Interviews July 7, 2011
Michael Frishkopf on Sufism and the Moulid

Michael Frishkopf is a scholar of Egyptian music, and Associate Director of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta.  He has been an invaluable advisor to Hip Deep in Egypt. One of his greatest contributions was steering us to the inside connections needed to know where and when we could find a Sufi saint festival, a moulid.  The one we found was in Upper Egypt, in Abou Teeg, a town near Assiout. This moulid was in celebration of Al-Sultan Al-Farghal, a religious scholar who lived some 300 years ago.  The featured singer was Shaykh Mahmoud El Tuhami, son of the great Yasin El Tuhami, one of Egypt’s most revered religious singers (munshids).  You can find a podcast and a video of this amazing event at  What follows is the section of our interview with Michael dealing with Sufism and moulids.  This conversation took place before we traveled.  Interspersed, are comments by Yasin and Mahmoud El Tuhami,, gathered in the field.

Banning Eyre:  Give us an overview of Sufism in Egypt.

Michael Frishkopf: Sufism (tasawwuf), the mystical aspect of Islam, developed early in Islamic history from individual spiritual seekers, thinkers, and teachers (shaykhs, or murshids), interacting with informal groups of followers (muridin) whom they attracted around themselves. These they taught, inspired, and led in supererogatory devotional practices, aiming to purify the self and draw closer to God, through extended worship and contemplation, motivated by loving desire for such closeness. In many cases, such teachers were itinerant, and their groups in constant flux.   Experiential mystical insight was acquired through practice, and initially transmitted orally, through close, informal spiritual relationships.

At a certain point, mystical teachings, ritual practices, and social structures became more fixed, formalized in written treatises, manuals, biographies, and poetry.  Mystical experience crystallized as knowledge and doctrine, whether theosophical, psychospiritual, or moral.  Ritual practices and spiritual-social relationships were formalized.  Sufism began to be documented in the form of authoritative texts, gathering and systematizing the wide range of Sufi experience, to be studied and followed.

But linguistic expression—even poetry—was often felt to be extraneous to Sufism’s core, which is experiential, translinguistic. Sufism is frequently likened to a taste (dhawq) that cannot be described, its insights comprising feeling (ihsas) in the heart  (qalb) rather than propositions in the intellect (`aql). Sufism centers on Divine love (al-hubb al-ilahi) connecting the muridin, the shaykh, the Prophet, and God. As one early critic quipped, “tasawwuf today is a name without a reality, whereas formerly it was a reality without a name.” Many similar critiques pointed to the same conclusion: that with systematization Sufism was losing its essence.

But at the same time tasawwuf was becoming increasingly influential as a popular religious trend. Stable patterns of succession emerged to ensure continuity. When an important shaykh died, a principal follower (khalifa) might assume his mantle, establishing the master’s teachings and practices as a more permanent mystical tradition, by formalizing texts, teachings, biography, rituals, and social structures, often in writing, in such a way as to assure the group’s cohesive continuity over time. Meanwhile, the shaykh became recognized as a saint (wali, literally “close” or “friend”, i.e. of God), remaining central to his group even after his death, especially through his sacred places and times, particularly his shrine (maqam), and the date of his passing.

In this way, many Sufi groups (al-turuq al-Sufiyya) crystallized as social, doctrinal, and ritual orders. Each such order is known as a tariqa, literally “way”.  Starting with shari`a (Islamic law), the Sufi follows a tariqa in order to arrive at haqiqa, the Divine Reality, in accordance with a sacred hadith (hadith qudsi), in which God speaks to the Prophet, saying:  “I was a hidden treasure, but I desired to be known. Therefore I created the world.” Obedient, the Sufi desires to know God, and ultimately to return to God, the source of all Being, through remembrance (dhikr).  Such dhikr may include prayer, study, and Qur’anic recitation, as well as more distinctively Sufi techniques, as chanting the Names of God, singing religious poetry (inshad dini), and mystical listening (sama`), all expressing and triggering memory of Divine Reality.

These Sufi orders continued to expand, develop, and branch all over the world.  With leadership succession reckoned through a kind of spiritual kinship in genealogies comprising multiple silsilas (chains), a tariqa branches naturally, over time. Followers may travel to new places, implanting offshoots absorbing local culture, and establishing an independent identity. Several generations after the order’s founding, succession disputes often occur, and fissioning results, especially at the point when succession by bloodline diverges from succession by charisma.

Typically divisions emerge immediately following an influential shaykh’s passing. Bereft of his charismatic presence, some muridin follow the son, while others follow one or more charismatic disciples. Thus one finds that many of the older Sufi orders have become widely ramified. In Egypt a large number of the turuq developed from just a few founding figures, such as Sayyid Ahmed al-Badawi (a 13th century saint buried in Tanta, in Egypt’s delta region), or Sidi `Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166, Baghdad). Although the latter’s tomb lies in Iraq, his order is global - probably the very first such widespread order.  Many other orders followed.

As these turuq spread, it was increasingly the case that Muslims belonged to Sufi orders—and often to more than one, due to multiple affiliations, as the orders were associated with particular clans, trade guilds, social classes, and residential neighborhoods corresponding to multiple overlapping identities of the typical member. Saints’ shrines and Sufi practices were everywhere. In Egypt, for instance, by the 19th century, most of the major scholars, including professors of renowned universities such as al-Azhar, participated in Sufism. Mainstream Islam had become Sufi, even when the name was not applied.

Today Sufism is often regarded as a particular Islamic branch or sect, or even as something outside Islam entirely.  Such a perspective is thoroughly modern. It behooves us to recall that Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th century Sufi critic frequently cited by Muslim reformers today, was severely persecuted in his own time, imprisoned for clashing with religious authorities, often due to his criticism of popular practices he regarded as un-Islamic.  Towards the end of his life he wrote a treatise in which he condemned visiting saints’ shrines (a common Sufi practice), and subsequently died in prison. So the strident anti-Sufi voices today quoted as representing the “Salafi” position, the religious conservatives, these were minority perspectives throughout many centuries.  Rather, mysticism permeated the fabric of Islam worldwide, even if the words “Sufi” or “tasawwuf” weren’t always used – in fact, the absence of the name is testimony to its unremarkable power and predominance. Sufism wasn’t a “branch” of Islam, as it is sometimes described today, but rather referred to Islam’s mystical dimensions, as the scholar Annemarie Schimmel aptly put it in her acclaimed volume, Mystical Dimensions of Islam.

Indeed, one of the principal ways that Islam spread around the world, far from its origins in the Middle East, was through these turuq Sufiyya– spreading from their Middle Eastern and North African origins into South Asia, West Africa, East Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe…today even North and South America, Australia…everywhere. In Egypt in particular, long-established Sufism came to tinge all rituals and life-cycle celebrations well into the 20th century, even when these were not associated with any specific tariqa.  The largest such occasions were public festivals for saints (awliya’), held to commemorate the saint’s day of passing.  They called such a festival a mawlid (or moulid in colloquial Egyptian parlance), literally “birthday”, but to be understood metaphorically as rebirth into the afterlife.  In South Asia the same sort of festival is named ‘urs. `Urs means wedding; mawlid means birthday – both names are life-cycle metaphors for the reunion with God that accompanies the saint’s transition from material to immaterial existence.

Worldwide, Muslim saint festivals are structurally and semantically similar, despite differences in local custom, sound, and language.  Centering on the saint’s shrine, locus of saintly blessing (baraka), poetry is recited, centered on Sufi themes, primarily in praise of God, the Prophet, and the saint, often with musical accompaniment.  Regular prayers are held, and food is shared and distributed. But poetry, musical styles, instruments, and terms may vary, and are often drawn from local culture. Thus the Egyptian moulid deploys Egyptian musical styles and musical instruments (usually drums and the reed flute, but often violin or oud—fretless lute—as well) accompanying sung religious poetry in Arabic. Egyptians know this practice as inshad or anashid (chant) or madih (praise)—the performer is called a munshid or maddah—whereas in Pakistan or India the `urs sounds more South Asian, centering on South Asian languages, instruments, and styles. South Asian Sufi music is called qawwali, its praise poetry is termed na`t, and the performer is called a qawwal. But from Egypt to Pakistan the poetic themes and ritual intentions are approximately the same, as is the overall ritual structure.

Scholars and some Muslim critics may label such festivals “popular” Islam, as if such a thing could be objectively distinguished from an “orthodox” version. In reality, acceptability is subjective, a matter of personal belief, though when class correlates to beliefs (as is increasingly the case) that which is “popular” can more easily be dismissed as mere ignorance, as it is supported by numbers more than power, literacy, status, or wealth.

Subjective beliefs aside, what is objectively true, however, is that up until the recent past an enormous sector of the Egyptian population participated in the moulids. Even today, the largest saint festivals, such as that held for Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi  in Tanta, draw several million visitors over a period of two weeks. Smaller moulids celebrate local saints, including important shaykhs of active Sufi orders, which may attract primarily members of the tariqa. The Prophet’s own mawlid is exceptional, as it is celebrated globally for his birthday, in the month of Rabi` al-Awwal.

Egypt is full of saints’ shrines, from small village shrines, to the enormous edifices of Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi and Sayyidna al-Hussein, the Prophet’s own grandson. Some shrines are more active than others. A shrine commemorating a saint who is still venerated by an active Sufi order remains the site of devotional rituals, including an annual mawlid, a weekly visiting day (yawm al-ziyara), or informal visits at other times, sometimes in search of help (madad) and intercession (shafa`a). For instance, one may perform a nadhr, or vow. Parents, fervently wishing a daughter or son to succeed on an exam, may visit a shrine to pledge that following academic success they will distribute meat to the poor at the shrine. This practice remains very common.

Sultan al-Farghal is one of the greatest saints of Upper Egypt, whose maqam draws visitors throughout the year.  His enormous moulid, always held in the summer while schools are on vacation, is hosted primarily by residents of Abu Tig [Abou Teeg] and nearby villages, and celebrated by thousands of locals, as well as visitors from near and far. Like you, I’ve also attended this moulid, where a close friend, Shaykh `Abd al-`Alim al-Nakhayli of the Mirghaniyya tariqa and a Sufi poet who has composed for many of Egypt’s most noted munshidin (including the celebrated Shaykh Yasin El Tuhami) hosts an annual khidma,  where I heard Shaykh Yasin and Shaykh Mahmud perform.  It’s spectacular.

Mahmoud el Tuhami: My name is Mahmoud Yassin El-Tuhami, better known as Mahmoud El-Tuhami.  I have a Bachelor’s from Al-Azhar University in Arabic language, and I have completed graduate studies in psychology.  God has blessed me with studying music.  I am now a munshid of religious song.  This began when I saw that I could sing those songs well, and for long durations of time, in the correct formal Arabic, and with precision in the different maqams, and when other people recognized the same talent, including my teachers in music.  I used to sing these religious songs when I was young, starting in school, perhaps when I was 9 years old or so.  After that, in high school and school festivals.  The first time I performed on stage publicly was when I was 13 years old, after I had developed my talent in inshad.

Sufism is a religious path.  It is the path of goodness.  The path starts first with the path of Islam, the most fundamental: the belief and witnessing that God is one and that Muhammad is his messenger; prayer; fasting; zakat (alms-giving), and the hajj (pilgrimage).  It develops into the path of belief: to worship God and to believe in Him.  Sufism’s highest path and attainment is the path of goodness, which is to worship God and act in this world as if you can see Him, knowing that though you do not, He can see you always.  Sufism is summarized in empathy, in spirituality, in the rigorous exercise of rehabilitating the self, in love of people, in love of creation, in love of the Creator.  That is the summary of Sufism: it is the elevation and rehabilitation of the soul.

In the music of Sufism, the melody is always derived from the spirit of the word.  The word comes first, and its spirit informs the improvised melody and the emotion within the melody.  Sufis rely on language as a fundamental of the faith, and so the word is the basis of the faith.  The melody is secondary to the word, is only a support.

Shaykh Yasin el-Tuhami (Mahmoud’s father): Fate is what took me on this path.  God ordained that I take this path [as a munshid], and I can only pray that it brings goodness to those that are ordained by God to hear me.  I cannot explain a beginning, an end, nor how it came about. I was about 20 years old when I started as a munshid.  But I didn’t start it as a profession.  As I told you, it was fate – something that just happened.  I didn’t take accounting of my abilities, nor hone them in a deliberate way or train formally, it is just something that happened.

B.E.:  Michael, you say that Ibn Taymiyya’s criticisms of Sufism represented a minority view.  But at some point that switched, right?

M.F.: It wasn’t until the late 19th century that a wave of religious reform, critical of Sufism, began to take root in Egypt, though this wave had been preceded and prepared by the so-called “Wahhabiyya” movement, founded by Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century Najd (central Arabia); adherents called themselves simply muwahhidun, “unitarians.” Following Ibn Taymiyya and interpretations of the Hanbali legal school, they professed a severely strict monotheism (tawhid) precluding saintly intermediaries, and therefore destroyed many shrines in Arabia, even threatening the Prophet’s shrine in Madina (though it was later rebuilt and expanded). Likewise, they rejected supererogatory rituals, particularly those incorporating music and dance, as heretical innovation (bid`a). But the followers of `Abd al-Wahhab were also anti-modern, completely unlike the position of 19th century Egyptian reformers such as Shaykh Muhammad `Abdu, who embraced modernity and sought a more rational Islam, still compatible with its founding principles.  Both rejected the accretions of the Middle Ages, especially the vast legacy of saint veneration and associated practices that typified Sufi orders.

Reformist ideas of the late 19th century in Egypt started to spread much more widely with the advent of the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan al-Muslimun) in the late 1920s. The highly organized, dynamic Brothers promulgated a more forward-looking, modernist vision of Islam. According to reformers, Islam should be politically active. It should create progressive change in a static society, unifying and reempowering Muslims worldwide.  A prevailing attitude was, “Sufism is just inculcated lethargy and superstition, which is unproductive and un-Islamic, leading nowhere.”  I think colonialism was a big factor in this reevaluation of Sufism and of Islam as primarily otherworldly, since during the colonial era Muslims worldwide were subjugated to European power. How could this have happened, if Islam is the “straight path”? Reformers suggested that the problem was not Islam, but the way Islam was being practiced, full of “backwards” and divisive medieval mysticism. From that point on, there was widespread reformist attack, concerted and sustained, on many of the Sufi orders and their practices. The turuq thereafter had to take great care to keep their religious bona fides on public display.

Since Ibn Taymiyya at least, visiting saints’ shrines had been criticized as tantamount to shirk (polytheism). Other practices, such as musical devotions, were critiqued as bid`a (heretical innovations). Some Sufis had performed fantastical feats, such as poking a skewer through the body without drawing blood, or handling snakes with impunity.  Sufis understood these demonstrations of saints’ powers as spiritual signs, karamat (miracles), but reformers viewed them as mere charlatanry performed for power or money, with no basis in proper religion. Other Sufis claimed to enter trance states, often as a result of dhikr rituals, in which they received spiritual visions and messages, or even achieved mystical union (ittihad). All of these practices and claims began to fall into broader disrepute as irreligious, backwards, or both.

The Sufi critique was supported by the advent of a modern secular educational system based on European Enlightenment norms, that replaced traditional religious education to a great extent.  The tight bond between religion and education began to be undone. Even the venerable al-Azhar University in Cairo began to offer a wide array of new educational programs in engineering, medicine, and other scientific subjects, far from the traditional religious curricula, though the religious subjects were also maintained.  Secular education, emphasizing reason, was certainly compatible with religion, but perhaps less amenable to its more mystical aspects.  Religion and modern science and technology were being reconciled, and to many reformers Sufism seemed resolutely anti-modern, anti-rational, and—hence—to be discarded. At the same time, economic decline and displacement meant that there was less time to indulge in such “impractical” pursuits.

As a result of these new trends, young people no longer automatically followed their parents’ memberships into Sufi orders, as previous generations had tended to do. Rather, following new developments among peers, they challenged the mystical legacy, and began to choose either a more secular ideology (for instance, a socialist or nationalist orientation), or the more “modern” Islamic direction of the Muslim Brothers and other Islamist trends (sometimes—though certainly not always—politicized or even militant), that appeared more engaged, rational, and forward oriented – more successful, or more likely to succeed in the future.  Or young people, perforce, focused on finding work and earning a livelihood.  In any case, Sufism, along with its musical rituals, began to appear anachronistic and impractical, of primarily sentimental or folkloric value. Gradually many of the older Sufi orders began to decline.

In my own research on Sufi orders of Egypt during the 1990s, I found that many of the traditional orders indeed commanded a limited and declining following, especially in urban areas. However, I also discovered a number of recently established orders, originating in the modernizing atmosphere of the latter 20th century, thriving during the very period of supposed Sufi decline. These “modernist” orders were perforce innately and acutely aware of the challenges posed by reform-minded Muslim critics and social movements, and were thus well poised to respond to them. Central to such orders are the modern University-educated classes, including teachers, lawyers, engineers, the very classes that comprise the core of the Muslim Brothers and other reformist groups.

But such Sufi orders are in the minority, and Sufism as a whole no longer represents the mainstream of Islam in Egypt, even if Sufi practices are still widespread. The pre-reformism picture still prevails in some smaller villages, and is especially predominant throughout Upper Egypt (the Sa`id), where social change—if not technological change—has come more slowly.  In the delta and the largest cities, Sufism has dwindled rapidly, except in popular neighborhoods full of recent Sa`idi immigrants. Still, in many places you’ll find Sufi performances on a weekly basis, if you know where to look. Well over 100 Sufi orders remain active in Egypt.  The big moulids are still celebrated, despite numerous attempts to shut them down, most recently during the swine flu scare (when the government claimed they posed an epidemiological risk). In practice, however, it’s very difficult to ban the moulids, because they’re spiritually and socially powerful to so many people, providing a crucial link to the saint, to history, and to one another. People throng to the shrine, especially from the rural areas, and enjoy reconnecting with one another and basking in the glow of the saint’s baraka.


Shaykh Yasin el-Tuhami: A moulid is an occasion whereby the life of a saint is remembered and commemorated.  It is usually someone from the house of the prophet, or commemorates the birth of the prophet himself.  It is either the prophet himself, a member of the family of the prophet, one of his descendents, one of his caliphs, etc.  And the moulid itself will either celebrate the birth day of that person, or commemorates the anniversary of the person’s death.  So people get together for this celebration, and celebrate in the different paths of Sufism.

People get together to know one another.  For God said in His Qur’an, “We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another.”  Each person, as they are able, brings something to contribute to the moulid.  Some food, some drink, some meat, something home-cooked.  And of course there are always sellers and buyers at the moulid, sweet sellers, etc, as you know it and see it.  So this gathering takes place, and it is called a moulid.  It is called a moulid because it brings people together as well, from professions and all walks of life – the educated and the uneducated, etc, it brings them all together though they be different in their affairs.

Fifty years ago, it used to be that moulids mostly attracted the old – people 50 and above or so.  Now you see that the majority is still people who are older in age, but you see a lot of young people too, people in their 20s, teenagers, you see an increase in their numbers.  In this same fifty years, there has been a vacuum in the culture of the spoken and written word.  But God is kind.  It is said that nothing can exist except what is right.  So the presence of that spoken word was important enough to reverse this trend.  The presence of the good word in the public sphere, especially with the reemergence of what is called “authenticated poetry”, which is poetry that, in its verse and content, borrows from the Qur’an or from the Hadith (sayings of the prophet), or both.  And so this art form reemerged as an authentic color and expression of this heritage.

Thanks be to God, I grew up in a religious, observant home, where religious learning was passed down from one generation to the next.  And there is no better or more beautiful source than the good book itself, God’s book, the Qur’an.  This atmosphere I came from and grew up in certainly had an effect, in that we had a familiarity with the word, [and the poetry of inshad].  There are also many others who had a great influence; from Cairo, Omar Ibn El Farid, Mohei El-Deen Ibn Arab, Imam El-Refa’i, El-Hallag, and many others who lived 15 centuries, 14 centuries, 10 centuries ago.  It is through them that I was introduced to the word [and to this poetry].

B.E. (to Yasin el Tuhami):  Tell us about the actual singing you perform at a moulid.  Some make a point of saying it is not “music” per se.  How do you see this?

Shaykh Yasin el-Tuhami: The music question is one that I have been accused of before – in that it is said that I am one of the first to bring true music to religious inshad.  But in truth, in terms of my own leanings, I am indeed a passionate lover of music, but music that has a high purpose – music that makes the spirit soar and rehabilitates the soul.  Not music that is too entrenched in worldly influences, nor music that recommends or promotes vice.

Music begins with good taste.  If one has good taste, and understands the poetry, one can improvise based on those dual influences.  [Inshad is] an act of spontaneous creativity that is based on the emotion the munshid is experiencing from the words, so that the munshid, in bringing those two influences together, emphasizes with the melody he improvises his emotional state, and the audience’s as well.

The whole ordeal is free of deliberation and artistry between me and the listener.  The only thing that exists is an interaction that happens through the word.  The word is what holds us together and creates that moment of spontaneous exchange between the munshid and the listener.

B.E. (to Frishkopf): Describe a mawlid, or moulid.

M.F.: Well, the mawlid (literally “birthday” or “birthplace”) or moulid (in Egyptian colloquial Arabic) is a festival centered upon that annually recurring slice of space-time rendered sacred by a holy person’s place and day of death (which, for Muslim saints, often corresponds to the day of birth as well). Except for the Mawlid al-Nabi, the Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday, which is a special case, mawlids in Egypt, and in the rest of the world too, usually center on the saint’s shrine, or maqam, marked by a dome (qubba) overhead, and often adjoining a mosque.  The saints, or awliya’ (literally “near ones”), are generally understood as holy people who followed the last prophet, Muhammad, including also members of the Prophet’s immediate family, the Ahl al-Bayt (“people of the House”). Some of the most important of the latter group have shrines in Cairo, especially Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyidna al-Hussein, the Prophet’s granddaughter and grandson, respectively.   Egyptians are very proud of the fact that Egypt has played a central role in religious history, from the Old Testament story of Joseph (Yusuf), to the New Testament’s account of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.  Egypt (“Misr”) is multiply mentioned in the Koran (e.g. 10:87, 12:21, 43:51). Later, many members of the prophet’s family visited Egypt, along with many other figures central to early Islamic history, and some are buried there.

Curiously, for the non-mystically inclined, a saint may have multiple shrines (some say 40) – so the maqam is not necessarily a tomb, a burial place. Nevertheless, the maqam implies a physical, powerfully symbolic structure materializing the saint’s spiritual presence, and radiating his or her baraka, or blessing. While Sufis acknowledge that spirits exist everywhere at once, there is also a sense that saintly presence is far stronger and more efficacious at the shrine. Thus Sufis prefer to visit the maqam for prayers, since the saint is close (wali) to God, and unequivocally within His sphere of grace: as the Qur’an says “Surely God's friends [awliya’ Allah]—no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow” (10:62). The shrine is therefore considered a place of great spiritual potency.

The sacred time is the date of the mawlid, usually the anniversary of the saint’s presumed day of death, reckoned according to the Islamic lunar calendar, though occasionally fixed on a solar calendar instead. The solar mawalid are interesting because their timing links them to agricultural cycles, and there’s some evidence that they maintain pre-Islamic solar traditions, much as Christmas and Easter may be interpreted as extensions of ancient solstice or equinox celebrations.   Three of Egypt’s largest mawlids are linked to the solar calendar in this way. Those of Sayyid al-Badawi  and of Sidi Ibrahim al-Disuqi, always fall around harvest time; scholars believe they correspond to pre-Islamic Egyptian festival antecedents. The mawlid of Sultan al-Farghal, which you experienced yourself, takes place in July. But most mawalid are fixed on a lunar cycle, the basis of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

Depending on the saint’s importance, the size—temporally and demographically—of a moulid varies dramatically. For a saint who’s only venerated locally, or perhaps who is special primarily to a particular tariqa, the moulid might center on a single night, attracting only several dozen people and a single munshid. For the greatest saints, especially the Ahl al-Bayt, the mawlid lasts up to two weeks, and may draw millions of visitors.  But it is the final night, the great night (al-laila al-kabira) that marks the sacred date in any case.

B.E.: So what happens at a moulid?

M.F.: Okay, let’s consider the largest mawalid. Celebrations begin about two weeks before the great night (al-laila al-kabira), the culmination and climax of the festival. Organizers need to obtain official permission from the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Endowments. So all the mawlid dates are set, known well in advance. Sponsors start to rig up the area around the mosque-shrine with strings of lights and colorful tents, so everyone knows a festival is coming. Festive canvas tents (suwan) are constructed of special cloth called khiyamiyya. Formerly sown together out of carefully cut pieces in splendid designs by expert craftsmen, today these designs are typically printed in bright colors on heavy canvas reproducing the traditional arabesques. The mosque-shrine itself is central, blazing with multicolored lights adorning the dome and minarets, winding around adjoining tents and into neighboring streets and alleys. Inside, there’s a steady stream of visitors to the shrine, regular prayers are packed, and special events feature noted preachers and performances of Sufi rituals within the mosque itself.

Outside, tents house meeting places for Sufi orders, their rituals and songs, and their khidma (service) kitchen and dining areas, providing food and drink to all without charge.  Tents also enclose spaces for public rituals, including performances of inshad (mystical song, often accompanied by music) and dhikr (chanted Names of God), unaffiliated with a particular Sufi order, or provide shelter to itinerant vendors of food, religious paraphernalia, toys, and other goods. Sometimes government-sponsored tents enclose spaces where official speeches are delivered.

Setting up a moulid costs plenty of money. Sufi orders cover costs for their own facilities. Local businessmen and philanthropists may provide lights, tents, and khidmas, as the fulfillment of religious obligation, a devotion to God, the Prophet, and the saint, a means of partaking in saintly baraka, and an expression of neighborly spirit. Entire tariqas or individuals regularly sponsor the main stages for public performances of inshad and dhikr.

The large mawlid opens with a mawkib, a procession, traditionally full of pageantry. Each Sufi tariqa marches in formation, featuring their distinctive colored dress, banners and other accouterments (for instance, the Rifa`iyya may carry symbolic swords), the leading shaykhs on horseback, each group chanting distinctive anashid or formulae of dhikr (remembering God by invoking His Names), sometimes accompanied with low-slung drums, and amplified through portable speakers.  The mawkib processes around the region, ending at the shrine.

Throughout a moulid one finds a cycling of energy between day and night, overlaid with a dramatic crescendo from start to finish. Activities subside during the day, flourishing after evening prayer, until dawn. Starting on the first night, and culminating with the last, the crowds grow with each passing day. After a while, the shrine teems with visitors, circumambulating and praying.  The khidmas fill with people, sitting, praying, eating, drinking. Fragrant incense wafts through tents and shrine; perfumes and prayer books are distributed.  Surrounding streets, decked out in lights and khiyammiyya, are thronged. Gradually, the nights are enlivened with increasing numbers of street performances by munshidin, whose voices—accompanied by percussion, melodic instruments, as well as lines of dhikr chant—blare far beyond their suwans through crackly speakers, establishing spheres of sonic presence which begin to overlap as performances draw closer and closer together in space and time. Within the mosques a more subdued atmosphere prevails, including more orderly dhikr and a cappella inshad, ceaseless visitation and prayers.

But the moulid exhibits a secular festival dimension as well, though perhaps “secular” is the wrong word; everything—even economic activity—partakes in baraka. Crowds support intensified commerce, at local shops, in special suwans, or in the streets. Itinerant vendors arrive for the duration of the moulid, selling religious books, incense, perfume, tapes, CDs, as well as snacks, both sweet and savory, and toys for the children.  The sacred is suffused with a carnival atmosphere, including circus-like performances of derring-do (for instance, motorcycles whizzing around a curved vertical surface), demonstrations of magic, fortune telling, puppet theater, folkloric dance, and other secular entertainments, all for a modest price.  The moulid is considered a highly auspicious occasion to perform circumcisions on infant boys, and medical specialists staff special tents for this purpose. The khidmas fill, the crush of vendors and entertainers and onlookers increases in all the surrounding streets, until on the last few nights they’re teeming with people, sound, and light.

The most famous munshidin perform on al-laila al-kabira, the Great Night.   These performances are packed, and continue late into the night, usually until dawn prayer.  But at the big moulids, the Great Night is not the last. Rather, it is followed by the so-called al-laila al-yatima, the orphan night.  This night is very special for true Sufis, because most people don’t know it – they assume al-laila al-kabira is the final night, and stay home after that.  So the al-laila al-yatima is not overly crowded at all, attracting only the true, practicing Sufis, the so-called fuqara or darawish,. Each of these words means “poor.”  But such poverty is not material. Rather the faqir or darwish lives in a sort of spiritual poverty, an awareness that true wealth—spiritual wealth—belongs only to God. The faqir is thus most humble, and often dresses simply, even if she or he possesses great wealth of the material sort.  At the laila yatima one can also hear wonderful munshidin, such as Shaykh Yasin, singing to these true Sufis in some of the most moving performances imaginable.

Some come to the moulid out of pure religious belief and intention, but many more attend the moulid primarily as a diversion, a free entertainment. Parents bring children. Youth revel together. Occasionally, a few run amok, forming conga-lines and crashing into people; unfortunately, sometimes there’s a bit of pickpocketing or harassing on occasion.  So there is an element of danger as well, especially for women, but only during the great night at the very largest moulids.  For the most part, however, moulid festivals are perfectly safe and friendly, and the mood is buoyant, joyous, loving, generous, even ecstatic – unlike more somber religious festivals such as one finds during Ramadan, especially the Lailat al-Qadr (night of power), when the ethos is one of weeping over one’s sins, or during the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.

B.E.:  But these don’t happen during Ramadan, right?

M.F.: In Egypt, moulids are not scheduled during Ramadan, the 9th lunar month of the Islamic hijri calendar, as they are considered to conflict with the reflective gravity required during this sacred period, the month when the Qur’an was first revealed. Moulids whose date is fixed on a solar calendar inevitably conflict with Ramadan occasionally; in such cases, the moulid is postponed.

Ramadan presents other distinctive sounds, however, especially between sunset and dawn, in the mosque and on the radio, many of which are heard during the moulid also. The most prominent are sounds of Qur’anic recitation (tilawa), and those of the extended nighttime prayer called tarawih, but there is also plenty of inshad, primarily of the a cappella variety, mainly what is known as ibtihalat – solo vocal performances of religious poetry chanted before regular prayer. Traditionally there was also a profusion of choral renditions of such poetry, a genre called tawashih diniyya, though such performances are uncommon today except as a staged presentation of the religious-musical heritage.  Towards dawn, the masahharati makes his rounds, singing, calling, and beating a small drum (baza) in a distinctive rhythm, in order to wake the townsfolk in time for their pre-dawn Ramadan meal, suhur. Performances of Sufi inshad with instrumental accompaniment, as well as ibtihalat and tawashih, are frequently organized by Cairo’s cultural centers as concert events.  Popular music performances in hotels, restaurants, and cafés are also common during Ramadan nights, which are generally filled with food and entertainment.  Such musical entertainments may incorporate spiritual themes to a greater or lesser degree.

For instance, every Friday after congregational prayer, music combining inshad and popular songs is performed in a small café adjacent to the mosque and shrine of al-Hussein, one of Cairo’s most central mosques. These performances intensify during Ramadan, as well as during the moulid of Sayyidna al-Hussein himself, being performed daily throughout such occasions.

One small moulid, celebrated on the solar cycle, is particularly dear to me. This is the festival of `Umar Ibn al-Farid, which takes place every spring. The one-night festival is organized by Sufi friends of mine in the courtyard adjoining Ibn al-Farid’s shrine, just below the muqattam cliffs, in the qarafa, Cairo’s vast southeastern cemetery. This area is a very quiet and peaceful place, suitable for meditation, and indeed many Sufi figures withdrew to this area of the city for meditative purposes. After his passing, `Umar ibn al-Farid, a holy man who lived in the 13th century, was buried here, and came to be considered a saint. He’s also considered one of the greatest poets of the Arabic language, and certainly the most important Sufi poet writing in Arabic. Out of his profound spirituality, ibn al-Farid would enter special states of mystical concentration (hal) during which he’d spontaneously utter poetry, which his disciples eagerly took down in writing.  A small diwan (poetry collection) has come down to us, and is actively performed by all the munshidin, particularly Shaykh Yasin, whose voice graces this yearly occasion.

Sidi `Umar, popularly known as Sultan al-`Ashiqin (the Sultan of [spiritual] Lovers), illustrates the ambiguous status of Sufi poets and singers, creating and expressing at the porous borders of art and spirituality, through love. For them, intensive spiritual states of love and Divine awareness engender great aesthetic expression. Likewise, such expressions of true spiritual feeling have the power to arouse like states of spiritual depth and feeling; the two sides cannot be disentangled. But while Sufis may lay particular emphasis upon the connection between beauty, love, and the transcendent, such connections are actually deeply rooted in Islam, as expressed in Islamic architecture, calligraphy, and recitations. This connection is distilled in a famous prophet hadith (a saying of the Prophet Muhammad): “Inn Allahu jamilun wa yuhibbu al-jamal" – God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.

B.E.: Thanks, Michael.  This is a big help.

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