This article was originally posted on Muslim Matters.
It is unanimously agreed upon, by historians, legal specialists and theologians of all groups, that the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) himself never commanded his followers to celebrate his birthday, nor was this practice known for the first few centuries of Islām. Therefore, the question arises as to how this practice was instituted and who were the first group to think of the idea of celebrating the birthday of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam).
The Origin of the Mawlid
The first mention ever made of the mawlid celebrations in any historical work comes in the writings of Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Ma’mūn, who died 587 AH/1192 CE. His father was the Grand Vizier for the Fatimid Caliph al-Amir (ruled 494-524 /1101-1130). Although the work of Ibn al-Ma’mūn is now lost, many parts of it were quoted by later scholars, in particular the most famous medieval historian of Egypt, al-Maqrīzi (d. 845/1442) in his monumental Mawā’īẓ al-i’tibār fī khiṭaṭ Miṣr wa-l-amṣār (shortened to the Khiṭaṭ). Al-Maqrīzi’s book is the standard source of information for Fatimid and early Mamlūk Egypt. What makes this work stand out above many others is not only its comprehensiveness, but also the fact that al-Maqrīzī quotes from many earlier references that are now lost, and also takes great care to cite his source, a practice very rare for the time.
Al-Maqrīzī relies upon the work of Ibn al-Ma’mūn for information regarding the social, political and religious policies of the Fatimids during the early part of the sixth century, which was the period that Ibn al-Ma’mūn’s father worked for the Fatimid Caliph. Due to the high position that his father enjoyed, Ibn al-Ma’mūn provided many details that outside historians could not possibly have been privy to.
Before proceeding, it is important to point out some facts regarding the Fatimid dynasty. This dynasty had established itself as a rival dynasty to the Abbasids in Baghdad. They had conquered Egypt in 358/969, and established the modern city of Cairo. They claimed descent from the Family of the Prophet (a claim that all others deemed to be fabricated), and followed the Sevener Branch of Shi’ite Islām, also known as ‘Ismailism’. Their beliefs and customs were so different from other branches of Islām that all Sunnis and even many other non-Ismaili Shi’ite groups deemed them outside the fold of the religion. The Ismailis had reinterpreted the five pillars of Islām to such a level that they would not conform to the regular rituals that other Muslims are accustomed to (such as the five daily prayers). The intellectual (and at times even biological) descendants of the Fatimid caliphs in our times are many. In particular, the Ismaili Aga Khan Imams and the Bohri Imams both trace their direct lineage to the Fatimid caliphs, and the group known as the Druze also are an offshoot of the Fatimid dynasty. It was this dynasty that first initiated the celebration of the mawlid.
To return to our topic, Al-Maqrizi, in his Khiṭaṭ, quotes Ibn al-Ma’mūn as follows, writing about the events of the year 517:
Next, the month of Rabī’ al-Awwal arrived, and we shall begin [the events of this month] by mentioning the thing for which it has become famous, namely, the birthday of the Master of the first and last, Muḥammad, on the thirteen [sic.] day. And by way of charity, the Caliph presented 6000 dirhams from the fund of najāwa [an Ismailite tithe], and from the dar al-fitra he presented 40 dishes of pastry, and from the chambers of the trustees and caretakers of the mausoleums that lie between the Hill and Qarafa, where the Al al-Bayt lie, he gave sugar, almonds, honey, and sesame oil [as a gift] to each mausoleum. And [his Vizier] took charge of distributing 400 pounds (ratl) of sweets, and 1000 pounds of bread.
The wording of the paragraph clearly suggests that the mawlid was a clearly established practiced by this time.
Another early source that mentions the mawlid is the work of Ibn al-Ṭuwayr (d. 617/1220), in his work Nuzhat al-Muqlatayn fī Akhbārt al-Dawlatayn. Ibn al-Ṭuwayr worked as a secretary for the Fatimid dynasty, and witnessed the change of power from the Fatimids to the Ayyubids, at the hand of Salaḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbi, which occurred 567/1071. His skills were so appreciated that he ended up working for the government of Ṣalāh al-Dīn as well. Ibn al-Ṭuwayr also describes the pageantry and pomp associated with the mawlid. He describes in detail  the large amounts of foods that were distributed on this day, especially around the famous mausoleums of Cairo (some of which would have been considered by the Fatimids as being those of their Imams). The focus of the pageantry, of course, was the palace of the Caliph, and only the elite would get to attend. The celebrations of the day worked their way up to the appearance of the Caliph (who was the living imām for the Ismailites) from a palace window, his face covered in a turban. He himself would not deign to speak – rather, his private attendants would signal to the audience that the Caliph had returned their greetings and seen their love for him. From the courtyard pavilion various reciters and preachers would address the audience, finally culminating in the address of the khatib of the Azhar masjid (which of course, at that time, was the epitome of Ismaili academics).
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