Sayeda Nafisa (145- 208 hijra) was the granddaughter of Imam Hassan, the son of the Caliph Ali ibn Abi Taleb. Born in Mecca and raised in Medina, she was known for her spiritual and religious knowledge, which earned her the title Nafisat Al Elm (the one with precious knowledge). She is said to have completed 30 pilgrimages to Mecca, mostly on foot.
According to Souad Maher Mohamed's 2017 book 'Egypt's Mosques and its pious Wallies', Sayeda Nafisa first came to Egypt with her husband Ishaq Al Moetaman in Ramadan of the year 193 hijra and stayed at Dar Ibn Haniea. The Egyptians came out to greet her in great public processions on hawdags (camel rides) all the way from the coastal city of Arish. She lived in Egypt for seven years, during which she was a major icon of spiritual guidance. Egyptians honored her dearly and valued her presence.
According to historian Al-Maqrizi's book Khetat Al-Maqrizi, the first mausoleum built on her grave dates back to the Umayyad era, then renovated under the Fatimids, then under the Abbasids by Prince Abdel-Rahman Katkhoda, who renovated the mosque and the mausoleum and made two separate doors for men and women in 1173 hijra. He also wrote in gold on the mausoleum:
عرش الحقائق مهبط الأسرار قبر النفيسة بنت ذى الأنوار
حسن بن زيد بن الحسين نجل الإمام على ابن عم المصطفى المختار
The throne of truth and secrets, the tomb of Nafisa, daughter of the source of all lights.
Hussein son of Zaid son of Hussein, son of Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, the chosen one.
"There were two mosques, the one we have now was renovated by the government in the twenties or thirties. However, the older one has Ottoman motifs with Persian influences, while the original minbar (short flight wooden steps used by a preacher inside a mosque) is much older than the current mosque itself, probably dating back to the Ayyubids. It is now on display at the Islamic museum," engineer and restorer Muhammed Al-Saied told Ahram Online.
The mausoleum is closed for renovations, nevertheless, people flocked to visit her (Al Ziara) her and read Al Fatha for her and ask her to pray God for them as well. Some would put flowers on the door of the mausoleum, others would knock gently to request visitation permission which highlights how the collective memory of dwellers believe in her spiritual presence.
According to Ibn Al-Ziat's book Al-Kawakeb Al-Sayara fi Tartib Al Zeyaram, Nafisa lived on the Sayeda Nafisa Plateau during her lifetime and even dug her own grave inside her home, where she recited the Quran 190 times.
She was an icon of spiritual knowledge and was often visited by grand imams of Islam like Imam Al-Shafii. When Imam Al-Shafii died in 204 hijra, she asked that the funeral procession pass by her home so she could recite a prayer upon his corpse. When she died in 208, her husband wanted to bury her in Al Baqiaa, but the whole of Egypt refused the idea and pled for him to reconsider.
Her husband obliged after "he had a vision in his sleep where the Prophet Muhammad asked him to leave her buried in the grave she dug with her own hands," according to Ibn Al-Ziat's book.
"Though she was not born or raised in Egypt, Egyptians considered her an icon for Egypt and honored her greatly. According to the popular tale, they asked her to pray for them during a hard time in Egyptian history, when the Nile did not flood and famine was on the horizon. They asked her to pray to God for them, and she is said to have prayed to God, throwing one of her shawls in the Nile, and soon after the Nile flooded," Al-Saied explained.
Moulids, despite meaning "birthday" in Arabic, are in-fact the death anniversary of spiritual figures. However, from a Sufi perspective, it is the celebration of Al-Inteqal (transition) from life to the afterlife, hence it is a new birth for the deceased.
Moulids range between three days and a week, the last night of which is a grand finale with the largest number of attendees.
Sufi carnivals by more than 74 sects with deep historical roots in Egypt are annual festivals that celebrate the death anniversary of a spiritual figure who is either a Walli (guardian of the faith) or descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, known as Ahl Al Beit.
There are two types of celebrations in Moulids, the first of which is a material one that involves marches, street commerce, and all kinds of entertainment. Then there is the spiritual celebration, the essence of the Moulid where members of Sufi orders engage in long sessions of Madih (Praise) of the Prophet Mohamed and Ahl Al Beit and Zikr (remembrance of God almighty). Each Sufi sect has their own colour of preference and chants. Al Rifaaia, for example, adopted the colour black and have a unique drum beat rhythm of their own that stands out among the Moulid crowd.
"During Zikr, they chant Allah Hay (God is Alive), and as they chant they start to move to the rhythm of their chants," Al-Saied explained.