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Prophet’s Birthday, Early Islam & the Five Pillars
Last Updated: October 2009-09-09

HeadingMolud Nabi (Prophet’s Birthday) and his early life

Prophet Muhammad was born around 570 in Mecca, in modern day Saudi Arabia. There is no mention of the date of his birth in the Quran or historical records, but tradition ascribes the date to be on 12th of Rabi al-awwal, the third lunar month in the Islamic calendar. Most Muslims have accepted this to be the correct date. However, some believe that his death happened on the same day and therefore this day is also the anniversary of his death in certain areas.

Celebrations of his birthday are mentioned first in Fatimid times in the 10th century. Rulers of Egypt, the Fatimid regarded the Prophet’s daughter Fatima to be their ancestor. The Prophet’s birthday was celebrated with grandeur to add to the religious and political prestige of the dynasty. Historical records from as long ago as 1207 in Arbella (modern Irbil in Northern Iraq), shows that illumination and the recitation of special eulogies were already practiced. Soon the celebrations spread all over the area and hymns, prose and poetry to be recited for the occasion were composed in all languages. These are normally called Moulud (birthday) and amongst the most famous is Suleyman Chelebi’s Moulud Sharif in Turkish composed around 1400. The Prophet’s birthday is a public holiday in Muslim countries and with more traditional Muslims the entire month is devoted to recitations of religious texts and sermons.

The rise of Prophet Muhammad and the spread of Islam in the seventh century are remarkable events. At the time of his birth, Mecca was a small city of around 3,000 people controlled by the main tribe of the region, the Quraysh. A powerful tribe from Hijaz, they worshipped a number of gods and goddesses. The area was on the trade routes and the whole of Southern Arabia relied on the frankincense trade that was used heavily in funeral rites of cremation. However, by this time majority of the tribes had already converted to mainly Christianity and some to Judaism. They both favoured burial rather than cremation and demand for frankincense had declined radically. Persians, Byzantine and the Romans before them dominated the area for centuries. Decades of wars between Persia and the Byzantine Empire and war with the Ethiopians in 525 also contributed to the fall in trade. By the 7th century Mecca was in decline.

The name Mecca is South Arabian in origin (miqrab; meaning temple). Ptolemy the ancient Greek scholar calls it Macoraba. It lies in Hijaz, a barren valley between two mountains. In the center of the city is located the holy Ka’bah next to the spring Zamzam. This sanctuary for centuries attracted pilgrims and was central to the prosperity of Mecca. The Prophet belonged to a minor clan called Bani Hashim. His father was a petty merchant and died when his son was two months old. He grew up with his grandfather and lived with his uncle after his grandfather’s death. As a young man he entered the service of the widow Khadija. She had inherited her modest wealth from her two deceased husbands and was independently carrying on business with the neighboring cities. Muhammad proved to be honest and capable. Khadija, a few years older, was very taken by the young man who was called ‘Amin’ (trustworthy) by this time. She asked for his hand in marriage and a few years later became his first convert. Four daughters and two sons were born; all died except two daughters, Ruqayyah and Fatima.

Prophet met people from all religions while traveling and in Mecca associated with Christians. A close friend and a loyal convert, Salman the Persian, also had a good knowledge of Zoroastrian and Manichean religions. The Prophet’s early spiritual interests were oriented toward asceticism and the salvation of the soul at the same time his belief in Allah, a local deity representing the creator and the god of the world, grew stronger. Allah had become popular enough for people to be named after him, including the Prophet’s father, Abduallah. At the age forty, while meditating and praying at Mt. Hira close to Mecca, he received the divine message. Allah was the only God and the source of all authority and being. Muhammad was appointed as the next and the last Prophet and it was his duty to convert all into submitting to Allah’s will. The new faith was called Islam meaning submission. The Quran’s first verse was revealed to him through the angle Gabriel. Khadija at once believed in his divine mission, converted and became the first Muslim. His daughters and his cousin Ali were next.

In the beginning his message did not create any sensation amongst the tribesmen. However, as his popularity grew and he started directly attacking the traditional cults people turned against him. His early supporters were friends, associates and slaves. It was the latter who became the first victims persecuted by the opposing forces. In the fifth year of his prophetic mission, he was forced to send away eighty-two of his early converts, including Ruqayyah and her husband. They went to Abyssinia, this was where the nearest political representative of Christianity resided and the Muslims were given asylum by the Christian ruler.

Around 620 the new community was going through many changes. The Prophet’s account of a supernatural, nocturnal journey, in Gabriel’s company, to Jerusalem and then into Heaven created skepticism even amongst the new Muslims. This journey is called “Mi’raj” (ascension) and has an important place in Islamic mythology, particularly Shi’ite ideology. By 622 he was forced to live Mecca and migrated with a few supporters to the city of Yathrib later known as Medina, meaning city (Medinat Rasul-Allah, the city of the Apostle of God). The migration is called ‘Hijrat’ and is the beginning of the Muslim lunar calendar. The Prophet had gained the support of some local tribes beforehand and even managed to convert people before moving into the city. He also arrived as a peacemaker to settle the unending feud between local tribes, including the pagans and the Jews who dominated the city. From then on and after 68 battles, the Muslims managed to consolidate their power, defeat their enemies, and unite the whole of Arabia under the banner of Islam.

His early days in Medina are the formative period when laws were laid down. Many rituals and rites were created, modified and eventually set in place forever. His religious interests in Medina were also affected by his relationship to the Jews. Following the Jewish fast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the tenth of Muharram was chosen as a fasting day for Muslims. It was changed later and eventually the entire month of Ramadan was set to be the fasting month. Whereas in Mecca his believers prayed only twice a day, a third prayer was introduced at mid-day. Later influenced by the Persians, the prayers were increased to five times per day. All his prescriptions were confirmed by divine messages.

Contrary to both Christians and Jews “human voice” was chosen to call for prayers and the men who sing Quranic verses and announce prayer times are called muezzin. As the day of public prayer, he settled on Friday corresponding to the Jewish Sabbath while at the same time and contrary to the Jewish tradition he allowed the rest of the day to be free for the worldly affairs.

Abraham, already considered one of the numerous prophets of the old times, became the very founder of the true faith. It was revealed to the Prophet that Abraham had founded the sanctuary in Mecca for his son Ishmael and established the pilgrimage festival. The ceremonies were purified from the pagan traditions (such as visiting the house naked) and one of the most important rites of obligation in Islam the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca was envisioned. Pagans were required to convert while Christians and Jews were left on their own as long as they paid a toll tax. The relationship with Jews soon turned sour. Not all of them would convert and along with the Christians they did not approve of the discrepancies existing between Quranic versions of the biblical stories and those in the Old and the New Testament. By the year 628 the Jewish colonies in Arabia had been crushed.

By 627, raiding expeditions against opposing tribes became the norm. Resistance grew and the battles shifted from simply raiding the caravans into extreme bloodshed. The notion of jihad, or holy war against enemies of the fate was formulated around this time and by 632 became another important principle of Islam.


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