8 March 2009
The Mulid al-Nabi (Birth of the Prophet) is the feast on which Muslims hold observance of the birthday of their Prophet Mohamed. It occurs on the 12th day of Rabie al-Awwal, the third month of the Islamic calendar.
The mulid’s observance in Egypt dates from the early days of the Fatimid era in the 10th century when the Caliph al-Muizz li-Dinillah in 937 issued orders for the day to be celebrated. Special sweets appeared for the Mulid al-Nabi, especially the sugar horse and the sugar doll, once described by an English traveller as “a bride blooming in her colourful, transparent clothes”. The Egyptian people went on to make the celebration an annual event.
Celebrating with gusto
The Egyptian scholar and historian Abdel-Rahman al-Gabarti, who was an eyewitness of Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, mentioned that the Egyptians warmed to the French leader when he held a huge festival for the Prophet’s birthday. The expenses on that occasion exceeded 30 francs.
In many places, people in the past would carry on with the celebrations for 12 days, especially in Sahat al-Raheba where the dervishes erected tents and led followers to form a ring called a Zikr. In the Zikr, which is a Sufi tradition, the people in the ring whirl and repetitiously chant the word madad (provide), asking God to provide them with help and support. The mulid was celebrated in a carnival manner; large street processions were held and homes and mosques were decorated. People gave out food and other forms of charity, and stories about the life of Mohamed were narrated while children recited poetry. These traditions are honoured to the present day. Sometimes Copts spend the night celebrating with Muslims until the party is broken up by the dawn prayer.
A dervish ceremony that used to be carried at the start of the following day but was cancelled by Khedive Tawfiq in the late 19th century on the grounds that it contradicted the principles of Islam, was the al-dossa (step) performance. In this historic spectacle, a horse was led to step on a line of men lying prostrate on the ground. For the men this was a practised feat of endurance. It is said that they and their sheikh (spiritual master) repeat a short prayer of just one line all through the day that precedes the performance to enable them to bear the pain. The horse has to be specially trained to walk on people since it dislikes it, it being against its natural instincts.
Signal to start
During the Mohamed Ali era in the 19th century, the Earl Marshal—who received financial support from the exchequer—was responsible for the expenses of the festival as well as the provision and administration of tons of rice, meat, sugar and so on for sale.
In the middle of Safar , the month that precedes Rabie al-Awwal, everyone waited impatiently for the meeting between the Cairo judge with the sheikhs to decide when the festival would begin. Then the Earl Marshal would ask the approval of the Cairo governor to release an official decree to announce the start of the festival.
The khedive, senior officials, scholars and aristocrats would then assemble in the tent of Sayed al-Bakri to listen to the story of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed. At the end of the day they enjoyed mulid sweets and lemonade.
During the reign of King Fouad in the 1930s the festival venue was moved to Abbasiya. The Ministry of Endowments was responsible for setting up the tents and decorating the streets. In the 1940s King Farouq moved the festival to Qaitbay and the expense of erecting tents was [only] EGP65.
As the festival came to an end all the kiosks would close and the tents come down, but everyone would forever remember the days of fun.
And till today, come Safar, the streets fill with make-shift marquees sheltering stacks of sugary sweetmeats, horses and dolls. People flock to buy these mulid necessities. On the eve of the mulid the Zikr is held and the story of the Prophet Mohamed recited. Only now the festivities are televised, the trip to the nearest marquee or kiosk is made by car not on foot, and many of the dolls are made of plastic, in China.