Who owns/ controls the Moulid in Egypt? The interplay between what’s religious and what’s civic in the national identity
In 2015 (and 2016) , the ministry of Aqwaf , in a surprising action, closed the shrine of Al Hussien mosque officially during Moulid Al Hussien for the first time in history. The ministry issued a statement saying that this action was taken in order to curb any Shiite rituals being carried out around the shrine and also to prevent any potential clashes between Salafists, Shiites and Sufis. The decision was met by severe anger in Shiite and Sufis circles but was welcomed by the Salafists and the urban middle class who oppose Moulids in terms of both modernity and Islamic authenticity. While the former pro-Salafists Muslim brotherhood regime didn’t attempt to close the shrink- taking only security measures to prevent any clashes- the new national anti-Muslim brotherhood regime closed the shrine officially in front of its visitors.
In this post, I am looking at how the Moulid disrupts the religious and civil discipline enforced by the Egyptian state. I am explaining how the key players of the Moulid: The Shiite, the Salafists, the Sufis, Al Azhar and the Egyptian state represented in the Ministry of Awqaf uses it as a platform for controlling the dynamics of the interplay between what’s religious and what is civic in the Egyptian national identity. In the light of this, the question of why and when certain alliances or solidarity happen between certain key actors and its relevance to the geopolitical frame becomes relevant.
The Moulid for the majority of the Egyptians is not only a religious or a spiritual event, it’s an economic and political event, too. It serves as a platform where different vendors sell their products to the people who come from different regions in Egypt and as a platform for political figures to establish their images as religious or pious by attending some of the commemorations
The Shiites have always been the justification for interfering in the dynamics of the Moulid and controlling the interplay between what’s religious and what’s civic in the national identity between the different stakeholders of the Moulid. Before the 2011 revolution, the Egyptian state under Mubarak’s rule had a hostile yet subtle attitude towards Shiite minority. Although it used to have normal relations with Iran , the regional Shiite supporter across the Arab world, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Egyptian regime started accusing the Shiite subtly of threating regional stability to serve Iranian interests (Abdo, 2013), and the regime stated that its main mission was to preserve national identity from the Shiite thoughts.
For Salafists, Moulid is prohibited in Islam and is considered as beda’a (heresy) or sherk (polytheism) as it was never conducted by the first Muslims or the companions of the Prophet. Salafists direct participation in controlling the Moulid dynamics and preventing Shiite from participating in it started in 2013 under Morsi’s rule but got most of its legitimacy under El Sisi’s regime – their supposed ultimate enemy- by creating coalitions to observe Shiites practices, in coordination with the security forces, to report them to the police.
Sufis are the main organizers and audience for Moulids in Egypt. For years and years, Sufis, Salafists and the Egyptian regime – represented in the Ministry of Awqaf- have been fighting over the permission or the prohibition of Moulid in Islam. While Salafists and security forces stood hand in hand against Sufi practices during Moulids, the Shiites’ more public involvement in Moulid allied them together. In 2012, the coalition for defending the Prophet’s Companions and Family was formed to combat the spread of Shi’ism in Moulid and in 2015 one of its major activities took place when it organized a campaign searching for Shiites organizations that “are planning to spread the Shiite thoughts in the Egyptian society” and hand them over to the police. This campaign resulted in closing down “Al-Thaqlyeen”, one of the biggest Shiite organizations in Egypt. (Daily News, 2016)
The Egyptian state based its ruling on the expert advice of Al Azhar .Al Azhar’s stand point is reflected through its different official statements on the necessity of the collaboration between Sunni powers in the region to eliminate to what it named “the expansion of Shiite thoughts and practices in the Sunni region”. Unlike the Salafist and the Sufis who work directly on the ground to prevent this Shiite thoughts expansion’, Al Azhar has always depended on its validity as a popular prestigious Islamic center in the region to influence and endorse its position in the dynamics of the Moulid through using the legitimacy of issuing Fatwas. Although Al Azhar never issued a direct Fatwa prohibiting the Moulid, it always put restrictions on how it should be celebrated by reciting the Quran and engaging oneself in charitable activities, warning people from engaging with any Sufi or Shiites activities that don’tt follow the “proper” Islamic practice.
Since the 2013 military coup, the Egyptian regime has been reproducing the same form of domination used by the post-colonial national regime of Nasser to enforce a certain Egyptian identity and control the interplay between what’s religious and what’s civic in this identity. Although Nasser stressed on secularism being an essential part of this identity, the current regime under El Sisi has stressed the importance of religion as an essential part of this identity.
While many sociologists such as Fukuyama, Beck and Putnam see that religion supports social cohesion through shared symbols, rituals, norms, and networks and that it has the power to transcend boundaries constituted by factors such as ethnic origin, gender, or age, and therefore it endorses the formation of a coherent national identity, others such as Bohn, Hann, Gross and Ziebertz views religion to be exclusive to those who are not part of the dominant groups. (Schnabel & Hjerm, 2014) (Schielke, 2008)
The current regime produces a form of domination to control the interplay between what’s religious and what’s civic in the national identity by determining what’s religious and what’s civic through forming coalition and solidarity with their natural enemies, the Salafists. The issue of the Moulid can serve as an example to showcase this control. The Moulid serves as a platform where the Shiite, the Salafists, the Sufis, and Al Azhar fight over who controls it and who will be able to determine and enforce a discourse that can be adopted nationally on what’s religious and what’s civic in the national identity. Despite the fact that the Salasfists, the Sufis and Al Azhar share a common ‘enemy’, the Shiites, they tend in their process of fighting this enemy, to contest each other to enforce their own discourses. The state at the end benefits from this consent as it shows the importance of having a unified definition of what’s religious and what’s civic, and the state takes an inclusive role to determine that to be able to determine its position, not just internally but externally as well.
The struggle over the Moulid control can be outlined in a geopolitical frame as well. After the 2011 revolution and under the Muslim brotherhood rule, Egypt’s main regional ally was Qatar who had a direct hostility towards Iran and the Shiite. After the 2013 military coup, Qatar was replaced by UAE and Saud Arabia who had also the same hostility towards Iran and the Shiite. The Egyptian regime maintained the same kind of hostility towards Iran and Shiite as a result.
Currently, Egypt is undergoing a change in its regional alliances, moving away from the Gulf countries towards Russia and China. One of the reasons of the change is Egypt’s support for the Russian military intervention in Syria, that supports Bashar’s regime there which means that Egypt is officially standing in line with the pro-Bashar countries and groups such as Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah. While currently Egypt may not initiate any direct relations with the last two, will sharing a common goal with them regionally change anything regarding the Shiite situation in Egypt and the dynamics of the Moulid?
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 The Arabic word “Moulid”- المولد means anniversary- the anniversary of a religious saint whether he/she is a Muslim or Christian, a saint that serves as a mediator between people and God. Moulids are commemorations of the anniversary of the saint’s birth or death and it usually takes place around a mosque or a church that usually has the name of the saint.
 The Ministry of Aqwaf is responsible for religious endowments in Egypt.
 Muslim communities, millions of Sufi followers commemorate the births or deaths of the members of the Prophet’s family who are recognized as saints – including Imam Al Hussien, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, whose head is believed to be buried in a mosque named after him in one of the busiest parts in Islamic Cairo. Imam Al-Hussien was killed at the Karballa’ Battle in 680 AD. The death of Al Hussien tiled a deep and lasting division between Muslims that persisted till today. The image of Imam Al Hussien in the majority of the Egyptians’ mentality as hero, a martyr, a strong advocate for the poor and the weak is reflected in their habit of greeting his shrine to confess their sins asking for forgiveness or to ask for things such as money, jobs or children.
 Indicating the number of Shiites in Egypt remains a point of contention: there are no official records at CAPMAS- the official statistical agency. While Shiite activities claim in different occasions that they are between 800,000 to two million, Salafists argue that they are only few thousands.
 Al Azhar is the oldest degree-granting university in Egypt, a mosque and an Islamic center whose main mission is to propagate Islam. Only through Al Azhar, its Islamic scholars (Ulama’a) make edicts (Fatwas) on issues regarding proper conduct of Islam for the Whole Sunni Muslim world. Although Al-Azhar was founded as a mosque by Shiite Fatimid where it served as space for study-circles and later on as a university, the modern Azhar has a strong anti-Shiite ideology and this was reflected in the way Al Azhar handled the Moulids.