Most UAE Muslims observe the birthday of their religion’s founder, Muhammad, but not all on the same date. The 85 percent that are Sunni Muslims mark the event on the 12th day of the month of Rabiulawal, but the 15 percent who are Shi’a believe it should be celebrated five days later on the 17th of that month. Both agree that Muhammad was born in 570 A.D., that he was the last and greatest of the prophets, and that he is worthy of respect and emulation.
The date varies greatly from year to year, from a Western perspective, since the lunar calendar used does not align well with solar calendars. Therefore, the holiday can fall in December, January, or February.
In some UAE communities, there are large parades and open-air celebrations on this day. Men who attend such parades will often wear green clothing and hold up green flags, while young girls will dress in pink and white. These celebrations sometimes end with the sharing of a meal or of a birthday cake, and food is frequently given out even to non-Muslims.
There are other Muslims who keep Muhammad’s birthday but do not believe in the public celebrations. They use the day to spend extra time reading the Koran, recite suras (Koranic verses), hear religious lectures, pray, and reflect on the lessons to be learned from the life of Muhammad. There is also much recitation of traditional poetic and prose works associated with Muhammad’s life. Much of this more private variety of celebration takes place in Mosques and private homes.
UAE tradition has the family gathering to recite Islamic poetry, much of it from the Al Mawlid Al Barzanji collection. Men of all generations and occupations sit in a U-shaped formation, and an orator with a microphone recites the poems so that they are heard by those residing in every part of the house.
There may also be musical accompaniment, such as the drum-like background music of the Al Daf, a traditional Emirati instrument. After the recitations, sponge cake, tea biscuits, and other Emirati dishes may be indulged in. Any leftovers will be given away to the poor before the day is out.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there used to be recitations of Islamic poetry from the Mawlid performed on television, on stage, and from the Bahar Palace in Abu Dhabi. In those days, the Mawlid would also be recited on occasions such as at weddings, birthdays, or when a baby was born, but nowadays, recitations are almost entirely restricted to Muhammad’s birthday.