The Celebration of Muhammad's Birth

The celebration of the birth of Muhammad is a controversial subject. There are two reasons for this: one is logistical and the other is on principle. Logistically, the date of his birth is unknown, yet the day of his death is widely acclaimed to have been 8 June 632. This corresponds to the Islamic month rabiʿ al-awal. However, as the Islamic calendar is recognized to have begun from the time of the hijra (Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina) when he was approximately 52 years old, it is difficult to place his birth, even if it had been known, according to the hijri dating system. The date of his birth is celebrated in Sunni tradition two days before the recognized day of his death, and in Shiʿ tradition, two days after that date. For many in the Muslim world, that day was Friday December 1, 2017.

The reason based on principle as to why the celebration of his birth is controversial relates to the idea of bidaʾ or innovation. Islam is a faith tradition that is significantly based on tradition. Traditional sayings (ḥadīth) of the Muhammad form one of the two primary foundations for Islamic faith and practice, the other being the Qurʾan, Islam's holy book. Over time, traditions have developed which are considered acceptable and even encouraged or expected practice. While traditions were being developed, at the same time, the idea of new innovations sprang up. Innovations were eventually divided by scholars into categories of worldly or religious matters (al-aḥkām al-khamsa). These innovations were later classified according to whether or not they were considered good or not. There are actually five categories of classification ranging from obligatory to forbidden. Of course, celebrating the prophet's birthday would fall into the category of a religious innovation. The question would be whether or not this particular religious innovation is good or bad. The recognition and celebration of the birthday of Muhammad is seen by many scholars throughout history as being positive, as it acknowledges and honors the one man whom Muslims seek to emulate in faith and life. At the same time, other scholars have argued that this celebration is a bad innovation, as it encourages Muslims to venerate humans, especially after they have died. Many tombs of well-known saints in Islam are sites of pilgrimage for faithful believers. The question is whether or not this pilgrimage or celebration is a good or bad innovation.

Islamic tradition celebrates the birth of the prophet Muhammad during the "First month of Spring." This is the literal name of the month in Arabic. However, as the Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar and moves forward 10 or 11 days each year in comparison to the Gregorian calendar, this month of the Islamic calendar does not always fall in the season of Spring.