Huge crowds descend on Egyptian city to celebrate Sufi mystic

For one week, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians travel to the city of Tanta to honor Ahmed al-Badawi, the most popular Sufi mystic in the country, with ancient rituals and traditions.

al-monitor A view of a street shows the festivities for the Badawi mawlid in Tanta, Egypt, Oct. 12, 2016. Photo by Facebook/Nour Adel.

Oct 25, 2017

TANTA, Egypt — Amid Egypt's ongoing political or economic difficulties, hundreds of thousands of people traveled to Tanta, 57 miles north of Cairo, in early October to celebrate the birth of Ahmed al-Badawi, a 13th-century mystic from Morocco who settled in Tanta and founded the Badawiyyah order of Sufism.

The birthday celebration, or “moulid” or “mawlid,” takes place over the course of six days and seven nights. This year it began Oct. 6 and ended the night of Oct. 12. The celebration includes rituals and traditions that have been practiced for thousands of years, in particular in the villages and cities of Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta, where large numbers of people are followers of Sufi orders (tariqa).

The event's roots lie in Badawi's death in 675 anno hegirae (1276), when his followers gathered to pay their respects, erecting tents around his grave for three days. The tradition continues, despite the spread of Salafism, which prohibits such practices as visiting sepulchers and holding mawlids.

Sufism is diverse, being practiced in cultures from India to North Africa. Sufi teachings focus on the spirituality of religion, avoiding the political. Thus, for example, Sufis might interpret the religious principle of jihad as a spiritual matter involving the taming of issues and pursing a path of goodness.

There are 77 officially recognized Sufi orders in Egypt, with some 15% of Egyptians either belonging to a Sufi brotherhood or adhering to Sufi practices. The Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, a government body founded in 1903, is responsible for regulating Sufi brotherhoods and is also charged with ensuring that Sufi practices conform to Islamic norms and laws.

Abdul Hadi al-Qassabi, supreme sheikh of the Sufi orders, told Al-Monitor, “Sheikh Badawi is the third out of four qutbs [the highest-ranking saints] of the Sufi order whom the Badawiyyah order, with red banners, follow as their founder.” Each order is associated with or represented by a specific color. Qassabi further said of the sheikh being celebrated, “He has been called many names, such as the Bedouin given how he always wore a face covering like Bedouins. He was also called Sheikh al-Arab, al-Setouhy and Aba Farraj.”

In Tanta, tents of Badawiyyah and followers of other orders stretched hundreds of yards in the streets and narrow alleys leading to Ahmad al-Badawi Mosque. Each order, which follows a particular saint, erects a tent in which to gather. The believers spend a week together, performing “hadra,” collective rituals often held during special occasions. Hadra, meaning “presence” in Arabic, includes “zikr,” the joint reading of religious texts, chanting of religious poetry and rhythmic invocations of God's name. Believers chant religious poetry in praise of God and the Prophet Muhammad while swaying, clapping and otherwise giving praise. People from other faiths also attend the mawlid as spectators, wandering among the tents, watching the Sufis perform their rituals.

Sheikh Muhammadi Abdullah, a supervisor at the Ahmad al-Badawi Mosque, told Al-Monitor that Badawi has a strong hold over his followers, who find bliss in him, as he possesses a spiritual kinship with the prophet. His mawlid attracts followers from around the world.

“Despite the extremist Salafi ideas, the number of Sheikh Badawi's followers is increasing, having exceeded 2 million visitors during the grand [final] night of the mawlid this year,” Abdullah said. “These followers did not come to circle the sepulcher or to pray for material gains. The objective of visiting the mosque and holding celebrations is to seek blessings and zikr.”

Some 70 Sufi orders from all over Egypt and Sudan erected tents this year in which to show their love for Badawi. “Our souls come out in the presence of the Sufi qutb Sheikh Badawi,” said Sheikh Sayyid Fakhr Othman, a follower of the Burhami Sufi order. “Our coming here is an obligation shouldered by those who have pledged to love the saints and the family members of the prophet.” 

With beads of sweat rolling down his face after hours of chanting and swaying in delight in the Burhami pavilion, Othman added, “The mawlid of Sheikh Badawi is a chance for followers of different Sufi orders to gather together, as it rehabilitates souls to coexist peacefully.” Every Sufi order performs its hadra in pavilions in the mosque’s courtyard. In the praising of God, believers dance, twirl and sway barefoot to the rhythms of the daf (a Mesopotamian instrument that resembles the Western tambour) and ney (a woodwind instrument similar to a flute), rebabs (an instrument that resembles a lute) and violins. They also recite Sufi poems, such as those by Ibn al-Farid and Rabia al-Adawiyya and sing improvised songs.

Mohammed al-Ajoudy, a farmer from Assiut, told Al-Monitor, “I started participating in the mawlid over 17 years ago. My faith helped me achieve a decent existence and a family life. If I miss a year, it makes me uneasy the whole following year. We come here to cleanse our hearts and souls and to deny ourselves physical pleasures.”

Mohamed Saied, a worker from Suhaj who follows the Shahawiyya Sufi order, told Al-Monitor, “The conditions are harder now. People express their resentment of government oppression and seek relief here [by praying].” Saied added, “In the mawlid, we gather with our brothers in Sufism to share and bare our souls.”

Ahmed Othman, from Sudan, said, “When the souls transcend in remembrance and in praise of the prophet and his family members, life becomes insignificant and all that matters is our hearts and souls in this spiritual state.”

Mursi Abdul Aal, from Qena, told Al-Monitor, “We used to present bread, meat and rice to the followers and visitors. However, the increase in prices has forced us to opt for less expensive food, such as potatoes, rice and cheese.” It is a tradition that people who feel that they had a good year will bring food to share. Late last year, the government introduced econoimc reforms that included floating the Egyptian pound, which sent prices skyrocketing.

The Badawi mawlid in Tanta is among the few social legacies and traditions maintained by followers of the sheikh and followers of all other Sufi sheikhs.

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