Mawlid al-Nabi: The Birth of the Prophet of Islam

A look at the miraculous tales and sacred biographies of Muhammad, in honor of "Mawlid"

A 1746 Ottoman copy of Qadi Iyad’s Kitab al-Shifa, one of the most popular handbooks on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, with marginal glosses in Turkish, the National Library of Israel collections

The Quran tells us very little about the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Although the sacred text describes his revelation, his mission, and his relation to the long history of prophecy that preceded him, the events that make up Muhammad’s own biography appear at most as hints and allusions, passing references that follow no clear chronology; the Quran’s concerns, after all, lie elsewhere.

It was up to later generations of scholars to piece together the relevant Quranic passages and oral hadith traditions to reconstruct the Prophet’s biography. A critical question, among others, concerns Muhammad’s birth. When, where, and under what circumstances did that world-changing event in human history take place?

A late 18th century Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

Today, Muslims celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, Mawlid al-Nabi, on the 12th of the Islamic month of Rabi al-Awwal, which corresponds this year to October 29th. The holiday originated hundreds of years after Muhammad’s own birth in the sixth century; some of the earliest Mawlid accounts describe the state-sponsored celebrations held by the Ismaili Fatamid dynasty, which ruled Egypt and surrounding territories from 969 to 1171. Nonetheless, Mawlid observances, whether with family at home or with large public festivities, are now common throughout the world.

One of the central elements of many Mawlids, historically and today, is the recitation of narratives describing the ancestry, birth, and early life of the Prophet. The earliest biographies of Muhammad, such as Ibn Hisham’s (d. 833) recension of a work, now lost, by Ibn Ishaq, already describe the birth as a miraculous event. For instance, Ibn Hisham includes a tradition that the Prophet’s mother Amina had a visionary experience during her pregnancy. However, the early biographers are much more interested in describing Muhammad’s military victories than his birth, and birth narratives play a minor role in their accounts overall.

True Mawlid texts have a far different orientation. Abu al-Hasan al-Bakri’s Kitab al-Anwar (the Book of Lights), one of the earliest and most influential of such works, is a representative example. Almost nothing is known of the author himself, though he must have lived sometime before the end of the ninth century CE. Al-Bakri’s entertaining and dramatic work recounts gripping scenes and extensive dialogue even when such descriptions have no basis in earlier sources. The work’s main subjects are the preexistence of Muhammad’s divine light before creation and its passage through the generations, as well as his birth and infancy. Kitab al-Anwar concludes with Muhammad’s marriage to his wife Khadija; his revelation, prophetic mission, victories, and leadership are not mentioned at all. Kitab al-Anwar, like later works written in its model, “reflects the devotional reframing of the Prophet’s life,” as Marion Holmes Katz has written, “in which priority is accorded to his major life-cycle crises, rather than to his public career as the Messenger of God.”

An 1802 copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, from Saloniki, the National Library of Israel collections

Al-Bakri’s account of the birth itself, for instance, is narrated from Amina’s own perspective. A white bird rubs against her heart, removing all the pains of labor, and she drinks a miraculously-appearing white liquid that causes light to shine from her. Women bearing perfume and angels appear. Then, after the birth, clouds descend twice to take the infant: once he returns having traveled across the entire world, and the second time he is presented to all earlier prophets and blessed with a quality of each. Finally, Ridwan, the guardian of paradise, arrives and stamps his shoulder with the seal of prophecy.

Kitab al-Anwar was quite popular; reports abound of the book circulating widely in medieval book markets. However, al-Bakri also attracted the ire of scholarly authorities. Among others, the important historian and Quran commentator Ibn Kathir (c. 1300-1373) denounced him saying “the lies produced in al-Bakri’s sira are an offence and a grave sin; their fabricator has fallen into the category of those warned by the prophet: ‘He who reports lies about me deliberately shall be condemned to Hell.’” Today as well, Mawlid narratives, and the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday overall, are condemned as unlawful innovation in certain corners of the Islamic world.

An 1815 Ottoman copy of the Kitab al-Shifa, the National Library of Israel collections

The Islam and Middle East collection of the National Library of Israel is home to over a dozen manuscript copies of and commentaries on another of the most popular works on the life and birth of the Prophet Muhammad. This is the Kitab al-Shifa bi Ta’rif Huquq al-Mustafa (“The Remedy by the Recognition of the Rights of the Chosen One”), written by the scholar and jurist Iyad ibn Musa al-Yahsubi, known as Qadi Iyad. The son of a prominent scholarly family, he was born in the North African city of Ceuta in 1083 and pursued his studies there and in Muslim Spain. Iyad served as a judge (qadi), and authored numerous works on Hadith, law, biography, and history.

The Kitab al-Shifa is arranged by topic, collecting sources from the Quran and Hadith on the Prophet Muhammad, along with the author’s commentary, on various themes. For example, different sections are dedicated to God’s kindness and gentleness toward Muhammad; the Prophet’s matchless character, intellect, and physique, as well as his ability to predict the future. Rather than a traditional biography, the Kitab al-Shifa is more of a handbook of traditions and remains a popular devotional text.

This is true of the chapter devoted to Muhammad’s birth as well, in which Qadi Iyad collects stories stretching back to al-Bakri and other sources. Iyad recounts how a light that outshined the stars in its brilliance issued from the Prophet when he was born; how because of his presence, his wet-nurse Halima always had abundant milk for him, and her animals were fertile and abundant as well; and how those who ate with him were never left unsatisfied. As befits a man who would change the course of history, all of nature and the works of man convulsed at his arrival. As the translation of Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley puts it:

These are the wonders that took place on the night he was born: the arcade of [the Persian emperor] Khusrow shook and its balconies fell down, the waters of Lake Tiberias ebbed, and the flame of Persia, which had not been put out for a thousand years, was extinguished.

This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.

Thank You for Smoking: Abd al-Ghani Al-Nabulsi and the Ottoman Tobacco Controversy

A seventeenth-century Muslim intellectual's staunch defense of smoking sheds light on the practice's connection to modernity and the concept of recreation

A man smoking a water pipe from Jerusalem, 1875, photo by English photographer Frank Mason Good (1839-1928), the National Library of Israel collections

The Middle East is in love with cigarettes. Even as tobacco use is declining globally, in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh — as well as in Tel Aviv — smoking remains widespread, and in some countries is even increasing. According to a recent report, Jordan, for one, has one of the highest rates of tobacco consumption in the world: more than 80% of Jordanian men are regular smokers, averaging 23 cigarettes a day.

Although tobacco seems woven into the fabric of daily life in the region today, it was not always so. When tobacco, native to the new world, was first introduced in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-sixteenth century, it was the topic of fierce disagreement. Was tobacco healthy or harmful? Is smoking permissible in Islam, or should it be forbidden?

Preachers, poets, religious leaders, and government officials all weighed in on the debate. But one of the most prominent voices belonged to Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, a unique figure and an influential Damascene scholar, mystic, and intellectual. Al-Nabulsi wrote a treatise in praise of smoking, Al-ṣulḥ bayn al-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhkhān (“Making peace between brothers on the issue of legalizing smoking”); a 1774 manuscript of the book, copied from the author’s own handwritten version, is just one of the many works by al-Nabulsi in the collection of the National Library of Israel. How did this reclusive Sufi come to be one of tobacco’s main defenders?

The opening page of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s 1682 defense of smoking Al-ṣulḥ bayn al-ikhwān fī ḥukm ibāḥat al-dukhkhān, the National Library of Israel collections

When tobacco first came to the Middle East via Europe, it was considered an innovative medical treatment for everything from burns to poisoning. However, by the first decade of the seventeenth century, as more and more men and women took up recreational smoking, resistance to the practice also increased. One of the basic issues that tobacco faced, from a religious perspective, was that, as a novel product, it was not mentioned in the Quran, the hadith literature about the Prophet Muhammad and his sayings, or in the authoritative codes of Islamic law.

In the face of this silence, tobacco’s numerous opponents pounced. Reasoning from analogy–qiyas, a common method in Islamic jurisprudence–they argued that tobacco could be compared to that other prohibited substance, alcohol. Tobacco, critics argued, produced similar intoxicating effects, as exemplified by the dizziness suffered by new smokers.

People resting and smoking at a roadside stall near Jerusalem, photo by English photographer Frank Mason Good (1839-1928), the National Library of Israel collections

Other than such scriptural arguments, critics claimed that tobacco was detrimental to health: reducing strength, causing bad breath, and dulling the senses. Smokers also were dirty, their clothes covered in smudges and ash. What’s more, this physical contamination, it was claimed, was accompanied by an even more dire moral impurity. Smoking caused idleness, and its newness– “deviating innovation” (bid‘a in Arabic)– was taken as inherently threatening. As James Grehan has written in a comprehensive article on the subject:

In the most extravagant visions, the fire and smoke that accompanied the act of lighting a pipe conjured up hellfire and eternal damnation. Critics warned that smokers would appear on the Day of Judgment with blackened faces and hookahs hung around their necks; until that time, they would burn in their graves, like the tobacco in their pipes.

The opposition to tobacco was not limited to intellectual circles and the arguments of the learned. The Ottoman authorities made numerous attempts to prohibit and confiscate tobacco. Though ultimately unsuccessful, these crackdowns were accompanied by brutal and bloody enforcement of the rules.

Nabulsi did not start out as smoking’s premier champion. Born in Damascus in 1641 to a family originally from Jerusalem, al-Nabulsi was a prolific Sufi mystic and scholar who authored over 250 works. Extremely wide-ranging in his interests and expertise, al-Nabulsi wrote commentaries on books by earlier mystics, especially the thirteenth century master Ibn Arabi, as well as poetry, travelogues, books on architecture and agriculture, and law. In his lifetime and for more than a century after his death, al-Nabulsi remained profoundly influential, both through his writings and a wide circle of students. It is no wonder then that the National Library houses manuscripts of twenty-six of his works, as well as several others that he himself copied or owned.

A late nineteenth century manuscript of Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi’s agricultural treatise “‘Ilm al-malāḥa fī ‘ilm al-falāḥa,” the National Library of Israel collections.

Al-Nabulsi defended smoking against its detractors on multiple fronts; while he only became a smoker himself during the course of his travels to Mecca over a decade later, his arguments were already forceful and fully formed when he composed the book in 1682.

Concerning health, al-Nabulsi denied that there was a link between smoking and illness, and argued that the physicians who prescribed tobacco as a remedy knew their business much better than critics untrained in medicine.

In fact, his book on smoking opens with just such medical arguments. In the first lines of the composition, al-Nabulsi praises God that tobacco is good for the body: drying the humors, removing phlegm, helping the intestines digest food, improving the mind, and all kinds of other benefits. “Apart from these, its usefulness against poison has been demonstrated in the medical literature,” he adds, “especially against the poison of the scorpion.”

But his more interesting arguments touched on tobacco’s status in Islamic law. He countered the claims of those who dismissed tobacco as a “deviating innovation,” saying that they were deluded by prejudice, ignorance, and knee-jerk conservatism. Al-Nabulsi writes that he chose to author the treatise not because he likes smoking or in order to join the debate on tobacco for its own sake, but rather to find the truth of the issue. He rejects the use of qiyas by those who argued against tobacco, and says if no scriptural source explicitly bans the substance, it should be permitted. While the context here only concerns the permissibility of smoking, the distinction between the truth and the law, and between the sublime mystics who perceive the former and the more limited doctors of the law who deal with the latter, is a central and recurring theme of al-Nabulsi’s thought.

At heart, and fascinatingly, al-Nabulsi’s arguments amount to a defense of a value that to us is quite familiar, but which was then a new and radical concept: fun. In making room for smoking, Nabulsi was also arguing that greater space be given to private life and private enjoyment, so long as it did not explicitly violate the strictures of Islamic law.

To a great degree, al-Nabulsi was following in the wake of social changes that were already underway. Tobacco, like coffee before it, became so popular precisely because it was convivial, encouraging conversation and the blurring of social boundaries; this was especially true in the coffeehouse, where members of different classes could meet, relax, and talk, their gatherings fueled by the stimulants in their smoke and drink. Writing on the cusp of modernity, al-Nabulsi was defending not just smoking but a central part of what it meant to be modern itself.

The Mathematics of Mecca

How advanced mathematics were used for Islamic religious purposes in the Middle Ages

Diagram of the geometrical method of determining the qibla. From an eighteenth century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa ("Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy by Mahmud al-Jaghmini"), the National Library of Israel collections

In the middle of the Grand Mosque in Mecca sits the Ka‘ba, the black-covered, square edifice that is the most sacred site in Islam. While the Ka‘ba predates the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation of the religion in the seventh century—the tradition ascribes its construction to Abraham or even Adam—it is a central symbol and a focal point of worship for Muslims around the world. This is no more apparent than during the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, when millions of believers gather in the holy city. The vast courtyard of the Grand Mosque fills with white-clad pilgrims performing tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the House of God.

However, the Ka‘ba is central to prayer throughout the year, not only during the hajj: just as Jews face Jerusalem during their worship, the Ka‘ba marks the direction of Muslim prayer, the qibla. In fact, Jews and Muslims do not only share the idea of orienting prayer in general, but Jerusalem in particular. Before the Prophet Muhammad declared Mecca to be the direction of prayer, the early Muslim community prayed towards Jerusalem, and the city has retained its sanctity as the third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina.

Early 18th-century European map of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, including the Ka’ba, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

The qibla is built into the architecture of mosques, which include a niche, called the mihrab, in the wall facing Mecca. When praying at home or outside, individual worshipers must determine the qibla for themselves.

Today, finding the direction of the Ka‘ba from any location on the globe is a relatively easy affair: qibla compasses built into prayer rugs, smartphone apps, and Youtube guides can point the way.

But before modernity, finding the qibla was no easy matter, and precise determinations demanded serious mathematical skills.

Photograph of the mihrab prayer niche in the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria, taken in 1938 by A. Reid. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Magnetic compasses were first introduced in the Islamic world from China in the thirteenth century, and their use in locating the qibla was described in royal Yemenite astronomer Al-Ashraf Umar ibn Yusuf’s  (d. 1296) On the Use of the Compass Bowl (tasa) for the Determination of the Qibla, written around 1290. The text describes the making of a compass using a bowl filled with water and an iron needle magnetized with a lodestone. After locating the compass’s true north, ibn Yusuf instructs readers to count twenty-seven degrees along the rim of the compass eastward; this is the qibla for the central Yemenite cities of Aden, Ta‘izz and Zabid. As Yusuf writes:

Pray in that direction, because, when the north line is known, you know the qibla of every locality of the climates according to (its) deviation and according to all the surrounding degrees on the circle of the entire rim of the bowl that are associated with it.

Geometrical models for determining the qibla also abounded. Numerous works of scientific astronomy, which build on and refine the work of the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100-170 CE), whose writings were first translated to Arabic in the eighth century, also contain a chapter on determining the finding the azimuth of Mecca from a given locale. Rather than an extraneous, religious curiosity, qibla calculation was a standard topic in Islamic science.

European map of the Arabian Peninsula, including an inset drawing of the Ka’ba and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the 1750s, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

An example of such a geometrical model can be found in a manuscript from the National Library of Israel’s collection, written around the same time as Ibn Yusuf’s work. Composed by Ottoman astronomer Qadizade al-Rumi (1364-1346), the book is a commentary on Mahmud al-Jaghmini’s early thirteenth century Compendium on Astronomy (mulakhkhas fi al-hay’a), which amassed over sixty commentaries and translations into Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew. The Mulakhkhas, one of the most successful astronomical textbooks of all time, was intended as an introduction to astronomy for advanced students, conveying detailed information in a concise, consistent, and comprehensive way.

Jaghmini provides instructions for locating the qibla using a sundial. Marking the points on a circle where the shadow cast by the sundial reaches just before noon and again towards evening determines the east-west line and the north-south meridian. If one knows the difference between the longitude and latitude of Mecca and one’s own location, one can then geometrically find the qibla—at least approximately.


Diagram of the “Indian circle” method for calculating the cardinal directions using a sundial. From an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa (“Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy” by Mahmud al-Jaghmini), the National Library of Israel collections

The manuscript includes two diagrams illustrating the method for the city of Samarkand, where Jaghmini lived, a major cultural center in the Middle Ages. The first diagram shows the positions of the sun (the red circles) and of the black shadows, as well as the east-west and north-south lines.

Diagram of the geometrical method of determining the qibla. From an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa (“Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy” by Mahmud al-Jaghmini), the National Library of Israel collections

The second diagram shows the actual determination of the qibla. Since Samarkand is to the northeast of Mecca, one is then to indicate the respective difference with lines parallel to the east-west line and the north-south meridian. A line segment drawn from the center to the edge of the circle through the point of intersection of the two new lines indicates the direction of prayer. The diagram also shows the direction for the region of Khwarezm, another important region located in Central Asia.

Abraham the Pilgrim: An Islamic Perspective

A look at the figure of Abraham the Patriarch in the Islamic tradition, with the help of manuscripts from the National Library of Israel's Islam and Middle East Collection

A prophetic and heroic genealogy including an illustration of Abraham, from a Turkish translation of the 13th century cosmological text, the "ʿAcāʾib ül-maḫlūḳāt ü ġarāʾib ül-mevcūdāt", the National Library of Israel collections

Everyone thinks they know the story of Abraham, the biblical patriarch. The first monotheist, he left his father’s house and followed God’s command to go to the Promised Land. His wife Sarah was barren and he had a child, Ishmael, with his handmaiden Hagar; Sarah later forced the mother and son into exile. God revealed to him that he would be the forefather to a great nation, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. God then asked the father to sacrifice his son, a ritual killing only narrowly averted by last-minute angelic intervention.

For Jewish and Christian readers of the book of Genesis—and later commentaries on those stories—Abraham is one of the best-known biblical figures. However, Abraham and his stories also have another life. In the Quran, where he is mentioned in some 245 verses, and the vast commentary literature on the pre-Islamic prophets, known as “stories of the prophets” (qissas al-anbiya), Abraham plays a central role as founding monotheist, forefather, and forerunner to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Quran calls Abraham khalil Allah, the friend of God (and the source of the Arabic name al-Khalil for the city of Hebron) and hanif, a term that distinguishes Abraham from the idol-worshipping polytheism into which he was born; Muhammad is called by the same term. Like the Bible, the Quran also relates the accounts of Abraham’s setting out for a new land, his covenant with God, the announcement of the birth of Isaac in his old age, and his attempted sacrifice of his son—though in the Quranic story it is unclear which son is the sacrifice, and later commentators disagree whether the story refers to Isaac or to Ishmael.

A folio from a 1601 Indian manuscript of the Quran showing Surat al-Baqarah, verse 257, which mentions Abraham, the National Library of Israel collections

But there is a twist: the Quran also includes tales that do not appear in the biblical tradition at all. Many of those stories are woven into one of the most important Islamic rituals: the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj.

Every year, the hajj brings millions of Muslims from across the globe to the sacred sites in Mecca, the city of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth where he received his first revelations. The order of the rituals – known as manasik and celebrated during the pilgrimage – was fixed by the prophet himself. When believers today circle the Ka‘ba, the “House of God” that is the holiest site in Islam and which Muslims face in their prayers, they are following the example of the prophet when he took part in his first and only hajj in 630 CE, just before his death.

But they are also following in the footsteps of Abraham. While stories about Abraham’s role in the hajj actually predate Islam, and were part of the pilgrimage to the Ka‘ba, an ancient site of worship, long before the Prophet Muhammad, the Quranic revelation canonized those tales as part of the new religion.

Illustration of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, including the Ka’ba and the Maqam Ibrahim, from the 1643 Turkish poem on pilgrimage rituals, the menāsik ül- ḥacc, the National Library of Israel collections

The Quran tells us that Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka‘ba and purified it. As Quran 2:125 states:


And [remember] when We made the House a place of visitation for mankind, and a sanctuary. “Take the station of Abraham as a place of prayer.” And We made a covenant with Abraham and Ishmael, “Purify My House for those who circumambulate, those who make retreat, and those who bow and prostrate.


The station or place of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim) mentioned in the verse is located inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca near the Ka‘ba. The spot, where pilgrims pray as one of the hajj rituals, is marked with a stone that tradition states bears Abraham’s footprint. Commentators have relayed a number of versions of how Abraham’s footprint became embedded in the stone: that he stood on the stone when building the upper walls of the Ka‘ba, or that he stood there when calling on all humanity to perform the pilgrimage, or that Abraham himself prayed on the stone. Some commentators, like the historian of Mecca Al-Azraqi (d. 834), say that Abraham and Ishmael did not just build the Ka‘ba but performed all the hajj rituals, just as they are done today.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael, one of the most plaintive in the Bible, is closely connected to the hajj as well. According to the eminent medieval historian al-Tabari (839-923), after Sarah forced out Hagar and Ishmael, the angel Gabriel directed Abraham to lead them to the future site of the Ka‘ba, which was then a barren hill of clay.

Illustration of the hills of Safa (top) and Marwa (bottom), from the 1643 Turkish poem on pilgrimage rituals, the menāsik ül- ḥacc, the National Library of Israel collections

After Abraham left the mother and infant son behind, Ishmael became thirsty, but there was no water to be found. Desperate, Hagar thought she heard the sound of running water on the nearby hill of Safa, but found nothing; she thought she heard a sound on the hill of Marwa, too, but found nothing. After running back and forth between the hills, located just a few hundred meters from the Ka‘ba, she came back to Ishmael and found him sitting in water that had miraculously burst forth from an underground spring.

This story, told in other versions as well, is meant to explain the hajj rituals of sa‘y, “running” back and forth seven times between the two hills—a ritual now conducted in a covered corridor with designated lanes for forward and back—and drinking the waters of the Zamzam spring.

Rooting the hajj rituals in the life of Abraham connects Muslims—historically and today—in an unbroken chain to the purest, most authentic, and ancient monotheistic traditions. That is part of the reason why the experience of the hajj is so powerful for those who take part in it. Muslim children around the world grow up with these stories, “internalizing their geography as a personal landscape whose contours and history define who they are,” as contemporary thinker Ziauddin Sardar has written (Mecca: The Sacred City, London: Bloomsbury, 2014). During the hajj the geography of those narratives transcendently comes to life.


This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.


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