Birthdays in Islam

A cake with candles is perhaps the most universal symbol of birthdays. But where did this tradition come from? How much does that matter?

On September 23rd, the eve of my birthday, my mother asked me why Muslims don’t celebrate birthdays. No doubt, she wanted to honor my life and presence in some way, but was perplexed when not allowed that opportunity. “Is it because of the vanity and selfishness that it seems to carry?” She asked. I didn’t say yes to that, because even so, that could be countered easily with methods of celebration stripped of seeming idolization. Instead I mentioned what I believed and knew, that many Muslims did in fact celebrate it, but the more conservative ones avoid it because they are aware of its pagan roots. I have to be a role model for my community. I cannot take the lighter position every time a difference of opinion exists, as convenient as that may be, but most Muslims are already leading the way in that regard. And our choices must be kept in perspective, just as the Prophet  warned us, if we engage in too many doubtful matters, we will almost certainly fall into what Allah has forbidden.

I never celebrated my birthday ever since I accepted Islam. The last birthday I had before then was my 17th. After embracing Islam, I once asked the imam‘s assistant about birthdays. His response, “The Prophet Muhammad  did not celebrate his birthday so we do not celebrate our own.” It was simple enough and I took it for face value, and I lived like that until I left for Medinah, and nearly every birthday I had since was spent abroad–and coincidentally, even from my own family’s birthdays, none of which fell in the summer. However, when I lived in Medinah, I remember meeting a well-known daa’iyah who said he did not see anything wrong with birthday celebrations. But it was my mother’s question that made me think and want to research more and really justify my stance strongly or change it if needed. So within the last 48 hours or so I compiled this brief research, although I admit it is a bit scant, but I do hope that readers will benefit just as I have in compiling it.


 

Birthday Celebration Origins and History in brief

There is hardly any dispute that birthday celebrations did not originate from monotheistic believers, but were introduced among them from people who were not monotheists—i.e. polytheists.

The idea of recording one’s birthdate and keeping it well-memorized is strongly tied to astrological fortune telling and horoscopes. The month and day a person was born, in accordance with the constellations that were above them that night, supposedly determined their personality and many events of their lives. The more influential the person’s position, the greater import their birthdate was given. Other traditions would take the numbers of that birthdate, and make predictions based on that—this is common among Hindus. But historically, the earliest mentions of birthdays are in relation to gods and kings.

As for the manner of celebration we are familiar with today, some allege that they originated from a Germanic 1)In 2007, Wikipedia “Birthdays” read, “It is thought that the large-scale celebration of birthdays in Europe began with the cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia but was spread by soldiers throughout the Roman Empire. Before this, such celebrations were not common; and, hence, practices from other contexts such as the Saturnalia were adapted for birthdays. Because many Roman soldiers took to Mithraism, it had a wide distribution and influence throughout the empire until it was supplanted by Christianity.” pagan superstitious belief that human beings were particularly vulnerable to evil spirits on the anniversary of their birth. To combat this portentous event, friends and family would greet the birthday person and offer gifts in an attempt to lift their mood and repel the evil spirits.

The Germanic pagans, ever attached to nature and “mother earth”, are believed to have adopted specifically round birthday cakes, because the shape is symbolic of the circular nature of life [the turning of the seasons; beginning weak at birth, becoming strong, and returning to weakness in old age, etc.], and the circularity of the sun and moon—whom they worshiped. Pagans also believed that smoke, which they would pray into, would rise up to their gods in the skies. Hence, they used candles, made a prayer or wish, and blew into them, in hopes that the gods would receive the smoke and watch over them and that their prayers and concerns would be addressed more effectively. Blowing out the candles in one breath was a stronger guarantee. Ancient Greeks were the first to use candles on cakes, representative of the moon, and take the lit cake to the temple of Artemis [Roman Diana], the moon goddess, who is often depicted with a crescent shaped bow in front of the moon.

Pagans also might smear the name of the birthday person on the cake to prevent bad luck and jealousy from touching the individual. This is also likely what led to “goodie bags” for guests—repelling jealousy so that everyone gets something.

Party snappers, balloons and whistles were also used to scare away evil spirits and further bring cheer. Birthday spankings and other minor bruisings were meant to drive out ill spirits. Many songs, games and traditions associated with birthday parties were also based on magic and the estimation of luck for the coming year. The birthday hat, in the shape of a cone, is essentially the same as a witch’s cone hat. Much of this information was gathered by Ralph and Adelin Linton in The Lore of Birthdays, 1952.

Even today, among occultists, the birthday is still highly revered. The official website for the “Church of Satan” reads, “Since Satanism is a self-centered religion, the highest holiday of the year would be the Satanist’s own birthday, which needs no ritual but should be spent in doing things a Satanist would enjoy.”

Christianity and birthday celebrations

Celebrating birthdays is common today among all Westerners whether Christian or agnostic. However, the sentiment of some early Kitabi scholars further establishes that birthday celebrations clearly came from outside monotheistic traditions and was not welcome. Since astrology is Biblically condemned (Isaiah 47:13), birthday celebrations were given the same ruling.

Another part of the reason comes from Biblical sentiment. Birthday celebrations are mentioned twice. In Genesis 40:20-22, the Pharaoh’s birthday is celebrated, and he executes his baker. Perhaps the cake did not meet his standards? Prophet Ayyoub is seen expressing great concern over his children when he learns that they celebrated their birthdays (Job 1:4-5). And then again Matthew 14:3-12, on King Herod’s birthday celebration, he grants a woman’s wish by beheading Prophet Yahya John “the Baptist”.

Flavius Josephus, Hebrew historian of the first century, wrote in Against Apion, Book 2, section 25, “Nay, indeed, the Law does not permit us to make celebrations at the birth of our children.”

Origen of Alexandria writes in 245 CE, “None of the saints can be found to ever have held a feast or banquet for his birthday or rejoiced on the day his son or daughter was born.” Catholic Encyclopedia, 2003.

According to M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia v. 1, pg. 817, “The Jews and early Christians regarded birthday celebrations as part of idolatrous worship.”

And attributed to Sulaymān ibn Dāwūd in Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A good name is better than a good ointment, and the day of one’s death better than the day of one’s birth.”

In Medieval times, in extension of Roman, Egyptian and Persian traditions, only the birthdays of nobility were celebrated. Commoners apparently would only celebrate the birthdays of the saint whom they were named after. For example, me being Christopher might have celebrated the birthday of St. Christopher—which may be why Origen noted the saints in particular when critiquing birthday celebrations. Celebrating birthdays among Christians did not become commonplace until the fourth century, when the religion was under heavy influence from Roman leaders, and the faith spread without persecution, and people embraced it or were forcibly registered as Catholics quicker than pagan traditions could be eradicated.

Today, among Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays.

 

Islamic Concerns

 

Birthday celebrations had not spread among the Arabs before Islam, nor did the Muslims during the Prophet’s time discuss it, positively or negatively. While censuses and record keeping existed for the sake of zakat, conscription, jizyah, Islam and kufr, slavery and other details that demanded such records, births and deaths do not seem to be specifically noted. Hence, it’s quite common—in fact the opposite is rare—that even among scholars and kings, the place and year of birth, much less the day, is subject to great dispute. Most Muslims believe, for example, that Abu Bakr and Umar each lived to be 63 years old. What they don’t know is that for each of them, there are nearly a dozen other opinions from their contemporaries about how old they each lived, based on different opinions of their birth years. And such dispute is common and prevalent for nearly all companions, scholars and noteworthy individuals for the first several centuries. All this clearly shows that noting a child’s date of birth was not customary. That does not mean it’s a religious innovation, because there are obviously some benefits concerning rights and privileges. Even for Muslims, if the signs of puberty are delayed, the Prophet ﷺ instructed us that children become Islamically accountable adults [مُكَلَّفون] after they are 15 lunar years old [354 x 15 = 5,310]—about 14 and a half solar/Gregorian years [14 years and 196.37 days to be exact]. Only the Prophet ﷺ himself was known to be born the Year of the Elephant, probably the second Monday in Rabee’ al-Awwal.

The pagan origins of the birthday celebration and every aspect of its celebration that has become commonplace and symbolic of birthdays until present time. These elements, like cakes and candles, balloons and whistlers, wish-making, gathering together and offering gifts to mark the occasion.

Islam, as a faith, is fundamentally based on differing from polytheists and idolaters, and none of their practices should be belittled. Just as Shayṭān fooled one generation, centuries ago, does not mean he cannot fool our own nor that of our descendants if we let our guard down. Consider how patient he was with the people of Nuh, waiting generation to generation, misleading them gradually towards shirk.

For every superstitious practice, belief or idea that appears silly to us, we may find otherwise intelligent people hold that idea in their hearts or even propagate it. Consider how many families teach their children to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy—and various practices to guarantee good luck, like picking up coins that are head’s up while leaving those that are head’s down, or making a wish and tossing a coin into a pond or fountain, or pulling on a turkey’s wish bone, avoiding the number 13, etc. Most parents know that if adults explain something to their children, their children will believe it. Some parents misuse this important privilege and trust by creating false ideas in the minds of their offspring.

Prophet Ibrahim ﷺ understood this, and thus he was persistent in making du’a to Allah to protect himself even and his children from worshiping idols. And even after the Children of Israel witnessed the power of God on numerous occasions and the destroying of their idol-worshipping enslavers the Egyptians, and no doubt received some guidance from Musa ﷺ, they still worshipped the calf, and their descendants worshiped idols in Israel throughout their history. Even the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ foretold that a portion of his followers would worship idols, and that the Day of Resurrection would not come until some Arab tribes resurrect and worship ancient idols. While many Muslim families acknowledge the effects of the jinn and power of the Quran and religiosity in general over those affects, there are still many Muslims who are on less guard than others with regard to superstitious practices. In Malaysia, I met individuals who identified themselves as Muslims, yet they visited Hindu temples, read palms and tea cups, and believed in the “power” of other gods, and they were not illiterate or reactionary in any way, on the contrary, they had degrees and were engaged in business, but it may have been their liberality that led them to be open to the ideas of friends of other religions, superstitions and traditions.

Muslim children may go to a friend’s birthday party, or see a birthday party at their school, and see the birthday child told “make a wish, blow out the candles with one breath and it will come true” and be affected by this. They may even be told the same thing by non-Muslim friends or relatives.

Previous condemnation from Christian leaders before the Church’s mass adoption of pagan symbols. While we do not habitually take our faith and worship from other religions, we definitely take note of what they’ve chosen if a foreign phenomenon reaches them before it reaches us. Evidence for this is clear in that the Prophet ﷺ adopted some Jewish customs upon arriving in Medinah until Allah provided lasting legislation in those areas. If Jews or Christians categorically differed from Pagans or Zoroastrians regarding an issue, the Islamic position will almost always side with Jews and Christians or at least resemble their position more often. Although in all cases, the Muslims try to set themselves apart by being unique.

Otherwise, if we acknowledge birthdays as a time to celebrate, then we’ve followed the bad habits of the People of the Book who followed the pagans. And then we are further validating the Prophet’s threat, that we would follow the ill ways of the religions before us.

The biblical sentiment of numerous prophets that the day of one’s birth is to be cursed and regretted is a sentiment echoed by some of the Salaf. Those who truly believed they would be taken to account on the Day of Resurrection, and counted their sins knew the dangers and risks that they are subject to, and knew that Paradise and Hell were serious matters, sensitive and volatile, as we do not know when death will come to us. Perhaps never living may have been better than exposed to this tempting trial of life.

And as the pagans noted, having such an event in one’s honor sets a person up to be the victim of jealousy and envy. Hence, they smeared the name of the birthday subject on the cake. When other attendees see what has been given to the birthday boy/girl of gifts, they might feel extremely jealous, perhaps act out irrationally or harbor ill feelings. This puts pressure on others, parents of the guest perhaps, to quell their child’s jealousy by getting the spoiled jealous child a similar gift that the birthday child received. This may even by cyclic, so then the birthday child sees their friend with the same gift, outside the context of their birthday, then thinking they’re not so special, even from their special day. Even among adults, sometimes a wife might be especially seductive to her husband on his birthday, which could make the husband’s male friends jealous and covetous if they catch a glimpse of what’s to come.

Birthdays are also frequently taken as opportunities to legally smoke a first cigarette, drink a first beer or visit a strip club. The wealthier a person is, the wealthier their friends and the more extravagant, lewd and wasteful their milestone birthdays are. Some liberal women may even hire a prostitute to pleasure their spouse on his special day—and a group of women may hire a gigolo for their girlfriend’s birthday. The only positive or neutral privileges that come with added years are being able to apply for a driver’s license, work, become a legal autonomous adult and no longer a minor, and therefore be able to apply for other licenses, register to vote, etc.

Another impact that this issue has on our identity is the fact that the “birthdays” we have today, is based on a solar and astrological calendar, not a lunar monotheistic calendar. For example, my September ’84 birthday actually took place on the 28th of Dhul-Hijjah 1404. Who knew!? By the time I turned 32 on the solar calendar, I’m 33 on the Hijri calendar, upon which Ramadan, Hajj and our 15th birthday is based . If most Muslim families, including my own unfortunately, were asked what Hijri day it was, we might be clueless until we check our smartphones. Our Hijri birthdays might pass while we are completely oblivious. If anything, it should be our Gregorian birthday passing by unnoticed. When the reverse is true, it shows how deep we’ve let ourselves be enveloped by western culture.

 

Devil’s Advocate? Responses to the above

As was noted, birthday celebrations were unheard of during the time of the Prophet ﷺ and even the first three generations, so there is no early preserved opinion regarding them—much less consensus—nor any specific definitive nass from the Quran and Sunnah. So their ruling is left to the general `umum texts of the Sharia and qiyas, which makes any individual derived ijtihad unbinding unless all qualified mujtahids implicitly agree.

The “pagan elements” cited above have been completely forgotten and would be unheard of had it not been for researchers bringing this dusty information out in the open. Ignorance is bliss. As a reminder, it’s halal until asked about and investigated, which is blameworthy by itself. Modern birthdays are a far cry from the obvious and well-known and preserved pagan elements and meanings of Halloween, which may be unanimously forbidden by all Muslim scholars across the globe. Birthdays on the other hand are really obscured in that sense, so much so that even many religious and conservative Muslims automatically adopted it without thinking twice, because there is nothing apparently suspect about it. The polytheists of old simply took some positive ideas, bundled them up, and gave superstitious meanings to it. We can’t let them ruin our party, just like Allah did not let the polytheists’ idol worship affect ṭawāf and sa’y. It is not a pure superstition without any good other than a placebo effect, like knocking on wood or carrying a rabbit’s foot or avoiding walking under ladders, opening the umbrella indoors, or turning away from one’s plans based on birds and black cats. Gift giving and family gatherings cannot be grouped with that in any way.

Pagan origins for birthdays may have been forgotten just like it had been for centuries and millennia. The feeling of incompatibility between Islam and surrounding culture is a greater threat to Muslim self-identification and pride than paganism. This sentiment should be avoided when issues of scholarly dispute are concerned and when avoiding participation could be especially difficult depending on a person’s circumstances in life. Also, it is very possible for Muslims to celebrate birthdays without round cakes, candles, balloons, whistlers, or any overtones of “ahah! I’ve cheated death another year!” It’s very possible to surround the event with Islamic reminders amid the joys, just like any Eid celebration.

It brings immense happiness to those who partake, whether young or old, subject or contributor. It is anticipated with joy, and remembered likewise fondly. Even those who do not celebrate it make preparations and are happy for the joy that is experienced by the subject. It is selfless charity from those who make the celebration memorable with gifts, arrangements, good food and dessert. Otherwise, we tend to forget to be charitable and remember the good things about an individual. The process brings such light-hearted stress-free happiness for those involved, that it has been scientifically proven to increase their lifespan. It is far more stress reducing than Thanksgiving—which many scholars allow. Thus, it is one of the greatest stress reducers we know of, making us forget the dunyaa, especially in a world full of stressful incidents, long-term worries, etc., we all need to take a break and celebrate just being alive, remembering family, and having another moment to reflect on our lives, where we’re headed, and where we’re going, for the sake of Allah. The birthday continues to remain one of the most common methods of keeping ties of kinship, as relatives unheard from may make one of two or three annual phone calls on that special day, and all with positive spirit.

Furthermore, the self-worship and over-the-top extravagance that is sometimes the product of spoiled celebrity birthdays is easily avoided. Lavish Ramadan iftars do not mean we should stop celebrating Ramadan or Eid, but merely make their celebrations responsible and within proper boundaries of decency and moderation. Likewise with walimahs and other Islamic occasions, like ‘aqiqahs and funerals.

Also, some of the claims of pessimism with birth are extreme. Birth and children are gifts from Allah! Who would not be happy and grateful when Allah bestows such a gift upon them? Throughout the Quran, Allah recounts His favors on us, and through stories of the Prophet’s, we see that they asked for children, and were grateful when they were granted those children. When a child is born, why wouldn’t the parents remember that day fondly as when Allah granted them a human soul to raise responsibly? The birthday is more of a joy for them than it is for the subject.

And while counting our years may not have been a common habit of the Salaf, it certainly wasn’t forbidden, since the years of Nuh, Adam, Dāwūd and others are mentioned on the Prophet’s tongue or in the Quran. Without doubt, their years of age is determined from when they were born, and not when they reached puberty, got married or any other milestone. Muslim historians and hadeeth experts were very keen to note the birth years and age of scholars and anyone who disseminated knowledge. Scriptures tell us that we’ve hit milestones at age forty—when our strength begins to wane; and again at age sixty—when we should have had enough years to contemplate our reason for being. Why not take the opportunity to put something sweet in the mouth of that individual, offer and modest gift and remind them that their existence and efforts are appreciated?

 

Guidelines for Muslims

Muslims nowadays can often be seen following any of three courses:

1 – Celebrating birthdays in the exact same manner that non-Muslims do—a birthday cake with candles and wish-making; wrapped presents in their name; and other celebratory meanings, like a party with friends, special outing, reservations, etc. This position is probably practiced by most Muslims in the West, especially those who send their children to public schools, since birthdays are celebrated in the classroom, and children will be invited to birthday parties at least a few times a year. However, it is a very doubtful position, since the majority of Muslim scholars have condemned it. A small minority of traditional scholars have allowed it and some du’at with conditions of avoiding exaggeration or forbidden customs—although the references I’ve seen from them suggest they were not yet privy to the pagan origins of the celebration before they made their declarations, so be wary. One thing I whole-heartedly believe Muslims must abstain from, if they celebrate their birthdays traditionally, is making a “birthday wish”. A wish, to no one particular, is shirk. If a “birthday du’aa” is asked of Allah, then it is an innovation, since there is no evidence of any such form of du’aa nor singling that moment out for du’aa. A Muslim should always be making dhikr and du’aa, and there are many well known times and places to engage in specific du’aas, but to invent an extra one is a reprehensible bid’ah.

This is therefore, one of the issues where we realize the great effect of public schools and strong friendship with multiple non-Muslims, and how that increases our likelihood of choosing doubtful minority fiqh opinions, to adapt with our surrounding culture in suspect ways. Families who homeschool or attend Islamic schools feel little to no pressure to celebrate their birthdays, so leaving it off is easy, while invoking it takes effort and planning.

2 – Ignoring birthdays outright, and taking advantage of the time to renew the Muslim identity, strengthen tawheed, and recognize our limited duration on this earth to worship Allah and be good to our neighbors. Many Western du’at and scholars strongly promote this message, like Shaykh Yusuf Estes, Mufti Menk, Muhammad Salah, and others. This position, from a pure Quran and Sunnah perspective, is completely free of any blame or critique, and the safest for God-fearing Muslims to adopt. This is the opinion I am living by insha’Allah.

If some Muslims approached holidays the way they approached the sources and production of food, then birthday celebrating would be a non-issue and extremely frowned upon in our communities. One thing Muhammad Salah reminds us of in particular, which is very important, is that in Islam, we have tons of holidays. Specifically, we have an Eid every single week: jumu`ah. Make that day special. Then when your children are asked about their birthdays they can say, “I don’t celebrate my birthday, but we have a celebration every week.” For Christians, Sundays are a bit somber and boring, but we do not need to follow them in that regard. Allah gave us Fridays as a reminder and as the weekly Eid, so let us treat it as such with a sweet dish, gift or fun activity. Because if our child feels we have taken away their right to celebrate their birthday due to Islam, we should give them something better through Islam.

3 – Take a middle course. This may differ from household to household, individual to individual. For example, accepting things from others, but remain passive and inactive otherwise—attending a halal party invitation if invited, but not taking any steps to throw one even if that would be expected. Or by having desserts other than typical birthday cakes, and definitely avoiding candles and wishing; having fun halal outings; exchanging gifts; and scattering these items across a few days, avoiding the actual birthday, except for a befitting Islamic reminder; and avoiding “happy birthday”. Some young converts for example might accept the celebration when in the presence of relatives, but not bat an eye towards birthdays when they are the decision-maker(s), living alone or as the head of the house.

As a Muslim living in the West, perhaps with non-Muslim friends and/or relatives, the temptation to accept one’s own birthday celebration or participate in the celebrations of other friends or family members is definitely present. Every responsible Muslim must make this choice, and do so based on faith, seeking to please Allah first and foremost. The example of Prophet Ibrahim ﷺ and his abstinence from idolatrous celebrations is the highest model we can take from.

But is this celebration the same as that one? In many ways no it isn’t, which makes the answer to this question subject to noted difference of opinion. However, as a trained researcher in Islam, I personally believe, if you choose to abstain from birthday celebrations and meanings because of it’s doubtful nature, you will be rewarded by Allah for that and raised in status with Allah. I believe that very strongly from the bottom of my heart. And it is not easy to say that, because as I write these words, today is my birthday.

 

Some sources:

http://www.cogwriter.com/birthdays.htm

http://www.triumphpro.com/birthdays-origin.htm

References   [ + ]

1. In 2007, Wikipedia “Birthdays” read, “It is thought that the large-scale celebration of birthdays in Europe began with the cult of Mithras, which originated in Persia but was spread by soldiers throughout the Roman Empire. Before this, such celebrations were not common; and, hence, practices from other contexts such as the Saturnalia were adapted for birthdays. Because many Roman soldiers took to Mithraism, it had a wide distribution and influence throughout the empire until it was supplanted by Christianity.”
About Chris
Chris, aka AbdulHaqq, is from central Illinois and accepted Islam in 2001 at age 17. He studied Arabic and Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia from 2007-13 and most recently earned a master's in Islamic Law from Malaysia. He is married with children.

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