09 June 2014

A Celebratory Event in Muslim Culture

The mawlid is a celebratory event and genre to be found in Muslim lands from the Atlantic coast of Africa all the way to Indonesia and the southern islands of the Philippines. Many spellings and pronunciations have been given to the title of this religious literary form and its various embellishments--mevlit, mevlut, maulud, malid, milad, molid, mulid and moulid being but a partial listing. These terms and the varying phenomena to which they are applied have been utilized in non-Arabic-speaking as well as Arabic-speaking regions of the Muslim world. All variants are colloquializations of the Arabic word, mawlid, which for purposes of consistency will be used throughout this article. The term mawlid has carried many different meanings. Derived from the Arabic root verb wulida ('to be born'), mawlid means 'the event of birth' or 'the place of birth.' In these literal senses, it applies to any birth. More specifically, however, it has denoted the birth, the birthday or the birthplace of Muhammad the Prophet of Islam, and with this meaning it is also rendered as mawlid al-nabi, i.e., 'Birthday of the Prophet.'


The honor and respect accorded to Muhammad as the spiritual and temporal model for human behavior gave rise to a third use of the term mawlid. It became the designation for annual celebrations of the Prophet's birthday. By derivation, mawlid sometimes also names similar celebrations honoring other respected religious leaders. The celebrations honoring the Prophet are enhanced by the retelling of events from his life as well as recitations praising his qualities and deeds. These narrative and poetic recitations, also called mawlids, involve solo chants and hymn singing. In some communities the mawlid also incorporates examples of instrumental accompaniment, body movements and/or gala processions.

Mawlid therefore is a term which means: 1) the event or place of a birth; 2) the birth, birthplace or birthday of the Prophet; 3) the celebratory event connected with the Prophet's birth or other important occasions; and 4) the aesthetic forms or genres which enhance such celebrations. It is its use as celebratory event and as aesthetic form that the mawlid will be defined and described here.

The mawlid as a celebratory event developed several centuries after the death of Muhammad. One of the earliest mentions of such activities is included in a description of life in Cairo during the Fatimi period (909-1171), as reported by Taqi al Din Ahmad al Maqrizi (d. 1442). Though in twelfth century Mecca, the birth place of the Prophet, the day was marked by solemn visits to the place of Muhammad's birth, as reported by Ibn Jubayr (d.1217) in The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, the mawlid in other places came to be celebrated with a variety of activities. For various descriptions of mawlid celebrations, see Edward Willlam Lane, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, J.W. McPherson, The Moulids of Egypt, M. Gilsenan, Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion, and C. Snouck Hurgronje, Mecca in the Latter Part of the 19th Century.

The mawlid as celebratory event for the Prophet's birthday takes place on the twelfth day of the third month of the Islamic lunar calendar (Rabi’ al-‘Awwal). Other occasions for which it has been used are the two major religious holidays (Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-‘Adha); occasions of family significance (births, circumcisions, weddings, illness, and death); and celebrations of significant political events (e.g., a military victory or an independence day). In many contemporary societies the mawlid as celebratory event honoring the Prophet is also frequently experienced in gatherings on the eve preceding Friday, the day of congregational worship.

The mawlid performance is a non-liturgical event and therefore may be held in a variety of places. The location for the event may be religiously significant--for example, in a mosque courtyard or community room (though rarely in the prayer hall itself) or in the courtyard of a tomb or shrine. The event may also be held in a religiously neutral area such as a private residence, a government building or a public square.

The mawlid event has many functions. First, it may serve as a celebration honoring Prophet, saint, political leader, or bride and groom. Second, it may be an expression of thanksgiving on the part of the individual or group organizing it. As such, it represents thanks to Allah for an outstanding personal achievement, birth of a child, recovery from physical illness, escape from injury or disaster or political and military success. Third, the mawlid functions in some cases as an event of propitiation, as a way of seeking divine aid for recovery from illness, mercy for the deceased, or intervention to assure success in some individual or group effort. Fourth, the event also plays an educative role, for it imparts knowledge of the Prophet's biography and stimulates Arabic literary and musical skills. Fifth, it provides moral edification through the poetic content of its performance. The mawlid is thus a religiously, psychologically and aesthetically significant component of community life.

Although participants of the mawlid event can be divided into two categories--performers and audience--the boundary between them is never rigidly defined, nor are the two groups mutually exclusive. Members of the audience, when sufficiently moved, may spontaneously join in as performers. At other times, a performer may relinquish his part to another person in order to assume the less demanding role of chorister or listener. Even soloists and reciters rarely continue in that role for the whole event. Instead, leadership rotates among members of a soloist group.


Those who recite, sing, move or play instruments for the performance vary in numbers according to the size of the community and the importance of the event. No minimum or maximum limits are relevant. As non-professionals, the performers come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Some of them participate regularly with a local group; others join only occasionally. Regardless of their expertise and accomplishment, the performers do not think of themselves as professionals, but as participants in a community event. Therefore, they rarely receive monetary compensation for their participation. They may be served refreshments or a meal, and their expenses as a group may be covered by the host or organizer of the event; but performance fees are not the rule. This results from two significant factors: Payment for any religious activity or service is frowned upon in Islamic culture. Though the mawlid is a non-liturgical event, it is essentially a religious phenomenon and therefore is regarded as carrying its own spiritual reward for the performer. In addition, charging fees for a performance would relegate the recipient to the culturally denigrating position of professional musician. Any financial compensation, therefore, is regarded as a voluntary contribution, not a compulsory fee.

Depending on the occasion and function for which the mawlid is called, audience participation may include an extended family group augmented by close friends, or a public gathering open to the community. As in other social activities in Islamic societies, the mawlid is generally a sexually segregated event with a male audience attending the performance of a male group and a female audience attending a female performance. This is not true, however, in many southeast Asian Muslim communities. Clothing of both performers and audience follows local customs. Heads are usually covered as a sign of respect for the event.

As an aesthetic form or genre enhancing the celebratory event, the term mawlid refers to a wide range of aesthetic forms, including poetic or prose literature, their vocalization (both solo and choral), and possibly inclusion of instrumental accompaniment and body movements. The poetic and prose elements in these genres are the factors determining their identity as mawlid expressions. While vocal, instrumental, and movement features may vary from region to region, the prose and poetic genres designated as mawlid are standard. It is for this reason that any form containing the following poetic and prose elements is generally labelled as a mawlid, regardless of the occasion for its use or the extra-literary aspects which it incorporates. Four types of literary content are typical of the mawlid: 1) recited accounts of events from the biography of the Prophet Muhammad; 2) eulogies of the Prophet; 3) Qur’anic recitation, and 4) invocations of blessing and supplicatory prayers. Any mawlid evidences a series of examples of these literary forms which alternate with each other in free and spontaneous manner. The performance however generally begins with a Qur’anic selection and ends with a supplicatory prayer.

Anecdotes from the biography of the Prophet are perhaps the most important literary genre of the mawlid. They are recited in Arabic from memory or read from a collection of such materials known in the Muslim world as 'Birth of the Glory of Mankind.' This work is commonly referred to as Mawlid Barzanji or simply 'Barzanji,' after Ja’far al-Barzanji (d.1765), one of the best known of the collectors of these prose narrative episodes and the accompanying invocations and poetic items. There are many variant editions of this Arabic work, as well as similar works in other Islamic languages. An edition of Mawlid Barzanji published in Delhi (Muhammadiyyah Press, 1940) contains nineteen anecdotes plus two additional segments on the Prophet's physical and spiritual qualities, as well as a wealth of other pious, poetic and prose inclusions.

Any number of the anecdotes from the life of the Prophet may be recited, depending on the inspiration or mood of the participants and the importance of the occasion. After the chanting of each anecdote by a soloist, members of the group respond with a short repetitive and rhythmical answer. The answer incorporates such well known Islamic phrases as salawat ‘ala al-nabi (‘Prayers upon the Prophet’), ya habibullah (‘Oh beloved of Allah’), allahumma salli wa sallim 'alayhi (‘Oh God, bless him and grant him salvation’).

Eulogies of the Prophet, known as madih in Arabic, are a second element of literary content found in every mawlid performance. These may be in the form of simple prose, rhymed prose, or poetry. They are often in Arabic, but are also heard in the vernacular of the Muslims who perform them. One of the most common forms is the poetic qasida, or 'ode,' which comprises independent poetic lines evidencing a monorhyme and monorhythm. Although the content of madih is essentially panegyric, other materials pertaining to the Prophet's life or to pious themes may be included.

The Qur'anic selections recited in the mawlid are unspecified, but reciters usually choose those connected with the role or characteristics of the Prophet. These recitations are always in Arabic.


Invocations and supplicatory prayers, known as du’a, comprise the fourth element of literary content in the mawlid. They may be recited by a soloist, in which case the group responds with pious conventional expressions after each phrase or sentence. If performed by the group, they may either play the role of formulaic responses to a larger poetic or prose segment,or serve as repetitive sequences to heighten religious experience. These prayers are most often in Arabic, regardless of the area of the Muslim world in which they are performed.

A combination of an indeterminate number of these literary units in alternation or succession is often designated as a performance section. A mawlid will usually comprise a number of such sections, separated by intervals for refreshments and/or conversation. A performance thus resembles a suite-like organization of performance segments, each of which is made up of smaller literary units.

The anecdotal episodes from the Prophet's biography are chanted by a soloist in an improvisatory and free rhythmed style. Repetition of motifs (both tonal and durational) and returns to tones of modal stability provide the main elements of unity in these cantillations. Comparable in style to the vocalise of European music, these improvisations show considerable influence from Qur'anic recitation. Separations between these units are punctuated by short repetitive and rhythmical melodic responses performed by the group. These may comprise a short melodic phrase emphasizing the stable tone(s) of the scalar segments used by the soloist, or they may be simply a rhythmic pattern repeating a single tone.

The lines of simple prose, rhymed prose or poetry eulogizing the Prophet are performed in two ways: 1) as litanies, with alternations between reciter and group; or 2) as hymns sung in unison by the group. In the former case, lines are chanted by a soloist in an improvisatory, free rhythmed style and followed by short rhythmical responses sung in unison by the group. As hymns, the poetic eulogies become metered songs. They are given various names--nashid, qasida, ilahi, na’t and others. Sometimes a vocal drone, either as a continuous sustained tone, or as a rhythmic repetition on that tone, is added to the hymn. Another possibility for increased melodic interest is the inclusion of an ostinato line repeating a short melodic motif or phrase continuously as underlay for the main vocal line.

Qur'anic passages are chanted in the usual manner, by a soloist in an improvisatory and free rhythmed style. The improvisation is divided into well defined melodic segments separated by periods of silence. Invocations and supplicatory prayers are also embellished tonally and rhythmically. They are rendered either as improvisatory solo lines with short motifs of metered choral response, or as repetitive, unison chants.

Although instruments are widely used in secular contexts in Islamic culture, their incorporation in a liturgical context, i.e., in the ritual worship or salat or in connection with Qur'anic recitation and supplication, are strongly disapproved. Even in connection with such non-liturgical genres as the mawlid, they are avoided or used only infrequently. Of the four types of literary-musical genres included in a mawlid it is only the metered songs which sometimes evidence instrumental accompaniment. Instrument use is not only statistically rare; it is also limited as to the types of instruments which are acceptable in this religious genre. Membranophones (instruments whose sound is produced by the vibration of a membrane or skin) are the instruments most frequently used. Of these, frame drums (tambourines) of various sizes and construction details are the most common. Kettle drums and double-headed cylindrical drums are still less frequently used. Only rarely would a melodic instrument from the family of chordophones or aerophones be used to accompany the vocal lines of a mawlid. Many performances are purely vocal in musical content.

The movement arts have never been regarded as suitable components of Islamic liturgical genres.This generally holds true for such non-liturgical religious genres as the mawlid as well, though here, a somewhat greater variety of expression is accepted. When accompanying a metered mawlid segment, such movements include repetitive bendings of the head, swaying of the torso, and/or waving of arms, usually done from a seated or kneeling position as participants face each other in two parallel lines or an oval formation. No one, however, identifies these movements as raqs, the Arabic term for dance. Raqs is regarded an appropriate appellation for only the frivolous and purely secular movement arts.

Although local customs and conservative or liberal views bring elements of variety to the outward forms and internal inclusions of musical and movement elements, the mawlid as a celebratory event and as a genre for performance evidences strong ties of religious, literary, and aesthetic unity throughout the Muslim world. This unity is evidenced in the widespread coincidence of times, places, functions, and participants that are relevant to this performance event, as well as in the literary genres and musical styles which it includes.

[The foregoing was written by Lamya al-Faruqi and originally published under the title 'The Mawlid' in the journal The World of Music (Vol. 28, No. 3, 1987, pp. 78-89). Lamya Faruqi was a noted ethnomusicologist developing a body of research on art and music in the world of Islam until her tragic death in 1986. This was one of her last academic articles, published posthumously, and has been slightly edited for inclusion here. The original also included examples in musical notation, which have been omitted for this version. There are many examples of mawlid videos on YouTube, only a very few of which are included above; while searching for other examples, try using different spellings as noted earlier in the article.]

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