The legendary mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi of Tanta

Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen is professor of history at Sorbonne University, where she teaches on early modern and modern Islam. She is the author or co-editor of several books on Sufism and Islam, including Ethics and Spirituality in Islam: Sufi adab (co-edited with Francesco Chiabotti et al., 2016). In 2019, the AUC Press published her book The Mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi of Tanta: Egypt’s Legendary Sufi Festival, translated from the French by Colin Clement.
In this Q&A, she sheds some light on Tanta’s famous mulid.

Why is Tanta’s Mulid al-Sayyid al-Badawi so legendary?

It is a legendary mulid because it is the most important one in Egypt, and it was undoubtedly the first one to be established as well, first based on the Prophet’s mulid, at a lunar date, then following another rural, solar calendar.

It is also legendary because it has embodied the rural soul of Egypt since the fourteenth century, since it has been the object—more than any other mulid—of the attention of Egypt’s rulers, who, at various times throughout history, have done everything they can to develop it and turn it into an important trade fair.

It is also celebrated because it has long attracted pilgrims, traders, and travelers from all over the Muslim world, and even also from Europe. Orientalists at the end of the nineteenth century were particularly interested in this mulid, because of both its very local (Egyptian) and international dimensions, with its accompanying fair and its gathering together of pilgrims ,who saw in Tanta a stage on the way to Hajj. Lastly, it is famous also because of the saint himself who is venerated there, Sayyid al-Badawi.

Your description of Tanta—the countryside, the harvest, the way of life, the farmers—in the introduction to your book is very rich, sensitive, and palpable. You write that you attended your first mulid there in 1987. Can you describe what it was like—your first impressions of, and reactions to this religious holiday?

I don’t think I understood anything at first! My emotions were very strong; there was an absolutely enormous crowd (although not to the same extent as nowadays), especially on the last night, because the mulid is a nighttime celebration. There was tremendous excitement and exaltation in this crowd. I have wonderful memories of the noise, the joy, the crowds coming and going, and the music. This was also when I first discovered the dhikr—the Sufi chants—sung on the night of the mulids. I have memories of colored lights, with lit garlands in the streets around the mausoleum and around the fairground in Sigar (the suburb of Tanta where the fairground is located), and with tents pitched in the fields of newly harvested corn. As I was still very young, it was the fairground, however, which gave me a feeling of joy, a feeling I shared with friends I had made in Tanta who were my own age. We went to the bumper cars!

I also remember that I walked a lot during the week of the mulid, from the mausoleum to Sigar and back, and that I had many important encounters that helped me understand the mulid, including meetings with Sheikh Saad al-Rifai and his disciples, very good and welcoming people who came from Bagur, in Minufiya.

In the book you write: “October in Tanta is the time of the Grand Mulid of Sayyid al-Badawi and the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of the most popular saint in Egypt.” Why would you say that this thirteenth-century saint is not well known? Who was Sayyid al-Badawi?

The historical character of al-Badawi is not well known because the book of Tabaqat by Ibn Mulaqqin, the oldest source that speaks of him, dates from the second half of the fourteenth century, at least seventy years after the death of the saint, and this first source is very brief—only three or four lines long. It was in the fifteenth century, during the Mamluk era, that the al-Badawi legend flourished, offering a completely different portrait of him and gradually turning al-Badawi into a saint. While he was undoubtedly a Bedouin from Syria, hence his name al-Badawi, he was now thought of as Moroccan, perhaps because of the large number of Maghrebi Sufis who came to Egypt and who passed through Tanta en route to the Hajj.

A fantastic oral tradition of exceptional richness gives al-Badawi a mythical and earthy dimension, like the majority of the mulid’s pilgrims, who are peasants from the Nile Delta. But it should be noted that all the Egyptian ulema and Sufis held him in great veneration, which also explains his stature as the saint (wali) or the pole (qutb)—in the nineteenth century and in the first half of the twentieth century.

Why are some Islamic modernists so critical of this mulid, which continues to attract pilgrims, albeit in much smaller numbers than in the past?

Islamic modernists, whether secularist or Islamist, agree on their hostility to the al-Badawi mulid, since they condemn the worship of Muslim saints in general. Several fears are mingled: there is first, and in principle, the fear of excessive worship, which would risk leading the disciples of the saint to associationism (shirk), which in turn borders on polytheism instead of being reserved for the adoration of the one God. Do the faithful not risk asking al-Badawi for miracles that they should expect only from God? This rejection has been amplified in contemporary times, because of ruptures in the understanding of a “popular” culture, which is motivated and justified by a hagiological and conceptual framework, that of Sufism and the esoteric aspect of religion; the idea—to put it simply—that the world has a hidden meaning, and that al-Badawi, a descendant of the Prophet like all the great saints of Egypt, is an intercessor with the Prophet who himself intercedes with God on behalf of humanity. All of this is no longer understood by a large number of people for reasons relating to modernity, rationalism, and scientism.

The Salafist idea that all form of intercession must be abolished is very widespread today, and it is of course also based on texts (hadiths for example), while pleading for a radical break with tradition, that is to say, the historical depth of the forms of expression of religious sentiment.

We also find, among these fears and criticisms, the rejection of traditional forms of religious expression (song, dance, trance, joy itself), which are associated, rightly or wrongly, with rural folk, with the poor—who are increasingly marginalized by contemporary society and globalization, in Egypt as elsewhere; suddenly, their role and visibility in the mulid are no longer accepted. Such forms are also associated with women, who have fewer opportunities to express themselves, and who are under pressure not to mingle with the opposite sex, while mulids are invariably mixed-sex.

In this context of social contempt, which is intimately associated with notions of progress and modernity, and which owes a great deal to the West, the influence of nineteenth-century Orientalist clichés becomes quite considerable.

What is more, the mixing of genders practiced in the mulid, since people come to the mulid in couples and families, is a very old criticism of mulids in general and that of Tanta in particular, which had—rightly or wrongly—a reputation for scandal, with connotations of sexual license. It was said that prostitutes flocked there, to take advantage of the mass gathering.

Did al-Badawi really work miracles, curing impotence and infertile women?

The first hagiographical notice that evokes al-Badawi does not speak of any miracles, and the notices that followed in the fifteenth century only mention a few miracles in vita, that is to say, during the life of the saint. At this point, the legend takes on considerable proportions, in fact partly following the development of devotional literature surrounding the Prophet, which was characteristic of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

Al-Badawi also attends to the demands of his devotees: as in any Arab society before, say, the years 1960–70, the rates of infant and child mortality and deplorable sanitary conditions explain the recourse to the saints. Likewise, the legend of al-Badawi—a sort of manly superhero, a mujahid, and a seducer (yet still celibate) in the face of a tempting heroine, Fatma Bint Birri—made him the saint of virility par excellence, against impotence, and the person to whom women resort when they are unable to conceive, like peasants who wish for fruitful harvests. It is these aspects of the cult of al-Badawi that have led Egyptologists, without the slightest foundation or historical proof, to turn him into a sort of ancient Egyptian figure, one who is directly linked to rural society.

How has Tanta’s mulid evolved over time? You say that today it is no longer composed of a “massively young, masculine and anonymous mass” of pilgrims and that Tanta is trying to modernize itself. And how important is its commercial dimension today?

At Tanta’s mulid—I attended for the last time in 2016—there are indeed many more women, couples, and even young girls, because customs have changed a lot, and girls go out much more. Since there are fewer people, the crowd is also less dangerous. Tanta lost its international dimension in 1914, then became a regional mulid, especially for the people of the Delta. Today it is an increasingly local mulid, although it is attended by Sufis from Cairo and Upper Egypt. But the pilgrims are, by and large, people from the Central Delta.

This commercial dimension that we notice today goes hand in hand with a large gathering of the population, with the purchase of mementos (especially chickpeas), which symbolize the baraka (blessings) of the saint. There has been, at least since the fifteenth century, a very important commercial dimension to Tanta’s mulid: however, the growth in trade in Tanta throughout the rest of the year has diminished the importance of an annual market.

Do you think that in Egyptian Islam today, there is room and tolerance for the saints?

Yes, I think saints do indeed still have an important place in Egyptian Islam, especially as there are recent saints, not just past saints, who are revered.

I think that the saints themselves are generally recognized as saints, including by Egyptians won over by Salafist forms of thought, who refuse their worship. However, in Sinai we have also seen forms of opposition that go as far as destroying mausoleums but this is the exception rather than the rule.

But the forms of worship are changing, and the attachment to great national figures (such as al-Badawi, Sayyidna al-Hussein, Sayyida Zaynab, and Sayyida Nafîisa) is no longer accompanied by the same degree of devotion. In other words, devotees seem free or not to come and visit the tomb, and many young and upper-class Egyptians, and the middle classes more generally, have distanced themselves from the cult of saints, which has become something of a folkloric occasion of music and entertainment. This is called secularization, which leads to the marginalization of the sacred in public life. With the improvement in life expectancy in Egypt, we have less need of saints: we prefer to travel and to consume, as in Europe or the United States.

It should not be forgotten, however, that many other Egyptians still adhere to a traditional devotional understanding of saints, and that Sufi devotion is still very widespread in Egypt, and that al-Badawi in particular continues to play an important role there. I now live in Morocco where there is a strong Shadhili Sufi tradition, and I notice that everyone knows Sayyid al-Badawi!

Is it difficult to attend Tanta Mulid as a foreigner?

Not at all! Although it is nicer to go to the mulid with Egyptian friends or to make new friends there. A mulid is an occasion for spiritual renewal and bodily celebration (the two are not dissociated in the universe of the mulid, unlike in the Salafist universe); it is also an occasion for a meeting, between the saint and his devotees, and among the people themselves.




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