Thousands of Egyptians celebrate Al-Hussein Moulid

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 11 Mar 2013

In the heart of Islamic Cairo, Al-Hussein district celebrates the birth of the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed

Al-Hussein Moulid
Al-Hussein Moulid (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

In the heart of Islamic Cairo, the Al-Hussein district prepares to host the celebration of the Moulid of Hussein Birth of Al-Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohamed. 

Thousands of Egyptians are expected to visit the Al-Hussein mosque between Sunday and Tuesday, while some have arrived even earlier. 

Moulids, or carnivals of faith, are festivals affiliated with Sufism. Sufism is the act of ignoring worldly matters in-order to attain subliminal status and get closer to God. This process is said to be the heart and philosophy of Islam, one that continues to capture the hearts of millions of believers.

There are some 280 Sufi orders in the Arab region, 76 of which, with over 18 million followers, are in Egypt. Sufis are generally known to abstain from most political practices, at the least, publicly speaking. However, for Egyptian Sufis political participation became a reality after the 25 Jan revolution.

Since Al-Hussein holds a central place in Shia Islam, Egyptian Sufis have recently started seeking the support of Shias to oppose the increasing threats of violence to their rituals and mausoleums by conservative Islamist's in Egypt.

This marks a more recent change in Sufis' attitude toward Shiism.

Longstanding divisions among Sufis were underscored by a substantial dispute which occured in 2011 between Sheikh Qassabi (the current head of Highest Sufi Council) and Alaa Abou Al-Azayem, the head of th powerful Azmeia Sufi Order who is known for his Shia inclinations.

The dispute was highlighted at one of the Friday million-man marches charcteristic of the post January 25 revolution - For the Love of Egypt - which was organised in the summer of 2011 to promote religious tolerance.

The march was called for by sheikh Alaa Abou Al-Azayem, but was not blessed by all Sufi groups.

This dissagreement caused the Sufi movement to splinter into three groups: The Reformation Sufi Front, the followers of Al Sheikh al Qasabi (head of Supreme Sufi Council) and the Young Sufi Trend.

Moreover, two Sufi political parties were formed and took part in the Egyptian parliamentary elections in 2011. However, serious lack of political experience contributed to their defeat in the elections. As a result, the antagonists re-united, and sought solidarity from the Shias in Iran.

Indeed, members of 14 Egyptian Sufi Orders then flew to Iran for support from Iran.  Iran pledged to improve relations with Egypt by re-boosting the Egyptian tourism industry through millions of Iranian tourists. 

"This year, a lot of Shias are expected to join the celebrations," explained Abu Al Fadl Esnawi, a researcher specialising in Sufism at the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic studies who recently published The problematic political role of Sufis post Arab Spring, a study which traces the political beginning of Sufis in Egypt and the Arab world.

Their festivals behold the best of both worlds, According to  J.W McPherson's book The Moulids of Egypt. Moulids have always had a spiritual and material aspect.

Al- Hussein Moulid has always started on a Tuesday in the second half of Arabian month of Gamad al akhar for at least the past 100 years. One of the main aspects of this Moulid is the colourful lights decorating the neighboring bazaars and the Sufi chants of sheiks.

Another worldly festivity of the Moulid is ghawazi (gypsy belly dancers) who would line up next to a cluster of tents allocated for plays and other performances.

Moulid games include stick plays and horse riding.

Moulids are also a prime time for male circumcision - more than 1000 boys were circumcised during Al-Hussein Moulid in 1940.

It is a popular belief that Al-Hussein's head - stored in a mausoleum at the mosque itself - is one of Cairo's most sacred Islamic monuments.

The story of its burial is quite controversial. On the 10th of the Arabian month of Moharam in the Islamic calendar year of 61 (61 AH), Al-Hussein was killed at the hands of the Caliph Yazid of Damascus in one of the most brutal battles in the history of Islam, known as the Battle of Kerbala. His head is said to have been buried in Egypt in 549 AH (1154 AD) in a mausoleum in Al-Zumorod Palace, the same premises as today's Al-Hussein mosque.

Despite the theological differences between Shias and Sunnis, and the fact that Egyptians are mostly Sunnis, the celebration receives a lot of passion and respect in the country.

It is very difficult to dissect the spiritual experience for individual Muslims, explains Nasr Abou Zeid, in his book, Hakaza Takalam ibn Arabi.

"Especially in the daily rituals of  the Egyptian villages. .. as one learns how to talk, they start to learn to recite the Quran and frequent mosques. After Esha prayers every Thursday night, they hold a (Sufi) hadra (gathering) where people gather in a circle moving with a slow rhythmic motion from left to right. They chant, the pitch gradually rising, until the voices are very difficult to recognise."

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