The prophet’s birthday, known as Mawlid in colloquial Arabic, will be celebrated tomorrow, February 4. Mawlid is a national holiday in all Muslim countries excluding Saudi Arabia.
Mawlid falls in the month of Rabii Al-Awwal in the Islamic calendar. Since that the Islamic calendar follows the lunar cycle the date of the holiday changes annually in the Gregorian or Western calendar – which Tunisia officially follows. Last year the event was celebrated on February 15, 2011.
Public celebrations of the birth of Prophet Mohammed did not occur until several centuries after his death. The practice began in Egypt in the 11th century, and featured rituals that included animal sacrifices, torchlight processions, and public sermons. The tradition was later adopted in Syria, and gradually spread throughout a number of Muslim countries.
Celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohammed has been a source of controversy for Muslim scholars and among ordinary Muslim citizens for centuries. The celebration of this holiday is typically forbidden among adherents of Wahhabism – a religious branch developed in the 18th century by Muslim theologist Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab.
Salafists, followers of a conservative interpretation of the Quran, also denounce the celebration of the holiday, as they consider it heretical.
“There is nothing in the Muslim Shariaa [the set of laws derived from Muslim holy texts] or in the Holy Quran that compels Muslims to celebrate the prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This meal could be prepared at any time of the year,” stated Yassine, a young Tunisian Salafist.
Families typically start preparing for this occasion a few days in advance, and markets are animated by Tunisians rushing to buy “Zigougou” (Aleppo pine seeds) – a key ingredient in Assida, the holiday’s signature dish.
Assida consists of two layers of differently flavored and colored creams – a black cream, prepared with the Aleppo pine seeds, and a white pastry cream, made with milk, eggs, sugar, and starch. The dish is often topped with a layer of dried fruits and candies.
On the night of the Prophet’s birthday, relatives gather to enjoy each others’ company. Neighbors greet each other and exchange bowls of assida as a sign of camaraderie and appreciation.
In spite of the social upheaval that Tunisian society has faced over the course of the past year, the festivities associated with this holiday will continue to serve as an ageless pillar of tradition in uncertain times.