Sufi strand points out that the Prophet's birth anniversary is celebrated world over

The Deobandi and Sufi sects of Islam are again on a collision course — this time on holding birthday bashes. In response to a specific question last week, Darul Uloom Deoband issued a fatwa against celebrating birthdays, saying it was a western practice that had no sanction in Islam. Darul Uloom Vice-Chancellor Abul Qasim Naumani pointed out that the seminary did not celebrate even the Prophet's birth anniversary.

Reacting sharply to the fatwa, the All-India Ulama & Mashaikh Board (AIUMB) — a Sufi strand that recently took on the Deobandi branch, accusing it of propagating hard-line Wahabism — said there was no bar in Islam on celebrating birthdays. Indeed, the Prophet's birth anniversary was celebrated the world over with as many as 54 countries, including India, observing the day as a national holiday. The two notable exceptions were Saudi Arabia and Israel, the AIUMB said.

“The fatwa is proof that Deoband would like to impose the foreign ideology of Saudi Arabia and Wahabism on India,” said AIUMB general secretary Maulana Syed Mohammad Ashraf Kichauchhawi.

Far from seeing it as un-Islamic, Indian Muslims had always celebrated the birth of the Prophet by taking out “‘Julus-e-Mohammadi' (processions), lighting candles and celebrating Milaad across the country,” the Maulana said.

The celebrations were valid, because the “birth of the Holy Prophet is the greatest favour of Allah Almighty on humanity. That is why the Muslim community celebrates the birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet with traditional zeal and zest on the 12th of Rabi-ul-Awwal,” he said.

Maulana Kichaucchawi cited chapter and verse from the Koran and ‘Sunnah' to buttress his claim. “The Holy Koran singles out the birthday as an important event. In ‘Surah Maryam,' Allah tala [God] commands us to send salaam on the day Sayyidina Yahya was born.”

Opinion divided

Muslim intellectual opinion seemed divided on the issue, though by and large there was no support for the ‘fatwa'. Ateeque Ansari, coordinator of the Varanasi-based Committee of Arabic Madrassas, said Islam was emphatic in defining ‘farz' (duty) and ‘haraam' (wrong). “‘Farz' has to be observed at all times and ‘haraam' has to be avoided at all times.”

However, a birthday came in neither category, and had to do more with culture than religion: “It is definitely not anti-Islamic but it is clear from the life and times of the Prophet that he himself never participated in any birthday celebrations.”

Mr. Ansari saw the issue as an “unnecessary complication arising from people asking for ‘fatwas' and Deoband deciding to give ‘fatwas.' Is this important? Why are they creating confusion?”

Deoband resident Badr Kazmi was caustic. “This is a complete non-issue. People didn't wear stitched clothes 1400 years ago. So do we go back to doing that? The idea behind celebrating the Prophet's birthday is to remind people to see him as a role model. This is not wrong. But it has nothing to do with religion or fatwas.”

Editor of Nai Duniya Shahid Siddiqui refused to be drawn into the Deoband-Sufi discussion, arguing that both strands were of comparatively recent origin. While a large section of Muslims did celebrate the Prophet's birth anniversary, for Muslims in general the death anniversary was far more important. “What is really celebrated is Urs — the day of one's reunion with God.” Mr. Siddiqui said he was not against birthday celebrations but he did see the practice “as a very recent, western-inspired phenomenon.”