Folk Islamic Ritual #3: Eid Milad-un-Nabi (Muhammad’s Birthday)

Islamic folk practices reveal the worldview of folk Muslims. Understanding the worldview of folk Muslims empowers us to make disciples among them. I want to begin this discussion with my first experience of Eid Milad-un-Nabi (also known as Mawlid). My wife and I had recently moved to South Asia and lived across the street from a mosque. One morning, we woke up to a large group chanting “Allahu akbar!” (Arabic for “God is great”). To be honest, we were a little alarmed. We peered through the gate and saw a crowd of men in white clothes. There were dozens of people waving green flags and lots of guns. We could not understand what was happening, but it was shocking to us as new arrivals.

The popularity of Muhammad and Eid Milad-un-Nabi can be seen from this picture of the crowds at a celebration in Lahore, Pakistan. Many conservative sects in Pakistan decry this holiday but the popular appeal is very strong. Used by permission from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_Mawlid_Conference_at_Minar-e-Pakistan_Lahore_by_Minhaj-ul-Quran1.jpg

So, we went on the roof of our home to see what was going on. In our very broken Urdu, our neighbor explained that this was a celebration of Muhammad’s birthday. A large crowd was gathering to start a parade in honor of their prophet. The mosque by our house was the preferred gathering point. Thankfully, the guns were in the hands of police who were there to keep the peace. At the time, I did not realize that Eid Milad-un-Nabi is a controversial holiday in the Muslim calendar. It is one of the points of contention between the Barelvi and Deobandi movements. The Deobandis attack this holiday while Barelvis defend it. Deobandis attack Eid Milad-un-Nabi is because of the folk beliefs and practices attached to it. Despite this opposition, Eid Milad-un-Nabi is a national holiday in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Throughout the Islamic world, Muslims celebrate this holiday, except in conservative Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Conservative Muslims object to this veneration of Muhammad, saying that it is shirk, which is the sin of associating partners to Allah. In Islam, there is no sin greater than shirk.

To understand the controversy about Muhammad’s birthday, consider Ahmad Raza Khan’s teachings about Muhammad. Khan was instrumental in developing the Barelvi school of Islam in India.

Only the Prophet can reach God without intermediaries. This is why on the Day of Resurrection, all the prophets, saints, and ‘ulama will gather in the prophet’s presence and beg him to intercede for them with God… The prophet cannot have an intermediary because he is perfect.”

God made Muhammad from His light before He made anything else. Everything begins with the prophet, even existence. He was the first prophet, as God made him before He made anything else, and he was the last as well, being the final prophet. Being the first light, the sun and all light originates from the prophet. All the atoms, stones, trees, and birds recognized Muhammad as prophet, as did Gabriel, and all the other prophets.”

            Or consider the following poem by Khan regarding Muhammad:

I am tired, you are my sanctuary.

I am bound, you are my refuge.

My future is in your hands.

Upon you be millions of blessings.

My sins are limitless,

But you are forgiving and merciful.

Forgive me my faults and offenses,

Upon you be millions of blessings.

I will call you, “Lord,” for you are the beloved of the Lord.

There is no “yours” and “mine” between the beloved and the lover.[1]

In the minds of many folk Muslims, the need for a mediator is clear. Khan argued that Muhammad was the greatest mediator between God and man. In many ways, the beliefs that Khan held about Muhammad are similar to Christian views about Jesus. In Khan’s mind, Muhammad was created before the foundation of the world. Allah made the world through Muhammad. All of creation recognizes the greatness of Muhammad. Muhammad forgives sins. Muhammad is in perfect union with Allah. Muhammad is perfect. Khan’s view of Muhammad is very different than in orthodox Islam. 

For ministry to folk Muslims, this highlights two areas of concern. First, most folk Muslims have a deep sense of need for a mediator. Some look primarily to Muhammad, while others look to other Muslim spiritual leaders for this need. Most folk Muslims believe that Muhammad was so great that they need a mediator to approach him before he can mediate between them and Allah. Second, many folk Muslims have stories and beliefs about Muhammad and other mediators (Urdu vasila) that can be bewildering. I remember sharing about the miracles of Jesus with one folk Muslim. Every time I told a story, he would say, “My vasila did the same thing!” Just like Jesus, this man claimed that his vasila raised the dead, walked on water, healed the sick, and multiplied food for his disciples. In the end, I could only find one thing that Jesus did that this man did not claim his vasila had done. Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world. His vasila had not done that for him.

Click one the following links to continue learning about ministry to Folk Muslims in South Asia. Here is a blog post on devotional singing called na’at. Here is another article on the veneration of Muslim saints, called pirs, at dargahs. For those ministering to South Asian Folk Muslims, it is important to understand their rituals. As we understand their rituals, we understand their worldview. As we understand their worldview, we can better share the gospel with them.


[1] All of these quotes from Ahmad Raza Khan are taken from Usha Sanyal, Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi: In the Path of the Prophet (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006), 97-99.

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