(The Conversation) – Most Muslims celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on the 12th day of the third month of the Islamic calendar, Rabi’ al-awaal – which begins on the evening of October 7, 2022. Muslims see the celebration, called Mawlid al- Nabi or simply the Mawlid, like many other Islamic celebrations: as a sign of respect and adoration of Muhammad, whom they believe to be the messenger of God.
According to Muslim tradition, Muhammad was a righteous man born around 570 AD, whom God appointed as his last prophet. He memorized God’s message and recited it. Later verses were written down to preserve the text – what is now the Quran.
Most Muslim-majority countries, from Pakistan to Malaysia to Sudan, commemorate the Prophet’s birthday every year. The most colorful celebrations take place in Egypt, with Sufi dhikr poetry commemorating the prophet, games, toys and colorful sweets given to children.
Still, not all Muslims will mark the holiday. In a few countries, like Saudi Arabia, it’s like any other day. The focus of my research is on how Muslim societies relate to their faith, including their sense of social justice and their expectations of governments. While most Muslim countries encourage commemoration of the Mawlid, the reverse is true in communities shaped by the ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islamic school, whose global influence has rapidly expanded in recent decades.
The Wahhabi movement was started in 1744 by Muhamed Ibn Abdel Wahab, a religious scholar and reformer in what is now Saudi Arabia. Muhamed Ibn Saud, a political leader considered the founder of the Saud dynasty, legitimized his authority by soliciting the religious opinions of Ibn Abdel Wahab. Ibn Saud was eager to wrest more power from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of the peninsula at the time.
Since then, Wahhabism has spread throughout the Muslim world in countries such as Yemen, post-Soviet states, Tunisia and Egypt, especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution, which spurred the rise of the Iran as a regional power and prompted Saudi Arabia to try to compete.
An austere school of Islam, Wahhabism often encourages the literal interpretation of the Quran and is particularly wary of any practice it considers idolatry. For example, Saudi authorities have cracked down on worship at the tombs of saints and completely razed some holy sites. In extreme cases, the Salafists – a school related to Islam – claimed that the relics and statues of ancient Egypt should be destroyed. In Saudi Arabia, religious police, called mutaween, guard the Prophet’s burial site in Medina during pilgrimage seasons to prevent visitors from touching it or praying near it.
Conservatives disapprove of worshiping the prophet. Wahhabi Puritans consider the Mawlid a heretic, citing a saying of the Prophet, called a hadith: All heresy is misguidance, and all misguidance will end in hell. The word for “heresy” here, “bid’ah,” is often used to condemn Muslim practices considered innovations, such as the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday.
Celebrate with admiration
Critics of Wahhabism argue that it compromises people’s relationship with God by cutting off instinctual human behavior, such as wanting to honor a prophet.
Contrary to the literal and conservative emphasis on the Oneness of God, which Wahhabis insist on, most Muslims observe the Prophet’s birthday as a sign of love, respect and awe.
Mawlid is celebrated in many ways and forms in the Muslim world, whether observed quietly while fasting and reading the Quran, or by children dressing up in bright colors and obtaining a small horse or sugar doll. The practices vary, but all they express are the admirable qualities of the prophet and how dear he is to his followers.
(Deina Abdelkader is an associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)