The first question that must be asked about the practice of celebrating the Prophet’s (s) birth anniversary is whether it has been discussed in the Islamic sources, or is it a later innovation.
The Validity of Celebrating the Prophet’s Birth in Islam: Analyzing the Debate
The first question that must be asked about the practice of celebrating the Prophet’s (s) birth anniversary is whether it has been discussed in the Islamic sources, or is it a later innovation.
As the third month of the Islamic calendar commences, so do the heated debates and disputes about celebrating the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad (s). While there has been a difference of opinion regarding the exact date of the Prophet’s (s) birth, most scholar’s have accepted that he was born in the month of Rabi Al-Awwal. The foremost question is one about the status of such practices as per Islamic law. Is it obligatory, recommended, prohibited, discouraged or licit? Like any other legal matter, determining the permissibility or impermissibility of an action or practice depends on the sources and standards one accepts. For that reason, there may never be a unanimous decision regarding the details of any practice, even if there is, on many occasions, an agreement on some general principles. As an example, most Muslims accept the general necessity of honouring the Prophet (s) and the importance of loving him, also the need to keep him as a central part of their daily life, albeit as a means to worship God. However, Muslims may differ as to how this honouring should happen, or this love is shown.
Among the issues around which there is most contention are those for which there is no clear statement in the noble Qur’an or Prophetic narrations. It is at this point, that the discussion of innovation (bid’a) begins. As a universal and overarching rule, that which is practiced or observed as a part of the religion, but has not been explicitly endorsed by the religious sources, must be treated as an innovation. The caution and careful treatment of innovations comes from advice found in accepted Prophetic narrations that refer to innovations as misguidance.
Had it not been for these narrations, it may have been much more acceptable for some schools of Islamic law to accept practices that were introduced after the time of the Prophet, but did not go against any existing established Islamic laws or principles.
As a result, the first question that must be asked about the practice of celebrating the Prophet’s (s) birth anniversary is whether it has been discussed in the Islamic sources, or is it a later innovation.
What Does it Mean to Celebrate?
Before addressing this question, we need to start by clarifying what we understand from the term ‘celebrate’. The Arabic term that is used in this discussion is ihtifaal (احتفال) which refers to the gathering of a group or the act of congregating. A brief survey of the term’s usage in Islamic literature shows that it is generally employed to reference the observation and celebrating of joyous occasions. In fact, some modern day dictionaries have included the purpose of honouring a figure or keeping alive a memory, or gathering for an occasion to exchange celebratory greetings and share a spirited environment, among the definitions of ihtifaal. The birth celebration of the Prophet (mawlid) is celebrated in various ways in different Muslim countries and cultures. Some of the practices are common among cultures and some stem from teachings regarding the celebration and observation of days in other places, or acts that are generally desirable (but not necessarily on a particular day). Examples of this are the donation and sharing of ‘food, beverages, money, and other goods’ as charity, or ‘Qur’anic recitations, invocations (du’a), lectures and narratives about the Prophet’s life…delivered in mosques’, and some may wear new or their best clothes and apply scents. Many, if not all of these acts are independently recommended within the corpus of Islamic literature.
It should be clear, that when discussing celebrations, only acts that are within the bounds of Islamic law are being considered, and it is not the purpose of this piece to discuss all of the practices across cultures adopted to observe this event.
Islamic Sources for Celebrating the Prophet’s (s) Birth
Returning to our first question, I will first look to see if we have anything in the Islamic sources in reference to remembering or celebrating the Mawlid.
The clearest evidence given by supporters of the mawlid celebration for the permissibility, and even recommendation of remembering the Prophet’s (s) birthday is the report of Ibn Abi Qataada (and reports quoting a similar phrase).
Ibn Abi Qataada Al-Ansaari narrates:
‘It was asked (to the Prophet) about fasting on monday, and he said, ‘That was the day in which I was born, and the day of my appointment’, or (he ended with), ‘(and the day) it was revealed unto me.’’
In this narration, the Prophet does not reply by only stating it is recommended, but rather mentions two events that occured on Monday. It is understood that Prophet (s) was presenting the reason behind why one should fast on this day; it was the day in which he was born. If the Prophet’s (s) birthday does not add any significance for the day or make it more desirable to fast on, then there seems to be no reason for mentioning it as his reply. The act of devotion has been additionally encouraged on a day in which a significant event happened. This notion is further established in the narrations recollecting why Friday is the best of days, and that as a result of its preference over other days, the devotional act of sending salutation upon the Prophet (s) on this day, is given added emphasis.
Both of these events are in relation to specific acts on particular days, however, while the recommended acts on those days (because of the events that occurred in them) have not been restricted to those mentioned, it does not prove that other devotional acts are also more encouraged on the said days. Furthermore, the days mentioned are not in reference to one specific day in the entire year, or a particular week or month, but rather every Monday and Friday.
Nonetheless, from these narrations, we can conclude that, at the very least, remembering the Prophet’s (s) birthday, or important events that occurred for some prophets through an increase of already sanctioned devotional acts, is something that existed from the time of the Prophet (s), and from narrations attributed to him.
Other proofs that are sometimes mentioned by the proponents of the Mawlid, such as the reported dream on Al-Abbas in which he learned that the punishment of Abu Lahab would decrease on Mondays because he freed his slave Thawaybah on hearing of the birth of Muhammad (s), will not be used as evidence here. The reason is that although a number of the great scholars of hadith have mentioned this report in their reputable books, it remains nonetheless a dream, and the probative force of dreams is unestablished in legal discussions.
The Celebration of the Birth In Rabi Al-Awwal (Mawlid)
What has been mentioned so far suffices in demonstrating that the mawlid was observed during the time of the Prophet (s), as per Sunni narrations. With that being said, there remains a question regarding the practice of celebrating the Mawlid on a specific day of the year (currently the twelth or seventeen of Rabi Al-Awwal), and whether this was also sanctioned by the Prophet (s).
Maroin Katz states ‘Even the most avid supporters of the celebration admit that it is an innovation (bid’a) that originated centuries after the life of the Prophet’. This conclusion has been reached by a number of researchers, and it is also correlated with the findings of this article’s author. It should be mentioned here that this is in regards to the celebration of the birth of the Prophet (s) in the month of Rabi Al-Awwal, and not the general act of remembering his birth, which is not an innovation. This conclusion is also only relevant to the phenomenon as it exists among the Sunnis. The legality of celebrating the Prophet’s birthday on a particular day of the year, along with his remembrance throughout the year, is not a matter of contention among the Shia, and there is no serious disagreement about the permissibility of celebrating the event on a specific day.
Al-Suyuti (d.911h) quotes Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani (d.852H) as saying:
‘The act of celebrating the Mawlid is an innovation, it has not been reported by any of the righteous predecessors from the (first) three centuries.’
It is generally accepted that the celebrations of the mawlid in the month of Rabi’ Al-Awwal every year, is an innovation, and something that was introduced into the Muslim community centuries after the Prophet. There are a few opinions in regards to when this innovation began. Its introduction has been attributed to the Fatimid dynasty (448H), to Al-Malaa’, a pious man from Irbali or Ardabil (d.570H), and to Mudhaffar Al-Din KawKaburi (d.630H) the ruler of Arbil. Some historians have made a distinction between those who initiated the celebrations and those who celebrated them in an official, organised and grand manner.
Dealing With Innovations
In the aforementioned sections, we have concluded that the act of remembering the Prophet (s) on the day of his birth was validated by the Prophet (s) himself, however, the practice of celebrating the date of his birth, every year in Rabi’ Awwal, is a later innovation, not existent in the first three centuries of Islam. The questions we are then faced with are; if the practice of observing the Mawlid in Rabi’ Al-Awwal is an innovation, how should it be treated?
Sunni scholars are divided on whether or not there are different types of innovation. The narration referenced earlier states that all innovation is misguidance and all misguidance is in the hellfire. Why should it then matter how we categorise innovations when they are all being categorised as misguidance?
‘The worst of affairs are the newly occurring, every newly occuring matter is an innovation, and every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in hellfire.’ 
The context of the narration makes it clear that this is in reference to religious matter sand newly occurring affairs in religion. This report has been narrated with a number of variations, but the same core message that innovation must be un-welcomed and treated with suspicion can be understood from them.
This is where the discussions on types of innovation come in, and not without supporters and textual backing. In a famous narration, the Prophet (s) is quoted to have said:
‘Whoever initiates a good practice (sunnah) in Islam, then for them is its reward, and the reward of whoever acts upon it after them, without anything of their reward being decreased. And whosoever initiates an evil practice (sunnah) in Islam, then its burden is upon them and the burden of those who act on it after them, the sin of it and the sin of all those who act on it, without anything of their burden being decreased.’
At first sight, the above narration seems to stand in apparent contradiction to the previously mentioned narrations, since it speaks about initiating a practice into Islam, which by definition, would be an innovation. Scholars have attempted to resolve this apparent conflict by dividing innovations into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ innovations.
However, there have been efforts by some scholars to interpret this narration to mean ‘revive’ a good practice and not ‘initiate’, as to diminish the possibility of entertaining the premise of a good innovation. This interpretation does not withstand the tests of scrutiny. The narration clearly states ‘in Islam’. The interpretation would entail that firstly there are good and not-good sunnan (plural of sunnah) in Islam, otherwise the qualifier ‘good’ is redundant. Secondly, the Prophet (s) speaks about entering that practice (sunnah) into Islam, and while the interpretation may still somehow be justified for good practices, the statement no longer makes sense with the use of ‘in Islam’ for bad practices. It is a stretch to claim that the first instance of the verb ‘sanna’ refers to revives, and the second refers to ‘initiates/introduces’. It is far more likely that the verb is being used in the same meaning in both instances.
An example of a companion initiating an act and introducing it as a good innovation is the famous case of the second caliph, Umar ibn Khattab and the prayer of Tarawih in the month of Ramadhan. After introducing the tarawih as a new congregational prayer, Umar is quoted to have said,
‘This is a good innovation.” 
Many scholars, including scholars of great repute, have accepted the categorisation of innovations in to good and bad. Imam Nawawi (d.676H) describes innovations as:
New occurrences that did not exist during the time of the Messenger (s) of God, and they are divided into good and evil. 
Those who have opposed this categorisation, have said innovation has two meanings; a religious meaning and a lexical meaning. Innovations that have a root in religious teachings and practices are lexical innovations and are not incorporated into religious innovations. Religious innovations are new matters that have no precedence in Islamic teachings or law, and these are all misguidance (per the hadith). This distinction suggests that the innovations that some scholars consider ‘good’, are in fact not innovations according to religious terminology.
Dealing With The Celebration of the Birth In Rabi Al-Awwal (Mawlid)
Before the last discussion, we had concluded that the Mawlid was, in fact, an innovation. However, in light of the last discussion, we need to determine whether the Mawlid is a good or bad innovation, or a religious or lexical innovation.
In his book Husn Al-Maqsad Fi ‘Amal Al-Mawlid, Suyuti states ‘The act of Mawlid itself, which is the gathering of people, reciting that which is possible from the Qur’an, narrating the existing reports about the Prophet (s), and that which occurred during his birth as the signs (of God), …eating food, and staying away from more than this, is from the good innovations… because of what is in these gatherings in the form of honoring the Prophet (s) and showing happiness and sharing good tidings for his birth.’ He then goes on to list other scholars who hold a similar opinion and are supporters of the Mawlid, including Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani, Imam Sakhaawi, Fath Allah Al-Banani, Al-Qastalani, Ibn Al-Haaj and others. He also mentions some scholars who are opposed to the Mawlid celebrations as a bad innovation.
The scholars who consider the Mawlid celebrations a good innovation do so to the extent that the celebrations consist of acts permitted by Islamic law, and are in line with the teachings of the Prophet. They see no problem in the collection of various acts of worship on one or more days, practiced to show appreciation and happiness at the birth of the Prophet (s). It is also assumed that the celebrators of the Mawlid do not overstep their boundaries by presenting the Mawlid celebration in Rabi’ Al-Awwal as a necessary part of Islam, or obligatory to participate in, for this would fall under the act of legislation, and would no longer be just the practice of otherwise permitted acts.
In regards to whether the Mawlid falls under the category of a religious or lexical innovation, whilst the presenters of this categorisations may be opposed to the Mawlid celebrations, the author sees no compelling argument to disclude the Mawlid from the lexical, and hence, allowed, innovations.
That being said, there is no doubt that no unanimous opinion exists regarding celebrating the Mawlid in Rabi’ Al-Awwal, but, nonetheless, many great Muslim scholars have permitted its celebrations.
The aim of this writing was not to look exhaustively at the arguments for and against the Mawlid celebrations in Rabi’ Al-Awwal, as practiced by the majority of the Muslims. The objective was to look at the arguments and discern whether the observation of the Prophet’s (s) birthday in Rabi’ Al-Awwal could be justified through Islamic sources and the opinions of the scholars.
A look at the criticisms of those who oppose these Mawlid celebrations show that one of their major concerns are some of the Islamically unsanctioned acts (in their opinion) that take place in these gatherings and celebrations. It should be clear that even among the scholars who accepted the Mawlid celebrations, the festivities were not to be seen as a license to cross the lines of Islamic teachings and law.
While the author is not naive enough to imagine that this effort will resolve the conflict and disputes regarding the Mawlid celebrations, he does hope that along with the other material available for the English speaking audience, this will contribute in some way to mutual respect and tolerance amongst holders of different opinions. The Mawlid of the Prophet (s) should not become a source of disunity among the Muslims. It is healthy for differences of opinions to exist, but there must also be a level of respect as both sides of the arguments hold their opinion based on their love for God, Islam, the Prophet and their obedience and loyalty to Islamic texts and the views of honorable scholars. Those who oppose the celebration should accept that there are scholars who have permitted it, and in turn, work towards removing questionable and incorrect practices from the Mawlid, bringing it as close to a completely good innovation as possible. Those who support the celebrations should understand that the opposers are concerned Muslims who are acting according to their understanding of the Qur’an and Prophetic narrations, and they should listen to any good advice given to them in this regard.
 Al-Bidaayah Wa Al-Nihaayah, Ibn Kathir (d.774H), v.2, p.260, (Maktab Al-Ma’aarif, Beirut, 1410H)
 Sunan Al-Nisaa’i, Al-Nisaa’i (d.303H), v.3, p.188-189, h. 1578, (Maktab Al-Matbu’aat Al-Islamiyyah Fi Al-Halab). Al-Kaafi, Al-Kulayni (d.329H), v.1, p.56-57, (Daar Al-Kitaab Al-Islmaiyyah, Tehran, 1388/2009)
 See: Mu’jam Al-Raa’id (1384/1965), Jibraan Mas’ud.
 See: Mu’jam Al-Ghani, Abd Al-Ghani Abu Al-’Azm.
 The Legitimacy And Nature Of Mawlid Al-Nabi: (Analysis of a Fatwa), Aviva Schussman, Islamic Law and Society, v.5, no.2, p.214-17, Brill Leiden, 1998. The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam, Marion Holmes Katz, p.1-5, Culture and Civilization in the Middle East, Routledge 2007.
 Husn Al-Maqsad Fi ‘Amal Al-Mawlid, Jalal Al-Din Al-Suyuti (d.911H), p.15, (Daar Al-Kutub Al-’Ilmiyyah, Beirut, 1985). Mawlid/Maulid, El-Sayed El-Aswad, Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, 2nd edition, p.710-711
 Sahih Muslim, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj (d.261H), v.2, Section 13; The Book of Fasting, Chapter 36, p.819, h.1162, (Daar Ahyaa’ Al-Turaath Al-Arabi, Beirut). Sunnah.com translation: ‘He was then asked about fasting on Monday, whereupon he said: It was the day on which I was born. on which I was commissioned with prophethood or revelation was sent to me.’ (https://sunnah.com/muslim/13/253).
 Sahih Muslim, v.2, Section 7; The Book of Friday, Chapter 5, p.585, h.854.
 Sunan Abi Dawud, Abu Dawud Al-Sajistani (d. 275H), v.1, p.275, Narration 1047, (Al-Maktab Al-Asriyyah, Beirut).
 The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad: Devotional Piety in Sunni Islam, p.1.
 Husn Al-Maqsad Fi ‘Amal Al-Mawlid, p.16. Suyuti aslo attributes this view to the Egyptian scholar Al-Qastalaani (d.923H).
 Al-Mawaa’idh Wa Al-I’tibaar Bi Zhikr Al-Khatat Wa Al-Aathaar, Ahmad b. Ali Al-Maqrizi (d.845H), v.2, p.436, (Daar Al-Kutub Al-’Ilmiyyah, Beirut, 1418H).
 Al-Baa’ith ‘Ala Inkaar Al-Bada’ Wa Al-Hawaadith, Abu Shaamah (d.665H), p.21, (Al-Nahdhah Al-Hadithah, Mecca, 1981).
 Husn Al-Maqsad Fi ‘Amal Al-Mawlid, p.44.
 Sunan Al-Nisaa’i, v.3, p.188-189, h.1578
 Sahih Muslim, v.2, Section 12; The Book of Zakat, Chapter 11, p.705, h.1017.
 Sahih Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Ismaa’il Al-Bukhari (d.256H), v.3, chapter 31: Book of Tarawih Prayer,. p.45, h.2010, (Daar Tawq Al-Najaah, 1422H)
 Tahzhib Al-Asmaa Wa Al-Lughaat, Yayha b. Sharaf Al-Nawawi, v.3, p.22, (Daar Al-Kutub Al-’Ilmiyyah, Beirut).
 Jaami AL-Ulum Wa Al-Hikam, Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali (d.795H), v.2, p.787, (Daar Al-Islaam Lil-Tibaa’ah Wa Al-Nashr Wa Al-Tawzi’, 2004). This distinction of innovations into religious and lexical was previously mentioned by Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H) in his ‘Iqtidhaa’ Al-Siraat Al-Mustaqim’ (vol.1, page 65, Daar Al-Aalam Al-Kutub, Beirut, 1999).
 Husn Al-Maqsad Fi ‘Amal Al-Mawlid, p.16-17, 55-62. Suyuti also critiques parts of the opinions of the scholars he mentions with which he does not agree.