The celebration of the Mawlid - or the Milad al-Nabi in the month of Rabi al-Awwal is an occasion that is celebrated throughout almost the entire Muslim world, yet it is not without its critics. Because of this, scholars wrote fatwas either arguing for or against its permissability. One such fatwa that is of interest in this discussion is by the hadith master and Mujahid (Renewer) Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti's "Husn al-Maqasid fi 'amal al-Mawlid" (edited by Mustafa 'Abd al-Qadir 'Ata, (Beirut 1405/1985) pp 251-262.
A translated copy into English of his fatwa is also available: Kaptein, N.J.G, Muhammad's Birthday Festival: Early history in the Central Muslim Lands and Development in the Muslim West until the 10th/16th Century, (E.L Brill: New York 1993) pp 48-70). It is interesting since not only a large number of arguments are put forward for and against the celebration of mawlid, but he also cites a large number of previous scholars who also discussed its legitimacy.
Before making his own conclusions, al-Suyuti reviews each argument that is put forth against the mawlid, and draws upon his encyclopedic knowledge to put forth a rebuttal.
A fundamental argument that is placed against the mawlid is that it is a bid'a - an innovation, and according to the hadith, 'every innovation is misguidance' - critics argue that this also includes the mawlid. However, we have to realise that scholars essentially fall into two groups when discussing the above hadith and unlike those scholars who view that an innovation can be hasana (such as the mawlid), opponents view that it can only be an innovation of misguidance. Al-Suyuti retorts to the accusation of the mawlid being prohibited on the grounds that 'according to the consensus of the Muslims innovations in religion is not permitted,' that:
'This is an unacceptable statement, because bid'a are not restricted to what is forbidden or reprehensible, but can be meritorious or compulsory.'
He then continues to quote from past authorities and states:
Al-Nawawi - may Allah have mercy upon him - says in this Tahdhib al-Asma' wa-l-lighat: "According to the Law, bid'as are innovations of something that did not exist in the time of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace - and they are divided into good (hassan) and revolting (qabih) [...]" In his book al-qawaid, shaykh 'Izz al-din 'Abd al-Salam says: Bid'as are sub-divided into compulsory, forbidden, meritorious, reprehensible and permitted [...]
Shaykh al Islam, the (greatest) hafiz of his time, Abu l-Fadl ibn Hajar (al-Asqalani) was asked about the observance of the mawlid, to which he literally answered the following: 'The legal status of the mawlid is that it is a bid'a, which has not been transmitted on the authority of one of the pious ancestors from the (first) three centuries. Despite this, it comprises both good things as well as the reverse. If one strives for good things in the practising thereof and the opposite is evaded, it is a good innovation. If not, then not.'
[Other scholars also wrote about the permissability of the mawlid such as al-Shawkani in his al-Badr at-tali; Mulla 'Ali Qadri in his al-Mawrid al-Rawi fi al-mawlid al-Nabawi; Abu Shama (one of the teachers of Imam al-Nawawi) in his book of innovations - al Ba'ith 'ala inkar al-bida wa al hawadith writes that: 'On that day, people give much donations, make much worship, show much love to the Prophet - may Allah bless him and grant him peace, and give much thanks to Allah for sending them His Messenger to keep them on the Sunna and law of Islam'; Ibn al Jawzi in his Mawlid al-'Arus; Ibn Kathir who wrote his Dhikr Mawlid rasulullah wa Rida' atihi li ibn Kathir, which is a thirty one page book that was written at the request of one of the muashinin at the Hanbali Masjid in Damascus - the Jami'a al-Hanabila. In it, he writes: 'The Night of the Prophet's birth - May Allah bless him and grant him peace, is a magnificent, noble, blessed and holy night, a night of for the Believers, pure, radiant with lights and of immeasureable price.' Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani in his al-Durar al-Kamina fi-'ayn al-Mi'at al-Thamina, mentioned that Ibn Kathir wrote this book during his last days of his life and it 'was spread far and wide'; and many others such as Imam al-Sakhawi, Ibn Hajar al-Haythami, etc.
In discussing the 'bad things' that take place in the mawlid, al-Suyuti also includes the criticism that another scholars Shaykh Taj al-Din ibn 'Umar 'Ali al-Lakhmi al-Iskandari raise that makes the mawlid unacceptable in their eyes. He (Taj al-Din) argues that the mawlid is prohibited particularly when:
[...] accompanied by instruments of idleness like drums and reed-flutes, with the meeting of men with young boys and male persons with attractive women [...] The implicit conclusion of the declaring forbidden of the mawlid only stems from the forbidden matters mentioned which have been added to it, and does not originate from the meeting at which the ceremony of the mawlid is performed. Because these matters would also be revolting and repulsive, should they, for instance, take place the meeting of the Friday prayer, the rejection of the legal basis of his meeting for the Friday prayer would not necessarily stem from this. We have already seen that some of these cases took place in the nights of Ramadhan during the nights of Tarawih by people [...] On the contrary, we hold that the basis for the meeting for the Tarawih salat is Sunna and a pious act, and that things which have been added to it are revolting and repulsive. Likewise, we state that the meeting at which the mawlid is performed, in priciple has to be regarded as a meritorious act, but that things which have been added to it, are blameworthy and prohibited.
On the same issue of forbidden acts occuring within the mawlid, al-Suyuti also quotes another scholar. Abu 'Abd Allah ibn al-Hajj who also criticises and rejects the forbidden acts (such as singing with musical instruments, the jingling of the tambourine and the playing of flutes) but who 'praises the carrying out of the ceremonies and the expression of gratitude during the festival.'