This past week, Egyptians celebrated a revered national holiday, one that also carries religious significance: the birth of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH), or Moulid El-Nabi.
Accompanied by traditional festivities, sweets and even a special doll to mark the day, the moulid is a spirited event for adults and kids alike.
Yet, not all Egyptians celebrate the prophet’s birthday. Moulids in general are at the center of debate between Islamic scholars. More conservative scholars argue that it is simply an innovation that became a tradition but has no religious bearing, adding that there is no record of Prophet Mohamed celebrating his birthday in the early Muslim community.
Other religious leaders refer to parts of the Holy Quran and the Hadith (the prophet’s sayings) that imply that it is permissible to celebrate Moulid El-Nabi.
Sufi orders in Egypt do not only celebrate the prophet’s birthday, they also rejoice in moulids for well-known Sufi sheikhs, or what they refer to as “saints, such as Sayyed El-Badawy whose shrine is in Tanta.
Religious debates aside, the roaring crowds at Khan El-Khalili’s Al-Hussein Mosque prove that Moulid El-Nabi is still very much a popular holiday.
It was 10 minutes after the congregation finished praying the maghrib (sunset) prayer.
A group of elderly men sat around a table reciting verses from the Holy Quran. Their voices echoed throughout the high white domes of the Sultan Hussein Mosque, a small mosque just around the corner from Beirut Street.
Almost all of them wore freshly pressed suits, but one of them was a beggar who stops by every Friday struggling to stand on his crutches. All of them were wearing white kufi caps, gold-rimmed spectacles, and they were reciting the same chapter, correcting each other’s pronunciation.
It would be another hour before the ‘esha (evening) prayer would be called and the Prophet Mohamed’s (PBUH) birthday, or Moulid El-Nabi, would officially begin.
It was morning and the day started out with a long processional march of local Sufi orders from the Ga’fari Mosque to the Hussein Mosque. Later that day, a group of the Desoukeya order, a local Sufi group from a small village in the Nile Delta called El-Desouk, congregated blocking traffic all the way to the Salah Salem tunnel.
When one of the members was asked why they were staging such a small gathering, he refused to comment, saying, “I don’t talk to journalists. The Desoukeya order could be recognized by their long white galabeyyas and their yellow turbans. As they marched to their meting point, they beat drums and carried yellow flags representing the Desoukeya order. Even young boys were wearing the same traditional garments and beating on drums.
Muslims expatriates were also involved in the festivities. Abdullah Ibrahim, a bearded man wearing a dark green kufi cap, said that he was from the southern part of Russia. “I have been living in Egypt for five years and we love celebrating Moulid El-Nabi every year, said Ibrahim in broken Arabic. “I have been studying at Al-Azhar the past few years.
Inside the Hussein Mosque, crowds of people gathered, hanging on to every word that was being recited from the Holy Quran. During the brief pause between the verses, men sitting in the front rows exclaimed “Ya Allah (Oh, God) or “Allahu Akbar (God is great).
Crowds of men pushed and shoved their way through to touch a part of Imam Hussein’s shrine. Mohamed Ahmed, a Malaysian wearing an intricately designed kufi cap and traditional oriental garments, was intently listening to the Quranic verses.
“Celebrating Moulid El-Nabi in Egypt is something new for me since I have just started my studies in Al-Azhar University, said Ahmed. “It’s really special that I get to celebrate this event in such an important mosque.
Another Sufi order, the Shazleya, set up a tent right next to the mosque serving tea to guests. Apparently, the mayor of Cairo was going to visit Hussein Mosque to join the celebrations.
Al-Hussein seemed to be a major gathering area for local Sufi orders, who fervently recited Quranic verses and chanted the names of God for remembrance. Three men from the Ahmedeyya Gaafareya order, wearing light blue galabeyyas and white kufi caps, pushed a cart collecting donations.
On the cart was a large framed picture their grand sheikh, Ahmed Gaafari.
Apart from being a religious holiday, Moulid El-Nabi is also a day when Egyptians like to chow down on sweets sometimes encrusted with sesame seeds and a touch of honey. Turkish delights are a personal favorite for many. Muhammad Subhi, a stout elderly driver, was sitting in a nearby coffee shop puffing shisha and sipping karkade. He remembered the way in which Egyptians used to celebrate the Moulid, which bears little resembles to what happens today.
“Some trends are still around, but are now not as common, said Subhi. “People used to walk around and distribute sweets to the poor, but I think this doesn’t happen as much anymore.