This article was originally posted on Muslim Matters.
In our previous two articles, we had discussed the date of the birth of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) and demonstrated that there are over half a dozen opinions, the strongest being that he was born on the 8th of Rabīʻ al-Awwal, in the Year of the Elephant. We also mentioned that the first recorded instance of a public celebration of the mawlid occurred in Shi’ite Fatimid Egypt, around the turn of the sixth century of the hijra. In this article, we shall mention the earliest references in Sunni lands to the mawlid.
The Mawlid in Sunni Lands
The earliest recorded reference in Sunni lands of the mawlid occurs in a history book written by ʻImad al-Dīn al-Iṣfahānī (d. 597 AH/1200 CE), entitled al-Barq al-Shāmī. This work mentions the main political occurrences of Greater Syria (i.e., Sham) during the last three decades of the sixth Islamic century, in particular the wars of the Muslims against the Crusaders. Unfortunately, the original work remains in manuscript form and has yet to be edited, but a number of summaries exist, the most famous one being Sanā al-Barq al-Shāmī of al-Bundari. It is from this printed work  that the following is extracted.
In the year 566/1170, Nūr al-Dīn al-Zangī’s (d. 569/1174) brother passed away in Mosul, a well-known city of Iraq. Nūr al-Dīn was the famous leader of the Zangid dynasty, and helped propel Salāh al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī (d. 588/1193) to fame. Nūr al-Dīn visited the city of Mosul in order to quell a dispute regarding the succession of his brother, who had been the governor of the region. There, the historian tells us, he met a certain ‘Umar al-Mulla, who was in charge of a zawiya (Sufi monastery). This zawiya was a popular place for the local leaders and noblemen to visit, and in particular “…every year, during the days of the mawlid of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) he would invite the governor of Mosul, along with the poets, who would come and sing their poems, and be rewarded [by the governor] for this.”
This small reference, in passing, is the earliest reference we have to a public mawlid being celebrated in Sunni lands. The person who initiated it, ‘Umar al-Mulla, was a venerated Sufi ascetic, and not a scholar of the religion. We do not know many details of his life or even date of death. And while the historian ‘Imad al-Dīn did claim he was a righteous saint (a claim that was mentioned by all those who copied the story from Imad al-Dīn’s work), another scholar strongly disagreed. Ibn Rajab (d. 795), in his biographical dictionary Dhayl Ṭabaqat al-Ḥanabilah, mentions this ‘Umar al-Mulla, also in passing, in the context of a famous Ḥanbalite scholar. Under the entry of Muḥammad b. Abd al-Bāqī (d. 571), a Ḥanbalite scholar from Mosul, he mentions how ‘Umar al-Mulla was greatly respected in the city of Mosul, and a disagreement happened between the two of them, which resulted in Muḥammad b. Abd al-Bāqī being falsely accused of stealing, because of which he was beaten. Writes Ibn Rajab, “As for this ‘Umar, he outwardly showed himself to be a pious man and ascetic, but I believe him to be [a follower] of the innovated groups. And this incident [with Muḥammad b. Abd al-Bāqī] also shows his injustices and transgressions [against others].” And Ibn Kathīr (d. 774) mentions that when Nūr al-Dīn Zangi abolished the unjust taxes that had been levied on the people, ‘Umar al-Mulla actually wrote him a letter chastising him for his decision, and saying that this would lead to an increase of evil in the land. At which Nūr al-Dīn responded back, saying,
“Allāh created the creation, and legislated the Sharīʻah, and He knows best what is beneficial for them. So if He knew that there should have been an increase [in revenue from taxes], He would have legislated it for us. Hence, there is no need for us to take more than what Allāh has decreed, since whoever adds to the Sharīʻah has presumed that the Sharīʻah is incomplete and he needs to perfect it by his addition. And to do this is arrogance against Allāh and against what He has legislated, but darkened minds will never be guided, and may Allāh guide us and you to the Straight Path.”
In what can only be described as a reversal of traditional roles, it was the ruler who chastised the ʻsaint’ when ‘Umar al-Mulla actually encouraged the collection of unjust taxes, while Nūr al-Din sought to abolish it.
Before proceeding, it is noteworthy that the mawlid instituted by ‘Umar al-Mulla involved singing poems in praise of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) and nothing more than this. Unfortunately, the books of history do not mention the nature or content of these poems; however, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that at this early stage the poems would have praised the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) in the manner that he truly deserves, and without the attribution of Divine characteristics to him that later poets are guilty of.
The city of Mosul was located in a relatively small province, and remained under the control of the larger Zangid Empire. Hence, it was only natural that mawlid celebrations performed in Mosul would not garner too much attention nor have a large budget at their disposal to use for the mawlids. Rather, for this to occur, it had to be sponsored by a dynasty that could afford to do so, and this dynasty was found in the neighbouring province of Irbil, a city less than a day’s journey from Mosul. As news of the mawlid spread to this city, the ruler of the semi-autonomous province, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn Kokburi (d. 630/1232), took it upon himself to celebrate the mawlid in an extremely lavish manner. It would take another few decades for the mawlid to spread to Irbil, but eventually, sometime in the early part of the seventh century, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn became famous for the extravagant mawlid ceremonies that were sponsored through the State Treasury of his principality.
The historian Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282) mentions that Muẓẓafar al-Dīn was known for his generosity, for he had built many khānqahs (monasteries) for the Sufis to worship in. Ibn Khallikān was also from Irbil, and was a friend of Muẓẓar al-Dīn, and witnessed first-hand the mawlid celebrations. Writes Ibn Khallikān:
Two days before the mawlid, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn would take out camels, cows and sheep – a large number, beyond counting – and he would send these animals, accompanied with drums and song and other instruments, until they would reach the large open ground [outside the city]. Then, these animals would be slaughtered, and pots would be set up, and all types of different foods would be cooked, until finally it would be the Night of the Mawlid itself [meaning the night before the mawlid]. On that night, he would allow samāʻas [special poems] to be sung in his fort, and then he would descend down [to the people], the procession being led by countless candles. Amongst these candles were two, or four – I forget now – that were so large that each one had to be carried on a mule, and behind it was a man in charge of keeping the candle erect [on the mule], until it reached the Sufi monastery. Then, on the very morning of the mawlid, he commanded that the Royal Robe be taken out from the Palace to the khānqah (Sufi monastery), by the hands of the Sufis. Each Sufi would wear an expensive sash around his hand, and they would all walk in a procession, one behind the other – so many in number that I could not verify their quantity. Then, Muẓẓafar al-Dīn himself would descend to the khānqah, and all of the noblemen and leaders and gentry would gather together. A chair would be placed for the preachers, and Muẓẓafar al-Dīn himself would be in a special tower made of wood [that he had built for the occasion]. It had many windows, some of which faced the people and others faced the open ground, which was a large ground of immense size. The infantry would also gather there, in procession. So Muẓẓafar al-Dīn would listen throughout the day, sometimes looking at the people and sermons, and sometimes at the infantry, and this would continue until the infantry finished their processions. Then, a general tablecloth would be laid out for the poor, and all who wished could eat from it, bread and other types of foods beyond count! And there was another tablecloth laid out as well, for the people of the monastery, those close to the throne, and while the sermons would be delivered, he would call [each speaker] one by one, and the noblemen and leaders and guests who had come for this season: scholars, and preachers, and reciters, and poets, and he would give each of them garments, and they would then return to their seats. Once this was finished, they would all gather at the tablecloth to partake of the food. This would continue until the ‘Aṣr prayer, or even after that, and he would spend the night there, and the samaʻās would continue to the next day. And this would be done every year, and what I have described is in fact a condensed summary of the reality, for to mention it in detail would be too cumbersome and take a long time. Finally, when these ceremonies would be completed, he would gift an amount to every visitor who had come from afar, as provision for his journey home. And I have already mentioned how, when Ibn Diḥya passed by Irbil, he wrote up a work regarding the mawlid, because of what he had seen Muẓẓafar al-Dīn do, and because of this he was gifted a thousand gold coins, along with the generous hospitality he was shown for the duration of his stay.
As can be seen, the ceremony of Muẓẓafar al-Dīn was an extremely lavish and extravagant affair, and would draw large crowds of locals and also visitors. It is clear that the relatively innocuous mawlid of ‘Umar al-Mulla was now being taken to a different level. And because the celebrations of Muẓẓafar al-Dīn attracted more attention than those of ʻUmar al-Mulla, they played a crucial role in spreading the custom of the mawlid and increasing its popularity.
From this, it is clear that the mawlid was imported into Sunni lands at the beginning of the seventh Islamic century, through the actions of ‘Umar al-Mulla and then Muẓẓafar al-Dīn. A contemporary author proves this point beyond a shadow of doubt. Abū Shāmah al-Maqdisi (d. 665) was a famous historian from Damascus. He wrote a number of works, and is most famous for his book Kitāb al-Bāʻith ʻalā inkār al-bidaʻ wa-l-ḥawādith. In it, he follows the opinion that religious innovations can be either reprehensible or praiseworthy (a theological opinion which was and remains the subject of debate amongst scholars, and which deserves to be discussed in another article), and considers the mawlid to be a praiseworthy innovation. What concerns us here is not Abū Shāmah’s legal verdict on the mawlid, but rather his historical context. He writes, 
And of the best matters that have been introduced in our times is that which occurs in the city of Irbil – may Allāh protect it – every year, on the day that the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) was born. [On this day], charity is distributed, and good [deeds performed], and pageantry is displayed, and happiness [is abundant]. And all of this, in addition to being beneficial to the poor, is an outward manifestation of the love of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) and demonstrates respect for him, and honour in the heart of the one who does this [celebration], and thankfulness to Allāh for what He has blessed us with in the existence of the Messenger that He has sent as a mercy to the worlds. And the first person who ever did this was [a man] from Mosul, the Shaykh ‘Umar b. Muḥammad al-Mulla, a well-known, righteous man, and it was from his custom that the Governor of Irbil, and others besides him, took this act from.
From this passage, it is clear that the custom of the mawlid was already known to Abū Shāmah in Damascus, but he points out that the celebration occurs in Irbil, and not in Damascus. Hence, at this stage, in the middle of the seventh century, news of the mawlid has reached Damascus, which is around 500 miles away, but the city of Damascus itself has yet to start its own mawlid.
It is also striking to note the similarities between the Fatimid celebrations of the mawlid and the ones sponsored by Muẓẓafar al-Dīn: in both cases, the pomp and pageantry and generosity lavished upon the population must have played a vital role in popularizing these rulers amongst the people.
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