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Mawlid

By:
Fadwa El Guindi, Justin Corfield
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Mawlid

Derived from the triliteral Arabic root w-l-d, the term mawlid signifies “birth.” Al-Mawlid al-Nabawī al-Sharīf, for example, refers to the twelfth day of Rabīʿ al-Awwal of the Islamic calendar, believed to be the day of the prophet Muḥammad's birth, which is celebrated around the world (except in Saudi Arabia) by Muslims as a holiday marked by popular festivities and state ceremonies. Some countries, notably Iran during the 1980s, issue postage stamps to commemorate the event each year.

Background of the Mawlid.

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 Abū Hasira remains popular today. While Christian mawlids honor the anniversary of a holy person's death, Sunnī Muslims celebrate the anniversary of his or her birth; some mawlids are honored across religious lines.

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. A few trace the modern mawlids to Pharisaic influences and Jewish celebrations around the tombs of venerated persons in early Judaism. More scholars, however, see the modern form of mawlids as rooted in Ṣūfī or Shīʿī traditions that emerged from the Maghrib and Mesopotamia and developed in Mecca. The latter proposal still does not account for the presence of similar, often identical practices among Christian and Jewish populations in the Middle East.

Wherever possible, commemorative anniversaries take place around the holy person's tomb or at a spot believed to shelter a body or a relic, such as the koubbas in Morocco, or revered as the site of an important event. The spot then serves as the center for the annual pilgrimages 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 Muḥammad, traced through his daughter Fāṭimah and his son-in-law and cousin ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661). The title of such a descendant is sharīf 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 rural people, the poor, and the infirm who seek solace and healing. The royal houses of Morocco and Libya, as well as the Hashemites in Jordan, all claim descent from the Prophet Muḥammad, as do numbers of other families.

The common title of the holy person is walī (pl., awlīyāʿ), from the root w-l-y, meaning “to succeed or follow.” Walī literally means “guardian” or “successor,” and using the term in the same manner as Christians refer to “saints” is simplistic and inaccurate. Unlike Christian saints, who are believed to be able to intercede with the divine on behalf of humans, walīs radiate goodness and blessing because of the holy status they have acquired by sharing ancestry that goes back to the Prophet. They are also role models for religious life and teachings. The walī builds a reputation on the basis of personal qualities of charisma, religious teachings, piety, and miraculous happenings. Some walīs might found a Ṣūfī ṭarīqah (order), but others acquire the status without this achievement.

Structure of the Mawlid.

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

A characteristic quality of the mawlid is its blending of the mystical and the mythical, the ritual and the scripturalist, the religious and the political or economic, and all these aspects within 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-Kabīrah) and culminating on the mawlid day on Friday.

The tomb where activities take place remains central to a mawlid. The ziyārah or visit to the tomb involves circling it seven times, paying money or sacrificing an animal, and when possible touching the tomb. People come from all over the area, and Ṣūfī orders set up tents giving out food. The poor hope for charity and the infirm for healing. Dhikr (ritual chanting) is performed on the roofs of homes and in surrounding tents. 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 walī, 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. In summary, 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.

Following the Friday public prayer a zaffah (procession) representing all the principal elements in the mawlid begins and ends at the tomb of the walī. A leading figure in the procession is the khalīfah, the contemporary successor and lineal descendant of the walī. He leads the celebration as he mounts a horse and rides in the Ṣūfī procession. In the mawlid of Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī people touch his turban for blessing because it is claimed to contain cloth from the original veil of Aḥmad al-Badawī. Other participants include an elder and a youth representing the walī's ṭarīqah, state military troops, other Ṣūfī ṭarīqahs 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 ṭāʿifah system of guilds that was closely intertwined with the Ṣūfī ṭarīqahs. The end of the zaffah marks the end of the seven days of the mawlid.

Barakah.

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 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 is more than simply a “blessing.”

Although in Islam no official doctrine advocates a role of mediation for religious figures between God and mortals, deceased walīs 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 khalīfah himself, and then wipes his hands down his face, transmitting the blessing to his body. The common call “Shillah yā sayyid” (“Give us something from God, O sayyid”) confirms that the walī is considered to be an intermediary in the flow of barakah from God. Barakah is needed and desired for purposes of healing and general well-being. A similar phenomenon occurs among Roman Catholics who touch the pope and Jews who kiss and touch religious relics for blessing. A mawlid also reminds people of the walī and his behavior and beliefs, providing religious teaching for the people; it is a public statement about a particular religious and moral model for people to emulate in their lives.

The Mawlid in the Larger Context of Islam.

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 Ṣūfī and orthodox scripturalist practices and beliefs.

The interrelationship between Ṣūfī practices and scripturalist Islam as represented through the mosque is manifest and alive in the mawlid. For example, principal mosques are often built over the tombs of important walīs; thus Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī's maqām occupies a focal position inside the principal mosque of Tanta, in Egypt's delta and the capital of al-Gharbīyah governorate. Mawlid activities are intertwined with mosque activities: the khalīfah has a prominent presence in the mosque at the Friday prayer of the Badawī mawlid. These connections serve to legitimize the popular mawlids to people who might otherwise question their orthodoxy.

See also BARAKAH; CIRCUMCISION; DHIKR; SHRINE; and SUFISM, subentry onṢūFī SHRINE CULTURE.

Bibliography

  • Biegmann, Nicolaas H.Egypt: Moulids, Saints, Sufis. London and New York, 1990. Photographic essay of Egyptian mawlids and awliyāʿ. Photos are largely ethnographic in quality.
  • Canaan, Taufik. Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine. London, 1927. Rich description of the walī 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, director. El Moulid: Egyptian Religious Festival. Seattle, Wash., 1990. Film. Ethnographic film (16mm) of the popular seven-hundred-year-old mawlid celebrating the life and legacy of the walī Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī 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.
  • Kaptein, N. J. G.Muhammad's Birthday Festival: Early History in the Central Muslim Lands and Development in the Muslim West until the 10th/16th Century. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York, 1993. Detailed history of the observance of the birthday of the Prophet Muḥammad.
  • Keddie, Nikki R., ed.Scholars, Saints, and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500. Berkeley, Calif., 1972. Collection of scholarly articles dealing with scripturalist Islamic concerns, particularly the ʿulamāʿ, and including a section on Sufism as it relates to the phenomenon of awliyāʿ, ranging from Sudan to the Maghrib to Iraq.
  • Malik, Aftab Ahmed. The Broken Chain: Reflections Upon the Neglect of a Tradition. Bristol, U.K., 2001.
  • Manṣūr, Aḥmad Ṣubḥī. Al-Sayyid al-Badawī bayna al-ḥaqīqah wa-al-khurāfah. Cairo, Egypt, 1982. Written from an orthodox Sunnī perspective that is skeptical of “the holiness” of the walī Badawī; associates the phenomena of veneration with Shiism.
  • McPherson, J. W.The Moulids of Egypt (Egyptian Saints-Days). Cairo, Egypt, 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, Utah, 1990. In-depth sociological analysis of the mawlid of Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī, 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.
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