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Aqeedah and Fiqh

Misunderstanding Ibn Taimiyyah on the Mawlid



In reading the various seasonal polemics these days on the Mawlid, I have come across those who, of all people, quote Shaykhul Islam Ibn Taimiyyah as a supporter of the Mawlid. They even provide two quotes three pages apart from one of his books, separated conveniently by an ellipses […]. I thought to explore this topic further in a reply which turned into such a beautiful reading that I thought I would share it with you so that maybe more justice could be done to his wise and beautiful words insha’Allah.

Before exploring his words, let us begin with a few important points. The title of the book that was quoted itself says a lot about Ibn Taimiyyah’s position – Iqtidaa’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqeem li Mukhaalafat ashaab al-Jaheem (Following the Straight Path in Differentiating from the Companions of the Hell-Fire). Thus, his book was primarily focused on encouraging Muslims to avoid imitating the ways of the disbelievers. In fact, the very chapter from which the quotes are taken is entitled, “The Chapter on Innovated Festivals of a Seasonal Nature”. In the early part of this chapter he provides us with a very important principle:

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إذ الأعياد شريعة من الشرائع ، فيجب فيها الاتباع ، لا الابتداع

“Festivals are acts of a religious nature derived from the Shari’ah, and as such we must have a precedent to follow and not to innovate.”

Moving on to the section that is often only partially quoted, let us now translate it more fully and take some time to discover what else was mentioned in the three pages skipped over by the ellipses […]:

وكذلك ما يحدثه بعض الناس ، إما مضاهاة للنصارى في ميلاد عيسى عليه السلام ، وإما محبة للنبي صلى الله عليه وسلم ، وتعظيمًا . والله قد يثيبهم على هذه المحبة والاجتهاد ، لا على البدعمن اتخاذ مولد النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم عيدًا . مع اختلاف الناس في مولده . فإن هذا لم يفعله السلف ، مع قيام المقتضي له وعدم المانع منه لو كان خيرًا . ولو كان هذا خيرًا محضا ، أو راجحًا لكان السلف رضي الله عنهم أحق به منا ، فإنهم كانوا أشد محبة لرسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم وتعظيمًا له منا ، وهم على الخير أحرص .

“And so is the case with what some people have innovated, either in imitation of the Christians who celebrate the birthday of Jesus (as) or out of love for the Prophet (saas) and in order to exalt him. And it may be that Allah may reward them for this love and for the ijtihaad they made, but not for the innovation of taking the birthday of the Prophet (saas) as a festival; despite the differences regarding his actual birthday. For indeed, this was an act never performed by the earlier generations … had it been good in essence or correct Islamically, then those earlier generations (may Allah be pleased with them) would have more right to such a deed than us, for they had greater love for the Messenger (saas) and exalted him more than we do, and they were more concerned and ardent with performing good deeds than us.”

وإنما كمال محبته وتعظيمه في متابعته وطاعته واتباع أمره ، وإحياء سنته باطنًا وظاهرًا ، ونشر ما بعث به ، والجهاد على ذلك بالقلب واليد واللسان . فإن هذه طريقة السابقين الأولين ، من المهاجرين والأنصار ، والذين اتبعوهم بإحسان . وأكثر هؤلاء الذين تجدهم حراصًا على أمثال هذه البدع ، مع ما لهم من حسن القصد ، والاجتهاد الذين يرجى لهم بهما المثوبة ، تجدهم فاترين في أمر الرسول

“And loving him and exalting him (saas) in truth is through following him, obeying him and adhering to his instructions; by reviving his Sunnah both outwardly and inwardly; by spreading the guidance with which he was sent; and by striving upon all of that with our hearts, hands and tongues. Indeed, this was the way of the foremost among the earlier generations from the Muhajireen and Ansaar and those who followed them with excellence. Whereas the majority of those whom you find enthusiastic to implement such innovations as what we have discussed – despite what they may have of good intentions and ijtihaad, and it is hoped that Allah will reward them for these two (intention and ijtihaad) – yet you generally find them weak and apathetic in regards to adhering to the instructions of the Messenger (saas) …”

وإنما هم بمنزلة من يحلي المصحف ولا يقرأ فيه ، أو يقرأ فيه ولا يتبعه وبمنزلة من يزخرف المسجد ، ولا يصلي فيه ، أو يصلي فيه قليلًا

“Instead, they are like the one who opens the Quran but doesn’t read from it, or if he reads from it, he doesn’t implement it; or like the one who decorates the masjid but doesn’t pray in it, or prays in it rarely …”

تدعو الناس إلى السنة بحسب الإمكان فإذا رأيت من يعمل هذا ولا يتركه إلا إلى شر منه ، فلا تدعو إلى ترك منكر بفعل ما هو أنكر منه ولكن إذا كان في البدعة من الخير ، فعوض عنه من الخير المشروع بحسب الإمكان ، إذ النفوس لا تترك شيئًا إلا بشيء

He then continues by encouraging the reader with two manners in regards to dealing with such innovations, the second of them being:

“to call people to adhere to the Sunnah as best as possible. Hence, if you see someone upon such an innovation (Mawlid), and you suspect that if he leaves it then he will do something worse, then do not forbid an evil that results in a greater evil … but instead, if in any given innovation there is some good, then you should compensate for the evil within it with any legislated good that you can; for indeed the hearts don’t typically abandon something unless it is for something else.”

In case you are trying to make sense of these concepts, an example from Ibn Taimiyyah’s life itself may clarify it greatly insha’Allah. It has been narrated that once Ibn Taimiyyah was walking with his students when they came across some drunken Mongol soldiers. In his time, the Mongolians had invaded the Muslim lands, including Iraq where he was born, and they had decimated these lands with a degree of killing heretofore never seen. From the mercy of Allah though, these invaders came to accept Islam even though this didn’t result in the absolute cessation of their hostilities and atrocities, but it did protect the Muslims to a greater degree alhamdulillah. In any case, Ibn Taimiyyah refrained from censuring these Muslim soldiers and his students asked him why he didn’t forbid the soldiers from the evil (drinking alcohol) that they were openly doing. He answered them with great wisdom by saying that when they are sober they kill Muslims, and this is a far greater evil then their drinking (lesser of two evils).

So, in summary what may seem like Ibn Taimiyyah validating or permitting the celebration of the Mawlid is in theory no different than this example. While there are some observant Muslims who do participate in these celebrations, there is also a large group of people as he observed above, who take this as another excuse for another party. It is well known in many Muslim societies what happens at Mawlids from mixing of the sexes, tabarruj (women coming out displaying their beauty), people neglecting their prayers or partying so late that they sleep through fajr, etc. Again, this is not to say that this is only what happens, but it happens often enough unfortunately.

As regards those who are observant and keen to follow the Sunnah, such people should be presented with the evidences and encouraged to repent – and it should suffice most observant Muslims that celebrating the Mawlid was never a deed that was practiced among the early generations (nor was the concept of celebrating a birthday even to be found among them) and that there is no report in the Quran, hadith or statements of the Companions on this matter whatsoever. As for the less observant group, one has to use wisdom. Is it possible to try to influence these gatherings so as to reduce the mixing and tabarruj and to increase the focus on learning the life of the Prophet (saas) and his Sunnah? What good exists in any particular Mawlid celebration that we can try to build upon so as to diminish the impact of the evil that exists in it? This is the wisdom with which Ibn Taimiyyah approached this matter.

As for the remainder of the text, for completion it will be translated here as well insha’Allah so that one can continue to appreciate Ibn Taimiyyah’s very fair minded approach to the whole issue and to remind those who would censure others to remember their own shortcomings:

وكثير من المنكرين لبدع العبادات والعادات تجدهم مقصرين في فعل السنن من ذلك ، أو الأمر به . ولعل حال كثير منهم يكون أسوأ من حال من يأتي بتلك العبادات المشتملة على نوع من الكراهة . بل الدين هو الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر ، ولا قوام لأحدهما إلا بصاحبه ، فلا ينهى عن منكر إلا ويؤمر بمعروف يغني عنه كما يؤمر بعبادة الله سبحانه ، وينهى عن عبادة ما سواه

“And many of those who censure others in regards to innovations either in worship or traditions, you find them deficient in practicing some acts from the Sunnah in these two categories or in encouraging others to do them. And indeed it may even be that their condition is worse than some of those who are practicing these innovations that are tainted with some degree of dislike (makruh). For the religion is to command good and to forbid evil and neither of these two takes precedence over the other. So one should not forbid an evil without commanding a good to take its place in the same way that we call people to the worship of Allah alone after having forbid them from worshipping others beside Him.”

To briefly comment on this beautiful point, we are reminded of the statement of Ibn ‘Abbaas wherein he said,

عن ابن عباس قال ما أتى على الناس عام إلا أحدثوا فيه بدعة وأماتوا فيه سنة حتى تحيا البدع وتموت السنن

“Never will a year come to pass except that its people will invent in it an innovation and kill thereby a Sunnah until the innovation is established and the Sunnah dies off.”

It is not enough to simply forbid someone from a deed, but we should help them to replace what they were upon of innovation or disobedience with something from the Quran and Sunnah thereby reviving the practice of the Prophet (saas) and killing off the evils. Also, we must remember that humility is a great part of righteousness and this entails the assumption that the one to whom we are speaking is better than us. Even though they may have erred and been swept up by a certain innovation or temptation from the evils of the world, it may be that they are more sincere than us and practice more of the Sunnah elsewhere than us. This is why Ibn Taimiyyah humbly hoped that Allah would reward them, for who knows what innovations we may unknowingly be practicing or even worse, if we have some hidden shirk within our hearts. This was among the reasons the Prophet (saas) used to encourage us with the following du’a which he taught to Abu Bakr (ra):

الشرك فيكم أخفى من دبيب النمل وسأدلك على شيء إذا فعلته أذهب عنك صغار الشرك وكباره تقول اللهم إني أعوذ بك أن أشرك بك وأنا أعلم وأستغفرك لما لا أعلم تقولها ثلاث مرات

The Shirk among you is more hidden than the crawling of an ant, but I shall guide you to that which if you do it, will protect you from both minor shirk and the greater type as well; to say three times:

Allahumma innee a’uthu bika an ushrika bika wa ana a’lam wa-astaghfiruka limaa laa a’lam

“O Allah, I seek refuge in You from that I ascribe partners to You knowingly and I seek forgiveness from You for those things which I do not know.” (Sahih – Albaani, Sahih al-Jaami’ as-Sagheer; similar narration in Bukhari’s Adab al-Mufrad)

Back to the translation though:

فتعظيم المولد ، واتخاذه موسمًا ، قد يفعله بعض الناس ، ويكون له فيه أجر عظيم لحسن قصده ، وتعظيمه لرسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم ، كما قدمته لك أنه يحسن من بعض الناس ولهذا قيل للإمام أحمد عن بعض الأمراء : إنه أنفق على مصحف ألف دينار ، أو نحو ذلك فقال : دعهم ، فهذا أفضل ما أنفقوا فيه الذهب ، أو كما قال . مع أن مذهبه أن زخرفة المصاحف مكروهة . … إنما قصده أن هذا العمل فيه مصلحة ، وفيه أيضًا مفسدة كره لأجلها . فهؤلاء إن لم يفعلوا هذا ، وإلا اعتاضوا بفساد لا صلاح فيه ، مثل أن ينفقها في كتاب من كتب الفجور

“So to magnify the birthday of the Prophet (saas) and to take it as a seasonal celebration, as some people might do and it might be that they are rewarded greatly for their good intentions and for their exalting of the Messenger of Allah (saas), for as I have previously mentioned that some among them do so in a good way … and in this regards it has been reported that Imam Ahmad once said about one of the Muslim rulers that had reportedly spent one thousand dinaars or so for a (decorated) copy of the Qur’an, “Leave him be, for that is the best thing which gold can be spent upon”. But it is well known that the math-hab of Imam Ahmad looks upon the decoration of the Qur’an as something disliked (makruh). Yet what the Imam meant by his statement was that this act had some goodness in it and also some defect that we dislike. For if they were prevented from doing this act it may be that they will then turn to another deed which has no goodness in it whatsoever but is instead evil in its entirety like buying immoral books and so forth …”

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the Mawlid celebrations of our era have evolved to some degree from the time of Ibn Taimiyyah, but his principles hold true and we must approach each group, and indeed each innovation we may come across, in a way that is filled with wisdom and the sincere desire to help our Muslim brothers and sisters – whom we are commanded to love, prefer and respect – to achieve that which is over-all better for them as regards their relationship with Allah while at the same time remembering that we may be speaking to those who despite their error may indeed be better than us and more beloved to Allah, and Allah knows best.

Help Us End Ramadan with 1000 Supporters!

Alhamdulillah, we're at 900 supporters. Help us get to 1000 supporters before Ramadan ends. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Dr. Ali Shehata is the author of Demystifying Islam: Your Guide to the Most Misunderstood Religion of the 21st Century. Dr. Ali is an Emergency and Family Medicine physician currently living in an area of central Florida. He was born in Maryland to parents who had immigrated to the US from Egypt. He has studied Islam mainly through traditional methods among various scholars, du'at and students of knowledge here in the US.


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