Islam and local culture: An interplay
April-June 2017
By: Erni Budiwanti

The birthday of Prophet Muhammad is commonly celebrated in nations with majority and minority Muslim populations. On the eastern Indonesian island of Lombok, the majority group, the Sasak, ritualize this event in accordance with their own traditions, further cementing the harmony between local customs and the universal tenets of Islam. Localized Islam is appealing and finds its best expression when the birth of Prophet Muhammad is celebrated. The Maulud celebration reflected in this essay involves Muslims living in Lenek and Songak in East Lombok, Selebung in Central Lombok, and Bayan to the north.

A historical glimpse

The birth of Prophet Muhammad (Maulud Nabi) was first celebrated by the Fatimid caliphate in the Middle East (909-1171). The Fatimids introduced milad (birthday) to the people they ruled with the aim of building public support and an image based upon a blood connection between their family dynasty and the Prophet. This affirmation was the cornerstone of their political legitimacy to lead the Muslim community via the bloodline from the Prophet to them. Commemorating Maulud implies a preserved claim to both genealogical ties to the Prophet and political validation of the right and authority to rule. The use of the royal name, “Fatimidyah” or “Fatimid,” derived from the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, clearly indicates the need to refer to the genealogical link to the Prophet.

The Fatimiyah dynasty seized power in Egypt in the year 362 of the Hijri, the Islamic calendar, with Al Muiz Lidinillah as its first ruler. At the beginning of his rule, the king celebrated the birthdays of six distinguished figures – including the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, two grandsons and the king himself – in a single event, taking place on the 12th of Rabiul Awal. During his reign, this unified celebration became an annual tradition. After Lidinillah passed away in 487 Hijri and was succeeded by his son, King Al-Afdal, the annual commemoration was stopped until Afdal’s death in 515 Hijri. Afdal was succeeded by his son, King Al Amir Liahkamillah, who restored and solidified the legacy of celebrating Maulud. The Islamic historian al-Maqrizi noted that that the king and his family used to distribute food and give sodaqo (charity and alms) to the public.

A second version says that the Prophet's birthday was originally celebrated as a means to raise the spirits of Muslims. At that time, Muslims were struggling to defend themselves against European Crusaders coming from France, Germany and England. Sultan Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi of the Bani Ayyub dynasty, who ruled Egypt from AD 1174 to1193 (570-590 Hijri), brought back Maulud to elevate the spirit of jihad against Christian Crusaders. His royal territory stretched from Egypt to Syria and the Arabian Peninsula. Salahuddin said the morale of Muslims should be revived by means of reinforcing their love for the Prophet. He called on Muslims around the Islamic world to commemorate the Prophet’s birth on 12 Rabi al-Awwal.

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