The Mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi of Tanta
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The Mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi of Tanta

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140 pages

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Every year, in the heart of the Nile Delta, a festival takes place that was for centuries the biggest in the Muslim world: the mulid of al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi of Tanta. Since the thirteenth century millions of believers from neighboring regions and countries have flooded into Tanta, Egypt’s fourth-largest city, to pay devotional homage to al-Badawi, a much-loved saint who cures the impotent and renders barren women fertile.
This book tells for the first time the history of a mulid that for long overshadowed even the pilgrimage to Mecca. Organized by Sufi brotherhoods, it had, by the nineteenth century, grown to become the scene of a boisterous and rowdy festival that excited the curiosity of European travelers. Their accounts of the indecorous dancing and sacred prostitution that enlivened the mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi fed straight into Orientalist visions of a sensual and atavistic East. Islamic modernists as well as Western observers were quick to criticize the cult of al-Badawi, reducing it to a muddle of superstitions and even a resurgence of anti-Islamic pagan practices. For many pilgrims, however, al-Badawi came to embody the Egyptian saint par excellence, the true link to the Prophet, his hagiographies and mulid standing for the genuine expression of a shared popular culture.
Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen shows that the mulid does not in fact stand in opposition to religious orthodoxy, but rather acts as a mirror to Egyptian Islam, uniting ordinary believers, peasants, ulama, and heads of Sufi brotherhoods in a shared spiritual fervor. The Mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi of Tanta leads us on a discovery of this remarkably colorful and festive manifestation of Islam.
1. The Mulid of Tanta, October 2002
2. The Lives of al-Sayyid al-Badawi , between Oral and Written Tradition
3. From Saint to Mulid: The Ahmadiya Brotherhood
4. The Mulid of Tanta: From Its Origins until the Napoleonic Expedition
5. The Nineteenth Century Mulid: From Carnival to Reform
6. The Mulid of Tanta in the Twentieth Century: The Metamorphosis of the Pilgrimage
7. Return to Tanta



Publié par
Date de parution 23 juillet 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781617979521
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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This electronic edition published in 2019 by The American University in Cairo Press 113 Sharia Kasr el Aini, Cairo, Egypt 200 Park Ave., Suite 1700 New York, NY 10166

Copyright © 2004 by Aubier, a department of Editions Flammarion, Paris First published in French in 2004 as Histoire d’un pélerinage légendaire en Islam: Le Mouled de Tantâ du XIIIe siècle à nos jours
English translation copyright © 2018 by Colin Clement

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

ISBN 978 977 416 8925 eISBN 978 1 61797 952 1

Version 1
To James Martone and the People of Zeitun
Introduction: ‘Popular’ Islam in Egypt

1. The Mulid of Tanta, October 2002
2. The Lives of Sayyid al-Badawi: Between Oral and Written Tradition
3. From Saint to Mulid: The Ahmadiya Brotherhood
4. The Mulid of Tanta: From Its Origins until the French Expedition (Thirteenth–Eighteenth Centuries)
5. The Nineteenth-Century Tanta Fair: From Carnival to Reform
6. The Mulid of Tanta in the Twentieth Century: The Metamorphosis of the Pilgrimage
7. Return to Tanta, October 2012

T his book owes its existence to my Egyptian friends. I wish to thank all those who will never be able to read it: ‘Abd al-Latif ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Isma‘il, Amal (the lady downstairs), Ehab, Hamada, Mahmud, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Gawad, Umm Ahmad (the lady upstairs), Ahmad, ‘Abduh, and Sawsan; to all the people of the balad , Kafr al-Hagg Dawud; to the family of Muhammad Shakuku and the cassette salesgirls; to Umm Ahmad of Tanta and to Lamia’s family, and so many Egyptian friends I’m not able to mention here. Finally, my loving and grateful memory goes to the people of Bagur and to the late Sheikh Sa‘d Ragab al-Rifa‘i.
Alain Jaouen knows just what the adventure of the Tanta mulid means to me: thanks for everything.
For the French edition (2004), I would like to thank: Delphine Pagès-Karoui for kindly allowing me to reproduce the map of Tanta taken from her thesis; the photographer Denis Dailleux of Agence VU, who accompanied me to the mulid in October 2002; Edwige Lambert for her French translation of The Seven Days of Man ; Maxime Catroux of Aubier-Flammarion for her editing work; Hélène Fiamma for her enthusiastic defense of the “petit livre alerte.”
For the English edition (2019), I would like to thank: The American University in Cairo Press and Nadia Naqib for her dynamic initiatives and wonderful work; the unknown reviewer for his/her energetic support; Aurélie Boissière for her maps; Samuli Schielke and Alain Jaouen for their photographs; Belal Darder for permission to use his wonderful photograph on the cover of this book; Colin Clement for his accurate translation; Lucy Hanna for her editing work; and the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) and Centre National du Livre (CNL) for having funded this translation. I have, for this edition, updated the notes and bibliography, and added a final new chapter on the mulid in October 2012.
Chronology General chronology Chronology of the Tanta mulid 969–1171: Fatimid dynasty 1171–1250: Ayyubid dynasty 12th–13th centuries: Beginning of Sufi brotherhood organizations in the Middle East 1236–37: Badawi arrives in Tanta 1250: Fifth Crusade in Egypt. Louis IX of France at Damietta. 1250–1517: Mamluk period 1276: Badawi dies at Tanta. Building of a zawiya over his grave. Presumed beginning of the pilgrimage. 1333: Death of ‘Abd al-‘Al, successor of Badawi and founder of the Sutuhiya Beginning of 15th century: First wave of hagiographic writings dedicated to Badawi 1468–97: Qaytbay rules Egypt 1447: Mulid of Tanta is banned 1495–96: Qaytbay builds the mausoleum of Badawi End of 15th century: The Sutuhiya becomes the Ahmadiya 1517: Ottoman conquest of Egypt 1526: Death of Muhammad al-Shinnawi 1565: Death of ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha‘rani 1619–35: The two main hagiographies of Badawi are written 1757–73: ‘Ali Bey rules Egypt ‘Ali Bey’s waqf endowments for the mausoleum of Badawi and the mosque–university of Tanta Around 1780: Sheikh Mujahid dies and is interred in Badawi’s mausoleum 1798–1801: Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt 7 October 1798: Uprising in Tanta against the French 1805–48: Muhammad ‘Ali viceroy of Egypt 1834: Female dancers officially banned at the mulid 1836: Tanta becomes the capital of Gharbiya 1856: The railway runs through Tanta 1861–65: cotton boom 1863–79: Reign of Khedive Isma‘il 1869: Inauguration of the Suez Canal 1882: British occupation of Egypt 13 July 1882: Massacre of Christians and Jews in Tanta Slave trade banned; decline of the fair 1893: Local Commission set up in Tanta 1900: al-Sikka al-Gedida connects the train station with the mausoleum 1915: Mulid of Tanta is canceled Around 1918: Date of the Great Mulid is changed to the month of October 1919: Egyptian revolution 1922: Egypt is formally declared an independent country 1928: Founding of the Society of the Muslim Brothers 1936: Anglo–Egyptian Treaty 1948: Creation of the State of Israel; first Arab–Israeli war 1952: The Free Officers’ coup d’état 1954: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser takes power 1956: Suez crisis Around 1956: Departure of the Jews, Greeks, and Syrians from Tanta End of 1950s: Decline of the village delegations at the mulid 1966: Waguih Abaza governor of Gharbiya 1967: Six Day War 1973: October War 1978: Death of Sheikh Ahmad Hijab; interred in Badawi’s mausoleum 1991: Gulf War 1999: Ahmad al-Qasabi governor of Gharbiya. Extension work in the mausoleum 2011: Egyptian revolution 2012–13: Regime of the Muslim Brothers 2013: “Second revolution”; Marshal ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi elected president 2016: Terrorist attack at a church in Tanta
Introduction: ‘Popular’ Islam in Egypt
T he first time I visited Tanta, in the heart of the Nile Delta, I was twenty years old. It was winter. It was not love at first sight: the town was dusty, sad, and dull; the weather was cold and damp. I knew nothing then of the saint, Sayyid al-Badawi, who was venerated there, nor of the pilgrimage, the famous mulid and the Sufis of the Delta. 1 Since that time I have dedicated continuous research to all of these, and decades of inquiries have still not exhausted my curiosity or passion, or indeed, the very subject. The study of Badawi and the mulid of Tanta is not like writing a tidy monograph based upon accessible histories. It is more like casting off into a storm-tossed sea. There are hardly any sources, just some rare passages in old chronicles, some fevered hagiographies, ancient legends transcribed in the nineteenth century, stories passed down by oral tradition, and ranting diatribes. I had no real archives to go on, but I could and did visit the mulid continually over the years, as well as the surrounding countryside and its mausoleums. To have begun this field research at the threshold of my adult life contributed greatly to making me who I am. The promise made to friends, to whom this book is dedicated, and made to myself has to be kept: it is time to tell the tale of what was long the greatest pilgrimage in the Muslim world, a tale that belongs to the intimate heart of Egypt’s history.
An article on Tanta in the first edition of the French-language Encyclopédie de l’islam in 1934 presents the town as a hotbed of fanatics galvanized by the quasi-pagan cult of a saint of mythic proportions, the famous Sayyid al-Badawi (1200–76). The rather obscure life of this saint had, since the fifteenth century, led to the creation of the most remarkable legend of all Egyptian hagiographies. As for the mulid of Tanta, the majority of Western writers who had devoted a few lines to the subject simply saw it as the distant descendant of the ancient pilgrimage of Bubastis dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, which was mentioned by Herodotus, and thus a scene of barely concealed paganism, mythology, and freakish phenomena. Over several centuries the mulid of Tanta, established in a rather modest little town, was recognized by the chroniclers themselves as the biggest in the Muslim world, bigger even than the Hajj to Mecca. It was also the most rowdy, scandalous funfair and a place of debauchery.
The first Orientalists who studied the mulid of Tanta were obsessed by this reputation and neglected to ask about the faith that had drawn and continued to draw so many Egyptians to the mausoleum of Badawi. What did the saint represent to them? What role did his brotherhood play in the cult? What exactly is this popular Egyptian Islam, of which even today the mulid of Tanta constitutes the most spectacular manifestation?
This Islam is not that of the Sufis, which is supposed to contrast with the scholarly Islam of the ulema, but rather that which constituted a shared culture for all up until the end of the nineteenth century and even into the interwar period. From the 1880s, the rupture caused by Islamic modernism and its success as the dominant discourse in the twentieth century have led many commentators and the Egyptians themselves to a mistaken reading of religious tradition, seen as a tissue of backward superstitions. Islamic modernism saw itself as an attempt to adapt Islam to the contemporary world, and it implied a rejection of tradition as lived, which was presented as sclerotic and burdened with useless dross, including the cult of saints. In reality, Egyptian ‘popular’ Islam (the Islam of ordinary people) is deeply and intimately shaped by Sufism, the quest for union with God, which since the thirteenth century—the very era of Badawi—had gradually formed itself into mystical brotherhoods, the turuq or paths. We are not contrasting here a sublime and pure ‘original’ Sufism with a degraded, bastardized version of the Sufi brotherhoods and coarse devotions. In both cases, we must clearly reject a two-tier model that supposes the existence of a popular rural illiterate Islam, that of the cult of saints, which is rejected and condemned by an Islam of the towns and of educated elites, that of the mosque and the jurist or of the mystical sheikh. Peter Brown’s essential work on the birth of the cult of saints in Christianity was of use to me as a starting point. 2 He strongly rejects the ‘two-tier’ model, which sets a religion of the elites against a religion of the masses, who are supposedly more inclined to devotion to saints and more receptive to belief in miracles. This model leads nowhere in that it does not incorporate historical changes in which the authorities (bishops in the case of Christianity) played a central role in the creation and rapid expansion of the religion of the people.
One can see just what a specialist in the cult of Muslim saints might extract from Brown’s analyses, even if within a context of very different practices. Of course, Christian saints— qiddisun in Arabic—are not Muslim saints: the Muslim hagiographies call them salihun , the just, or awliya’ , friends of God; and Sufism sees them as the successors to the prophets. 3 For Muslims, sanctity (expressed by the root q-d-s ) belongs in the strictest sense only to God. It is only proximity to God (walaya) that defines Islamic saintliness: the double meaning of the root w-l-y —which refers to links of proximity and intimacy as well as relations of protection and patronage—also evokes the twin faces of sanctity that look both toward God (walaya) and men ( wilaya , which designates also the exercise of power). Another major difference from Christianity is that Muslim saints are considered as the successors of the prophets, and especially of the Prophet Muhammad, who in a way completes and concludes all previous prophetic forms. Thus sanctity is regarded more or less as accepting the model of Muhammad and proceeding within the light of Muhammad. In the hagiology drawn up by Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), all the typology and hierarchy of the saints grow out of this prophetic inspiration.
Despite the differences in terminology and theology between Christianity and Islam, the examples of the saintly man recognized during his lifetime and then venerated after his death are not irredeemably different. Powerful dynasties and ulema within Islam have also constantly favored the cult of saints, and the social and political authority of saints cannot be denied. Moreover, the two-tier model in Islam, ever-present in scholarly literature since the advent of modernism, cannot be defended historically. Religious science (‘ilm) and mystical understanding (ma‘rifa) are not in opposition. Many Sufis have been ulema, and not long ago almost all the ulema were Sufis. The cult of saints thrived in the town as in the field, and among the lettered as among the rustic. Naturally, there are Sufis and there are Sufis: some are educated and some are illiterate; some are the disciples of great mystics, others have simply followed their forefathers by joining a brotherhood as a child. One sheikh performed the dhikr —the remembrance of the name of God—in a low voice, while another was accompanied by pipes and drums. All the diversity of individual aspirations, all the nuances of collective belonging must be depicted in order to express both the variety of Egyptian Sufis and the profound similarity of their common heritage, of their vision of a world shaped by God and in the light of Muhammad. Even the hagiography of Badawi, the most uncouth of saints, and the terminology of his illiterate followers bear the stamp of the most elevated classical Sufism, the most elaborate theories, and the loftiest mystical aspirations. The cult of Badawi, which is steeped in the rural, has provoked debates and censure, but also waves of immense piety across social borders, such that he has become a national saint, a symbol of Egyptian Islam. In reality, Egyptian popular Islam is a fully-fledged, coherent culture previously shared by all—despite real criticism and strong tensions between the two ends of the spectrum—but today ignored and denigrated by the dominant ideology of modernist Islam.
Nonetheless, simply demonstrating the vitality of Sufism in all its manifestations and the profound unity of popular Islam does not answer all the questions. Popular religion within Islam has a real autonomy, as it does within Christianity. It is probably better these days to talk of ‘popular religiosity’ in order to indicate that one is referring to a form of piety, not to another religion, and to practices, not to beliefs. Such caution is advisable, but the term ‘popular religion,’ imperfect as it may be, evokes more bluntly the difficulties of the subject and has the advantage of being better understood by nonspecialists. Within the tales of miracles and practices at the tomb one can see the undoubted face of a popular Islam, which is certainly not a different religion for the lowly folk, but neither is it “simply differentiated use of common materials.” 4 The study of specific examples within Islam, as in Christianity, shows that in the matter of religious practices concerned with saints, there are real differences between town and country, but also between the districts of the same town, between the many brotherhoods, and between social categories (for example, the guilds in earlier times). In certain Ottoman hagiographies, as in oral traditions in general, the body of the saint, like the body of the devotees, is spotlighted in a rather bawdy, exhibitionist fashion designed to offend. The tone is obviously very different in the emasculated hagiographies that flourished in the twentieth century. This does not mean, however, that one is opposed to the other, or that the wild should be excluded by the more manageable. On the contrary, the conscious division of roles appears to me to be the rule, between saints who are masters of themselves and frenzied ecstatics, between sober brotherhoods and drunken brotherhoods, between mausoleums in the center of town and small domed tombs in remote rural regions. None of these apparent clefts have managed to break the fragile balance, even if there is always a tension between the extremes of expression within a shared Sufi culture.
In order to understand the issues of Egyptian popular Islam, one most look more generally at those of popular culture. The cult of saints is embedded within the wider world of Egyptian popular culture. Songs of marriage and mourning, rituals of birth and burial, folk tales and ballads and music, visits to shrines and mulids all form part of the same vision of the world. This folk culture is well known from the work of anthropologists, but the Orientalists have left it to the ethnologists and dialect specialists to scrutinize vernacular customs and tales. The majority of researchers studying this part of the world have accepted Islamic modernist discourse because they have been, consciously or otherwise, shaped by the post-Tridentine notion of the ‘excesses’ of popular piety and of superstitions. (The two influences are, in any case, not incompatible.) In both cases, popular religion is seen as an exuberant and irrational form of religion that it is best to supervise, censor, and perhaps suppress. The tendency to study Sufi Islam through the brotherhoods, and preferably the reformed brotherhoods, has given too many researchers a clerical and sanctimonious vision of Egyptian Sufism, whereas it is adamantly unruly. The words ‘excess,’ ‘abuse,’ ‘superstition,’ ‘magic,’ ‘deviance’ continually flow from the pens of excellent authors who are blocked by a normative vision of what Islam should be, and are more generally paralyzed by what they believe to be respect for religion. Many of them share, more or less, the condemnation of inappropriate innovation (bid‘a) and the quest for exemplary Sunni behavior. The absence of a firm vision of what is truly a society is added to these ideological assumptions: why could these pilgrims not eat, play, or sleep? Why do they have to be ascetic? Does piety imply seriousness?
In this striking disinterest in the religion of the humble, Boaz Shoshan’s book on popular culture in medieval Cairo is an exception. 5 He covers several themes with great panache, echoing Barbara Langner’s wonderful analysis of Egyptian popular culture in the Mamluk period, 6 but once again, the field is limited to Cairo and the countryside is ignored. As for Egyptian scholars, research into the cult of saints has been even more firmly smothered by the polemics arising from modernist Islam. The documents available for the historian of the contemporary period are pamphlets and apologies, indignant defenses and passionate attacks, but nary an academic study per se. Doctrinal Sufism or urban history would appear to be the only possible subjects for an Egyptian scholar of religious history.
Under the term ‘popular religion,’ and drawing inspiration from a framework proposed by André Vauchez for medieval Christianity, 7 the Islamic specialist can address three categories of religious phenomena: the manifestations of a folk culture specific to rural societies with its rites of passage and its relationships between the living and the dead; the more or less spontaneous popular religious movements, such as the appearance of mahdi s and those who rebel in the name of religion; and lastly the piety of Sufi brotherhoods and the pilgrimages that they organize. These categories, however, should not be seen as entirely discrete and they illustrate that no single theory can be applied to popular religion. Let us bear two things in mind: there is a folk culture distinct from, but still closely linked to, the Sufism of the brotherhoods, and Egyptian popular Islam is not a jumble of superstitions.
But what does ‘popular’ actually mean? 8 Who are the people in question? The humble who live in town and countryside, or the rural as opposed to the urban, or even ‘lay’ Egyptians rather than the men of religion, the sheikhs and ulema? Does ‘popular’ mean created by the people, received by the people, or perhaps destined for the people? This question is particularly relevant as regards pilgrimages and local cults, and we shall see to what extent the Egyptian state, from Mamluk emirs to the current regime, has played a decisive role in the growth and organization of the mulid of Tanta. The cloak of civic religion that often covers festivals in Egypt illustrates the limited spontaneity of mulids. 9 Expressing veneration for the saint has taken on different appearances depending on social environment, and even on cultural division, which is not exactly the same as the former. Medievalists’ notion of ‘civic religion’ helps us to reflect on what Copts and Muslims share about their mulids, and to understand the similarities and differences between Coptic pilgrimages and Muslim mulids. 10
As for Tanta’s mulid, town versus countryside represents a fundamental split. For centuries it was very largely rural populations who made the pilgrimage to Tanta, although people of Cairo also attended. The mulid made Tanta one of the biggest towns in Egypt. It was a time of encounters and exchanges, of intersection between worlds that were intimately linked in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods but became quite distinct in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries: today the borders are more and more indistinct. The countryside of the Delta has become urbanized and the towns more working-class. The culture of the poorer districts of Tanta is not exactly that of villagers come to town for the pilgrimage, but it is definitely foreign to that of the town’s modern areas.
In Egypt, the adjective ‘popular’ (sha‘bi) , in the sense of ‘of the people,’ took on a particular connotation in the Nasser era at a moment when interest was being shown in popular literature. Egyptian Arabic also has the term baladi , which signifies a certain authentic rusticity. However, for university-educated Egyptians shaped by Arab nationalism, the more one speaks of ‘the people,’ the more careful one is to distance oneself from them. The intellectuals of the interwar period and of the 1950s, themselves a product of rural environments, cultivated a mix of fascination for and rejection of the people of the countryside who flocked to the mulid of Tanta. In their eyes, the religion of the rural could only be uncouth, emotional, and loaded with superstition, a close cousin to the magic of ancient Egypt. In no way could it be a coherent system or a harmonious and structured interpretation of the world.
One must reject the all too current idea that has been repeatedly spread by modernist Muslims of a bastardized, degenerate popular religion that is a sad deformation of a once-pure and spotless Sufism, or of a mistaken popularization of a learned religion of the written word, or even the expression of an anti-Islamic paganism that bears no relation to true Islam. On the one hand, the cult of saints in Egypt, as elsewhere, has been deeply influenced by textual hagiology, and its models are also those of an Islam subjected to the law and those of the ulema, whose learning is just as esoteric as exoteric. We shall see Badawi venerated by the learned as well as by the ignorant, by Cairenes and by country people. This man who left no writings possessed a knowledge that—in his hagiographies of course—could confound the most erudite of scholars. And we shall also see personalities of great solemnity, whose characters, one might imagine, would have kept them at a great distance from our truculent saint, come to be interred in the shadow of his tomb. On the other hand, the systematic rejection of superstitions (khurafat) and inappropriate innovation (bid‘a) in the name of an intangible Islam implies value judgments that a historian should shy away from. If one hopes to understand the Sufism of the folk milieu (and it does indeed take on a different face from other milieus), one must blithely accept what is, without fulminating about what should be. There is no point in exaggerating the bubbling excitement of the Tanta mulid, as certain Orientalists and modernist Muslims have enjoyed doing, or in discarding the customs that were and are practiced there as un-Islamic or anti-Islamic.
Therefore, we may speak of a popular Islam and also an Egyptian Islam, though this will likely raise eyebrows among those who claim to defend the universality of Islam by denying at all costs its historical and anthropological expression. However, one would have to be truly ignorant to deny all that is Egyptian in the cult of Sayyid al-Badawi and his pilgrimage. Of course, there are other great Muslim pilgrimages elsewhere with funfairs and markets attached, but their history would be different. In Egypt, the fundamental role of political authority and the power of the Land of the Nile have shaped a religious landscape without equivalent throughout the Near East. And the exuberant and public expression of a particularly joyous popular piety has remained to this day a characteristic of Egyptian Muslims in their own eyes as well as those of their Arab neighbors. The roots of this piety hark back to the Mamluk era (1250–1517), when the essence of the Egyptian religious landscape, profoundly and intimately shaped by Sufism, was constituted.
The study of popular Egyptian Islam means diving into a polemical subject of controversies and denials, as Samuli Schielke has shown in his thesis. 11 It also requires methods adapted to a multifaceted subject that is difficult to grasp. In order to do justice to the subject, I have chosen the longue durée perspective. This, of course, was the common favorite of traditional studies of popular religion in Islam as conducted by the Orientalists of the nineteenth century and by folklorists, who were very interested in the mulid of Tanta. In general, they would end up affirming that nothing had changed or that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” This led to the development, as regards Tanta, of the mythical idea of a pharaonic pilgrimage in which the cult of Sayyid al-Badawi was simply a recent reincarnation with an Islamic veneer. Popular religion, springing from the rural and the humble, would thus belong to a continuum of agrarian religions in continuous existence and bereft of history. The lack of specific and plentiful sources on the subject gave space for these lazy explanations, which were taken up by the general public because of the attraction of Egyptology and an ignorance of Sufism. The characteristic features of a popular cult—carnival atmosphere, misbehavior, the sacred and the profane—were to be explained by looking back to antiquity, which was a way of emptying it of all meaning.
Convinced that popular religion has a history, I have chosen to set myself up as both a historian and an anthropologist in order to examine the mulid of Tanta. Instead of considering this long time frame as an expression of something that does not change, I have endeavored to see within it signs of ruptures and evolution, while acknowledging any continuity. Above all, I have tried to approach the popular culture of Egyptian Islam not as a jumbled residue of medieval times but as a coherent culture that makes sense to its adherents. Instead of setting the mulid of Tanta as a marginal event in Egyptian history, I have given it its rightful place, in the center. An examination of Egyptian pilgrimages reveals that continuities and ruptures have occurred not only within the cultural and religious history of Egypt, but also within the political and economic history of the country. The mulid of Sayyid al-Badawi is far from being a single case study; instead, it turns out to be a marvelous observatory from which to view changes in Egypt since the Mamluk period. Better than any other phenomenon, it reveals the silent realities of the history of those about whom we know nothing.
This book opens with an account of the Tanta mulid of October 2002. The aim is to bring alive the central act around which this book will turn. At one fell swoop we meet the saint, the Sufi brotherhoods and their ceremonies, the funfair, the relationship between the pilgrimage and the town itself—indeed, all the elements that we shall examine throughout the book. It is within the light of this anthropological perspective that the history presented thereafter will make sense.
The saint, his legend—itself the subject of a long construction of hagiographic layers—and his importance in the history of Egyptian Sufism will follow in chapter two. Badawi is a type of popular saint, the ‘possessed,’ of which Egyptian hagiology is particularly fond. The fact that he has so readily fulfilled the idea of a rural Egyptian saint has made him a national figure to which a considerable load of folklore has been attached. Similarly, the Sufi brotherhood, the Ahmadiya (covered in chapter three), that Badawi is reputed to have founded is a typically Egyptian brotherhood which meets the needs of a very largely rural community. All the same, from the end of the Mamluk period the stigma attached to the Ahmadis as scandalous twirling dervishes gradually faded and the Ahmadiya spread throughout all Egyptian society and all Sufi tendencies. This success was closely linked to the triumphant popularity of the mulid, and it made the Ahmadiya the best known and most important Sufi brotherhood in Egypt until the present day.
Once this foundation, which defines the very heart of the cult, has been laid, the next three chapters will present three different periods in the history of the mulid. Chapter four retraces the origins of the mulid, from the Mamluk to the Ottoman era, where political power played a decisive role at several moments in the growth of the cult of Badawi. The nineteenth century (chapter five) describes the historical height of the mulid, along with the commercial role played by the fair: the extension of the town of Tanta, initially due to the mulid, ends by damaging the mulid. In chapter six, the twentieth century witnesses the decline of the pilgrimage and its changing nature in the face of urbanization and modernization. The mulid of Tanta thus reflects the mutations of Egyptian Islam itself.
Finally, chapter seven echoes, ten years after the mulid of 2002 described in the first chapter, the anthropological experience that nothing replaces. Egypt has changed a lot, the economic crisis has deteriorated even further, the revolution of 2011 has changed everything. Nevertheless the mulid of 2012, under the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood hostile to the cult of the saints, testifies to the impressive resilience of the mulid of Tanta.
1. Map of the Nile Delta, Modern Egypt. Photograph courtesy of Aurélie Boissière.

2. Map of Tanta’s situation. Photograph courtesy of Aurélie Boissière .

3. Map of the center of Tanta. Photograph courtesy of Aurélie Boissière .
The Mulid of Tanta, October 2002
I t is October in the Nile Delta. Peasants in small groups of five or six are harvesting cotton. The men, wearing blue or soot-brown gallabiya s, and the women, with colorful headscarves, move slowly among the spiny branches of the shoulder-high cotton bushes. Great sacks, from which the occasional white ball attempts an escape, are piled up around the village ready for weighing. Elsewhere corn is being gathered in: the cobs are spread over the ground to dry while the stalks are stacked to form small huts providing shade for buffaloes. Flocks of sheep wander across the fallow land. To the north, rice is being replanted and the hay piles up on the village roofs. Banana plants grouped together in plump copses bring a touch of green. Clover, potatoes, and cabbages fill the slightest stretch of earth between roads and irrigation canals. Wheat waves in the fields as trucks are loaded with huge cabbages whose leaves will be rolled and stuffed for delicious winter dinners. A few grapevines are grown around here, while a bit further on the scent of jasmine engulfs the country road. It is still very hot during the day but, toward five-thirty in the afternoon, evening falls swiftly, and in a quarter of an hour it is time for sundown prayers. The cold settles, bringing a fog that drowns the shade of sycamore trees bent over by the north wind. Night, and the animals are brought in. On the banks of the canal, the croak of a frog alternates with the cry of a karawan , a curlew with a plaintive call. A few peasants, squatting on their heels at the edge of a dirt track, take advantage of these brief crepuscular moments to wait silently for something, who knows what.
By the time of the evening prayer, all is dark and calm: it is the time of the Sufis.
Every evening this group of friends came together. They worked all day long on the land until their hands cracked. They yelled and screamed at their children and their wives, and they beat their animals. They would become blind with rage. But in the evening they put on freshly laundered galabiyas and performed the night prayer together in the main mosque, saying amen from their hearts as they prayed behind the imam. Then they came to the guesthouse.
Now they were kind and wise. They looked at the toil and the pains of the day with composure, and smiled. They regretted the storms of anger at their wives, their children and their animals. But it was the hardship of life and the harshness of the day. It was that great and unfathomable secret hidden in the fertile earth on which they moved about in perplexity, worry, and anger during the heat of the day.
This is why God had created the evening and hidden the sun in the folds of the unknown for an appointed time. For if the world were an unending day and life were ceaseless toil, men would turn into devils who would not know God. There had to be the calm of the evening when they could marvel at the wonders of the parting day, smile at its harshness and question one another persistently about the secrets of growth and withering. . . .
There had to be this calm every evening, when they could open their hearts to each other and talk. 1

Lights go on along all the Delta roads. Everywhere are brick buildings with rebar-filled concrete pillars pointing upwards: everywhere bare breezeblock, sometimes enlivened by flowering bougainvillea. But these are the edges of the roads. Within the heart of the old villages, squeezed into the maze of the original core, there are still traditional mud-brick houses of one story, the roof serving as a home to poultry. Sometimes one sees the yellow steeple of a church, but this is rare in the Delta. Often there are the tombs of saints whose ancient squat domes are painted with a white or green chalk wash. And then there are the mosques. Some are sturdy buildings, others of the Ottoman era have slim minarets, and others still have been carefully restored in the nineteenth century with stucco, colored windows, and woodwork. As the population has increased over the last few decades, so has the number of hastily built prayer halls. The central part of the Nile Delta, so astoundingly fertile, has for long been one of the most densely populated regions of the planet. The smallest village can hold ten thousand to twenty thousand inhabitants. To a person flying into Cairo by night, the Delta is a huge constellation of light. Village sits next to village, town next to town, and the roads are filled with the crazy traffic of a throbbing population. Small pockets of dense darkness are punctuated by the neon lights adorning minarets or calmly broken by gentle reflections on irrigation canals and the branches of the Nile. Somewhere in the midst of all this lies Kafr al-Hagg Dawud, a nondescript village where I lived when I was twenty years old. And then there are the bigger canals, the built-up zones, a few signposts that indicate, more or less, the larger of the towns.
In the middle of the Delta sits Tanta, Egypt’s fourth-largest city. The Coptic origin of its name rings loud and clear with its two emphatic Ts and the long final A. Located on a crossroads of both road and rail, the town is halfway between Cairo and Alexandria, and at the midpoint between the two principal branches of the Nile, the Rosetta and the Damietta. October in Tanta is the time of the Great Mulid of Sayyid al-Badawi and of the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Egypt’s most popular saint. This saint from the thirteenth century is in some ways famous and in others poorly known, and for many long centuries he embodied the very soul of Muslim Egypt. I have spent many Octobers in Tanta. My first mulid at the tomb of Badawi was in 1987, the one I narrate here was in 2002, and the last one I attended was in 2016. I have spent thirty years pondering the mulid of Tanta.
In the world of Delta saints, Badawi is the master. His disciples, his distant successors, his imitators, and even his predecessors follow his rhythm, and the myriad pilgrimages of the Delta are subjects of his empire. These pilgrimages follow the solar calendar, that of the seasons, of the peasants and their harvests, and not the lunar year of the Muslim calendar: the earth has primacy. In the nineteenth century it was still the Nile flood that set off the mulids of Lower Egypt, which were then in spring and summer. When the flood disappeared from the life of the Delta thanks to the first dams, cotton laid down the law and the great mulid of Tanta was shifted to autumn. The massive rural exodus of the twentieth century, the migrations—both back-and-forth movements and more permanent relocations—and the profound upheavals that have struck Egyptian society have not altered this rhythm. When the cotton and the corn are harvested, when the clouds gather and the first rains fall around Alexandria, the great mulids of the Delta begin. The starting signal is given by the pilgrimage of Shuhada’, a town and district of Minufiya, where the martyrs said to have fallen during the Islamic conquest of Egypt are venerated. This important mulid takes place one week before that of Badawi. The pilgrims of Shuhada’ have just enough time to run from one sanctuary to the next. One week after the mulid at Tanta, it is the turn of Ibrahim al-Disuqi, in the northwest of the Delta, where the celebrations take place along the banks of the Nile.
The Tanta mulid is an incessant back-and-forth between two centers: on the one side is the mausoleum of the saint in the Great Mosque, whose domes and minarets dominate the old town; on the other, a good half-hour walk away, over the railway tracks, is Sigar, the pilgrims’ camp. The festivities begin in Sigar, which was once a village and is now surrounded by urban growth. Fifteen days before the official opening of the mulid of Badawi, red banners are hung by Sufis on the railings of the small local sanctuary of Sidi ‘Abd al-Rahim, a Sufi sheikh who died in 1920. His mulid falls one week ahead of Badawi’s. The fields of corn, where the large grounds of the mulid, called the mal’a or the saha , will be situated, have already been harvested and plowed over. An eight-meter-tall mast has been erected in the center of the site, symbolizing the double presence of the saint of Tanta in this field far away from the mausoleum itself. Throughout the duration of the mulid it stands in evidence of his baraka (blessing). A wide open space stretches all around the mast, in which several large tents have already been pitched. The showmen have come in from all over the Delta, from Cairo and Alexandria, and have already erected two big Ferris wheels, swings, carousels, and shooting galleries.
A lively atmosphere reigns in the Great Mosque of Tanta. Every Friday—the day of rest, when one visits Badawi—is a busy, festive day. All year round the peasants come from all over the region to sell their vegetables, do some shopping, and pay a quick visit to the grand saint of the Delta. In the 1980s formidable women selling fruit and trading in gossip used to sit all along the mosque wall, perched upon stalls offering pomegranates, pears, and guavas. The governorate of Gharbiya province, of which Tanta is the capital, decided to send them off to an out-of-the-way market, and then created a vast semi-pedestrian square around the mosque, enclosed by a wall and equipped with a fountain, all designed to limit easy movement. The demands of modern town planning and the requirements of polite society imposed by modernist Islam on religious events have even had a bearing on the cheerful vivacity of the gossipers. The governorate has a lot to do during the mulid: it must take maximum advantage of the considerable resources that accumulate at pilgrimage time, but it must also direct the pilgrims, supply the site with water and electricity, avoid outbreaks of disease and disorder, control the crowds, collect taxes, and watch carefully over the good reputation of the town and its pilgrimage.
Every year, the national holiday of 6 October in celebration of the 1973 war heralds the mulid. The 7 October is also a day off in Gharbiya: it commemorates the uprising of the town of Tanta, united behind its powerful shrine and its sheikhs, when it rebelled against the French during Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt. National identity mixes with regional pride to build a historic memory, of which the sanctuary of Badawi is the center. Thanks to the days off, the children are out of school, public employees are out enjoying themselves, and there is a crowd around the mosque. The posh districts of the town since the end of the nineteenth century are a good distance from the old heart, but certain middle-class Tantawis like to come and read the newspaper in the café closest to the mausoleum, where they can enjoy an unbeatable view of the constant coming and going.
Lots of villagers and country cousins are on family outings, husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, grandchildren, grandmothers all together. One often comes across Cairenes who have come to spend the day either for business or for devotions: the one never excludes the other.
One single gigantic building houses the mausoleum itself and the Great Mosque with its beautiful prayer hall. The three main rooms of the mausoleum hold several tombs. In the center of each room stands a rectangular cenotaph surrounded by an enclosing wall, or maqsura in Arabic, generally made of wood. The cenotaph is a sort of coffin of wood or masonry set above the spot where the saint is supposedly buried (though this is not necessarily the case) and covered by a green satin drape known as a kiswa . There is a principal tomb in each chamber: those of ‘Abd al-‘Al and al-Mujahid flank the central tomb of Badawi. ‘Abd al-‘Al (d. 1333) and Sheikh al-Mujahid (d. after 1780) were two great sheikhs of the Sufi brotherhood who continued the legacy of the founding saint as embodied by the Ahmadiya. The cenotaphs of other saints, disciples and successors of Badawi, are tucked into the corners of the rooms: the most recent dates to 1978. The pilgrims walk counterclockwise around the claustra murmuring a prayer, sometimes the opening verses of the Qur’an, the Fatiha, or perhaps something more personal. Huge padlocked boxes by the railing are there to receive offerings of money for the baraka . In the central chamber of the mausoleum Sayyid al-Badawi himself naturally enjoys the best spot of all: an enormous dome around which the cries and murmurs reverberate, and a massive cenotaph almost 2 meters high by 2.5 meters long and 2.2 meters wide. A turban and some huge Qur’ans lie on top of the cenotaph, while around it the superb brass maqsura has been polished by countless caresses since it was first forged in the Ottoman era. This railing and a glass pane keep the faithful at a distance from the cenotaph, which is washed in white and green neon light, but each and every visitor grasps the barrier, trying to get as close as possible to the saintly presence. The ardor of silent prayers is equal to the cries and calls of other more vociferous pilgrims, some of whom harangue the saint passionately. A respectable sheikh reads the Qur’an and recites Sufi prayers amid his disciples in a corner of the tomb next to the mihrab , which indicates the direction of Mecca. A woman completely dressed and veiled in white, with her eyes outlined in kohl, hands out cups of water to those who pass by: she dedicates her actions to the saint. A dwarf rolls on the floor next to the maqsura . A man carefully rubs the locks of the railing and then slips his hand into his pocket: the baraka from this contact will increase his virility. A woman removes her headscarf and wipes it energetically over the railings, loading it with baraka to take back home. Suddenly, someone throws a fistful of sweets on the mausoleum assistants and someone else thrusts a few pennies in their hands. This also will procure baraka .
In a corner of the saint’s tomb chamber there is a black stone bearing the imprint of giant feet. They are the feet of the Prophet, for whom the stone suddenly became soft. The footprints of the Messenger are just as venerated as the tomb and on busy days it can be difficult to get close to them. Guards armed with canes try to keep the mass of visitors flowing through, but they hold on and resist. Newlywed couples try to have their photograph taken in front of the holy footprints, though this has been forbidden for some time. Other pilgrims sit down near the tomb in order to savor in silence the incredible atmosphere of the mausoleum. Sometimes, depending on numbers, it can be like a rugby scrum and sharp elbow work is necessary to see the cenotaph. The physical press of the crowd is almost unbearable. Foreheads are bathed in sweat. Babies are brandished in outstretched arms to show them the tomb. Strident ululations fly through the air. At other, calmer moments, one can hear again the discreet chanting of a sheikh, the sobs of a woman entranced, the questions of a child. The visitors look haggard as they exit, and outside the mosque they are assailed by beggars and vendors: lucky charms for babies, pious booklets for the Sufis, incense for all. Further on, there are shops where the pilgrims might buy some chickpeas or halawa , perhaps a plastic toy for the children. One cannot visit Tanta and its patron saint without taking a little something home.
The mulid officially begins on Friday 11 October 2002, with an opening procession. Great colorful tents are pitched all over the old center of the town around the mosque of Badawi, where one can buy chickpeas, the speciality of Delta mulids, or sweaters for the approaching winter, or trinkets and toys. A loud thumping noise attracts attention as a strapping young lad perched upon a huge caparisoned camel beats incessantly upon a pair of drums. A detachment of good-natured soldiers, seemingly unconcerned with discipline, accompanies a small military brass band, which entertains the passers-by, as they wait in front of the house of the khalifa , the successor of Badawi as leader of the brotherhood. This title has for long been more honorific than real, since the Ahmadiya has split up into numerous independent branches. Nonetheless, the role is still a paid position, even if the khalifa receives only a tiny part of the enormous revenue that comes from the tomb and that was once his due. In fact, there are two khalifa s, members of rival families. One is a pediatrician and the other a doctor of religious studies; one is very fat, the other of average build. They take turns each year, at the beginning and at the end of the mulid. This year is the turn of the slimmer of the two. He leaves his house wearing a white turban and visits first the nearby tomb of Sidi Salim al-Maghribi. Legend says that this saint preceded Badawi in Tanta, where he announced the latter’s coming and then, on his arrival, bowed down before the true master. Badawi granted him the status of secondary saint, which allowed him to lie in the shadow of his magisterial presence. Thus, the khalifa retraces the steps of Sayyid al-Badawi, and his route restates the blessed history of the town.
The khalifa then enters the Great Mosque of Sayyid al-Badawi on foot. He quickly comes back out again, his head enveloped in white cloth. He is wearing the precious turban of Badawi, a symbol of the spiritual heritage bequeathed to his disciples and his brotherhood, the Ahmadiya. This turban is extraordinarily large and is usually kept under lock and key, away from the crowds, in the reliquary room of the mosque. There are no direct relics, no bones or anything like that. The cult of saints in Islam never exhibits the body of the deceased: only the cenotaph is venerated as a sign of the presence of the saint, since he is ever-present despite his absence, dead but always alive. Occasionally, however, indirect relics are valued, and in the room in question four magnificent silver reliquaries contain personal possessions of the saint: his nine-meter long string of prayer beads, the old chipped cudgel he used to bring back Muslim captives from the land of the Franks, two wooden combs, his red winter cloak, his lightweight cloak, and of course his famous turban sitting upon a silver stand. A century ago the reliquary itself was marched around under a canopy, but now it stays out of sight. When the khalifa comes out of the mosque he mounts a horse with the help of his disciples. A crowd of young Sufis wearing red sashes across their shoulders gathers around him, repeating the name of God— Allah !—while old venerable sheikhs representing the main branches of the Ahmadiya walk alongside. The military escort on foot and horseback follows in merry disorder, with the camel and its lively rider growing ever more uproarious. The procession rollicks along under hails of sweets, howls and cries to the al-Bahiyy mosque. Although completely rebuilt in the 1960s, this was the first mosque of Tanta, then known as al-Busa. It is said that Badawi entered this mosque when he first came from Iraq to end his days in Tanta, and the story goes that he even revived a dead person here. This is why the khalifa comes to this mosque to perform the Friday prayer, thus retracing the same path as the saint seven and a half centuries later. The mosque is also the resting place of a nineteenth-century saint, Sheikh al-Bahiyy, who happens to be a direct ancestor of the khalifa . Three-quarters of an hour later, after prayers and sermon, the khalifa and his escort make a tour of the old town following an itinerary fixed by the governorate. This is the official beginning of the mulid.
At Sigar, the stall owners and fairgoers have not waited for this solemn day. They have squeezed into the nooks and crannies that are left by the urban sprawl. Some have besieged the entrance to the working-class suburb of Settuta in the direction of Sigar, others have settled all along the road to Fisha Salim, the village after Sigar. Of course, the mulid of Tanta is no longer the gigantic fair of bygone days when, in the nineteenth century, it was the biggest in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, for the vendors and showpeople it remains big business, both expensive and profitable. Even the most humble stallholder must pay 300 Egyptian pounds ( le ) rent for the eight square meters he occupies over some ten days, not to mention electricity ( le 50) and various taxes amounting to le 100. The owners of the bumper cars would not blink at paying le 20,000 for ten days since they can earn up to le 120,000 during the mulid. Taxes and prices have risen a lot over the past fifteen years but it is still worth it.
At the entrance to the fairgrounds, the last tattooer of the Tanta mulid has set up his booth: he is a true artist come from Cairo. Although a Muslim himself, he prefers Coptic mulids, where he makes more money tattooing crosses on the wrists of Christians than a bird on a Muslim hand or a few therapeutic dashes on the temple of someone suffering from migraines. He learned his art from his father and grandfather, but none of his children will follow him. Nearby, the flute seller has come from Mit Badr Halawa, the Delta village that seems to provide so many fruit and vegetable salesmen to the markets of Paris. Other mulid specialists have gradually disappeared, like the circumcisers, who were once so much a part of Tanta’s celebrations. A family of circumcisers, the role handed down from father to son, and even from father to daughter, practiced its profession over many long years in a booth next to the Great Mosque. During the mulid other practitioners of the craft would come in from the Delta and set up their little stalls around the sanctuary, and young boys would be brought in by their parents to be swiftly snipped for the baraka . Six years ago, however, the government banned this street practice and one must now take the child to a hospital or clinic. Where have all the circumcisers gone? The mulid is changing. Old attractions, like the Wall of Death, have disappeared. That particular spectacle dates back to the British occupation and the extreme danger involved certainly brought the crowds in. This year there is only one magician’s stall, and one balancing act, and two strongmen enticing the young lads to test their strength. The circus that used to raise the big top on the edge of the grounds takes up too much space and has been moved away from the action. Other attractions have replaced the fun of the good old days. This year the fashion is for photography, and one can get one’s photo taken dressed up as a fantasy Bedouin and sitting on little carriages drawn by outsized cuddly toy donkeys or elephants. In a way this is paying homage to the saint of Tanta, whose very name recalls his Bedouin origins. Other fairground people have joined the first arrivals, and there are several big Ferris wheels and a few bumper-car tracks. A great colorful world of blue, yellow, and red has been conjured up: a world of light in the night. Gigantic neon strips create geometric patterns on the tents and shops that can afford them. The town’s electricity supply is sorely tested and generators have prudently been installed in reserve. This year, as has been the case for a few previous years, the general atmosphere is touched by the economic crisis, and one sees less neon and fewer generators. All this entertainment can be expensive for the fairgoers: the swings cost one or two pounds and chickpeas are three or four pounds a kilo! Never mind, the mulid only happens once a year. . . .
The grounds are still calm since the majority of the pilgrims will not arrive until Sunday or Monday. Once upon a time they came earlier, but now people have to work, the peasants are tied into an ever more rapid rhythm of the harvest, poorly paid government workers have their second jobs, kids have to go to school. The crisis, which has been biting for years in Egypt, has become a lot worse since 11 September 2001: inflation, unemployment, a country on the edge of bankruptcy. None of this is good news for a mulid that lasts a number of days and requires considerable investment on the part of local government and the pilgrims themselves. At the Great Mosque, the police are tense, worried about possible trouble. I have noticed inside the mausoleum an increase over the years of written and verbal bans on this and that, intended to impose a change of behavior: no sitting, no photos, no eating in the tomb. Respecting the rules takes time to catch on. Another rule, recent and unwritten, has been continually repeated over the past five or six years: female pilgrims are not allowed to sit in the mausoleum, but they can visit it, and then they are directed with the children to an adjacent hall. The poor women: prohibited from praying in the prayer hall, prohibited from lengthy worship in the mausoleum, they are left to enjoy their picnic outside the sanctuary. Indeed, not long ago, the colonnaded courtyard in front of the mausoleum served as a common space where groups of people would eat, drink, and sleep together. Blankets and litter and the stuff of human life would be strewn across the marble slabs. Now, during the mulid, the colonnade is occupied by colorful tents with floral patterns that are reserved for more lofty purposes. It is here, starting on Tuesday, that Qur’anic recitations will take place; it is here that officials will be received; it is here that the police will set themselves up. Pushed out of the courtyard by the formality of the official tents, the poorer pilgrims settle around the fountain and in the square, spreading out mats and firing up gas stoves to boil water for rice or tea. This is the campsite of the visitors who do not belong to any particular brotherhood but who wish nonetheless to honor the saint of Tanta. On Thursday evening, for the Great Night of the mulid, the celebrated Sheikh Yasin al-Tuhami will come to this colonnade to sing in praise of the Prophet and the saints. This great singer of sacred songs is originally from Upper Egypt and some ten years ago was not really known in the Delta. Now, however, a quarter of all the tape cassettes being hawked by the roving vendors who have come to the Tanta mulid are of his voice. His image is on all the cassette boxes, with a backdrop of the mosque of the Prophet at Medina, or al-Azhar, or the well-known mosque of Cairo University, or indeed the Eiffel Tower, because he has sung in France at the Théâtre de la Ville and the Institut du Monde Arabe. He is extremely rich. Everyone considers him a saint.
At Sigar, the pilgrims are gradually arriving and settling in. Vans, cattle trucks, pickups, and rented minibuses unload one after the other a mix of blankets, sacks of rice, and stoutly built matrons. The tents are laid out in regimented rows, marking out streets, crossroads, and neighborhoods. At the entrance to each tent an embroidered cloth banner proclaims the name of the sheikh—whether dead or alive—the name of the village, district, governorate, and of course the name of the brotherhood itself. In fact, the color of the banner is itself significant: black is reserved for the Rifa‘iya, red for the Ahmadiya and all its branches, and green and white are used by several brotherhoods, such as the Qadiriya and the Burhamiya. In general, the pilgrims group themselves as a function of brotherhood, locality, and family allegiances. The Qadiris from Fisha Salim, for example, are a group of related families, united by their sheikh and coming from the same village. However, there is also a woman from Benha in their tent whose connection is only one of friendship and habit, and by the relationship she has formed with their sheikh. Every year she returns to stay with them during the mulid. At the far end of the site, on the edge of the fields, about one hundred pilgrims with their children have arrived with boxes and cooking pots, some piled up on camels, others squashed into vans. They are all members of the same clan from the village of Sidud near Minuf, but they are sharing their tent with people from Ghamrin, a nearby town where the sheikh both groups revere is buried. This sheikh died about ten years ago and is the object of an active mulid in Ghamrin. While these tents appear at first sight to be occupied by peasants, many of the younger folk work in Cairo during the week and only return to the village on Friday. Outside the tent the forty-two camels that carried them from Sidud are grazing: inside, straw and blankets cover the floor. The women and children are confined to the rear behind a cloth partition, but they come and go freely in a way that would not be permitted in Upper Egypt. The cooking goes on in this rear section. Another sheet closes off the two goats that will be slaughtered in honor of Badawi on the final night of the mulid. They are shown off to me with pride: livestock is very valuable and it represents great baraka for the brotherhood. It is said that in the 1920s there were two sheep or even two buffalo per tent, but who today has the wherewithal to sacrifice so many animals? Nobody here ever eats meat, except of course during the mulid.
The day drags on with nothing much to do: a bit of shopping, a visit to the tomb, a shot on the swings, fetching water, paying taxes to the local administration, a visit to another brotherhood. Water pipes are smoked and tea is drunk; there is much chat and listening to cassettes of dhikr . Time must be killed before night when the festivities kick off. Peddlers pass by selling sugary sweets, walking sticks, headscarves, small sweaters, and plastic horses for the children. Shoeshine boys offer their services, and this is no extravagant luxury at a time of sudden showers on this sticky black agricultural earth, which clogs your shoes with straw and strips of sugarcane. Wandering musicians and beggars carrying incense come around in search of pennies. It is party time for the inhabitants of Tanta, and what is more, school is out for the children of the town beginning on Tuesday.
Come nightfall on Tuesday the superb illuminations are sparkling. Crowds form around the mast in the center of the tented camp. There are small family groups who have come from Cairo or even villages further afield in Middle Egypt, brought by a sense of personal devotion. They are not tied to any particular sheikh or specific brotherhood: the cult of the saint has long since gone beyond the realms of organized Sufism. All of these pilgrims sitting cross-legged on the ground simply want to spend the evening around the mast. The atmosphere is easygoing: parents sit with children, bands of youths are hanging out, a group of girls sings and dances, clapping their hands, while around them a gang of admirers gathers. There is plenty of laughing and joking, but mulids are not really the place for young girls. Nevertheless, it is Tuesday, there are quite a few of them, they are all locals on their home turf, and fathers and brothers are never too far away. Someone is selling cotton candy, called ‘girls’ hair’ ( sha‘r al-banat or ghazal al-banat ) in Egypt, someone else popcorn. Swings fly up into the air and little firecrackers explode everywhere. Some of the brotherhoods would have liked to begin the dhikr this evening but authorization was not given: too much noise for the neighbors, who are hoping for some quiet tonight before the two sleepless nights and the decibels that are ahead of them.
Around ten at night the Great Mosque is calm when suddenly three or four cars pull up at the entrance to the sanctuary surrounded by a rush of men trailing an extraordinary atmosphere of joyous zeal. The young sheikh of the powerful Khaliliya from Zagazig, ‘Amm Salih Abu Khalil, has arrived. His disciples, many of whom are educated men and women of the middle classes, including couples with children, state firmly that he is a saint. The chamber of Badawi’s tomb is suddenly full of men and women of the Khaliliya. As the sheikh calls upon God and Badawi, they stand, turned toward the gate of the maqsura with hands raised, responding with repeated cries of “Amen!” that bounce around the dome. Eyes glisten and tears flow. Photographs of the sheikh are handed out to the crowd and then he swiftly departs, shielded from the fervor of his flock by some burly security guards. And so it is for the rest of the week: great sheikhs arrive one after the other to honor the Tanta mulid by their presence, to gather together their disciples and lead one or two dhikr s. Other visitors with no claim to sanctity also feel the need to make an appearance at this national religious event, without of course mingling with the peasants squatting on straw surrounded by goats and children. A minister or two, the supreme sheikh of the Sufi brotherhoods, the Sheikh of al-Azhar turn up for a few religious get-togethers: Qur’an readings, piously dull lectures, flesh-pressing and glad-handing with state-appointed Islamic worthies. The governor is kept busy.
On Wednesday, things get serious. The crowd grows and grows because tonight and tomorrow night will be evenings of dhikr . The old town is almost closed to cars, and peddlers take over, selling trinkets, toys, and incense on the median of the main street that leads to the mosque of Badawi. Trains and buses from Cairo and other big towns bring in pilgrims for the day or for a couple of nights. Conscripts on leave mix with Sufis smitten by Badawi: city-dwellers of Delta origins returning to the villages rub shoulders with youth who are simply out for a good time. The closer to the Great Night, the more holy and auspicious the moment. When night falls, people eat and then perform the evening prayer. Once the plates have been cleared the dhikr begins. Dhikr consists of calling on the name of God, litanies and prayers of the brotherhood, rhythmic gestures as His Name is intoned, often accompanied by chants praising the Prophet and the saints. The Qadiris from Sidud, my camel-owning friends, line up in rows according to age and degree of initiation. Their dhikr is very physical and jerky, the rhythm following the beat of a teaspoon against a metal bar. The man in charge of the teaspoon does not falter as he hammers away for a solid hour. There are no instrumentalists, but a chanter bellows a cappella with the aid of a huge sound system. The young are at the edges and take the opportunity to mess around a bit: they are sweaty and delighted, they are having fun. Every now and then they break off to sip a glass of tea, to check on a restless camel, or to greet a passing friend. The older men—all those over thirty or thirty-five years, married with kids, fit into this category—are not distracted and display unearthly stamina: rhythm is perfect, breathing regular, the prayers known by heart. Many of them smile during the dhikr , eyes closed with toothless grins. Hard faces shine, solid bodies are lithely balanced, and their arms, draped in wide gallabiya sleeves, are precisely extended.
Given that not everyone can hire musicians or sound systems and microphones, people may respond to the dhikr of a neighbor. People stroll from tent to tent searching out the most beautiful and moving dhikr . It often happens that a person will encounter the sheikh and will occasionally change brotherhoods. For the time being, people are wandering, since the dhikrs will not finish until dawn, around four o’clock in the morning.
The inhabitants of Tanta also participate in the celebrations, at least those who live in the old town or around the grounds. They may look down on the peasants, but nobody would sniff at such entertainment, and it provides the occasion to cook some special meals and get out to visit others. For those who have Sufis camping on their doorstep, there is usually a good relationship with them, and over the years people help each other out. And for those groups who are blessed with a particularly venerated sheikh, the links are all the stronger. Of course, the shopkeepers complain of stubborn peasants who buy nothing, of the market being slow, of the decline of the mulid because of general poverty. Frankly, I have always heard these complaints, but it is true that the crisis is sharp.
A young woman stops me in the street and stares: we know each other. Fifteen years ago she was a little girl whom I would push on the swings: now she’s a mother. Her father is dead, as is her uncle, both before the age of sixty. As townies, they expressed the same condescension towards the fellah , the yokels, that the people of Tanta have always shown. And yet they were originally from the countryside, still kept the accent, shared the same beliefs, and were proud of their native village, which happened to be founded by a saint who was also an ancestor. I used to sell cassettes of dhikr in their shop to wary peasants. They would come looking for such and such a singer, and would listen a bit, tapping out the rhythm with their fingers. They would try to bargain, turning the cassettes around and around in their thick hands, peering closely at the box as if this might reveal the contents and lower the price. Sometimes they would carefully reach into an inside pocket and pull out a small cloth purse from which appeared a crumpled bill. Other times, they would leave, unconvinced and worried that they might be being had. And then the shop owner would crank up the volume on the latest hits, trying to pull in the customers with a powerful-voiced sheikh who could melt hearts as he vaunted the Prophet, or perhaps a songstress with a peasant accent trilling wedding songs of love and longing.
The night of Wednesday to Thursday is already a stern test. Sticks of sugarcane stack up in the mulid campsite next to a small dried-up canal. People come and go ceaselessly. Buses, horse carriages, and taxis drive around and around until dawn in the midst of an unworldly commotion. How will they be able to manage tomorrow, the Great Night of the mulid, from Thursday to Friday? At sunrise, the noise of dhikr still rings through the grounds and the old town. The rooftops are washed in thin light and, if one listens carefully, a flute in the near distance cuts through the noise of mingled dhikr s. It seems to whistle on even after everything is silent.
Thursday: all day the prayer hall of the Great Mosque is thick with people. Everywhere, both men and women sit or lie, snoozing or exhausted, at the feet of columns in tight little rows. Rays of sunlight beam through the openwork ceiling, casting a golden aura on the crowd below. Heartless workers smother the prayer hall in a cloud of insecticide that drenches the beautiful carpets with a ghastly smell. Midday prayers today and tomorrow will be filled with people from the mulid. The sheikhs of the brotherhoods will be coming with their delegates and disciples. Prayers in the mausoleum mean turbans and walking sticks, immaculately white gallabiya s and polished shoes, the bourgeois in city suits murmuring Qur’anic verses: outside, the uninterrupted trampling of the crowd, so many feet stomping the floor in unceasing and extraordinary movement. Just covering a dozen meters is tiring enough, but to go from Sigar to the mausoleum is a commando training course that leaves one spent. Passing through the tunnel beneath the railway that marks the line between town and suburbs is fearsome. The cries resound more here than elsewhere, the half-light is just right for clumsy jostling, and the disabled who squat here to beg barely escape being crushed. The crowd pulls and pushes, it wavers for a second, then stands firm. It is a continuous stream that cannot long be diverted by any distraction. One can, however, move forward. Some fifteen years ago, one could hardly touch the ground or choose direction or even escape from the flow. Only the truncheons of the police stationed along the path of the pilgrims could slightly dent the compact mass of brown and navy blue as it swayed like the sea. I was always being told, “You can’t walk there,” and it was true. You needed physical bravery to dive into the scrum. Every year people died, suffocated by the crowd or trampled to death in a stampede. But those days seem to have passed. The crowd is smaller, smothered by poverty: the poor no longer have the money to pay for entertainment designed for the poor. And the middle classes, numerous if discreet participants in the mulid, are not going to risk life and limb wandering through thronged streets.
As the sun sets, a procession follows the khalifa as he goes to pray in the Great Mosque of Badawi, setting off more cheers and applause. He comes from the direction of the Samanud Bridge where he has been greeting the Shinnawiya, a branch of the brotherhood that grew out of the very first companions of the saint. It is another way of celebrating the allegiances between the brotherhoods, even though, among all the ululating women and rejoicing men, almost nobody knows the history. All is banners, drums, and cries. The multitude of pilgrims camped out in front of the mosque are squashed in together, sitting on cardboard boxes. A matronly woman, widowed with ten children, is selling tea with her daughters from a second marriage. She normally lives in Cairo, in the shadow of the great mausoleum of al-Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet, where she scrapes together a living. Next Monday she will have moved on from here to work the Great Night of Sayyida Aisha, a Cairo saint and descendant of the Prophet. At that mulid she will sell peanuts, before moving on the following week to Disuq for the mulid of Sidi Ibrahim. She manages to survive, rolling from mulid to mulid. She loves the People of the House, the ahl al-bayt , all the holy men and women venerated in Egypt who are accepted as descendants of Muhammad. Badawi is one of them.
As night begins so do the dhikr s, more of them and even louder than the previous evening. Canopies have sprung up in the old town and in the run-down streets around the Great Mosque, smaller perhaps than those out at the camp of Sigar, but they are busy and pull in those passers-by who are not truly Sufi. There is a large awning attached to the top of a flight of stairs that stretches between two houses. Beneath it are the followers of Sheikh Sa‘d Ragab al-Rifa‘i from Minufiya. The sheikh was a ticket inspector on the buses in Cairo but came originally from the large Delta village of Bagur, to which he returned after his retirement. Their dhikr is considered one of the most beautiful, and he and his folk used to set up tents at all the great mulids of Cairo and the Delta: I have followed them from mulid to mulid, from year to year. About two and a half years ago, after a short illness and on a day when the sky suddenly went dark, the sheikh passed on in a haze of sanctity. If the miraculous signs and visions appear in sufficient number and the government consents, then the sheikh will have a tomb and a mulid of his own.
In the meantime, a full-size photograph of the holy man decorates the tent and stares out at the new sheikh as the latter launches the dhikr . Before his death Sheikh Sa‘d had chosen his third son to be his successor, and these past few years, after seventeen years of driving trucks in Saudi Arabia, the son has returned to dedicate himself to the brotherhood. Tall and austere like his father, the new sheikh also shares a certain shyness, but not the same silent smile that seemed to understand all of human weakness. He knows that his father was a saint and nobody around here would doubt it. With due humility he prides himself on honoring the memory of his father with scrupulous loyalty so that none of the customs and traditions of the brotherhood will be broken. As he observes the rituals of the dhikr , the new sheikh is careful to follow the path set by his father, and he ends up revealing an unforeseen force that fulfils the expectations of his disciples. Everybody is saying it: he takes after his father.
The dhikr begins at nine o’clock. After the specific prayers of the brotherhood, which all the initiated members recite while sitting, taking their lead from the sheikh, the Fatiha is spoken. It is a moment of real concentration with tense faces and eyes closed or fixed on the middle distance. Then, up they stand and the musicians take over: a violin, a flute, two tambourines, and a darabukka . Voices rise, a tambourine is struck, the rhythm is set, and the dhikr begins. At first slow and full as the performers find the beat, it will grow faster and faster, more and more energetic, almost without end. Two singers, one of whom is famous throughout the Delta, will take turns driving the performance from nine o’clock until three-thirty in the morning. A few years ago it was Sheikh Lutfi, his face disfigured by scarring from burns, who whipped up the dhikr of Sheikh Sa‘d, until one night, returning from a session, he dropped dead. His eight-year old son is here this evening, and he is hoisted onto a chair and takes the mic for half an hour. His piercing voice, still clearly that of a child, delivers the chants of adults, listing the names of the saints venerated by the Egyptians: the descendants of the Prophet, al-Husayn and Sayyida Zaynab who are buried in Cairo; and the Four Poles of Sufism, Sidi Ibrahim al-Disuqi, Ahmad al-Rifa‘i, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, and Sayyid al-Badawi, the host of this feast. People are struggling through the tightly packed crowd around those performing the dhikr in order to see the son of the father and to admire his youthful talent.
Passersby stop, the mass grows, the throng thickens, and the musicians climb onto tables and chairs to play over the assembly. Some women standing at the edges are taken by the rhythm, rise up, and join in. Here and there a man falls into a trance and is swiftly and firmly grasped and held up by the sheikh, who leads him, still trembling, to a calmer spot.

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