Rayelle Niemann

Moulids in Egypt

A Traditional Phenomena of Ritual, Sociability and Censor
Religion, Bread and Games for the People
Between Anarchy, Control and Security

Lecture at Psi conference, Singepore, 2004

Moulids in general:

The tradition of Moulids being held in Egypt is very old, dating back as far as to Pharaonic times in Ancient Egypt, when living men were worshipped as pharaohs, gods and goddesses. Saints and martyrs have replaced Pharaonic deities.
Egypt is the only country in the Islamic world still hosting annual Muslim, Coptic and, although only to a certain extent, Jewish Moulids, gatherings to celebrate their mostly dead saints and martyrs. There are hundreds of Coptic and Muslim Moulids in Egypt. Cairo alone carries out about 76.
The half-year season of the Muslim Moulids started this year with the birthday celebrations for Mohammed in May and ends in October, changes are due to the start and end of Ramadan according to the annual moon calendar. During this time Moulids occur throughout the country - from the Nile delta in the north to Luxor in the South.
The setting of a Muslim Moulid is usually spread around the Mosque, from where the Baraka, the blessing, is received. A wild mushrooming of provisional coffeshops, improvised restaurants, sales stalls and Sufi order tents signifies a Moulid, where hundreds of thousands right up to a million people gather to enjoy, to meet up and to attend religious dancing and singing – a distillation of a spiritual experience, providing a multi-level sensory assault.

In Western terms, Moulids constitute a hybrid of rural evangelical revival festivals, Carnival and Mardi Gras – a time based anarchy. The Moulid is an exceptional case, breaking down the usual laws and regulations, such as: gender segregation,
the loosening of sexual practices, the smoking of hashish and a wild merchandising etc. In spite of the emergency law, which was passed after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and still is in use, the government might understand it as futile, to suppress such massive organic phenomena. The largest factor, however, may be the almost defiantly apolitical stance of most of the Egyptian Sufi orders. However, there are changes to be noticed in dealing with Moulids. This is catalysed on the one hand from fundamentalist Sufi orders, for whom the present situation of the Moulids are a rather heathen practice, a strong deviation of the original idea according to a rigid religious life. On the other hand, the government is lacking control over these gatherings and sees its control more and more disappearing.
This is not the only point where interests of the Egyptian government and Islamic fundamentalists converge, but for the purpose of this lecture we will concentrate on the exemplary situation of the Moulids.
The Moulid in town of Tanta – in the honour of Al Sayyed Ahmad Al Badawi–the 13th century holy man who is the spiritual father of Egypt’s largest Sufi order– is one of the biggest in Egypt where about a million people meet over a period of almost a week. The whole structure of this event has been changed.
The seemingly chaotic appearance of the Moulid, the organically growth of the different requirements and desires a Moulid has to serve, has always taken place in direct proximity, around the mosque. The Moulid has been completely restructured: Now, there is a high fence around the mosque, allowing access only for those, who come for prayer. Outside this fence are special sections for the coffee shops, the restaurants, the stalls selling oddities and souvenirs. Only the fundamental Sufi orders are allowed to place their carpet-walled tents in the immediate vicinity of the mosque; all the others are somewhere far off. In between these declared sections are huge empty spaces.
Thus the Moulid and the effect of Moulid, has been completely restructured and the original idea, Baraka spreading out in circles from the mosque, has been disposed of. The government argues with more security, enlarging the presence of the military police, and, as a direct or indirect consequence for the Islamic fundamentalists, pure religion is more guaranteed.
However, for both, the government and the fundamentalists, it is still important to perpetuate the Moulids – For a huge percentage of the approx. 62million inhabitants of Egypt, their lives are destined for poverty. The Moulids offer a possibility to escape from their daily hopeless routine, to inhale the cheerful spirit of these gatherings which carries them through another year full of shortage and survival - and to live on the charity of the Sufi orders, who are only too happy to fulfil their religious duties by providing and – helping to prevent from leading into bigger humanitarian disasters.

As we will see advancing in the paper, there are a lot of similarities and overlapping in the practices of the Coptic, Islamic and Jews Moulids. Yet, of cause, they do differ according to the demands of their saints and according to their inherent traditions.
I will give you descriptions of some particularities for each of the different Moulids, referring to historical and present contexts.
Already arguing at this point that through centuries and decades there have always been interferences from the authorities and modifications adjusted to present times and conditions.

Jewish Moulid
The only known Jewish Moulid held in Egypt is the Moulid of Abu Khatzeira, a mystic from Morocco who died in the city of Dahmanhur on his way to Palestine in the 19th century.
Every second year in the beginning or the middle of January there is a gathering around his shrine in the city of Dahmanhur, in the Delta area just some kilometres northwest of Tanta. Mainly Jews from Morocco and France are participating; as the Egyptian Jews do not dare to go, neither do the Jews from Israel. – This, of cause has been subject to alteration, as in former times, some decades ago, Jews from Israel would also join.
The scenery found there reminds of Lourdes in the West of France: people bring their sick relatives to obtain blessings and curing as well as bringing along bottled water to be blessed. There are also tents, food and drinks provided and people have the possibility to talk about their hopes and fears with religious representatives.
About a thousand people gather. The Egyptian security police outnumber people each time, allowing not a certain number to be exceeded. The place itself is cordoned off by security to rigorously exclude non-Jewish people, fearing attacks. Since the last Intifada there have been attempts by the Egyptian government to completely prohibit this gathering. Therefore the date of this year’s event has been kept secret and the crowd was much smaller than the recent years. The locals in Dahmanhur have different opinions concerning this event. Some of them do not like this event at all, especially with the latest tensions between Israel and Palestine. Some of them do not mind, because they live with these festivities since a long time and know about the important religious and social impact. Also, the shrine of Abu Khatzeira is part of their town since a long time and the elder still remember peaceful coexistence. The most positive approach comes from those who are able to make business with the guests staying in the city for a couple of days and passing through. Therefore for some of the locals the prohibition and strict limitation of the event means a major decrease on their economics.

Coptic Moulids in Egypt
In the Mamluk period Coptic Culture was officially marginalized, Coptic festivities were considered as unworthy to be mentioned in the official history; they were omitted or criticized. Censorship and banning of these festivities were closely tied to periods of political crises and the recalling of “own” values. During these times the dates of Moulids were often crop related, according to the farming cycle, very often in harmony with the flooding of the river Nile, which was the centrality in everyday life of the Egyptians.
I want to give you a brief example on one of the most important festivities of this kind, the Ghitas. As Hoda Lutfi, a Cairean historian, writes: “The date of this festival coincides with an important seasonal transition, for it takes place shortly after winter solstice, when the sun is at the point of commencing its spring career and when the Nile is the most pure…. The Arabic name al-Ghitas illustrates that the focal ritual performed during the festival is that of submersion into the Nile, a ritual attested in other ancient river cultures. …In the 14th century of Mamluk Cairo, … all Copts, old and young, male and female, and even babies, plunged into the river Nile on this night…” The scholar Ibn al-Hajj, reporting on this event, states, that “::: they should not be allowed to display their religious rituals in public, because of the contagious harm that such practices may have on Muslims…”
It is recorded that sometimes when rulers prohibited Coptic festivities that had a very close link to seasonal activities they were followed by unexpected performances of the Nile; for example there would be not enough flooding, rain etc. In these cases the rulers were obliged to recognise the spiritual link of the Coptic believe and therefore had to allow the festivity the next years as it provoked anger amongst the Muslim community as well; causing a general survival threat to all the people being dependent on agriculture.

Coptic Moulids were always a subject of restraints for the Mamluks and Fatimids. It was a matter of establishing cultural and political hegemony. Yet, the attempt to perpetuate a clear distinction between these two religions contradicted human moves.
Nowadays the government accepts most of the Coptic festivities, trying to provide a peaceful coexistence of these two religions, which are both part of the country.
Still, the government is very much aware of security matters, especially in areas where a lot of Coptic people live and where there are important Coptic monuments. The presence of security police is very high. In these particular areas armed policemen, trying to reduce the risk of assaults, always accompany foreigners.
Sometimes Muslims intermingle in the more secular part of these festivities, as they also can gain some distraction from every day life. This all varies a lot, depending on the location and the relations in the immediate neighbourhood.
The festivity mentioned before has become a more private Coptic feast, in which the most important performance, plunging into the river Nile is carried out in the safety of a church or a monastery.
The river Nile still plays an important role. For example in the Moulid held in Mallawi. The tradition is that the Bishop of Mallawi, two other bishops, and several other clerical dignitaries cross the Nile in a splendidly decorated sailing boat. The crossing is meant to evoke the journey of the Holy Family on the Nile, which they started in Maadi, Cairo.
The crop related dates, especially for the Coptic Moulids are still important. The high session for Coptic Moulids is in summer. They are traditionally held around and in monasteries were thousands and thousands of people meet. Some Moulids last up to ten days, others are just held during one day.
Copts regard saints’ martyrdom as a "second birth" into eternal life, unlike Muslims who celebrate the real birthday of a saint, although sometimes it is not easy to find out whether it is the day of birth, or the day of death, leading to another new life, therefore also indicating a kind of birthday.
Those Moulids are an integral part of the folk religion, which includes many aspects of personal and social life. Miracles and apparitions are expected to happen. In churches masses of people are touching and kissing icons and shrines of saints–and imbibing themselves with baraka in hopes of good fortune. The pilgrims who come to the monasteries every year relate every saint and martyr to miraculous stories and hold them in fascination. Worshipping is a far more tangible and direct path to religion than abstract dogmas can offer from the official side.
They all expect miracles, which pertain to single individuals such as granting fertility to sterile women – in some Moulids taking place in the countryside one can watch women rolling down sand dunes and hills, praying for their fertility - , therapies for mentally and emotionally sick people, exorcism or restoration of lost or stolen belongings. Baptizing is performed and priests listen to people’s confessions if time allows dealing with the crowds on a more personal level. Many also expect apparitions such as sudden lights or the shape of the Holy Virgin–a frequently reported incident in Upper Egypt. Apart from these serious religious aspects the Moulid implies a lot of secular joys as well as social activities and coming together. The monks and nuns of the monasteries provide food and drinks for the poor, merchants offer toys, kitschy articles and false shiny jewellery made in Taiwan. Tattoo artists paint Coptic symbols and images of saints on hands, wrists and shoulders. Merry-go-rounds provide a welcomed change for the children. Music is buzzing in the air and people are dancing themselves into trance. Families bring goats and sheep to sacrifice and share them with others.

Islamic Moulids
(in Cairo)
The dates of the Moulids are not fixed official dates. The only recognized time for a Moulid is the Islamic month in which it takes place and in a particular sequence in relation to other Moulids that precede and succeed. Every year the fixed date is decided by popular demand.
Despite the fact that the word Moulid is proverbial to the extent that it is used to describe chaotic situations – in Cairean slang, a traffic jam is also referred to as a Moulid – the organisation and realisation of a Moulid demands rather strict procedures.
The Department of Moulid in the department of Awqaf decides on a date. The Department contacts the relevant government department to coordinate preparations for the Moulid. Such as the Ministry of Transport to divert the traffic, the Ministry of Energy installs generators to supply additional electricity – a medium seized Moulid needs electrical supply equal to a city with approx. 60.000 inhabitants. And the police get instructions according to the specific demands of the festivity.
These are the official involvements. Besides these a lot of other activities have to be carried out: streets, facades and mosques get decorated with coloured light bulbs, tents have to be set up, stages and amplifiers get fixed, food stalls get installed, food and drinks have to be organized, sleeping places have to be found – a lot of private people offer their yards, their roof tops and vacant rooms for those coming from afar; long term friendships have been developed and people stay with the same people each following year for little money -; all the people who want to do business and are in charge of the merry-go-rounds and the shooting ranges have to organize themselves; some moving from one Moulid to the next, just like people elsewhere moving from one fair to the other.
And then the crowd may come.
Major Moulids in Cairo, some hundreds of thousands of people join and attract Moulid lovers from far off regions. The main participants for smaller Moulids are usually the inhabitants of the saint’s quarter or town. It is said that the Moulid maintains, besides the religious one, a very important social characteristic: the need and the desire of wanting to be together, being very close to each other and sharing the same is the most intriguing one, to engulf in a collective mood of merriment.
Almost every Moulid is preceded by a zaffa, a procession leading through the area where the Moulid takes place or leading from another mosque to the mosque with the shrine in question. These processions are financed by shopkeepers and entrepreneurs associated with the area and the Moulid. People of the district make donations to be able to pay the expenses. This also refers to the expenses for some of the instalments mentioned above.
The processions may show, differing to the various Moulids, members of the Sufi tariquas, wearing magnificent colourful costumes, playing tambourines, cymbals and drums. There are cards pulled by a horse or a donkey carrying men representing hifas, trades, and theatrical performers.
In former times women, mainly gypsy (dom) women were dancing on those cards, now being replaced by men dressed as women. For a woman presenting herself in public dancing is now considered as shameful. Nowadays the Dom people in general are more likely to run the swings, the aiming games, women offering fortune telling and palm reading.
Also the active participation of Sudanese people has almost vanished completely. Their former firm role in the Moulids, providing music and special alcoholic drinks are no longer to be observed. The drinking of alcohol was once a habit done in public. Now as the religious and governmental restrictions are rising again, these activities are found, if at all, in private spaces, guarded against the omnipresence of the official eyes.
Also there have been regulations and restrictions on performative actions demonstrating willpower overcoming physical pain through religious manifestation: swallowing nails, hammering nails into the eyes etc claiming to near miracles – all this has disappeared from the scene.
The historian Edward Lane, who wrote "Manners and Customs of the Modern
Egyptians" in 1836, described a scene at the Moulid of the Prophet Mohammed, in which 60 people prostrated themselves stomach down on the floor while 12 barefoot dervishes ran over their backs.
"And then the sheikh approached," Lane recounted. "His horse hesitated for several minutes to tread upon the back of the first of the prostrate men; but being pulled, and urged on behind, he at length stepped upon him; and then, without apparent fear, ambled, with a high pace, over them all, led by two persons who ran over the prostrate men, one sometimes treading on the feet, and the other on the heads. The spectators
immediately raised a long cry of 'Allah la la la la la!' Not one of the men thus trampled upon by the horse seemed to be hurt."
Later, according to Lane, the sheikh went inside the house for the customary ritual dancing, or zikr.

The zikr, one of the most important parts in an Islamic Moulid, is provided by a band chanting religious lyrics, praises to the prophet or saintly figures. Mysteries of mystical experiences are classical corpuses of Sufi poetry, often mixed with contemporary improvisation. The zikr is a social event as well as a religious dance, a ritual to open the mind to god’s influence and to lead to increased spiritual awareness.
The zikr, in which Sufis dance rhythmically, swinging their heads from side to side while chanting "Allah," one of the other 99 names of God or simply "Hoa (he)," is believed to allow the Sufi who has already divorced himself from worldly concerns to come close to the direct apprehension of God.
"The essence of zikr is in the idea of 'mentioning.' When you mention God, he also mentions you," explained Eddin Shaikun, the Sufi Imam of the Shaikun mosque in Sohag.

Each Sufi order has its preferred poetry and singer. Often the copyrights of these poems are not clear, as the original versions are altered throughout the years, often centuries. If a very known and important interpreter comes to sing, one often finds people with tape recorders that they lift up in the air during the whole session to record the chanting and singing. These sessions can last throughout the night till the sun rises.
Some people get into trance and are immediately supported by others who are aware of these circumstances. The people in trance receive help in order not to leave the worldly spheres. There is a huge common responsibility among all the participants. Everybody takes care of everybody, even though the people might not know each other. The sense for each other is one of the communal characteristics of a Moulid.

Very severe and conservative scholars of Islam consider these kinds of Sufi practices as signs of degeneration. Also for the Egyptian middle and upper class these festivities giving space to all kinds of outlawed behaviours, like drunkenness and other immoralities, signify the backwardness of the Muslim world.
As in all difficult times when the ruling of a nation and the mission to satisfy people’s needs are not meeting up with demands and expectations, political and religious authorities tend to fall back on restrictions in order to give a close frame of living and therefore pretending to have found a tool to prevent from upheavals and chaos. Nevertheless, it does not work this way. People need an outlet and are ever so happy to be able to trick them and delve into another world allowing forgetting the strains of daily life and to get support from somewhere else and completely dissociate from the secular world.

The Egyptian governments, before and after the 1952 revolution have tried to deal cautiously with the popular forms of Islam. In trying very hard to establish a secular state but also having to realize the failures and mistakes and the power of religion, as a realm of escape, the Sufis and their orders continued influence among the populace have been particularly suspect. Recent Egyptian authorities have attempted to limit orders and their activities.
Nevertheless, acknowledging the power and importance of these festivities and the impossible mission to get rid of them, the government decides to take advantage of these for their own political purposes.
On the most popular Moulids where maybe more than a million people might attend, the government displays pictures of the president, military displays and fireworks – for the enjoyment of the people. Even in some smaller Moulids, the government sends some official representatives to make people believe in their sympathy for their own concerns,
using a sem