Rabiul Awwal, or in transliteration Rabīʿ al-Awwal, is the third month of the Islamic lunar calendar, which is known as the hijrī calendar. It comes after Muḥarram and Ṣafar and it is also known as Rabīʿ al-Anwār by some Muslim scholars. The name Rabiul Awwal which literally means the first spring was introduced during the pre-Islamic era, approximately in 412 CE, i.e. during the days of Kilāb ibn Murrah, the fifth great grandfather of our Prophet Muḥammad PBUH. It was reported that the Thamūd of al-ʿArab al-Bāʾidah (the extinguished Arabs) called it as Mwrid whilst al-ʿArab al-ʿĀribah (the Arabic Arabs), or as some would term as al-ʿArab al-Bāqiyah (the endured Arabs), named it Ṭalīq. No name was reported from al-ʿArab al-Mustaʿribah (the Arabised Arabs).
It seems that the month was known in the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula as al-Khawwān which denotes betrayals. Historians assumed that it was named as such for the increasing number of betrayals that will usually take place in this month due to armed fights that often started in the preceding month, Nājir (the force of thirst). This happens because the first month that is al-Muʾtamar or al-Muʾtamir is the sacred month of conference and consultation where attacks are prohibited and must be delayed to the second month, except when the latter is brought forward. The pre-Islamic Arabs of the peninsula have later changed their names to Muḥarram and Ṣafar, and whenever Ṣafar is brought forward to allow for a fight, they are deemed Ṣafarān (the two Ṣafars). One shall look up the various interpretation of the system of nasīʾ in the Arabic pre-Islamic calendar to have a better grasp of the dating system.
Nevertheless, there are several opinions for the reason of the name Rabiul Awwal. It is supposed to refer to its position during the pre-Islamic period within the Arab’s six-season scheme; two months of first spring, two months of summer, two months of heat, two months of second spring, two months of autumn and two months of winter. Some said it happened that the month occurred in the first spring during the naming exercise. Others viewed that it is the month where the Arabs tend to grow (tarbīʿ) their ownings particularly animals acquired from the spoils of wars they joined in the previous month. There are also those who opined that the month came in autumn where people and animals would keep themselves irtibāʿ or in waiting (literally vernalization). However, the Arabs called it spring (rabīʿ) for better luck. The final view argues that there is no connection between the names of the months and the names of the seasons. Arabs, according to them, referred to rabīʿ by two types of ‘spring’: the ‘spring’ months and the spring season. The spring or growing months refer to Rabiul Awwal and Rabiul Thani that occur after Ṣafar, whilst the spring season is of two times; the first is when truffles and iris are blooming and the second is when fruits are ready to be harvested.
When Islam came, the name of Rabiul Awwal was retained. Hence, the birth of Prophet Muḥammad (PBUH) was remembered to be in Rabiul Awwal, and not by the name Khawwān. This is the first event of Sīrah that took place in Rabiul Awwal and the most celebrated one by Muslims across the world from the beginning of the sixth/twelfth century, regardless of its various forms of celebration from reading a book of prophetic biography to commemorative rituals and ceremonial events. It was proposed by some that the pious ascetic Muʿīn al-Dīn Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar ibn Muḥammad ibn Khiḍr (570AH/1174CE) of Erbil, also known as ʿUmar al-Malla, was the first to host commemorative sessions at his zāwiyah (lodge) in Mosul. Many, however, attributed it to the Fatimids particularly its fourth king, al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh (re. 341-365ΑΗ/953-975CE) who made it an official annual festival alongside several other birthday celebrations. The third view argues that it was al-Malik al-Muʿaẓẓam Muẓaffar al-Dīn Abū Saʿīd Gökböri (d.630AH/1232CE), the King of Erbil who initiated the proper grand celebration in 620AH. A book titled al-Tanwīr fī Mawlid al-Sirāj al-Munīr was composed by the ḥadīth scholar Ibn Diḥyah al-Kalbī (d.633AH/1235CE) following the request of the king. The exact date of the birthday has been a point of dispute amongst Muslim scholars and it ranges between 2nd, 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th, and 17th of Rabiul Awwal. Similarly, Muslim scholars also debated over the validity of the celebration between acceptance or considering it as a heretical innovation. Nevertheless, they agreed on the occurrence of the birth in Rabiul Awwal except for a single view that pointed out Ramaḍān instead. It was also reported that from amongst the suggestions for the first month of the hijrī calendar during the time of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb was Rabiul Awwal for it would remind the community of the birth of the Prophet.
Speaking of hijrī calendar, it was known as such in relation to the hijrah (migration) of the Prophet from Makkah to Yathrib to establish the first Muslim community. The name of Yathrib was changed later to Madinah. In Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, the Prophet was reported saying: “I have been commanded to migrate to a residence which would overpower other residences. The people (of this area) call it Yathrib (the cursed area), whilst it is in fact the civilized area (al-Madīnah). It will eliminate uncivilized individuals just as a furnace removes the alloy of iron.” The event of hijrah then marks the rise of the adab-ized (educated) society and unites the tribes of Yathrib amongst themselves and with the emigrants. The move towards unity and brotherhood was reflected as well in the establishment of muʿākhah (emigrant-native assistant pact of brotherhood) introduced by the Prophet. In the Ṣaḥīḥ of al-Bukhārī, it is reported that when the emigrants reached Madinah, the Prophet established the bond of fraternity between ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿAwf and Saʿd ibn al-Rabīʿ. Saʿd said to ʿAbd al-Raḥmān, “I am the richest of all the Anṣār (native assistants), so I wish to divide my property between us.” Although the date of departure from Makkah has been debated by scholars, the arrival in Yathrib was accepted to be in Rabiul Awwal. The significance of hijrah has led some scholars to assert that it is the most important event that took place in Rabiul Awwal, more important even than the birth of the Prophet. The count of the hijrī year in the new Islamic lunar calendar considered this as a beginning of a new community although Muḥarram was chosen as the first month of the year to retain the normal system of pre-Islamic Arabia.
The formation of this new community which can also be regarded as the establishment of al-jamaʿah al-Islāmiyyah, was followed by a series of prominent events. Since hijrah of the Prophet himself was completed in Rabiul Awwal, the establishment of the first mosque in Islam happened undoubtedly in the same month. It was reported that during his migration to Yathrib, the Prophet (PBUH) stopped by a village that was inhabited by the clan of ʿAmru ibn ʿAwf, a tribe of al-Aws. It is located three kilometers away from the current Masjid Nabawī. The village was named after a well inside it known as Qubāʾ. Thereupon, the Prophet laid down the foundation for the first mosque in the history of Islam, Masjid Qubāʾ. It is one of the most significant mosques referenced in the Quran. Even after his settlement in Madinah, the Prophet made it a habit to come to Masjid Qubāʾ every week, either by foot or riding his camel and offer two rakʿah prayer therein. He mentioned: “Whoever purifies himself at his house, comes to Masjid Qubāʾ and offers one prayer therein, he will receive a reward like that for an ʿumrah (minor pilgrimage).”
Rabiul Awwal then is the month of the establishment of the jamāʿah and the first jāmiʿ (mosque). Interestingly, the first Jumʿah prayer was also performed in Rabiul Awwal. It was reported that the Prophet left the village of the clan of ʿAmru ibn ʿAwf on Friday and on his way to Yathrib, he passed by the village of the clan of Sālim ibn ʿAwf. Thereupon, the people of Sālim grabbed the rope of his camel and said to him: “O Prophet of Allah, you have stayed at the place of our cousins for several days. If you passed by our place and you did not stay, they will claim the pride before us until forever.” Hence, the Prophet alighted there and performed the first Jumʿah with approximately 100 individuals. Amongst the attendees were the men from the clan of ʿAmru ibn ʿAwf who escorted him from Qubāʾ and the Prophet’s relatives from the clan of Mālik ibn al-Najjār, a tribe of Khazraj who came to celebrate him. Later, a mosque was built in this area and named Masjid al-Jumʿah. It is also known as Masjid Banī Sālim and Masjid ʿĀtikah.
The Prophet lived in Madinah for ten years. He departed this world at the age of 63. This most trying event of the nascent Muslim community also took place in Rabiul Awwal as agreed by most Muslim scholars. Ibn Rajab wrote: “When the Prophet passed, the serenity of the Muslim community was extremely disrupted. There were amongst them who were shocked and disoriented. Some collapsed to the ground and could not stand. Some were dumbstruck and could not speak. Some even denied his demise.” al-Imām al-Dārimī reported a ḥadīth in which the Prophet said: “Whoever is afflicted with calamity, then let him remind himself of my calamity for it is the greatest calamity.” In a similar narration by Ibn Mājah, he said: “O people, whoever amongst the people or amongst the believers is afflicted with a calamity, then let him console himself by thinking of my parting (of this world), for no one amongst my nation will be stricken with any calamity worse than losing me.” Indeed, the death of the Prophet is the greatest calamity. Al-Qurṭubī said: “The Prophet has spoken the truth. The calamity associated with his loss is greater than any other calamities afflicting a Muslim until the Day of Resurrection. Revelation is cut off and the prophetic direct guidance has ended.” Anas ibn Mālik RA reported: “The day the Messenger of Allah PBUH came to Madinah, everything in it became illuminated. The day when the Messenger of Allah PBUH died, everything in Madinah became dark. We had not yet brushed off the dust from our hands after the burial of the Messenger of Allah PBUH, but we already denied our hearts."
These are the most prominent events in the sīrah of the Prophet (PBUH). Rabiul Awwal presents us with mixed feelings whenever it arrives. To continue, the appointment of the first caliph also happened in Rabiul Awwal. As the companions were tending to the preparation for the funeral of the Prophet, some of the Anṣār gathered at the saqīfah (courtyard) of the clan of Sāʿidah ibn Kaʿb, a tribe of Khazraj to discuss the succession. This gathering eventually led to the appointment of Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq RA and he was then designated as khalīfat Rasūl Allāh (the successor of the Messenger of Allah). Abu Bakr was succeeded by a number of caliphs bearing the title of Amīr al-Muʾminīn until the time of al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī RA, the grandson of the Prophet. Due to conflicts and frictions that surged in the Muslim community, al-Ḥasan gave up his post to Muʿāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān RA. This event took place in Rabiul Awwal and the year was also known as ʿām al-jamāʿah (the year of unity).
There were some other less known or disputed events reported in historical references that took place in Rabiul Awwal. Some sources have proposed that the first meeting between the Prophet and the angel Gabriel occurred in Rabiul Awwal as he was appointed as a prophet at the beginning of his forty. The majority refuted this emphasizing that it took place in Ramadan as the Prophet was in the cave of Ḥirāʾ during the meeting. Some scholars reconciled between the opinions by saying that the verses of Iqraʾ were revealed to him in Ramadan whereas the verses of al-indhār (giving warning) from al-Muddaththir were revealed in Rabiul Awwal. Others suggested that he was assigned as a prophet through a dream in Rabiul Awwal and after six months, revelation came to him while he was awake in the cave. It was reported as well that a group of jinn (genies) came to listen to his propagation in Rabiul Awwal. These are instances related to his biʿthah and daʿwah (mission). There were also several expeditions and invasions that took place in Rabiul Awwal such as the invasion of Buwāṭ in 2AH, the first expedition to Badr or the invasion of the valley of Safawān in 2AH, the raid of Dhī Amar or the raid of Ghaṭafān at Najd in 3AH, the patrolling invasion of Buhrān at Ḥijāz in 3AH, the invasion of the Jewish tribe of Naḍīr in 4AH, the expedition of Dūmat al-Jandal between Madinah and Damascus in 5AH, the expedition of Muḥammad ibn Maslamah to Dhī al-Qaṣṣah at Najd in 6AH, the invasion of the tribe of Liḥyān ibn Hudhayl in 6AH, and the expedition of Zayd ibn al-Ḥārithah in al-Jumūm in 6AH. In relation to his family life, two of his wives died in Rabiul Awwal. They are Zaynab RA and Juwayriyah RA. His daughter Ruqayyah RA was born in Rabiul Awwal and Umm Kulthūm RA was married to ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān RA in Rabiul Awwal as well. In some reports, his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib RA embraced Islam in the month of Rabiul Awwal.
In addition to the events of sīrah mentioned above, there are also several interesting facts related to Rabiul Awwal mentioned in the books of Islamic history. Having established himself in Egypt, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī took over Damascus in Rabiul Awwal after the death of Nūr al-Dīn Zinkī. This is the first important step that led to the unity of the Muslim world, particularly Egypt and Syria, and eventually allowed them to liberate al-Aqsa from the crusaders. Egypt was previously under the Fatimid and Syria was under the Abbasid. Ṣalāh al-Dīn was designated as Sultān Miṣr wa al-Shām due to this achievement and remembered as one of the most prominent figures of the Muslim world. Additionally, there is a list of prominent figures who were born in Rabiul Awwal. The list includes al-Imām Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d.241AH/855CE), the eponymous founder of the Ḥanbalī madhhab and the leader of the proponents of ḥadīth, Abū ʿAbd Allah al-Ḥākim of Nishapur (d.405AH/1014CE), the founder of the science of ḥadīth criticism, Abū al-Qāsim al-Qushayrī (d.465AH/1074CE), the renown ṣūfī scholar, master and author, Mawlānā Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī (d.672AH/1273CE), the famous ṣūfī master and poet, Ibn Taymiyyah al-Ḥarrānī (d.728AH/1328CE), the grand Muslim theologian, scholar and reformer, Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (d.748AH/1348CE), the eminent Muslim historian and ḥadīth scholar, and Taşköprüzade Ahmet (d.968AH/1561CE), an Ottoman historian-chronicler. The contribution of these luminaries to the Muslim community is beyond the pages of this writing.
Replete with momentous historical events, Rabiul Awwal should have encouraged Muslims to study the sīrah of the Prophet, the history of Islam and the way to improve their relationship with Allah, His messenger, and His creation. This is not to say that they should single out this month for that purpose, rather it is natural to find that memories of significant events are attached to the movement of time, and thus, invite a shift of focus in the mind whenever it arrives. Significant moments disrupt the daily rhythm of life and its routine and as such, should be exploited to improve one’s journey in this world. Historically and sociologically, society tend to host celebrations to mark this collective transformative experience. Nevertheless, the fiqh of celebration is not the main aim of this writing. In short, paganistic celebrations are definitely rejected in Islam. Popular celebration of certain events is a matter of long heated debate, and intellectual reflection appears to be the most beneficial one to a Muslim seeking the meaning and significance of Rabiul Awwal.
Dr. Khairil Husaini Bin Jamil is an assistant professor at International Islamic University Malaysia. He is the Editor-in-Chief of al-Burhan Journal of Qur'an and Sunnah Studies.