From Superstitions into Light
Rabi’ul-Awwal is the most significant month in the Islamic history, because humanity has been blessed in this month by the birth of the Holy Prophet Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). Before the birth of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) not only the Arabian peninsula, but also the so-called civilized nations of Rome and Persia were drowned in the darkness of ignorance, superstitions, oppression and unrest. The Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) came with the eternal truth of Tawḥīid (Oneness of Allāh), the only faith which provides a firm basis for the real concepts of knowledge, equity and peace. It was this faith which delivered humanity from ignorance and superstitions and spread the light of true knowledge all over the world.
Thus the birth of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was the most significant and the most remarkable event in human history. Had there been room in Islamic teachings for the celebration of birthdays or anniversaries, the birthday of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) would have undoubtedly deserved it more than the birthday of any other person. But that is against the nature of Islamic teachings. That is why, unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, there are very few festivals in Islām, which provides for only two ʿEids (ʿEidul-fitr and ʿEidul-Aḍḥā) during the whole year. The dates of these two ʿEids do not correspond to the birthday of any of the outstanding persons of Islamic history, nor can their origin be attributed to any particular event of history that had happened on these dates.
Both of these two ʿEids have been prescribed for paying gratitude to Allāh on two happy occasions every year. The first event is the completion of the fasts of Ramaḍān and the second event is the completion of Ḥajj, another form of worship regarded as one of the five pillars of Islām.
The manner prescribed for the celebration of these two ʿEids (festivals) is also different from non-Islamic festivals. There are no formal processions, illumination or other activities showing formal happiness. On the contrary, there are congregational prayers and informal mutual visits to each other, which can give real happiness instead of its symbols only.
Islām has not prescribed any festival for the birthday of any person, however great or significant he may be. The prophets of Allāh are the persons of the highest status amongst all human beings. But neither the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) nor his noble companions observed birthdays or anniversaries. Even the birth day of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), the most happy day for mankind as a whole, was never celebrated by the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) himself, nor by his blessed Companions.
The Companions of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) remained alive after him for about a century, but despite their unparalleled and profound love towards the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) they never celebrated the birthday or the anniversary of the death of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). Instead, they devoted their lives promoting the cause of Islām, bringing his teachings into practice, conveying his message to the four corners of the world and establishing Islamic order in every walk of life.
The Origins of Christmas
In fact, commemorating the birth of a distinguished person has never been prescribed by any religion attributing itself to divine revelation. It was originally a custom prevalent in pagan communities only. Even Christmas, the famous Christian feast commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, finds no mention in the Bible or in the early Christian writings. It was only four centuries after the ascension of Jesus Christ that Christmas was recognized as a regular Christian feast.
“It is impossible to determine the exact date of the birth of Christ, either from the evidence of the gospels, or from any sound tradition. During the first three centuries of the Christian era there was considerable opposition in the Church to the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays, although there is some indication that a purely religious commemoration of the birth of Christ was included in the feast of Epiphany. Clement of Alexandria mentions the existence of the feast in Egypt about the year A.D. 200 and we have some evidence that it was observed on various dates in scattered areas. After the triumph of Constantine, the Church at Rome assigned December 25 as the date for the celebration of the feast, possibly about A.D. 320 or 353. By the end of the fourth century the whole Christian world was celebrating Christmas on that day, with the exception of the Eastern Churches, where it was celebrated on January 6. The choice of December 25 was probably influenced by the fact that on this day the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god, and that the Saturnalia also came at this time.”
A similar description of the origin of Christmas is found in the Britannica Encyclopaedia with further details. Its following passage will throw more light on the point:
“Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church, and before the 5th century there was no general consensus of opinion as to when it should come in the calendar, whether on Jan. 6, March 25 or Dec. 25. The earliest identification of Dec. 25 with the birthday of Christ is in a passage, otherwise unknown and probably spurious, of the philos of Antioch (c.180), preserved in Latin by the Magdeburyg centuriators (i, 3, 118), to the effect that the Gauls contended that since they celebrated the birth of Lord on Dec. 25, so they ought to celebrate the resurrection on March 25. A passage, almost certainly interpolated, in ‘Hippelates’ (c. 202) commentary on Daniel iv, 23, says that Jesus was born at Bethlehem on Wednesday, Dec. 25, in the 42nd year of Augustus, but he mentions no feast, and such a feast, indeed, would conflict with the then orthodox ideas. As late as 245, Origin (hem. viii on Leviticus) repudiated the idea of keeping the birthday of Christ “as if he were a king Pharaoh”. 
These two quotes are more than sufficient to prove the following points:
1. The commemoration of birthdays was originally a pagan custom, never recognized by a divine scripture or prophetic teaching.
2. The exact date of the Birth of Sayyidina ʿĪsa is unknown and impossible to be ascertained.
3. The commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ was not a recognized practice in the early centuries of Christian history.
4. It was in the 4th or 5th century that it was recognized as a religious feast, and that, too, under the influence of the pagans who worshipped Sun-god.
5. There was a strong opposition against commemorating birthdays by early Christian scholars like Origin, on the ground that it is originally a custom of pagans and idolaters.
Original Islamic Resources
In original Islamic resources we do not find any instruction about the celebration of birthdays or death anniversaries. Many Companions of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) passed away during his life-time. His beloved wife Sayyidah Khadijah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanha) passed away in Makkah. His beloved uncle Sayyidina Hamzah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) was brutally slaughtered during the battle of Uḥud, and yet, the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) never observed their birthday or their death anniversaries, nor did he ever advise his followers to celebrate his own birthday in Rabi’ul-Awwal.
What is Wrong with These Celebrations
The reason for abstinence from such celebrations is that they divert the attention of people from the real teachings of Islām towards the observance of certain formal activities only. Initially, these celebrations may begin with utmost piety and with a bona fide intention to pay homage to a pious person. Yet, celebration is ultimately infused with an element of merrymaking and rejoicing. It is generally confused with secular festivals and secular, and often sinful activities will gradually creep into it.
The Transformation of Christmas
The example of Christmas will again be relevant. This Christian feast was originally innovated to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ and, of course, to remember his teachings. But once the occasion had been recognized as a feast, all the secular elements of public festivals crept in.
“For several centuries Christmas was solely a church anniversary observed by religious services. But as Christianity spread among the people of pagan lands, many of the practices of the winter solstice were blended with those of Christianity because of the liberal ruling of Gregory I, the great, and the cooperation of the missionaries. Thus, Christmas became both religious and secular in its celebration, at times reverent, at others gay.”
“Merrymaking came to have a share in Christmas observance through popular enthusiasm even while emphasis was on the religious phase. … In the wholly decked great halls of the feudal lords, whose hospitality extended to all their friends, tenants and household, was sailing, feasting, singing and games, dancing, masquerading and mummers presenting pantomimes and masques were all part of the festivities.” 
This is enough to show as to how an apparently innocent feast of reverence was converted into a secular festival where merrymaking and seeking enjoyment took preference over all the religious and spiritual activities.
Being fully aware of this human psychology, Islām has never prescribed, nor encouraged the observance of birthdays and anniversaries, and when such celebrations are observed as part of the religion, they are totally forbidden.
The Religion is Complete
On the last Ḥajj of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), Allāh clearly pronounces:
“Today, I have completed the teachings of your religion.” 
All the teachings of Islām were communicated to the Muslims through the Holy Qur’ān and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). It is forbidden to add anything to them as a part of religion. What was not a part of religion during the lifetime of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) can never become part of it. Such additions are termed by the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) as Bidʿah or innovation.
Thus, the observance of the 12th of Rabi’ul-Awwal as a religious feast is not warranted by any verse of the Holy Qur’ān or by any teaching of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). Had it been a part of the religion it would have been clearly ordered or practiced by the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and his blessed companions or, at least, by their immediate pupils. But no example of the celebration of the occasion can be traced in the early centuries of the Islamic history. It was after many centuries (according to Maulana Yusuf Ludhinavi it was in the year 604 A.H.) that some monarchs started observing the 12th of Rabi’ul-Awwal as the birthday of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) without a sound religious basis, and the congregations in the name of Maulood or Milad were held where the history of the birth of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) used to be narrated.
Disagreement About the Date
The observance of the 12th of this month as the birthday of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is not only an innovation having no basis in the Islamic teachings, but the accuracy of this date as the real birthday of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is also very much doubted. There are different dates suggested in different traditions, and the majority of the authentic scholars is inclined to hold that the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was born on the 9th of Rabi’ul-Awwal. This difference of opinion is another evidence to prove that the observance of the birthday is not a part of the religion, otherwise its exact date would have been preserved with accuracy.
The life of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is, no doubt, the most important source of guidance for all Muslims, and every Muslim is under an obligation to learn and study the events of his life, and to follow the practical example set by him in every sphere of life. The narration of his pious biography (the Seerah) in itself is a pious act, which invites the divine blessings, but the Holy Qur’ān and the Sunnah have not prescribed a particular time or method for it. This pious act should be performed in all the months and at all the times. The month of Rabi’ul-Awwal has not been designated by the Sharīʿah as a special season for holding such congregations to commemorate the birth or life of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). It is thus an innovation (Bidʿah) to restrict the Seerah meetings to the month of Rabi’ul Awwal only, or to believe that the meetings held in this month are worthy of more reward than the meetings held on any other date during the year. In fact, the Companions of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) used to commemorate the life of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) throughout the year, not only by studying and conveying his message to others, but also by following his way of life and acting upon his teachings in each and every branch of their activities; and this is exactly what a Muslim is required to do.
By this we do not mean that the Seerah meetings should not be held in the month of Rabi’ul-Awwal. The point is only that they should not be restricted to it, nor should it be believed that the Sharīʿah has laid any kind of emphasis on holding such meetings in this particular month.
Another point that should always be kept in mind while holding such meetings is that they must be in complete conformity with the rules of Sharīʿah. A Muslim is supposed to abide by the rules of Sharīʿah in all his activities, as such, meetings held in the memory of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) should be free from all acts forbidden by the Sharīʿah.
Contemporary Seerah Meetings and Sharīʿah
It is often observed, especially in Western countries, that Seerah meetings are held where men and women sit together without observing the rules of hijāb prescribed by the Sharīʿah. The teachings of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) are obviously against such mixed gatherings. How can a Seerah meeting bring fruits where such fundamental teachings of the Sharīʿah are openly violated?
In some meetings the Na’ts (poems) in the memory of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) are recited by women before the male audience, sometimes with music, which is totally against the instructions of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). It is clearly prohibited by the Sharīʿah to hold such meetings or to participate in them, because it is not only a violation of the Sharīʿah rules, but it is an affront to the sanctity of the Seerah of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). All other activities, often practiced on the twelfth of Rabi’ul-Awwal, like holding processions, constructing the mock tombs of the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) and illuminating buildings and roads are not warranted by any rule of the Sharīʿah. Rather they are based on conscious or unconscious imitations of certain other religions. No example of such activities can be detected from earlier Islamic history.
Real Message of Seerah
What is really important with regard to the Holy Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is, first, to follow his teachings, and second to make his pious Seerah available to every Muslim; to preserve it in the hearts of the Muslims from childhood; to educate family members, encouraging them to run their lives according to it and to hold it as the most glorious example of the human conduct the universe has ever witnessed — and all this with utmost love and reverence, not manifested by formal activities only, but also through actual behaviour of following the Sunnah. This cannot be done by merely holding processions and illuminating the walls. This requires constant and consistent efforts and a meaningful programme of education and training.