A Personal Journey into the Heart of Islam
Exploring the Sufi Moulids of Egypt
by Tim Coleman
Moulids: The Most Popular Expression of Islam
In Egypt and throughout the Islamic world, Moulids are popular religious festivals that celebrate the symbolic birthdays of the awliya—people considered to be “favorites” or “friends” of God. They are a passionate fusion of the sacred and profane, a conflation of popular entertainment, spiritual transcendence and ecstatic release from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Most villages in Egypt will have their own Moulid dedicated to honoring the lives of a popular sheik or holy person. The central focus is the shrine, which usually comprises a tomb containing the remains of the holy person and a surrounding mosque. It is a place where spiritual blessings are concentrated, where Muslims can come close to those who are close to God, a place where the very dust is precious.
The largest Moulids celebrate Islamic saints, whose example helped many live Muslim lives in the past, and who may also have founded a particular Sufi order. Sufism can be broadly defined as the spirituality or mysticism of the religion of Islam. Perhaps the most famous of all Sufi saints was Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (died 1273) who founded the confraternity of whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey. Devotees of this Sufi order known as the Mevleviya continue to flourish today and are probably the most widely known order in the West due to their exquisite public displays of dervish whirling known as the samaa.
The uniquely Egyptian form of Moulid began several decades before its better known Turkish counterpart after the death of the renowned teacher and so called miracle worker, Ahmed el Bedawi in 1239. Today this is the largest Moulid in the Islamic world attracting some three million people to the normally sleepy town of Tanta halfway between Cairo and Alexandria.
The fist known Moulid was the Moulid-i-Nebi and was inaugurated shortly after the death of the Prophet in 632. However some scholars believe the origin of the Moulid may date back even further to Pharaonic times. The Moulid of Abu Haggag in Luxor features a procession of boats, similar to the procession of Sun Boats that once celebrated the ancient gods at the annual flooding of the Nile ceremony. Additionally the fact that most Moulids are adjusted to take place in the spring suggests links with ancient rites to ensure the fertility of the land.
Many of Egypt’s most important Moulids take place in Cairo. Here the awliya, or favorites of God, are frequently ahl al bayt, meaning descended from the family of the prophet. This is true of Cairo’s largest festival, the Moulid of Sayedna Hussein, the martyred saintly grandson of the Prophet Mohammed whose head is buried in a mosque devoted to his honor and facing the famous Al Azhar University. This colossal event usually takes place in the final week of November, attracts around half a million people and is attended by Egypt’s most famous Sufi orders or tariqa (literally ‘way’ or ‘path’): the Shazaliya, Rifai and Ahmediya.
Discovering Hidden Egypt
Despite the enormous popularity of the Moulids among Egyptians, most tourists visiting the country are unlikely to discover them. Perhaps some visitors will have been lucky enough to stumble across one of the bigger festivals in Cairo, but unless travelers are in the right place at the right time, the activities of the Moulids will most probably remain unknown to them. Indeed this was the position I found myself in on my fourth visit to Egypt in 1986. Most of my attention had been occupied in absorbing the sublime beauty of what remained of Ancient Egypt and I had a particular fascination with the Giza complex and specifically the Sphinx. As a freelance journalist and radio broadcaster working for the BBC, I had made a number of programs about Egypt. Much of my attention had been directed towards investigating the remarkable claims of ‘rogue’ Egyptologist, John Anthony West, who had championed the theory that construction of the Sphinx took place many thousands of years before Ancient Egypt came into being, a claim he was later able to substantiate with the help of Professor Robert Schoch of Boston University (see “The Age-Old Riddle of the Sphinx,” by Robert M. Schoch, Habibi, Vol. 14, No. 2).
Egypt’s Largest Moulid: Sayed el Bedawi
It was during this exciting period of intense debate about the origins of the Sphinx that an Egyptian friend told me about the Moulid of Sayed el Bedawi in Tanta. His description was so beguiling that I decided to take a break from my preoccupation with Ancient Egypt and explore the fabulously rich Islamic world that had surrounded me all this time. With youthful bravado I packed my journalistic bag, grabbed my camera and headed south to Tanta with no idea that I was about to enter the beautiful mayhem and sublime madness of the world’s largest Moulid. I had no guide, my Arabic comprised of a few sentences and I knew no one in the city, yet I was determined to experience the Moulid first hand while I had the chance.
Nothing in my life could have prepared me for the shock of seeing the Moulid of Sayed el Bedawi for the first time, since there is little to compare it to in the West. Such intensity and religious fervor are a far cry from the emotionally subdued atmosphere of Britain where I lived at the time. Discovering the Moulids was like being transported into another world—a rich and exotic world where all normal inhibition was jettisoned and an entirely different set of principles, rituals and behaviors were present. Here one could be immersed in a seething mass of bodies all moving in unison to the sublime music and singing; or find oneself caught in a crowd of chanting dervishes as they squeezed into the confined space surrounding the Saint’s shrine with barely enough room to breathe; or sucked into a crowd of devotees as they flowed through the narrow streets in long processions like water in a flash flood. It was an astonishing assault on the senses. Everywhere you looked there was frenetic activity accompanied by a cacophony of sounds, smells and colors. The entire city had sacrificed itself to the Moulid. Every building, every back street served to house the festivities. For seven days and nights the normal activities of the profane world virtually ceased to exist; instead they bowed down in total submission to and celebration of the divine.
A cursory examination of the Moulid of Sayed el Bedawi could give one the impression it was like some sort of spiritual refugee camp. Radiating out from the central hub of the Saint’s shrine in the mosque was a vast city of tents and lean-tos that had been hastily erected to house the millions of devotees who made the pilgrimage from all over Egypt. During the day various Sufi orders (tariqa) would display their different colored banners in a procession called a zeffa. Thousands of exotically dressed dervishes would file past the crowds often following some makeshift float decorated with numerous colored neon strip lights and housing an antiquated PA system. From this would emanate the incredibly distorted and amplified voice of a sheik whose regular mantra of “Allah, Allah” would fill the air.
The full impact of Arabic hospitality, overwhelming at the best of times, cannot be fully experienced unless one has visited a Moulid. Here the act of generosity is seen within a specific spiritual context, since it is believed that a gift to someone is also a gift to God. I repeatedly found myself sitting with groups of Sufis, quietly sipping tea or coffee and being offered a simple meal. The realization that such extraordinary generosity was extended by people who had so little materially, had the most profound and lasting effect upon me.
Fairgrounds of the Faithful
During the day the Moulid has a predominantly fairground atmosphere. Sideshows, stalls, fun fair rides and competitions are crammed into every available space. Here one can pay a few piasters to enter a tent and view a five-legged goat or watch a woman being levitated in a magic act that is the Egyptian equivalent to Coney Island. Religious music blares from a multitude of loudspeakers while cassette hawkers compete with each other for trade. The streets are often blocked with traffic pouring in from surrounding villages. Donkeys struggle to pull overladen carts full of pots, pans, chickens, goats and screaming children.
A regular feature at all Moulids is the proliferation of circumcision booths. The sight of the hand painted signs that advertise these booths should be sufficient to strike fear into the heart of any child, since they usually depict crudely drawn images of a “doctor” wearing a fez who is seen clutching a bloody razor and hovering over an image of a boy with his legs open. The felaheen, or laboring classes, that frequent Moulids believe that getting their child circumcised at this time is especially auspicious.
Dancing and Trancing at the Moulid
For those of a more serious spiritual nature, the real Moulid does not begin until after nightfall, when amid the carnival atmosphere the wailing of hypnotic religious songs call the faithful to the tents of one of the many Sufi brotherhoods. Here long rows of men and, remarkably, even woman, too, line up in front of musicians and dance to the soulful refrains of the mounshid, or singer, whose liturgical ballads exalt the mystical love of Allah. This ritual, called a zikr, (from the Arabic root meaning “to remember”), is the heart of the Moulid, and its goal is to achieve nearness to God based on an intense concentration and rhythmic repetition of one of the many formulas of His name.
The participants of the zikr begin by gently swaying in rhythm to the music with their upper bodies and heads. Gradually, as the music increases in intensity the rows of gyrating and twisting dervishes begin to accelerate their movements. The hypnotic, rhythmic movements combined with the hyperventilated and repeated chanting of the name of God, soon induces a deep trance-like state of religious ecstasy. Dervishes can spontaneously go into violent convulsions and start jerking and frothing at the mouth. This state is called melboos, which literally means “to be clothed” in Arabic, and refers to the fact the person is clothed in the raiment of God. At this point a companion will usually grab the convulsing dervish, holding them tightly to prevent them from hurting themselves or others. When they have calmed down a little they are allowed to lie on the floor where they gradually recover their senses.
During a Moulid one can find a wide variety of Sufi rituals taking place. These vary from a small gathering called a hadra, where ten or twenty Sufis assemble in a tent and gently chant the name of God, to the climactic zikr that takes place on the Leya Kabira, or final night of the Moulid. Here hundreds, sometimes thousands of devotees will twist and turn for many hours non-stop until that have all been swept away in a crest of devotion that takes them to the height of religious ecstasy and union with God.
Although different Sufi Brotherhoods would celebrate the zikr in different ways, using different movements and chanting different formulas, the essential goal was always identical: a mystical union with the divine.
Mind Over Matter
If western visitors find Moulids shocking in their intensity, they should remember that today’s festivals are in fact rather tame compared to those of the last century. The British writer J. W. McPherson in his book The Moulids of Egypt (1940) describes in great detail the activity of all the major Moulids from the early part of the twentieth century. In his day, Dervishes of the Rifai Sufi Order were famous for performing truly terrifying feats of mind over matter. They would eat broken glass, pierce their bodies with skewers, handle poisonous snakes, place red-hot charcoal in their mouths and even set fire to themselves. One of their most dramatic displays of faith was a ritual called the dosa during which the devotees would lie on the ground while a sheik rode a horse in full gallop over their prostrate bodies. Apparently none of these seemingly fatal acts resulted in death or serious injury. In the Moulids I attended, it was still common to see Rifai Dervishes who, participating in a zikr, had stuck spikes or skewers through their cheek or tongue. They would twist and turn for long hours in a trance-like state and did not appear to bleed nor show any signs of pain.
The zikr can go on all night, finally ending with the dawn. Walking around after the ritual has ended, one can see hundreds of sleeping bodies strewn at bizarre angles all over the floor of the mosque or crammed into make shift tents. Often Dervishes will have simply collapsed from sheer exhaustion in the exact same spot they were conducting the zikr.
Another activity once extremely popular in Moulids and now completely vanished was the spirited dancing of the ghawazee girls, who would perform in the streets or even inside the mosques, accompanying themselves with finger cymbals. These exhibitions of public dancing were banned over a century ago and the tradition absorbed into traditional Egyptian dance forms.
Upon discovering the Moulids for the first time I knew instantly that they were going to occupy a significant part of my life and take up a great deal of time. It was like taking some intoxicating drug, something that could catapult one into a radically different state of consciousness. I had discovered a hidden world that could, on one level, satisfy my youthful taste for adventure while at the same time provide a hugely provocative aesthetic experience. Yet on another, more profound level, it provided me with an opportunity, no matter how seemingly alien to my western sensibilities, to participate in a ritual that offered the possibility of personal transcendence and union with the divine, an opportunity that I had failed to find in such rich form in Britain. This was my first taste of “living Sufism.”
There was also a practical side to my fascination with the Moulids and I wanted to convey the essence of these festivals journalistically. My first step in this direction was to photograph the events and then later to utilize the documentary medium as a way of communicating the experience to a western audience. Much of my time at the Tanta Moulid was spent photographing the festivities and these pictures were used later to illustrate articles I wrote or provide material for exhibitions I held in London.
Highs and Lows
My attempts to capture the spirit of the Moulid with my camera resulted in many visits to Egypt and my participation in numerous festivals. I became a recognizable figure and was even given a nickname: “the photographer.” This repeated attendance enabled me to build up trust and both photograph and participate in ceremonies that most outsiders would have been barred from. However it was not all plain sailing by any means and there were incidents that were both frightening and dangerous. On one occasion I visited a Moulid in a small village in the Delta with a friend, Tara Banz, a belly dancer from California, who had been living in Egypt for three years and had fallen in love with the Moulids. Tara initially acted as my introduction to many of the festivals in Cairo since she was a well recognized and trusted figure in the community. However on this occasion the village was in a remote location and the people living there rarely interacted with outsiders from the West. Our presence immediately caused a huge crowd to gather, which rapidly got over excited. When this excitement boiled over into full-blown hysteria, we were mobbed and had to flee to the safety of a house. We got inside with only seconds to spare. The people were not hostile, just out of control.
In another incident in the Moulid of Sayeda Zainab in Cairo I had decided to put down my photographic equipment and participate in the zikr. I had gradually built up enough confidence to do this and was determined to experience the zikr rather than just record it. After about half an hour of moving and swaying to the music, I gently began to lose all inhibition and slipped into an altered state. Then suddenly someone grabbed my hair and violently pulled me to the side of the tent. Since the man was also screaming, the resulting cacophony caused the musicians to stop playing and everyone in the zikr ground to a halt and looked in my direction. It was one of those dreadful and unpredictable moments when anything could happen. Fortunately the irate man was told to release me and I was asked to come and discuss the matter with the head sheiks. Through an interpreter I was asked, “Why was I really photographing the Moulid? Why was I participating in the zikr?” The sheiks were kindly and seemed genuinely puzzled that a westerner would be so interested in their activities. I explained that I had a great love of the Moulids and of Islam. So are you a Muslim? The sheiks inquired. When I admitted that I was not, there was a long pause. They looked intently at me and asked if I wanted to convert then and there? Without hesitation I said yes. A beautiful ceremony followed and despite the fact I understood little of what was being said, it made little difference for I felt in my heart that I was making a sacred vow, one that had more to do with my love of Islam and the Sufi traditions than of needing to be a Muslim.
At the time it seemed the most natural thing to do, and although I don’t currently call myself a Muslim or align myself to any exoteric religious practice, during that period it was exactly in tune with my spiritual orientation. After the ceremony I was returned to the zikr and continued twisting and turning until the sun rose the next day. I will never forget the sublime feeling of acceptance and love I received from all those around me.
Although the quality of the photographs I had taken of the Moulids were widely admired and much exhibited, I felt that the only way to truly capture the spirit of the festivities was by making a documentary. Having attended many Moulids I felt I had finally built up enough trust to be able to record them with a film crew, which is naturally far more invasive. After much effort I managed to convince Channel Four, one of Britain’s leading networks, to give me a budget to make a film on the Moulid of Sayed el Bedawi. Unfortunately, making a film in a developing country like Egypt is never straightforward. It requires experience and a lot of diplomacy. This was especially true when it came to making a film about a subject as delicate as the Moulids.
From the mainstream perspective the authorities were openly uncomfortable with Moulids as they considered much of their activities heretical. Music and dancing in a religious context is frowned on and Sufism has always had a prickly relationship to orthodox Islam. However it wasn’t these problems that eventually cost me the Channel Four film. No, that disaster resulted from the use of one taboo word.
The aim of the film was to follow the pilgrimage of a single family from their village to the Moulid and back. I had described my intentions in a private fax to the production company I intended to use in Cairo and had stated that I would need to find a poor family to film. Unfortunately these idiots gave this fax to officials at the TV center where permission to film in Egypt is granted. They saw this one word—“poor”—and went berserk. Being a third world country that is politically sensitive to its economic status compared to the West, “poor” is the one word you never want to use. Of course I never intended for that fax to be seen by Egyptian officials, but the mistake had been made and the damage done. Now it is perfectly understandable that Egyptians should be cautious about outsiders coming in to film aspects of their culture they find sensitive. Additionally it must be remembered that most middle class Egyptians view the Moulids with disdain, seeing them as a rough and ready pastime of the uneducated. They don’t view them with perhaps the same romantic eyes I saw the Moulids. A huge cultural divide had opened up before me. I had run afoul of Egyptian bureaucracy, never a pleasant experience at the best of times, but with a film in the balance it was a nightmare. So after much negotiation the authorities eventually told me I was permitted to film only two days at the end of the Moulid of Sayed el Bedawi. It was an impossible situation. I refused point blank, knowing I could not make the film under those conditions. I returned the budget to Channel Four, heart broken.
But I am not one to accept defeat easily. Within months I had obtained sponsorship from Sony to shoot the documentary on their then brand new and very portable Video 8 cameras. This was a clever ploy since it enabled me to make the film by myself and undisturbed by the authorities. If I was questioned, I just explained I was a curious but well-equipped tourist. And indeed this is what I did. The strategy of using simple video equipment meant that I could finally finish the project I had so longed to make. I could do it cheaply and effectively. The portable nature of the equipment allowed me access to many situations that I would never have been able to film had I been using a far more cumbersome and invasive crew of several people.
It took nearly a year and several trips to Egypt to complete the shooting, as I wanted to incorporate the activities of four large Moulids into the film. The result is unique, since no film, to the best of my knowledge, has so far been made that covers the Moulids in such depth, nor provides the viewers with such an intimate and vivid portrait of the religious and political background in which the Moulids takes place. In short the film is a journey into the mystical heart of Islam and a direct encounter with its most private and ecstatic rituals.
Entitled Beyond the Pyramids Lie Fairgrounds of the Faithful, the film premiered at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, the most prestigious university for the study of anthropology in Europe. It has since become part of its ethnographic film course and is also available to many other UK colleges as part of their anthropology courses.
Making the film was an extraordinary experience, one of the most fascinating of my life. It provided me with the perfect vehicle, excuse, if you like, to explore a fabulously rich world and discover how a completely different culture from my own creates a sacred sense of community, throws off all normal inhibition and attempts to gain a transcendent embrace with the divine.
The Moulids are places where people come to be close to each other and close to God. For many who live in western society, where cynicism, alienation and isolation are principle causes of dysfunction and unhappiness, perhaps the ecstatic release from separation and the spiritually transcendent energy that can be experienced at Moulids might offer a cure to many a wounded western soul.
Tim Coleman has worked in a wide range of journalistic areas including press, radio and TV. He has a diploma in film making from the London International Film School and a BA in film and independent studies from Middlesex University. He began his career as a photographer and his photographs and articles have been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines in the UK, France, Germany and the USA. As a filmmaker he started out working for the BBC and then went independent, directing and producing two documentaries: Tattooing: Pigments of the Imagination, an investigation into the British tattoo world; and Beyond the Pyramids Lie Fairgrounds of the Faithful, a 53-minute documentary of the Sufi festivals of Egypt. He also worked as a researcher on several other documentaries including: D-Program: Mind Expanding Television, which features a number of West Coast and British visionaries, thinkers, writers and artists.
During a hiatus from filmmaking he worked as a freelance radio journalist for BBC Radio and the World Service. Programs made for the BBC included: Belly of the Dancer, a feature on Samesem, a Swedish belly dancer working in Cairo, a travel program on Egypt, one on the pyramids and one on the controversy surrounding the re-dating of the Sphinx. Mr. Coleman is the first journalist in the UK to write about the re-dating of the Sphinx by John Anthony West’s team in a national newspaper(The Independent). He is also one of Britain’s leading journalists investigating the UFO phenomenon, and in the seven years he has been writing and broadcasting about the UFO subject, he has interviewed most of the world’s leading UFO researchers. He is currently co-directing a follow up documentary to the award winning UFOs: 50 Years of Denial, for the Discovery Channel, and he is intending to return to Egypt to shoot another documentary on the Sufi festivals.