Compiled, Translated & Annotated
Abu Khuzaimah Ansari
The Barelwi Sufi say Hafiz Ibn Kathir was pro mawlid and thus authored a book endorsing and promoting it. In fact, a UK publisher has even published the English translation of the book and before this, it was also translated and published in India.
The book is very small and does not exceed many pages. The english translations also don’t exceed 10-15 pages. I think it is pertinent to actually have a look at the book the Sufis are raving about, whether there is actually any truth to this bold claim, that Hafiz Ibn Kathir endorsed and promoted the mawlid, due to this book.
Looking at The Book of Hafiz Ibn Kathir
This book was given the title of Mawlid RasulAllah by later people, by the researcher who first sourced and published it in either 1961 or 1969 from a manuscript based in Princeton University (USA). The actual alleged manuscript was only 10 pages in this manuscript collection. We also learn that this manuscript was first written in 786H (coincidently!!!) some 12 years after the death of Hafiz Ibn Kathir, who died in 774H, this certainly raises some serious doubts at the first instance.
Furthermore, no biographer or researcher prior to this ever mentioned this book or even attributed such a title to Hafiz Ibn Kathir, let alone quoting from it. So when we have learnt that Hafiz Ibn Kathir did not give this book the current title it is published under, but rather the title was given by other people in the 20th century coupled with the other facts, we can take an intelligent guess based on such evidences that this was perhaps not the work of Hafiz Ibn Kathir.
The Contents of the Book
For arguments sake let us for an instance assume that Hafiz Ibn Kathir did author this book. However, when we look at the content, it is essentially geared towards a historical overview and can be classed as a summarised treatise on Sirah. On closer examination we further find that the contents correlate and have been taken from his al-Bidayah wa’l Nihayah and his glorious biography of the Messenger of Allah Sallahu Alayhi Wasallam. He says in the beginning of the book:
“This book is a brief collection of hadith and athar describing the birth (mawlid) of the Messenger of Allah Sallalahu alayhi Wasallam that are narrated and accepted by the thorough memorisers and experts of hadith and Imams of Isnad criticism.” (Ibn Kathir, Mawlid RasulAllah, 13, Eng. trans., 20, Turath Publishing; another edn. 10, Dar ul Islam Foundation)
The whole book is literally a succinct biographical account of the early life of the Messenger of Allah Sallalhu Alayhi Wasallam and has no mention of the modern day practices and customs which the Sufi Barelwi’s organise and celebrate. Therefore, this book cant be used as evidence and nor can it be said with any conviction or designation that Hafiz Ibn Kathir endorsed the innovated mawlid practices that were initiated and introduced by the Fatimids.
What is even worse, although perhaps rightly so linguistically, the title of the book was chosen by later individuals, such as Mawlid RasulAllah, one cannot but think considerable thought was expended to title the book as such in order to portray a particular theological understanding.
If an intelligent reader was to read this book, whether he was pro mawlid or against it, he would naturally conclude the contents of the book are anything but endorsing and promoting the mawlid as we know it today. In addition to this, nothing in this book is any different to what Hafiz Ibn Kathir wrote and compiled in his al-Bidayah wa’l Nihayah and al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, when this is the case where does the concept of the innovated Mawlid come from then, far from the claim that Hafiz Ibn Kathir endorsed the mawlid.
The Purpose of these “Mawlid” Texts
Many mawlid texts were written after the innovation of the Fatimids Shi’as, Abu Sa‘id Muzaffar Kaukaburi, Ibn Dahiyyah and others and all subsequent texts around that period were filled with all kind of fabled stories, fabrications and exaggerations, all by storytellers (Qussas) This was the impetus that led other scholars of Damascus to compile authentic texts and base the works on traditions. Around a dozen texts were authored around Hafiz Ibn Kathir’s time. For example, the Damascene scholar al-Zamlakani (d.727H) authored a text and based it on traditions and reports that were factual rather than stories and exaggerative interpretations, al-Jazari and others followed.
Problems With Mawlid Texts
For example Hafiz Ibn al-Hajj (d.736H) said that women would organise gatherings and one of them would exaggerate while telling stories about the Prophets, she would add things and omit things based on her personal preference and at times she would fall into open clear kufr and she would not even be aware of it (based on what she would say) and there would be no one to correct her. They would also not have the islamic ability to distinguish between what was authentic or fabricated, and this would lead them to further problems. (al-Madkhal, 2:14-15).
Ibn al-Hajj further evidences this with an example, that a female scholar presented a mawlid recitation with grave discrepancies and stories and realities which were false and fabricated, this was all done in front of a Shaykh Min us-Shuyukh who was well respected in that era, and instead of reprimanding her, he honoured her with gifts! (al-Madhkhal, 2:14).
Hafiz Ibn Hajr al-Haythami (d.973H) said the people would get a professional reader i.e. an admonisher (al-Wu’az) they would read some of these mawlid texts which would be filled with lies, fabrications and innovations and thus everything was extremely wrong and they would then continue and formulate and fabricate things which were worse than before. (Ibn Hajr al-Haythami, Itmam al-Ni’mah al-Kubra Ala al-A’lam bi-Mawlid Sayyid Wuld Adam, 28).
Ibn Hajr al-Haythami went a step further and advocated the need to reprimand or to correct. He argued that under such gatherings and circumstances it was mandatory on scholars and learned people to correct and reprimand such storytellers or just leave such gatherings where they would utter such fabrications and lies. (Itmam al-Ni’mah al-Kubra Ala al-A’lam bi-Mawlid Sayyid Wuld Adam, 28)
Sometimes these elaborate mawlid recitations that were filled with fallacies and fabrications were often recited in government courts. Such recitations often were gifted with wealth from the government and in doing so it became a popular in culture and practise. These mawlid recitations were filled with exaggeration, they were ostentatious and extravagant, which most certainly caught the eye of officials. However, in order to achieve this the recitations had to be more elaborate, unique and grand than the others and in this way all normal traditional reports and narrations were neglected and considerable wealth was acquired. Such practices in turn increased with time, with more and more people fabricating their mawlid recitations. (al-Kazaruni, al-Muntaqa Fi Siyar al-Nabi al-Mustafa, 2:10)
It was under such circumstances that many books on the mawlid were authored from the traditional approach, being heavily based on reports and narrations to counteract the innovative and exaggerative approach of the mawlid sympathisers and other opportunists.
This sheds some light on mawlid popularity in the 7th and 8th century and how some scholars attempted to tackle the spiralling deviation of the mawlid reciters. They also attempted to rectify the problems because of the huge and colossal number of fabricated narrations such people were forging. This was the backdrop and reality of such mawlid books, it was not how the Sufi Barelwis celebrate the mawlid in our time, with every act that they do, it contravenes the Sunnah. Therefore, it is foolish and desperate for them to use such books to support their innovative claims to celebrate the mawlid, even if such books were authentic.