With the mawlid shortly approaching, Dr Yasir Qadhi explains the various opinions regarding the birth date of the Prophet (saw) that are mentioned. This article comprises of three parts.
The Date of the Prophet’s Birth
It is a commonly held belief that the birth-date of the Prophet (saw) is the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’, which is the year that the Abyssinian Emperor Abraha attacked the Kabba with an army of elephants. However, most Muslims are unaware that there has always been great controversy over the precise date of the Prophet’s (saw) birth, and it is quite possible that the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal is not in fact the strongest opinion on the matter.
There is no narration in the famous ‘Six Books’ of hadith that specifies when the Prophet (saw) was born. Rather, the only narration that exists specifies the day he was born, and not the date. Abu Qatadah narrates that a Bedouin came to the Prophet and asked him about fasting on Monday, to which the Prophet (saw) replied, “That is the day I was born on, and the day that the revelation began” [Narrated by Muslim]. Therefore, the Prophet (saw) was born on Monday. But Monday of which month, and which year? For that, we need to turn to other sources. Again, no standard source book of hadith mentions any precise date. However, there is a tradition of disputed authenticity, in the Sunan of al-Bayhaqi [vol. 1, p. 79] states that Suwayd b. Ghafla narrated, “The Prophet (saw) and I were born in the same year, the ‘Year of the Elephant.’” Certain other evidences also indicate that he was born this year. Hence, from the extended books of hadith, two pieces of information can be gleaned: that he was born on a Monday (and this is confirmed), and that he was born in the ‘Year of the Elephant’ (and this is most likely correct).
When we turn to books of history, a number of dates regarding the birth of the Prophet (saw) are found. Ibn Ishaq (d. 150 AH), the earliest and most authoritative biographer of the Prophet (saw), states, without any isnad or other reference, that the Prophet (saw) was born on Monday, the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’.1 Between Ibn Ishaq and the birth of the Prophet (saw) lies almost two centuries, so some more proof is needed before this date is settled on.
Another extremely important early source, Ibn Saʿad (d. 230 AH) in his Tabaqat, mentions the opinion of a few early authorities regarding the date of his birth. In order, they are:
1) Monday, 10th of Rabi al-Awwal, the ‘Year of the Elephant’.
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2) Monday, 2nd of Rabi al-Awwal.
3) Monday, no precise date.
4) The ‘Year of the Elephant’, no precise date.
It is interesting to note that Ibn Saʿad, one of the most respected historians of early Islam, does not even list the date of the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal as a possible candidate. Of course the last two opinions are correct and do not clash with any specific date, but by quoting earlier authorities who only gave this information, it can be noted that the precise birth date of the Prophet (saw) was not known to them, hence they only gave the information they knew.
Ibn Kathir (d. 774), the famous medieval historian, also lists many opinions in his monumental al-Bidaya wa-l-nihaya regarding the birth-date of the Prophet (saw). He states that the majority of scholars believed that the Prophet (saw) was born in the month of Rabi al-Awwal, but differed regarding the precise day of the month. Some of these opinions are:
1. 2nd of Rabi al-Awwal. This was the preferred opinion of Abu Maʿshar al-Sindi (d. 171 AH), one of the earliest scholars of seerah, and of the famous Maliki jurist and scholar, Ibn Abd al-Barr (d. 463). It was also listed by al-Waqidi (d. 207 AH) as a possible opinion. [Al-Waqidi is one of the most reputable early historians of Islam, despite his weakness as a narrator of hadith].
2. 8th of Rabi al-Awwal. This was the opinion of the Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm (d. 456 AH), and many of the early scholars. Imam Malik (d. 179 AH) reported this opinion from al-Dhuhri (d. 128 AH) and Muhammad b. Jubair b. Mut’im (a famous Successor), amongst others. Ibn Abd al-Barr, while subscribing to the first opinion, said that this opinion was the opinion of most historians. Ibn Dihya (d. ~ 610 AH), one of the first to write a treatise on the birth of the Prophet (saw), also considered this date to be the strongest opinion.
3. 10th of Rabi al-Awwal. This has been reported by Ibn Asakir (d. 571 AH) from Abu Jafar al-Baqir (d. 114 AH), a descendant of the Prophet (saw) and an alleged imam of the Shiites. It is also the opinion of al-Shabi (d. 100 AH), a famous scholar and student of the Companions, and al-Wapiti (d. 207 AH) himself.
4. 12th of Rabi al-Awwal. This is the opinion of Ibn Ishaq (d. 150), who reported it without any reference. In other sources, it is reported as the opinion of Jabir and Ibn Abbas, but there is noisnad found in any primary source book to them. Ibn Kathir writes, “…and this is the most common opinion on the matter, and Allah knows best.” I could not find this opinion attributed to any other authorities of the first few generations of Islam.
5. 17th of Rabi al-Awwal. This was the opinion of some Shiite scholars, and is rejected by most Sunni authorities.
6. 22nd of Rabi al-Awwal. This opinion has also been attributed to Ibn Hazm.
7. In the month of Ramadan, without a specific date, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’. This was the opinion of the famous early historian al-Zubayr b. al-Bakkar (d. 256), who wrote the first and most authoritative history of Mecca, and some early authorities agreed with him.
8. 12th of Ramadan, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’. This opinion was reported by Ibn Asakir as being held by some early authorities.
These are the most predominant opinion regarding the date of the Prophet’s (saw) birth. However, this is by no means comprehensive – for example, a modern researcher has concluded that the 9th of Rabi al-Awwal is the strongest candidate for the exact date, whereas a few earlier authorities even disputed the very year, claiming that it was ten, or twenty-three, or forty years after the ‘Year of the Elephant’.4
Why is the opinion of the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal so popular?
As can be seen, there are numerous opinions regarding the precise date of the birth of the Prophet (saw), some of which differ about the month, and others even the year. However, an overwhelming majority of historians and scholars agreed that he was born on a Monday, in Rabi al-Awwal, in the ‘Year of the Elephant’, which corresponds to 570 (or 571) C.E.
Within the month of Rabi al-Awwal, more than half a dozen opinions exist. Out of all of these dates, the two dates of the 8th and the 10th were in fact more popular opinions in the first five centuries of Islam, and in particular the former opinion was given greater credence. Why, then, is the date of the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal considered the most popular in our times, so much so that most people are unaware of alternate opinions? This question is all the more compelling in light of the fact that Ibn Ishaq narrates this opinion without any reference. This can be explained, and Allah knows best, by two factors.
Firstly, the popularity of Ibn Ishaq himself. His book of seerah is a primary source of information regarding the biography of the Prophet (saw). Since his book is a standard reference for all later writings, many scholars simply copied and pasted his opinion, disregarding the other opinions (some of which were given more weight by earlier authorities).
Secondly – and this perhaps is a stronger factor – the first time that a group of people decided to take the birthday of the Prophet (saw) as a public day of celebration (i.e., the inception of the celebration of the mawlid) , it so happened that they chose this opinion (viz., the 12th of Rabī al-Awwal). Hence, when the practice of the mawlid spread, so did this date. This also explains why Ibn Abd al-Barr, writing before the conception of the mawlid in the fifth century of the hijrah, stated that the most common opinion amongst historians was in fact the 8th of Rabi al-Awwal, and yet Ibn Kathir, writing three centuries later, after the mawlid had been introduced as a public festival, stated that the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal was the most common opinion.
The exact birth-date of the Prophet (saw) has always been the subject of dispute amongst classical scholars. Nothing authentic has been reported in the standard source books of tradition, and this fact in itself shows that it was not held in the significance that later authorities did. The 12th of Rabi al-Awwal is a strong candidate for being the exact birth date of the Prophet (saw), but the 2nd, 8th and 10th are also viable and well-respected positions, with the 8th being the weightiest.
As to who was the first to celebrate the mawlid, and how it spread in Muslim lands, that shall form Part II of this article, inshAllah.
Dr Yasir Qadhi has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University. He is an instructor and Dean of Academic Affairs at Al Maghrib Institute, and the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center.
This article was published on the Muslim Matters website in March 2009.