Rabi’ Ul-Awwal—the third month of the Islamic calendar—is a slightly contentious one. What is contentious isn’t the month itself, but the celebrations that accompany it, because it marks the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Muslims believe the 12th day of the month is the date of both his birth and death.
“On the first of Rabi’ Ul-Awwal, we raise a flag at the mosque in his honour,” said Moulavi M. Iqbal, trustee of the popular Jailani Mosque in Kuragala. “We tell the story of his life, covering his birth, childhood, marriage, illness, and death. We start reciting prayers at around 6:30pm, and finish it with isha [final night prayers].”, he said.
Opinions surrounding whether or not celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is permissible is divided among Muslims. Some believe that the addition of new practises to Islam is not permissible and is bida’h [an innovation] because the faith is perfect as is, while others believe that the love one has for Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) should be celebrated.
According to leading Islamic scholar Sheikh Mufti Menk, forms of bida’h “…directly insults Allah.”
Anecdotally, the number of families celebrating Mawlid [the birthday] has reduced. Several people we spoke to said they used to have a day dedicated to recitals, elaborate meals, and family gatherings in honour of the Prophet. However, over the last decade, the practice has reduced tremendously, according to Riyaz Salley, Chairman of the Dewatagaha Mosque.
“This was celebrated all over Sri Lanka from the start itself. There would be lights on in the streets, and Dawat-e-Islam [a global movement for spreading Islam] had parades that went from Masjidul Street to the Dewatagaha Mosque,” Salley recalled, adding that the parades started around 15 years ago.
According to him, with the advent of ‘Middle-east money flowing in to Sri Lanka’, the unity which existed among Sri Lankan Muslims cracked. Extremist elements began to appear, and many people deviated from a united path because of sects within the religion.
“Our Muslims are not respecting the Prophet,” he bemoaned. “If Allah can say salawat [salutations to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)], who are we to refuse it?”
Speaking about the traditions in his family in particular, Salley tells us that he remembers mowloods [songs sung in celebration of the Prophet’s birth] being observed at his household for at least the last 40 years.
Among those who celebrate Milad Un-Nabi, the whole 12 days are dedicated to reflection and celebration, with special recitals and prayers conducted in the evening. Thereafter, dinner is a feast: a wide variety of rice and curry, or biryani, all shared among friends and family. Special dishes like the kalamro—a subtly sweet pudding-like concoction made of rice, sugar, and curd—are prepared.
Celebrations At Dewatagaha
Likewise, the Dewatagaha Mosque plays a central part in mawlid celebrations. The 12 days of Rabi’ Ul-Awwal begin with the hoisting of a flag, and then with mawlid recitations at Maghrib—the time for evening prayers. The recitations go on for a couple of hours, before wrapping up after Isha: the fifth, and final, prayer for Muslims. During this period, the mosque is also decorated with thousands of bright lights, and devotees flock towards it in the evening. Dinner is served as well.
“We have sponsors arguing over who would fund a night’s meal,” Salley tells us. “It costs about Rs. 200,00 to Rs. 300,000 per night, and we manage to feed around 2,000 people with that.”
He highlights the importance and respect placed on the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by the Sri Lankan government — the 12th day of Rabi’ Ul-Awwal is a nationwide holiday, even for the mercantile sector. This is remarkable, because both Eid celebrations in the country are public and bank holidays but not mercantile.
According to Salley, the number of devotees who come to the mosque for Milad has gradually increased over the years. From around 300 or 400 people a decade ago, there are thousands now. He happily notes that the practice has ‘come back’, after being suppressed by some as being bida’h — or an innovation or practice, which appeared in Islam after the Prophet’s time.
“You don’t lose anything by having a celebration,” he says, questioning how it could be an un-Islamic practice when there is no harm done. “You get people together, and you bring families together. It’s a time for community.”