Mother’s Day: A Brief History and Its Practice

In the Name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy

I praise God and ask Him to bless our beloved Prophet Muhammad and those that follow him until the Last Day.

Introduction

In the United States as in most countries, Mother’s Day is annually observed and celebrated on the second Sunday of May. The centralized activity is gift-giving of some form such as giving flowers, taking one’s mother out to eat, etc. with the intent of demonstrating of form of appreciation towards mothers and grandmothers for their constant efforts.

On the surface, it sounds noble; however, there are questions that need to be answered such as what is the origin of Mother’s Day? Has it evolved or does it have a different connotation in the states compared to other countries? Is it solely religious? Most importantly, can a Muslim participate in such an event?

A Brief History of Mother’s Day

In ancient civilizations, honoring Motherhood was observed consisting of spiritual overtones wherein societies celebrated life-like goddesses symbolizing a motherly form and presence. Maternal objects of adoration ranged from female deities to the Christian Church itself.

Ancient Egypt

Specifically, one of the earliest historical records of a society celebrating a “mother deity” can be found among the ancient Egyptians, who held an annual festival to honor the goddess Isis, who was commonly regarded as the so-called “mother of the pharaohs” was most often depicted sitting on a throne. The story goes that after Isis’ brother-husband Osiris was slain and dismembered in 13 pieces by their jealous brother Seth, Isis re-assembled Osiris’ body and used it to impregnate herself. She then gave birth to Horus, whom she was forced to hide amongst tall grass so as not to be slaughtered by Seth. Horus grew up, defeated Seth, and then became the first ruler of a unified Egypt. Thus Isis earned her stature as the so-called “mother of the pharaohs”.  Those museums that specifically focus on Egyptian history depict Isis (the mother) and son (Horus) in an imagery wherein Isis cradles and suckles her son similar to that of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

Ancient Rome and Greece

Romans imported Egypt’s Isis festival commemorating an important battle and the beginning of winter. It lasted for three days consisting of mostly-female dancers, musicians, and singers. Isis was held in high esteem by the Romans.

While Romans adopted and changed certain elements of Egypt’s Mother’s Day, history shows that Romans had their own roots of Mother’s Day found in the celebration of the Phrygian[1] goddess Cybele, or Magna Mater (Great Mother). Considered a Phrygia’s state deity, she developed a cult that was adopted and adapted by Greek colonists and spread from there to mainland Greece and its more distant western colonies from around the 6th century BCE. She was depicted in most of Greek society as a foreign, exotic mystery-goddess, who arrives in a lion-drawn chariot to the accompaniment of wild music, wine, and a disorderly, ecstatic following. In Greek religion she had a transgendered priesthood. Cybele stems from the Greek goddess Rhea, who was the mother of most of the major deities including Zeus. Rhea was therefore celebrated as a mother goddess.

The Roman State adopted and developed a particular form of her cult, and claimed her conscription as a key religious component in their success against Carthage during the Punic Wars[2]. Roman literature reinvented her as a Trojan goddess, and thus an ancestral goddess of the Roman people by way of the Trojan prince Aeneas[3]. With Rome’s eventual domination over the Mediterranean world, Romanized forms of Cybele’s cults spread throughout the Roman Empire. The meaning and morality of her cults and priesthoods were topics of debate and dispute in Greek and Roman literature, and remain so in modern scholarship.

The Roman celebration of Cybele fell between March 15 and March 22, just around the same time as the Greek festival in honor of Rhea. Referred to as “Hilaria”, games were held in honor of the mother of the gods. Also customary was a procession through the streets with a statue of the goddess carried at the head, followed by a display of elaborate arts and crafts.

Europe

Europe formed its own form of Mother’s Day. Europeans made it a religious event wherein it fell on the fourth Sunday Lent[4]. Early Christians initially used the day to honor the church in which they were baptized, which they knew as their “Mother Church.” This place of worship would be decorated with jewels, flowers and other offerings.

In the 1600′s a clerical decree in England broadened the celebration to include real mothers, referring to the day as “Mothering Day”. Mothering Day became a holiday toward the working classes of England. During this Lenten Sunday, servants and trade workers were allowed to travel back to their towns of origin to visit their families providing a one-day reprieve from the fasting and penance of Lent so that families across England could enjoy a family feast. Mothers were the guests of honor and were presented with cakes, flowers, and visits from their beloved and distant children.

The American Adaptation

While Britain’s Mothering Day continued, first English settlers came to America and discontinued the tradition (keep this point in mind). At least two explanations exist for this discontinuation:

  1. The idea of Mothering Day was for workers to have a day off. That was not possible with the new settlers as their living conditions demanded that they worked without any days off (that is usually the case when people emigrate to another land as conditions are harsh requiring a “swim or sink mentality”).
  2. Mothering Day conflicted with Puritan ideals. The early Puritans fled England to practice a more conservative Christianity without persecution. Pilgrims ignored the more secular holidays and focused instead on a deeper devotion to God.

In 1870, a woman by the name of Julia Ward, author “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on mother’s to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their sons killing the sons of other mothers. She called for an international Mother’s Day celebrating peace and motherhood[5].

At one point, Howe even proposed converting July 4th into Mother’s Day, in order to dedicate the nation’s anniversary to peace. Eventually, however, June 2nd was designated for the celebration. In 1873 women’s groups in 18 North American cities observed this new Mother’s holiday. Howe initially funded many of these celebrations, but most of them died out once she stopped funding. The city of Boston, however, would continue celebrating Howe’s holiday for 10 more years. The holiday would ultimately cease, but Howe had nevertheless planted the seed that would later be known as our modern day Mother’s Day.

A West Virginia women’s group led by Anna Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s holiday whose purpose was to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. The group named this event “Mother’s Friendship Day”.

After Anna Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace. In 1908, Anna petitioned the superintendent of the church where her mother had spent over 20 years teaching Sunday school. Her request was honored, and on May 10, 1908, the first official Mother’s Day celebration took place at Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia and another church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The West Virginia event drew a congregation of 407 and Anna Jarvis arranged for white carnations—her mother’s favorite flower—to adorn the patrons. Two carnations were given to every mother in attendance. Today, white carnations are used to honor deceased mothers, while pink or red carnations pay tribute to mothers who are still alive. Andrew’s Methodist Church exists to this day, and was incorporated into International Mother’s Day Shrine in 1962.

In 1908 a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, Elmer Burkett, proposed making Mother’s Day a national holiday at the request of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The proposal was defeated; but by 1909, forty-six states were holding Mother’s Day services as well as parts of Canada and Mexico.

Anna Jarvis quit working and devoted herself full time to the creation of Mother’s Day, endlessly petitioning state governments, business leaders, women groups, churches and other institutions and organizations. She finally convinced the World’s Sunday School Association to back her, a key influence over state legislators and congress. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother’s Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

What can be concluded?

  • Mother’s Day in the United States is absolutely not similar to the ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Greek adaptations.
  • America’s adaptation of Mother’s Day is unrelated Christian England’s adaptation of Mother’s Day.
  • The origin of Mother’s Day was based on peace and motherhood and its important role in society. In fact, the former was more so a resistance type of approach towards the establishment of Mother’s Day.
  • Contemporary practice of Mother’s Day is based on the pursuit of peace, reuniting families, and commemorating mothers.

The Ruling

It seems to me that such an event tries to encompass what the Eternal Lawgiver has commanded us in the following verse,

“God commands justice, doing good, and generosity towards relatives; and He forbids what is shameful, blameworthy, and oppressive. He teaches you, so that you may take heed.”[6]

Applying this verse with Mother’s Day, we see certain things are commanded:

  1. Establish peace which is a form of justice. In fact, it is one of the most important forms of justice.
  2. Doing good and generosity towards relatives. Spending or dedicating a day with one’s mother is truly one of the greatest forms of good we can do. Simultaneously, it is a form of generosity in our busy, western lives which are constantly consumed with the “me-first” mentality.
  3. Uniting the ties of kinship. Mother’s Day is an opportunity for families to get together which is stressed in various places in our Revelation (i.e., the Qur’an and Prophetic Tradition).

To be clear, we should not forget that everyday should be a sort of “Mother’s Day.” However, some of us at the very least are far from our mothers making it difficult to give her the time and companionship she deserves daily. I am reminded of some Saudi acquaintances living in Jeddah who visit their mother in Mecca every Thursday having a mini-family reunion. Similarly, many Saudis are blessed with the opportunity to have their mothers live with them or be relatively close making it easier to be around their mothers and appreciate the blessings of mothers. In our society, this is a lot more challenging. So days like Mother’s Day gives us this opportunity to reap the benefits of being reminded of the blessings of mothers.

Furthermore, this is a time for us to reflect on the importance of peace on Earth and the spread of goodwill. How fitting that the mother is symbolized in both uniting families and spreading peace as God in His mercy has made her a form of mercy to her children.

A Muslim’s Application of Mother’s Day

If we say that Mother’s Day is allowed in our way of life, then how should it be applied? I have some suggestions that could be of benefit:

  1. Visit her. If this is not possible, then arrange a video phone call. If this is not possible, then call her. I do not suggest email as this is cold and impersonal.
  2. Instead of saying “Happy Mother’s Day” consider simply saying, “I thank God for blessing me with a mother like you.” or something similar.
  3. Give her a simple gift other than flowers expressing your appreciation. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) has stated:

“Shake hands with each other as hatred and enmity will dwindle (or vanishes); give gifts you will (develop) love for each other and enmity will dwindle (or vanishes)”.[7]

This is applicable if one has a good relationship with his or her mother or if there exists some problems between the two. It is stated in the Qur’an,

“If they (i.e. parents) strive to make you associate with Me anything about which you have no knowledge, then do not obey them. Yet keep their company in this life according to what is right…”[8]

  1. Encourage other family members to get together.
  2. Explain to your children why Mother’s Day is something that Islam considers good.
  3. It is encouraged that religious leaders such as Imams, chaplains, and people who deliver sermons remind people of the good behind Mother’s Day; and that Islam encourages us to have unconditional love and respect for our mothers.

I encourage you to consider the following verse:

“Remember when We took a pledge from the Children of Israel: ‘Worship none but God; be good to your parents and kinsfolk, to orphans and the poor; speak good words to all people….’”[9]

In closing, I am aware that some will disagree with my position. I encourage these people to carefully read what I have presented as this is an issue that does not threaten the unanimously agreed upon fiber of Islamic belief. On the contrary, it is a jurisprudence issue that is open to debate and knowledge-based discussion.

 

God knows best.

References


[1]Phrygian is an ancient kingdom in the western-central part of Anatolia. Anatolia is located in the western area of modern-day Turkey

[2] The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BCE to 146 BCE. Founded in 814 BCE, Carthage was an ancient area located on the Gulf of Tunis outside of modern-day Tunisia

[3] A famous Trojan hero during his time

[4] The 40 days of fasting preceding Easter Sunday

[5] Her powerful proclamation can be found here

[6] The Qur’an, 16:90

[7] Al-Muwatta of Imam Malik on the authority of `Ata’ b. Abi Muslim al-Khurasani

[8] The Qur’an, 31 : 15

[9] The Qur’an, 2:83

 

 

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