Reflection on Milad al Nabi
Aziz discusses the debate about celebrating the Prophet's birthday.
Like hundreds of millions of muslims worldwide, I honored the Prophet Mohammed SAW last week, finding the anniversary of his birth (by most authoritative sources, 12 Rabi ul Awwal) a time to reflect on my love for him as the Messenger of Islam.
Is it controversial to celebrate the milad (birthday) of the Prophet of Islam SAW? It may surprise non-muslims that the celebration of Milad al Nabi is indeed a matter of dispute; a thread at Talk Islam provides a nice summary. Unfortunately, some muslims take this disagreement to extremes – using it to dabble in anti-semitic and anti-Shi’a prejudices and even resulting in violence against people in milad processions.
The debate about celebrating milad is indicative of a broader theological dispute within Islam that is centuries old. The root issue is whether the legitimacy of Islamic practices is a top-down or bottom-up process. The bottom-up argument goes like this:
“Practice X is performed by millions of muslims and has been for centuries, therefore there is validity to it.”
Now, the top-down rebuttal to this is:
“If something is wrong or bid’a, it’s still wrong or bid’a (innovation), no matter how many muslims do it or for how long.”
Note that the top-down line of thought implicitly lays claim to the authority to define what is bid’a or wrong.
The problem is that no practice is performed in a vacuum. Something that millions of muslims have done for centuries is also something that has inevitably been discussed by ulema and authorities for the same length of time. The legitimacy of these practices is the pre-requisite for its popularity; that popularity is not a sufficient defense, but it is sufficient evidence that a robust defense exists.
Were it not so, and the practice in question truly bid’a or outright wrong, then an airtight case on the merits would long ago have been presented which refuted it.