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MAWLID. Derived from the triliteral Arabic root w-l-d, mawlid means “birth.” Al-Mawlid al-Nabawi alSharif, for example, refers to the twelfth day of Rabi’ al-Awwal of the Islamic calendar, believed to be the day of the prophet Muhammad’s birth, and celebrated (except in Saudi Arabia) by Muslims as a holiday marked by popular festivities and state ceremonies. In popular usage the term mawlid refers to a commemorative occasion of the anniversary of a deceased holy person, man or woman, Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. The Jewish mawlid of Shaykh Abu Hasira continues to be popular today. While Christian mawlids honor the anniversary of a holy person’s death, Sunni Muslims celebrate the anniversary of his or her birth; some mawlids are honored across religious lines.

Commemorative anniversaries take place around the holy person’s tomb or at a spot believed to shelter a body or a relic, or to be the site of an important event. The spot then serves as a center for annual pilgrimages that occur throughout the Islamic world, with varying degrees of local or regional popularity. In some countries there are several hundred major and minor mawlids. Not all Muslims use the term mawlid for these pilgrimage anniversaries: in Tunis the term zardah is used, while other Arab countries use mawsim.

In the Muslim mawlid the holiness and legitimacy of the person whose life is remembered and honored derives from a real or presumed, blood or spiritual, lineal descent from the prophet Muhammad, traced through his daughter Fatimah and his son-in-law and cousin `All ibn Abi Talib. The title of such a descendant is sharif or sayyid (female, sayyidah or sitt). This descent carries with it the barakah (blessing) that elevates the charismatic person into holy (but not divine) status and draws throngs to such pilgrimages, particularly from among ruralites, the poor, and the infirm who seek solace and healing.

The common title of the holy person is wall (pl., awhyd’), from the root w-l-y, meaning “to succeed or follow.” Wali literally means “guardian” or “successor.” While there may be superficial similarities between wali and the European saint, they are not identical, and using the term saint both blurs the significant differences and assumes the superiority of a Christian vocabulary and conceptual framework against which Islamic ideas are to be interpreted. Unlike Christian saints, who are believed to intercede with the divine on behalf of humans, walls radiate goodness and blessing because of the holy status they have acquired by sharing ancestry that goes back to the Prophet. They are also popular exemplary models for religious life and teachings. The wali builds a reputation on the basis of personal qualities of charisma, religious teachings, piety, and miraculous happenings. Some walis found a Sufi tarigah (order), but others acquire the status without this achievement.

A mawlid has its own dynamic and structure, which includes the Sufi element but is not necessarily confined to it, so one must distinguish the phenomenon of mawlid from Sufi tariqah. Thus, the most popular mawlid in Egypt is mawlid al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi of Tanta, the wall who founded the Ahmadiyah, one of the major Sufi orders in Egypt; but approaching the mawlid from the sole perspective of Sufi practices would ignore significant aspects unique to mawlids. One can recognize the historical, ideological, and socioeconomic connections between mawlids and tarigahs without blurring them.

A characteristic quality of the mawlid is its blending of the mythical and the mystical, the ritual and the scripturalist, the religious and the political/economic, and all these aspects with popular traditional practices. It combines elements at the local, state, and regional levels into multiple events over a period of days marking the celebratory complex, which usually spans seven days, building in intensity by the Thursday evening before the mawlid (al-Laylah al-Kabirah) and culminating on the mawlid day on Friday.

Central to a mawlid is the tomb around which activities occur. The ziyarah or visit to the tomb involves circling the tomb seven times, paying money or sacrificing an animal, and when possible touching the tomb. [See Ziyarah.] People come from all over the area, and Sufi orders set up tents giving out food. The poor and the infirm hope for charity and healing. Dhikr (ritual chanting) is performed on the roofs of homes and in surrounding tents. [See Dhikr.] A market is established with stalls of foods, sweets, and trinkets, carts of hats and toys and incense, and traditional drink-sellers on foot. Booths are set up near the tomb of the wali in which circumcision is performed on young boys brought by parents who have made a nadhr (vow) to circumcise their sons at a particular mawlid. [See Circumcision.]

Following the Friday public prayer a zaffah (procession) representing all the principal elements in the mawlid begins and ends at the tomb of the wali A leading figure in the procession is the khalifah, the contemporary successor and lineal descendant of the wali He leads the celebration as he mounts a horse and rides in the Sufi procession. In the mawlid of Sayyid Ahmad alBadawi people touch his turban for blessing because it is claimed to contain cloth from the original veil of Ahmad al-Badawi. Other participants include an elder and a youth representing the walls tariqah, state military troops, other Sufi tariqahs marching on foot with banners, men and women of various vocations on carts and carriages, and finally carriages bearing the newly circumcised boys dressed in Arabian clothing, with their families. The vocational parade is a survivor of the medieval ta’ifah system of guilds that was closely intertwined with the Sufi tariqahs. The end of the zaffah marks the end of the seven days of the mawlid.

Some observers consider the phenomenon of mawlids to be rooted in ancient traditions, such as those of Egypt where gods were honored annually at harvest time when temples organized elaborate processions and festivities. A few trace the modern mawlids to Pharisaic influences and Jewish celebrations around the tombs of venerated persons in early Judaism and early Christianity. More scholars see the modern form of mawlids as rooted in Sufi and/or Shi‘i traditions that emerged from the Maghrib and Mesopotamia and developed in Mecca. The latter proposal, however, does not account for the presence of similar, often identical practices among Christian and Jewish populations in the Middle East.

Mawlids comprise a richly complex phenomenon that operates at many different levels-religious, political, economic, and recreational-and speaks to many people in a variety of different ways. God is not only very real but very immediate, and he has always been and continues to be a vital force in people’s lives. He is the source of the benevolent power called barakah, which cannot be translated simply as “blessing.”

Although in Islam no official doctrine advocates a role of mediation for religious figures between God and mortals, deceased walis as well as living sayyids and shaykhs are perceived by the faithful as the carriers of God’s benevolence, which radiates from the holy place to everyone who comes in contact with it. Barakah continually flows from God and through his intermediary to the people. To get its blessing, the visitor at a mawlid touches the tomb, its kiswah (cover), or the khalifah himself, and then wipes his hands down his face, transmitting the blessing to his body. The common call “Shillah yd sayyid” (give us something from God, O sayyid), confirms that the wali is considered intermediary in the flow of barakah from God. Barakah is needed and desired for purposes of healing and general wellbeing. A similar phenomenon occurs among Christians who touch the Pope and Jews who kiss and touch religious relics for blessing. A mawlid also reminds people of the wali and his behavior and beliefs, providing religious teaching for the people; it is a public statement about a particular religious/moral model for people to emulate in their lives. [See Barakah.]

From the point of view of scripturalist Islam, the popular practice of mawlids poses a religious challenge to orthodoxy and a political challenge to the established authority of al-Azhar. The state is also aware of the potential threat of revivalist opposition inherent in the building of a popular base. In reality, however, mawlids are interwoven with both popular Sufi and orthodox scripturalist practices and beliefs.

The interrelationship between Sufi practices and scripturalist Islam as represented through the mosque is manifest and alive in the mawlid and cannot be overlooked. For example, principal mosques are often built over the tombs of important walis; thus Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi’s maqdm occupies a focal position inside the principal mosque of Tanta, a central town in Egypt’s Delta and the capital of al-Gharbiyah governorate. Mawlid activities are intertwined with mosque activities: the khalifah has a prominent presence in the mosque at the Friday prayer of the Badawi mawlid. These connections serve to legitimize the popular mawlids to people who might otherwise question their orthodoxy.

People go to mawlids for different reasons-commercial, social, recreational, charity, or religious. The infirm and the disabled seek blessing and hope for healing. The term madad is always invoked for divine aid or strength. Boys circumcised during mawlids are both blessed and initiated to masculinity. At the collective level, mawlids revitalize the local market at the same time as they reaffirm a collective sense of identity and a unity of spirituality.

[See also Shrine; Sufism, article on Safi Shrine Culture; Wall.]


Biegmann, Nicolaas. Egypt: Moulids, Saints, Sufis. London, 1990. Photographic essay of Egyptian mawlids and awhyd’. Photos are aesthetically and technically beautiful and ethnographic in quality. Canaan, Taufik. Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine. Jerusalem, 1927. Rich description of the wali sanctuaries of Palestine, available in a facsimile of the edition originally published in 1927 as volume 5 of Luzac’s Oriental Religions Series.

El Guindi, Fadwa. El Moulid: Egyptian Religious Festival. Los Angeles, 1990. Available from El Nil Research, 114’7 Beverwil Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90035. Ethnographic film (16mm) of the popular seven-hundred-year-old mawlid, which celebrates the life and legacy of the wali Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi of Tanta, Egypt. The film vividly captures the festive and religious mood, and analyzes the mawlid’s structure and symbolism, revealing various levels of religious experience-scriptural, mystical, ritual, mythical-interacting with secular traditional life.

Gilsenan, Michael. Recognizing Islam. New York, 1982. Although this work does not deal directly with mawlids, it provides a sophisticated discussion that connects several aspects of Islam and Arab society, including Sufism and Sufi-related phenomena, from a nonorientalist cultural perspective.

Keddie, Nikki R., ed. Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500. Los Angeles, 1972. Collection of scholarly articles dealing with scripturalist Islamic concerns, particularly the `ulama’, and including a section on Sufism as it relates to the phenomenon of awhyd’, ranging from the Sudan to the Maghrib to Iraq.

Kennedy, John, ed. Nubian Ceremonial Life. Los Angeles, 1978. Interesting collection of ethnographic field studies on Nubia, a culture often neglected in discussions about Islamic phenomena, containing articles about mawalid.

Mansur, Ahmad Subhi. Al-Sayyid al-Badawi bayna al-haqiqah wa-alKhurdfah (in Arabic). Cairo, 1982. Written from an orthodox Sunni perspective that is skeptical of “the holiness” of the walt Badawi, and associates the phenomena of veneration with Shiism.

McPherson, J. W. The Moulids of Egypt. Cairo, 1941. Detailed descriptive account of the mawlids of Egypt from an orientalist perspective.

Reeves, Edward B. The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism, and Legitimation in Northern Egypt. Salt Lake City, 1990. In-depth sociological analysis of the mawlid of Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi, its history, politics, and economics, and the most recent account of the mawlid of Tanta, Egypt. Its value lies in its treatment of the mawlid as a phenomenon separable from Sufism, but the account is weak on cultural factors.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/mawlid/

  • writerPosted On: August 5, 2014
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