions of Islam. The Prophet – prayers and salutations of God upon him – said, ‘Whoever feeds the fasting person (at the time of breaking the fast) then he has the same reward as the fasting person.’ And giving the needy among Qur’ān readers what helps them is a good deed at all times and whoever helps them in this will get the reward that they do (from their reading of the Qur’ān). As for celebrating festivals other than those legislated (and instituted by God and His Prophet) such as certain nights in the month of rajab, the eighteenth day of dhū al-ḥijja, the first Friday of rajab or the eighth day of shawwāl which the ignorant call the festival of the virtuous (abrār). Certainly, all these festivals are only innovations that the salaf have neither appreciated nor realised and God the Most High and Glorified-be He is more Knowledgeable”.12 (Ibn Taymiyya, Majmūʿ: vol. 25, 298)

  • 13  »قَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الْمَدِينَةَ وَلَهُمْ يَوْمَانِ يَلْعَبُ (...)

28First, the question asked about the completion of the reading of the Qur’ān during the night of the day of the Prophet’s birth indicates that this practice seems to have been popular in Ibn Taymiyya’s time, or at least known like the other practices listed. Second, Ibn Taymiyya emphasises that only two festivals were legislated by God and His Prophet, as stated in a hadith reported in the collection of Abū Dāwud, after Anas b. Mālik (Abū Dāwud, Sunan: vol. 2, 345).13 Therefore, although Ibn Taymiyya does not mention the celebration of the Mawlid in the festivals he lists as innovations, reasoning by syllogism shows that he considers the celebration of Mawlid as such. Indeed, if apart from the two legislated ʿīd, the celebration of any other festival is an innovation, and given that the Mawlid is not explicitly legislated by either the Qur’ān or the Sunna, then the celebration of the Mawlid is an innovation. This fatwā is rarely invoked by the ulama and authors of the content of the websites’ content seen above. This is probably because it does not specifically address the celebration of the Mawlid.

29A closer examination of the Iqṭiḍā’ al-ṣirāt al-mustaqīm reveals that Ibn Taymiyya deals with the issue of the Mawlid over several pages with some of the usual digressions. It is impossible to understand his position without a full analysis of the passage. Yet, the abovementioned, contradictory uses of this text by both anti- and pro-Mawlid authors actually rely on short extracts that are selectively quoted to suit each side’s respective agenda. This phenomenon is not new and has been observed regarding other issues such as jihad. Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwā-s on jihad have been taken up and decontextualised by a number of contemporary jihadi ideologues (Michot, 2004: 28-64, 105-129; Michot, 2012 :XXIV-XXXII; Hoover, 2016: 177-196; Berriah, 2022a: 43-45, 65-66)

  • 14  » يوم لم تعظمه الشريعة أصلًا، ولم يكن له ذكر في السلف، ولا جرى فيه ما يوجب تعظيمه.« 
  • 15 On the merits of the month of Rajab and its celebrations see Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Tabyīn al-ʿaja (...)

30By way of opening the chapter on innovative festivals, Ibn Taymiyya explains that a festival is characterised by three elements: place, time (period) and gathering. The element of interest here is time (zamān). For Ibn Taymiyya, there are three types of celebrations related to time which he calls aʿyād al-zamāniyya al-mubtadaʿa (the innovative periodic festivals). The first type is “a day which the sharī‘a has in no way legislated, which is not mentioned in the salaf, on which no major event has occurred and for which there is no reason to give it special importance”14 (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 121). Among these days, Ibn Taymiyya cites as an example the first Thursday of the month of rajab and the night of the following Friday, called the festival of raghā’ib, on which it would be meritorious to fast and perform a prayer proper to that day. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the consensus of the ulama is that the hadith behind this celebration is “forged” (mawḍūʿ). Due to its entirely innovative character, fasting only on this day should be prohibited as well as performing the special prayer or any other practice giving importance and special character to this day (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 121).15

31The second type of festival concerns days on which a major event took place without the salaf giving it importance and for which there is no need to make it a periodic commemoration. This is the case of the eighth of the month of dhū al-ḥijja with the farewell sermon (ḥajjat al-wadāʿ) that the Prophet delivered (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 122). For Ibn Taymiyya, in the absence of evidence from the texts, there is no reason why this day should be considered a religious holiday. The Prophet delivered other sermons and participated in major events such as the battles of Badr, Ḥunayn, al-Khandaq (the Ditch), the conquest of Mecca and others, without the implication that these days should be commemorated with celebrations only because important events took place there.

  • 16  » قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوب (...)

32The commemoration and celebration of the Mawlid falls into this second category. However, Ibn Taymiyya makes a distinction between those who celebrate the Mawlid in imitation of Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus and those who participate out of respect and love for the Prophet. The latter are likely to be rewarded by God for their intention, effort and sincere feelings towards the Prophet. This feeling of love is more than commendable as it is undeniably one of the foundations of religion. Love for the Prophet and intrinsically linked to love for God as suggested in the Qur’ān Sura 3/verses 31-32.16

33Nevertheless, it is important to note that they cannot be rewarded for their participation in the celebration of the Mawlid which is an innovation. In this context, Ibn Taymiyya also briefly mentions that there is a discrepancy about the date of the Mawlid (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 123).

34Ibn Taymiyya puts forward another argument: the salaf never celebrated the Mawlid and if there was any good in it, they would have commemorated it. The salaf had a greater love and respect for the Prophet and a greater readiness to do good than the Muslims of his time (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 123) For Ibn Taymiyya, the salaf, and in particular the Companions of the Prophet, were the ones who understood the religion best because they had experienced the Revelation in their lifetime and had been taught by the Prophet. No Muslim of later generations can claim a better understanding of the Qur’ān and Sunna than the Companions. The latter occupy a prominent place in his methodology of argumentation and are ranked according to their merit (Berriah, 2022b: 51-60).

35In this first passage often cited by contemporary anti-Mawlid authors, Ibn Taymiyya clearly considers the act of celebrating the Prophet’s birth as a bidʿa. Nevertheless, he does not deny the importance of the sentimental aspect. Ibn Taymiyya is aware that many Muslims celebrate and commemorate the Mawlid because they love the Prophet and that this love is praiseworthy and meritorious. As Raquel Ukeles writes: “Although he is clear about the Mawlid’s legal status, Ibn Taymiyya, as a pragmatist, was keenly aware of the emotional and psychological elements at play in religious practice” (Ukeles, 2010:326). It should be noted that the issue of love for the Prophet and its reward is rarely raised by anti-Mawlid religious actors who focus on the innovative nature of the celebration.

  • 17 » وإنما هم بمنزلة من يحلي المصحف ولا يقرأ فيه، أو يقرأ فيه ولا يتبعه وبمنزلة من يزخرف المسجد، ولا ي (...)

36Although the celebration of the Mawlid may be a consequence of the Muslim’s love for the Prophet, this love is not the most complete. Indeed, true love for the Prophet according to Ibn Taymiyya lies in the observance of his Sunna, obedience to his commands, reviving his traditions (sunan) both internal and external and spreading them (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 124). Cross-referencing this passage with that of the possible reward for the love of the Prophet, we see that for Ibn Taymiyya the love prompting the celebration of the Mawlid is inferior to that prompting the observance of the Sunna. Ibn Taymiyya backs this up by adding that most of those who, with good intentions, take part in these innovations – he refers to the celebrations he mentions beforehand – are less eager, less enthusiastic to follow the Sunna of the Prophet, although they have been ordered to do so with eagerness and enthusiasm. They are like those who embellish the Qur’ān and do not read it, or those who decorate the mosques but do not pray in them (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 124).17

37In sum, while celebrating the Mawlid, which is an innovation, is a manifestation for some Muslims of a certain respect and love for the Prophet, true love according to Ibn Taymiyya is manifested in the observance of the practices legislated by the Prophet through his sunan (traditions).

38Ibn Taymiyya points out that people do not abandon one practice without adopting another. He advises those who want to call people to follow the Prophetic Sunna to direct those who celebrate the Mawlid to a better practice but, more importantly, to prevent them from substituting the celebration of the Mawlid with an even more innovative and illicit practice (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 125). Raquel Ukeles considers Ibn Taymiyya’s approach as relativistic, i.e, he “designed to convince the educated Muslim public to abandon innovated practices and at the same time he seeks to draw participants in devotional innovations into the circle of what he considers to be the true Sunni community, rather than leaving them outside. Without abandoning the search for the ideal, Ibn Taymiyya sorted out the positive and negative elements of popular practice, at both individual and community level.” (Ukeles, 2010: 327)

39We can think that Ibn Taymiyya, implicitly, conveys his wish to let the “innovators” celebrate the Mawlid rather than observe more serious and dangerous practices. Ibn Taymiyya does not mention any of these in particular, but one can assume from his writings that he is indirectly referring to visits to tombs or revered places that can lead to shirk (associationism), the greatest sin in Islam. The defence of tawḥīd against shirk was one of Ibn Taymiyya’s major struggles both in his life and in his writings (Berriah, 2021: 120-122).

40For Jon Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya’s approach to the celebration of the Mawlid and non-Muslim religious festivals is similar to his utilitarian stance towards the ecstatic experience of annihilation (al-fanā’) practised in some Sufi brotherhoods. Indeed, according to Ibn Taymiyya, such an experience can bring one closer to God even if not in the best of ways just as the celebration of the Mawlid can be beneficial with good intention and this despite such a celebration remaining a religious innovation (Hoover, 2016: 193-196; 2019a: 66-67; 89-105; 2019b: 145-168).

41Rather than of utilitarianism, it would probably be more accurate to speak of pragmatism, a pragmatism that can be found in relation to a rather similar issue on which Ibn Taymiyya gives his opinion, namely, the participation of Muslims in celebrations of infidels. In his Iqtiḍā’, Ibn Taymiyya expresses the view that, in his time, it is commendable (mustaḥḥab) if not obligatory (yajib ʿalayhi), for a Muslim residing in territory of war or under non-Muslim rule where jihad is not being conducted, to sometimes (aḥyānan) participate in the demonstrations and celebrations (al-hady al-ẓāhir) of the infidel populations of these territories. This participation should occur when compelled or when there is a religious interest (maṣlaḥa dīniyya) in doing so. (Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 1, 471-472).

  • 18 « Dans le même ordre d’idées, on peut évoquer Ibn Taymiyya qui considère que la célébration du Mawl (...)
  • 19 « و الله قد يثيبهم على هذه المحبة » Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 123; « قد يفعله بعض الناس، ويكون له ف (...)

42In the conclusion of the passage on the Mawlid, Ibn Taymiyya returns to the possibility of Muslims celebrating it being greatly rewarded for their intention and love for the Prophet. Some have translated this passage in a way that suggests that for Ibn Taymiyya the reward was certain (al-Ṣuyūtī, Le Mawlid: 15).18 Now, the use of the particle قد (qad) combined with a present tense verb expresses possibility but not certainty.19 It is this passage, together with the one quoted above, that the pro-Mawlid camp summons and truncate in order to show that Ibn Taymiyya considers the Mawlid to be licit and not an innovation. Ibn Taymiyya reiterates what he said before (kamā qaddamtu laka) by specifying again that the celebration of the Mawlid can be of benefit for some Muslims, especially the ignorant, but not for those he calls al-mu’min al-musaddad, literally the “well-oriented believer”, i.e. the one who has a minimum of religious knowledge which translates, in part, into the observance of the Sunna.

Conclusion

43The analysis of a sample of positions of contemporary ulama, audio/video supports and the content of some websites reveals an instrumentalisation of Ibn Taymiyya’s words in the debate on celebrating the Mawlid by both pro and anti-Mawlid. The confrontation of the speeches of the opposing parties with the writings of Ibn Taymiyya highlights a selection or even a truncation, whether voluntary or not, of the latter’s words in the direction of the respective position defended by each of the opposing parties. Indeed, Ibn Taymiyya’s position does not correspond entirely to those defended by the parties at the heart of the debate.

  • 20 « إذ الأعياد شريعة من الشرائع، فيجب فيها الاتباع لا الابتداع » Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 123. 

44Undeniably, Ibn Taymiyya considers the Mawlid to be an innovation: “festivals are prescriptions of Islamic law among others and should be observed and especially not innovated”.20 However, he does not ignore the importance of the feelings of many Muslims towards the Prophet. Those who celebrate the Mawlid are likely to be rewarded for their intention, respect and love for the Prophet. It acknowledges the possibility of sincere and pious acts outside the limits of the sharīʿa while adhering to its narrow definition of normative devotional behavior (Ukeles, 2010: 333). Nonetheless, for Ibn Taymiyya, true love for the Prophet consists in observing his Sunna and spreading it, as it is the only way for the believer to succeed in the life of this world and obtain God’s approval.

45Finally, despite recognising the innovative nature of the Mawlid, Ibn Taymiyya does not call at any point for its outright prohibition, whereas he does so for other celebrations such as the first Thursday of the month of rajab. Ibn Taymiyya prefers that Muslims celebrate the Mawlid instead of taking part in illicit practices that are more serious in terms of innovation and that could gradually lead to associationism (shirk).

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Notes

* * I want to thank Mustafa Banister for his careful proofreading and valuable comments.

1 Among the best known are al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277), Ibn al-Jazarī (d. 833/1429), Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373), Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449), al-Sakhāwī (d. 902/1497) and al-Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505). For more information see Schimmel, 1985: 144-158; Ukeles, 2010: 328-330.

2 His division of tawḥīd is as follows: tawḥīd al-rubūbiyya (oneness of lordship), tawḥīd al-ulūhiyya (oneness of deity), and tawḥīd al-asmā’ wa al-ṣifāt (oneness of Names and Attributes).

3 Ibn Bāz, Risālatān: 1-11; Ḥukm al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ruling on the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday”) – Al-shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Azīz bin Bāz, https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v =wxCDZUqvVGQ; Ḥukm al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ruling on the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday”) – Al-shaykh Muhammad bin Sālḥ al-ʿUthaymīn, https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v =tfGRsA1y76E; Ṣāliḥ al-Fawzān, Bayān ḥukm al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Expounding the ruling on the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday”), official website, https://web.archive.org/web/20171119112922/https://www.alfawzan.af.org.sa/ar/node/13811.

4 Al-shaykh bin Bāz: Ibn Taymiyya lā yujawwiz al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ibn Taymiyya does not allow the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday”), https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v =xWmdtMFOUa8; Abd al-‘Azīz bin Bāz, Ra’ī al-imām Ibn Taymiyya bi-l-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ibn Taymiyya’s opinion on the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday” ; first issued on 13 October 1996), official website, https://web.archive.org/web/20201101064144/https://binbaz.org.sa/fatwas/2355/راي-الامام-ابن-تيمية-بالاحتفال-بالمولد-النبوي ; Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn, 1988 : 36 ; Ṣāliḥ al-Fawzān, Al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī fī rabī‘ al-awwal (“The celebration of the Prophet’s birthday in the month of rabī‘ I”, first issued on 25 January 2014), https://web.archive.org/web/20141227185113/https://ar.islamway.net/article/21929/الاحتفال-بالمولد-النبوي-في-ربيع-الأول.

5 Radd Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh ‘an shaykh al-Islām b. Taymiyya ajāza bidʿat al-mawlid (“Ṣāliḥ b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh’s refutation of the notion that Shaykh al-Islām Ibn Taymiyya allowed the innovation of celebrating the Mawlid”), https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v =jFdp9wX591A.

6 Other examples exist but listing them all would be difficult and unnecessary. The current Mufti of Saudi Arabia ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh also condemns the celebration of the Mawlid, just like the Syrian-born shaykh Muḥammad Ṣāliḥ Munajjid, whose opinion is based almost entirely on those of Ibn Bāz, Ibn al-ʿUthaymīn and al-Fawzān. See, respectively, Ḥukm al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“Ruling on the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday”) – Al-shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Āl al-Shaykh, https://www.youtube.com/watch ?v =kn4acFtGXyc ; Bidʿat al-iḥtifāl bi-l-mawlid al-nabawī (“The innovation of celebrating the birth of the Prophet”), 3 February 2012, official website, https://web.archive.org/web/20200815142326/https://almunajjid.com/articles/lessons/16. On Wahhabi opposition to the celebration of the Mawlid see Katz, 2007: 170-174. See also Ukeles, 2010: 321-322.

7 « Falsifications et manipulations des avis d’Ibn Taymiyya et d’Ibn Kathir concernant le Mawlid », 13 février 2011, Sunnisme.com, <https://web.archive.org/web/20110302023715/https://www.sunnisme.com/article-ibn-taymiyya-et-ibn-kathir-sur-le-mawlid-65349487.html/>.

8 « Ibn Taymiyyah a dit que célébrer le Mawlid apporte une grande récompense », Islam Sunnite, 13 novembre 2013, <https://web.archive.org/web/20141007202739/https://islamsunnite.net/ibn-taymiyyah-a-dit-que-celebrer-le-mawlid-apporte-une-grande-recompense/>.

9 This anti-taymism is evident in the brief introduction to the author presented in a “useful information” section. As a conclusion, the reader is directed, for more information, to another site dedicated exclusively to Ibn Taymiyya’s criticism: ibnoutaymiyya.com. Whether or not the author(s) of this site and of islamsunnite.net are the same is unclear, but it is likely.

10 The underline is not mine.

11 Abul Abbaas Naveed Ayaaz, “What did Ibn Taymiyyah really say about Mawlid an-Nabee?”, 8 November 2013, <https://web.archive.org/web/20140322140743/https://www.madeenah.com/ibn-taymiyyah-mawlid/>.

12 Translation by the author.

13  »قَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ الْمَدِينَةَ وَلَهُمْ يَوْمَانِ يَلْعَبُونَ فِيهِمَا فَقَالَ مَا هَذَانِ الْيَوْمَانِ قَالُوا كُنَّا نَلْعَبُ فِيهِمَا فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَدْ أَبْدَلَكُمْ بِهِمَا خَيْرًا مِنْهُمَا يَوْمَ الْأَضْحَى وَيَوْمَ الْفِطْرِ« 

14  » يوم لم تعظمه الشريعة أصلًا، ولم يكن له ذكر في السلف، ولا جرى فيه ما يوجب تعظيمه.« 

15 On the merits of the month of Rajab and its celebrations see Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Tabyīn al-ʿajab.

16  » قُلْ إِن كُنتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمُ اللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ » - « قُلْ أَطِيعُوا اللَّهَ وَالرَّسُولَ ۖ فَإِن تَوَلَّوْا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْكَافِرِينَ  .«

17 » وإنما هم بمنزلة من يحلي المصحف ولا يقرأ فيه، أو يقرأ فيه ولا يتبعه وبمنزلة من يزخرف المسجد، ولا يصلي فيه، أو يصلي فيه قليلًا، وبمنزلة من يتخذ المسابيح والسجادات المزخرفة، وأمثال هذه الزخارف الظاهرة التي لم تشرع، ويصحبها من الرياء والكبر، والاشتغال عن المشروع ما يفسد حال صاحبها.« 

18 « Dans le même ordre d’idées, on peut évoquer Ibn Taymiyya qui considère que la célébration du Mawlid peut être un acte hautement méritoire. Il déclare dans son livre Iqtiḍā’ al-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm : ‘Célébrer la naissance du Prophète (ta‘ẓīm al-mawlid) sous la forme d’une fête annuelle (ittiḫāḏuhu mawsiman), comme le font certains, apporte une immense récompense en raison de la belle intention de glorifier l’Envoyé de Dieu, sur lui la Grâce et la Paix.’ ».

19 « و الله قد يثيبهم على هذه المحبة » Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 123; « قد يفعله بعض الناس، ويكون له فيه أجر عظيم لحسن قصده » Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’ : 2, 125. 

20 « إذ الأعياد شريعة من الشرائع، فيجب فيها الاتباع لا الابتداع » Ibn Taymiyya, Iqtiḍā’: 2, 123. 

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Mehdi Berriah, « Ambiguity and confusion around the celebration of the Mawlid.  »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 155 (1/2024) | -1, 87-104.

Référence électronique

Mehdi Berriah, « Ambiguity and confusion around the celebration of the Mawlid.  »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 : http://journals.openedition.org/remmm/20965 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11z1f

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Mehdi Berriah

Institut français du Proche Orient (Ifpo) ; UMIFRE 6, MEAE, CNRS, USR 3135, Jérusalem-Est ; m.berriah[at]ifporient.org

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