Ancient moulids face modern pressures

Translated by: Amira Elmasry Local moulids in Egypt — celebrating the births of Sufi masters and “Al-awliya” (pl. custodians, protectors) — are of particular cultural significance for Egyptians. Moulid celebrations are one of the places in which traditions with a long legacy that dates back to Pharaonic times are practiced, such as receiving the blessings of awliya, henna and lighting candles. They are also an important place for Egyptians, from urban and rural areas, of different sects and ages, to gather, dance, celebrate and listen to chants and prayers. While Cairo is the most important site for various moulids, due to the large number of shrines to awliya and Sufi masters in the city, many other areas outside Cairo have their own wali (s. custodian, protector). Despite several attempts by official religious institutions and Salafi sheikhs to ban moulids, Egyptians are still celebrating them in their own ways.

Burhan café, close to Al-Hussain Mosque. Burhan is one of the first cafés designated to Sufis in Egypt. Most of the customers who frequent the café are followers of Al-Burhaniya al-Disuqiya, a Sufi order that originated in Egypt, spread to Sudan, and later returned to Egypt in a more diverse form. The owner has hung pictures of various Sudanese Sufi masters on the café’s walls, most importantly Sayidi Fakhr al-Din, who spread Sufi beliefs as far as Germany.
In Fatimah al-Nabawiya Mosque, in Al-Batiniya, Cairo, during the celebration of Fatimah’s moulid. Rural women circle a woman preparing henna for their palms.
On the eve of his moulid, a group of visitors to Al-Hussain Mosque gather to take pictures of a man chanting in praise (madiih) of Hussain. The chants include a description of the celebrated master, some legendary accounts of his heroic endeavors and a description of the mosque’s visitors and audience. Sometimes the rhythm of the chant picks up pace and at others it slows, depending on the mood and number of those in the audience.
A woman sits in front of the shrine of one of the Disuqiya Sufi order’s masters, in Al-Batiniya, Cairo, on the eve of Fatimah al-Nabawiya’s moulid. People print sheets of paper inscribed with prayers to hang on the walls of the shrine. Most of the Sufi shrines do not actually contain the bodies of their masters, but were built because of a vision by a follower, in which the master ordered him or her to build the shrine in a particular place.
Followers of the Burhaniya order celebrate by lighting candles and chanting in the moulid and mosque of Fatimah al-Nabawiya, Cairo. Lighting candles in local Islamic moulids is a custom borrowed from the Coptic tradition. The dim candlelight represents the spirit of the dead master for Sufis. It also symbolises the believer, who endeavors to spread peace, no matter what the cost.
A Sufi woman from the Burhaniya order sits next to Fatimah al-Nabawiya’s shrine on the eve of her moulid in Al-Batiniya, Cairo. She holds a sword, symbolising her guarding of the shrine, and a copy of the Quran, representing spiritual power. Her hands are colored with henna, a symbol of happiness and a good omen. Al-Azhar has tried banning such ritual practices in Egyptian moulids, yet they continue to spread, with followers convinced they must defend their masters against evil spirits.
A dervish (someone who follows a Sufi Muslim ascetic path and often takes a vow of austerity) stands next to Fatimah al-Nabawiya’s shrine in Cairo on the eve of her moulid. Most Sufi dervishes in Egypt go into a trance state, enabling them to hear the spirits of their masters and convey their messages. Many Sufis receive blessings from such dervishes and provide them with food and clothing in return.
Two women sit in front of a swing where children play, in Al-Batiniya, Cairo, on the eve of Fatimah’s moulid. Swings are an ancient feature of all local moulids in Egypt. According to the myth, Bacchus — the Roman god of wine — was angry at the grape farmers because of their failure to plant one year. When they asked for his forgiveness after the land was barren, he requested that they perform dances to cheer him up, so he could forgive them. The swing was part of this performance. There are many drawings on such swings from popular culture, such as mermaids or Jonah and the whale.
A local band sings mahraganat songs on a stage in Al-Batiniya alley, Cairo, on the eve of Fatimah’s moulid. Mahraganat is a genre of shaabi music that has gained popularity over the last few years and is often played during Egyptian celebrations, such as weddings and moulids. The bands usually set up a simple stage in one of the local neighborhoods, where they perform popular songs, creating an air of excitement.
A chanter recites madiih in a local theatre on the eve of Hussain’s moulid in Cairo. They usually mention the epic story of Taghribat Bani Hilal in their chants, recounting its heroic battles. Afterwards, people from the audience often start dancing and performing with sticks. Some attendees pay the chanter to praise them and refer to them using the titles of popular or mythical heroes, like Abu Zaid al-Hilaly or Antar ibn Shaddad.
A woman dances at Fatimah al-Nabawiya’s moulid in Al-Batiniya, Cairo, to the song of one of the local bands. Women frequently dance and sing during moulids, despite several attempts by Salafi sheikhs to ban them from doing so.
A child plays percussion in a local madiih band, close to Al-Hussain Mosque in a moulid in Cairo. Children play an important role in moulids: Infants receive blessings from the master or mistress of the moulid and children often wear galabeyya’s, sing, or sell food.
A group of people sit in front of Al-Hussain Mosque on the eve of his moulid, in Cairo, waiting for the famous religious chanter Yasiin al-Tuhamy to arrive. People travel from the Delta and Upper Egypt to receive food from those who are wealthier than them, to listen to the chants, sing and dance. Most believe that visiting Hussain on the eve of his birth will bring them prosperity and blessings throughout the year.
A woman puts henna on her palm and presses it with a metal coin (an Egyptian pound). Henna art in moulids is a symbol of happiness and a good omen, and placing the coin in this way (with the tail side facing downwards and the king’s head upwards) is supposed to induce happiness, as the king’s face symbolizes wealth and power, and placing it into henna adds security.
An old Sufi man distributes water mixed with rose water to the visitors at Al-Hussain Mosque. There are some myths told about this man, known for always being next to Al-Mursy Abu al-Abbas shrine in Alexandria, giving people water to drink. He travels to attend moulids, despite his age and the long distances. One of the myths suggests he can be in two places at once and has stopped aging.
A woman with a henna platter waves away visitors at Fatimah Mosque on the moulid’s eve, in Cairo, telling them she has enough women surrounding her for the time being.
Mohamed Abd al-Gawwad 
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