Ieri c'è stata la Leila el Kbira del mawlid di Imam Hussein, festa religiosa sufi.
A week ago the Sayida Zainab mawlid brought the flavour of popular -- Sufi -- celebrations back to the heart of Cairo: having attended several of the saints' anniversaries this year, Giuseppe Acconcia celebrates a glorious grassroots tradition.
After the ban on mawlids due to swine flu, those saints' anniversaries finally started again on 13 April at the Imam Hussein Mosque. I attended the leila el kbira (big night, the night of the actual birth of the saint in question) on 19 May at Sayeda Nafisa: coloured light bulbs and hangings, carpets and covers on which men and women from the countryside kept talking, sleeping and cooking. In the courtyards and under the wood scaffoldings, Sufis started their circular dances, which converged in two frontal lines. Outside, boys and girls played on the marry-go-round, while the faithful went inside the mosques. When the sun rose rising, people looked possessed; someone pierced his cheeks with blades, horses passed trough the people, men and women went towards the tombs.
I talked to Samuli Schielke, a cultural anthropologist working as a research fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin. From 2002 until 2005 he conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt for his PhD on mawlids. "Mawlids are often mistakenly assumed to be a tradition of Pharaonic origin," he starts. "Instead, the oldest Islamic mawlids were established in the 15th and 16th centuries AD and their emergence is related to the spread of Sufi orders. The origin of Islamic mawlids is due to the emergence of the veneration of Muslim saints, which is based on the centrality of spiritual authority in mystical Islam. And so mawlids are part of a global wave of mystical Islam that took place in the late Middle Age. The similarities that exist between Christian and Islamic mawlids are often due to a mutual influence and shared festive forms, characterised by the idea that religion and joy belong closely together."
But which religious liturgies are linked to mawlids? "Mawlids have always combined different elements, and while their occasion is religious, the celebrations take different forms, some of which can be spiritual, and others profane. The most important spiritual rituals are the visit to the tomb of the saints. This is a collective celebration, called dhikr, invocation of God, held inside the mosques and in tents located around the festive grounds. Each group has their own style, ranging from rather restrained vocal recitation to very ecstatic dancing to a band and a singer reciting mystical poetry".
And what about the profane side of those feast, perhaps the more amazing. "On the profane side of the mawlids, youths gather for carousels, swings, shooting stands, ferris wheels, music, magicians, sweets, snacks, etc. In Upper Egypt the traditional sports of stick dancing and horse races are an important part of the feast. There are some small groups of ecstatic Sufis who keep live snakes and practice walking on knives or pricking themselves with needles to show one's invulnerability to fear or pain, but such practices became quite marginal". And the hundreds of singers who were somehow involved? "Um Kulthum, for example, started her career as a singer in mawlids, and she could still master recitation of the Qur'an as well as love poetry. Today, there are two main genres of music at mawlids. One is the tradition of Sufi inshad, which is based on spiritual poetry praising the Prophet and 'friends of God' and telling of mystical spirituality often through the allegory of love. The other is the genre of shaabi pop music, which is a much more secular, but not purely, for it also makes use of inshad -style motifs and religious topics. Those styles have their own stars, and the biggest among them is certainly the Sufi singer Yasin El-Tohami whose performances always draw thousands of people."
How has the atmosphere of mawlids changed recently? "Mawlids changed very much in last decades, mainly through urbanisation, electricity and the spread of Salafi movements. Electricity has changed the style and size because loudspeakers have made it possible to gather large audiences, which would have been unthinkable in the past. Contemporary urban planning is also often very much at odds with mawlids which are by nature open to all kinds of activities and do not fit into Egyptian urban planners' ideas of neatly differentiated urban space. The spread of Salafi movements, with its strict refusal of ecstatic spirituality, unbounded joy, and veneration of saints, has made many Egyptians doubtful about the religious foundations of mawlids. This has slowly turned those feasts from a central part of people's social and religious lives into the occupation of a mystically dedicated minority".
But perhaps mawlids are thus becoming a secular occasion for having fun. "Due to the political and religious campaigns against those rites, there is a decrease in the numbers of audience," Samuli admits, "and in general a split between people who are engaged in the mawlids as a religious festival and people who enjoy the atmosphere but keep their distance from the religious aspects".
The mawlid being the only time for Sufis to gather and practice their rites, which are now the most important Sufi brotherhoods in Egypt? "Egyptian law requires Sufi brotherhoods to be officially registered, and to have a formal organisation and membership. In practice, however, most Sufi groups are not officially registered in this way. They are informal groups held together by allegiance to a spiritual leader. In consequence, there are usually different degrees of involvement, varying from people generally sympathetic to mystical Islam or to a specific leader, to followers who have taken an oath to a sheikh from whom they learn the mystical path and regularly attend the group's meetings. Today, mystically engaged people often frequent more than one group. It is very difficult to say where Sufi brotherhoods are based, because the big, officially recognised brotherhoods like the Shadhiliya, the Ahmadiya, the Burhamiya, the Rifa'iya consist of countless independent branches which usually share little more than the allegiance to a founding leader. These branches are all located around specific mosques or in specific villages or neighbourhoods. It can be said that Upper Egypt is currently the strongest base of Sufism in Egypt."
But it is not so easy to know when a mawlid will take place, is it? "The mawlids in Egypt follow different calendars, and their dates are often adjusted depending on other festivals and public holidays. The Islamic mawlids in Cairo and Upper Egypt mostly follow the lunar calendar. Instead, mawlids in the Nile Delta and Alexandria usually follow the solar calendar." (see guide)
I had the opportunity to participate in the Senegal mawlids of Tijani orders and in Shi'a's mawlids, I finally say to Samuli. What about events out of Egypt? "There are a lot of similarities between mawlids in Egypt and in other countries around the Sunni Muslim world. For example in Morocco it is called mawsim, in Pakistan, 'urs, and in Indonesia, hauli. While mawlids among Sunni Muslims are typically characterised by joy, and usually closely related to Sufi brotherhoods, Shi'a pilgrimages are characterised by sorrow and mourning, and Sufism plays little or no role in them".
In Andalusia, traditionally beside the celebration of "Semana Santa", there are profane feasts. In the south of Italy during the religious feasts of Materdomini, Madonna delle Galline and Monte Vergine, "pagans" dance and sing songs that are orally hand down across generations until morning. Still, Egyptian mawlids are powerful and authentic, in both their spiritual and profane sides. They are a unique event in the Mediterranean that should be defended and safeguarded.
Dates of most important mawlids in Cairo:
As-Sayyida Fatima an-Nabawiya: first Monday of Rabi' al-Thani,
Sayedna al-Husayn: last Tuesday in Rabi' al-Thani,
As-Sayida Nafisa: second Wednesday in Gumada al-Akhar,
As-Sayyida Zaynab: last Tuesday in Ragab,
St. Barsum al-'Aryan: End of September
Abu al-Haggag al-Uqsuri (Luxor): 13 Sha'ban,
Sidi Abd al-Rehim al-Qinawi (Qena): 14 Sha'ban,
Sidi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili (Western Desert): three days before the Feast of Sacrifice,
The Virgin Mary (Asyut): 22 August (Ascencion Day in Coptic calendar).
Sheikh al-Sha'rawi (Daqadus): around 17 June,
Sidi Mursi Abu al-'Abbas (Alexandria): Thursday in late July,
St. George (Mit Damsis, Daqahliya): end of August,
Al-Sayyid al-Badawi (Tanta): Thursday in mid-October,
Sidi Ibrahim ad-Disuqi in Disuq: Thursday two weeks after al-Sayyid al-Badawi.