Moulid moves and moves

On October 28th and 29th, 2017  Sherifa Zuhur and Amina Goodyear offered the Mulid Moods and Moves Workshop in San Francisco, California culminating in a Mulid Masri which emulated the Mulid of Sayyid al-Badawi (held at Al Masri restaurant in San Francisco).  

Summary from Sherifa Zuhur, Ph.D. of my lecture at this event.  Mulid Moods and Moves @ Sherifa Zuhur, 2017  I have written a longer version as well with specific references.   Please do not replicate this copyrighted material. 

Our workshop provided the background and basis for a modern hybrid form of music and dance in Egypt called Moulid.  While it is not a brand ‘new’ genre – as it dates back thirteen years, this music is only just now becoming popular in California with some recent performances by Ahmad Chiba and others in Los Angeles.  One can read about it in some anthropological sources, but description of the actual dancing is very sparse.  The belly dance community is not particularly knowledgeable about genres and topics pertaining to Islam, so we wanted to explain to provide some background in that regard.

The Mulid (mawlid in classical Arabic, mawalid is the plural) festivals come from the Sufi or mystical tradition of Islam.  Mulid means birth or birthday, as in the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad:  Mulid an-Nabi.   Hundreds of other mawalid celebrate not the birthdays, but the commemoration of the dates of death of the Friends of God, the AWLIYA or saints of Islam.  The festivals center on their tombs, or shrines erected to them.  

The awliya are holy men and women who possess BARAKA (blessedness and spiritual charisma).  They can intercede for ordinary believers, now, or on the Day of Judgment.  Intercession (SHAFA’) is requested so that believers, or their families will go to heaven, are cured of an illness or obtain another wish or a need.  

An honorific title, Sayyid or Sayyida is given to the awliya.  In the Egyptian colloquial Arabic, this is Sidi or Sitt.  The awliya perform miracles or supernatural feats known as KARAMAT.  Sometimes these are simply miraculous conditions, for example, their bodies don’t disintegrate, or they gave predictions of the future, people see them in dreams. 

The wali or walia (singular of awliya) may be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad; his family is known as the AHL al-BAYT.  Some were great scholars, or past leaders of Sufi orders, the mystical brotherhoods of popular Islam.  Many composed poetry which is sung to music during the celebration of the mulid, possibly with a full orchestra, or with rebab and kawala.  As this occurs, people ask for the wali’s assistance (MADAD). 

Not everyone who attends a mulid is a Sufi.  Many ordinary Egyptians (or Algerians, or Moroccans or other Muslims) also travel to celebrate them.

There are Sufi orders (TARIQAT) all over the Islamic world and in exile, elsewhere including in the US.  However, it was in Egypt specifically, where the counterculture music called Moulid emerged.  For this reason, we organized this event close to the date of a real Egyptian mulid, and focused on the features of mawalid that are particular to Egypt.

The Religious Aspect of Mulids

A Sufi is a Muslim who seeks the truth, the haqiqa, which is to know God through ma’arifa – esoteric knowledge -  rather than extensive knowledge of formal religious doctrine.   As the Sufis say, it is their aim to know through love, through the heart.   

The Sufi aims to improve his or her condition or state of consciousness - HAL – and proceed into new states of consciousness, there are 40 - the final one being an ecstatic merging of the self with Allah, and the death of his or her individual ego. 

To the Sufis, or muhibbin (which means those who love) the mulid also centers around love:  their love of God, love of the saint, of the Prophet, of fellow members (brethren) of the tariqa and for all the people who attend the mulid.   This relates to a Hadith Qudsi about Allah: "I was a Hidden treasure and I loved to be known and so I created the creation” (a hadith is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. A hadith qudsi is a saying of Allah’s but delivered by the Prophet Muhammad).

There used to be hundreds of Muslim mulids observed by the many Sufi orders in Egypt, as many as 800.  Currently there are anywhere from 50 to100, and even these are endangered by the jihadiyya salafiyya (salafi jihadists) and other salafis object to them.  There are also Christian moulids, and one Jewish moulid held in Damanhour for Abu Hasira.     

Sufis who attend the mulids are sometimes called darawish (dervishes) the singular is darwish. The other word for a follower is a murid – led by a shaykh, who may also be called a murshid.  The darawish or muridin are organized into Brotherhoods or TARIQAT.  

The leadership of the tariqa form a silsila or a chain of leaders tracing back to the originator of the order. Egypt’s government officially recognizes these Sufi brotherhoods; their leaders are members of a Supreme Sufi Council and many religious authorities in al-Azhar (the mosque and the university) are or have been Sufis.  

The tariqa of Sayyid Ahmad al-Badawi, is called the Ahmadiyya, one of the largest tariqat in Egypt.  Each order possesses its own banners, colors, slogans and symbols. 

Each tariqa holds ceremonies called dhikrs (in Egyptian Arabic, a zikr)  these are remembrances of Allah and they differ from salat, the  obligatory 5 times daily prayer.   

Usually a shaykh leads the hadhra (zikr).    The ceremony may feature chanting the name of the prophet or just “huwwa” (literally, ‘he’) or some of the 99 names of God. The chanting of “huwwa” may sound like a heartbeat.  A singer and a band may perform at the hadhra and the muhibbin may dance or sway or turn (spin); in one Sufi order they move their torsos in a figure eight.

The singer is called a munshid – which comes from the word INSHAD – a hymn or a religious poem (plural = anashid)  The poetry of the great al-Farid of Egypt and ibn Arabi of Spain are very famous examples of anashid.   In Egypt these are performed to music which comes from the sha’bi (folk) or tarab currents of music.  Every night a hadra will be held – which may also be called a layla (night).

Some munshidin are very famous, like the great Shaykh Yasin al-Tuhamy, and sell far more recordings than pop stars.   People will travel from other parts of Egypt to listen to these munshidin and participate in the mulid

The spinning associated with the dervishes is done by professional dancers.  It represents movement around the axis of the earth; the axis of the earth is the Qutb which is also a name for the Grand Master or spiritual leader of a Sufi brotherhood.   As compared to the slow and decorous turning of the Mevleviyya order in Turkey, the Tannoura dance that developed in Egypt is bombastic and showy. The word tannoura means skirts which rise up as the dancer spins – operated by strings.  

Here are some examples which show elements of the zikr; the first is in Turkey

 Opening about Shaykh al-Rifa’I (the Sultan,) 

To hear the mawwal/opening and then the inshad, “Jinakum, jina”

Dhikr being led by the master of the brotherhood of the Hamidiyya Shadhiliyya

The power of the inshad is that it connects the munshid or singer to the spirit of the poet and to the saint who is being celebrated.  The participants might go into trance or look like they have.  

This spiritual power of Mulids captivates everyone.  The participants reflect the intoxication or mazag that they feel.

For the singers, DJs,  & the mawladiyya (people who go from mulid to mulid ) to serve the public, the shuyukh and some of the darawish, the mawalid are a way of life and have a commercial aspect, yet they are special. 

    Tents of the brightly colored fabric now printed and once appliqued are set up near a shrine. Flags are hung up along with prayers.  People wear special sashes or headbands decorated with the insignias of the different tariqas.  Bright lights are everywhere; the music is loud.

Normal gender segregation  is not  observed in the mulid. Women can sit next to or dance next to men.   Women have booths for shooting or playing games & sell items (and young men use the mulid as an occasion to see or flirt with women)

Unfortunately sexual harassment has become a problem at the mulids, young men would deliberately rush through crowds, grabbing or even attacking women at mawalid.     If you have a chance to attend a mulid, don’t go alone.  

Beggars participate next to the wealthy.  Also those regarded as insane can also attend the mulid; the popular belief was that they are protected by God. 

The commercial side of Mulids is tied to their enjoyment – it is supposed to be a big Party – and that’s what people call it – a farah for the saint, but tips are paid to the munshid, the band and others. 

Alongside merriment, people make a ziyarah (a visit to a religious shrine or tomb), they say the Fatiha, pray, and give du’as (special supplications); they enter the shrine or tomb, and sweep it, hang up written prayers.    A tomb is sometimes enclosed inner space, but some shrines are outside and shaded with trees & people hang prayers on the tree.  

In Upper Egypt, the MAHMAL, also known as hawdig is carried in on a camel in a procession.  It is formed of palm leaves or sticks with a covering for the saint’s tomb.  The camel circumambulates the tomb; this is called the dora.  

In the mulid’s playful and commercial spirit, there are:

* shooting booths, swings, Ferris wheels and other rides for children

* In the more rural areas, exhibition of horses by their riders -- mirmah are held.  The riders show off their skill and their horses’ beauty and talent.  

*Horse dancing  - kheil – is performed to music – usually to the mizmar or kawala and the big tabl drum

*Tahtib, the stick dancing is performed – although it’s a martial art and duo or group dance; at mulids, audience members usually dance alone after they tip the band. 

*Tannoura dancers perform – these used to be of the Mahdi or Abul Ghayt clans; it is a male dance.  

*Female dancers used to perform – the Sonbat ghawazi of Lower Egypt as well as Upper Egypt.   At one time, there were boys and men dressed as women who danced.   And raqs sharqi by women was also performed but has been excluded for some years (roughly since live dance was excluded from television and due to the religious revival.

* Darawish used to perform a DOSA (dawsa), a pain-defying feat; darawish put skewers called dababi into their cheeks, lie on sharp objects, they would put their swords on their necks and their shaykh would walk over them; they used to lie down and let horses run over them.

*Free food, snacks and drinks are offered.  Chickpeas (hummos)  are traditional.

*The arousat al-mulid – the sugar dolls or bride of the Moulid (which was the subject of a dance by Mahmoud Reda) 

*Booths were set up to perform circumcisions and give haircuts. 

*There were zars,  the ceremony of exorcism, or sympathy with spirits, offered at the mulid. 

*The aragoz – shadow puppet play was performed.  The puppets were made from animal skin with wooden and, later on plastic, heads.  It dates back to Mamluk times  Although only a few performers remain of this folk art form, there are many references to it in Egyptian theater.  The actor of the Aragoz, uses a kind of whistle in his mouth to create a high tinny voice. 

*Henna artists paint women’s hands, or color them by pressing coins onto the henna in their palms to transfer the design. 

*Shisha is smoked and young men go off to smoke drugs. 

*Magicians performed their acts. 

*Floats are created by using trucks or carts are pulled by long lines of men and boys (or driven)  These might have boats or ships on them, as at Moulid Abu al-Haggag in Luxor.   Or they may be smaller boxes or hexagons with slogans of the tariqaat on them, and groups of white gowned darawish.  

*Followers of certain Sufi orders, politicians, or members of the traditional guilds –  could appear in a zaffa (procession) of the mulid,  dressed up as “Arabs”  or as women, or in other wild costumes that correspond to a story. 

* The ‘new’ mulid singers/dancers and DJs  and also mahraganat artists may set up on the streets near a mulid.  People will come and enjoy their sets, and then go eat, smoke, or take part in the mulid’s activities.  (Schielke, 56-57, but I have added to his list and tried to explain these various activities)

*Tattoos were offered at Christian mulids.

*Many pilgrims bring bottles of water to be blessed by the saint 

*The Nile river may play a role as in a Coptic mulid which combines with a night celebration called al-Ghitas; or on the mulid of the Virgin Mary. 

And there are more activities which boosted the popularity of mulids. 


Mulids last for three or four days (they used to last a week) and are not held during Ramadan.  The mulid begins and may end with a zaffa (procession).  The last night of the mulid is known as the Layla al-Kabira (the Great Night) – in which a dhikr is held all night.   The next morning, a sabahiyya or morning zaffa takes place.  In the Mulid of Sayyid al-Badawi it was led by the KHALIFA or Caliph of the order riding a horse.  The mulid ended by the time of juma’ah (Friday noon) prayer. 

Sayyid or Sidi (our lord) Ahmad al-Badawi’s Mulid is held in the city Tanta, 94 km. north of Cairo, always at the end of October following the cotton harvest.  The Mulid of Sayyid Husain is held in Cairo - in the month of Rabi’a Thani – so it should fall near the beginning of Feb. this year.

The Alexandrian mulids are held in the summer.  

Sayyid al-Badawi was a holy man born in Fez in 596, moved to Mecca, then Iraq and then Tanta where he died.  He was called al-farraj – who liberated Muslim captives from Christian captivity.  He could fight with two swords simultaneously.  The pilgrims come to his tomb and call “Madad ya Badawi ya ahl al-baraka”   (Aid us, o Badawi you man of Baraka”)

New Mulid Music

This new genre developed from sha’bi music.  The growth of sha’bi music coincided with mass migration to urban centers.  A great icon of sha’bi was Ahmad Adawiyya in the 1970s; a more contemporary figure was Shaaboula (Shaaban Abd al-Rahim).   Moulid music is counterculture, loud, in-your-face, and may have themes that protest corruption and promote religion.    Not all sha’bi singers do moulid music – however references to the mulid are found in some sha’bi songs because it’s a perennial feature of Egyptian life

‘Mulid’ also differs from the genre of mahraganat which was started by Sadat (al-Sadat Mohammad Ahmad), the singers Fifty, Haha,  Figo  and Oka & Ortega.  It consists of electronic keyboard, sound effects,  rap or sung political lyrics or lyrics that push the envelope.

In Mulid music, certain themes of anashid were adopted, but not in a traditional way, they were innovated.  In 2001, keyboardist Salah al-Kurdi combined dance melodies with others recognizably from anashid.  Singer Gamal al-Sobky added more phrases from anashid.  His song with a repeated phrase, “let’s go to the mulid!” was a big hit.   Saad al-Sughayer, Mahmoud al-Leithy, and Mahmoud al-Husseiny and many other singers popularized Mulid.  Their lyrics can be very existentialist.  Also the singers act as DJ’s;  they are hosting a party, acknowledge the audience and the listeners, and the tips they give, interrupting their songs and then returning to the lyrics.  The music is supposed to imbue saltanah, but in a raucous and wild manner. 

In our workshop, I taught several important “new” Mulid songs, one was about a Muslim’s struggle with Shaitan (the Devil) and then, choreography for these songs. 

An example of the spiritual dichotomy is offered here in Muhammad al-Leithy’s song
Qasadt Babak,” – (I aimed for your door) 


There were thugs on earth 

who said they were the best people 

They became ashes, my brother 

People stepped on them 


(Kan ad-dunya fituwat 

Biyu’ulum:  “ihna ahsan nas” 

Sabahum ramayum, ya khuya 

Widahwisuh 3alayhum in-nas) 


Listen to the words of our Lord the beloved 

That he said to all people

Eternal heaven is entered by people

Who contain their anger and forgive people 

In other words, corruption and unfairness may prevail on earth, but even the strong who bully others must die.  Those who go to heaven are able to control themselves and forgive each other – which is the opposite of the socially-taught male ethic of revenge.  With such lyrics, the participants may be rocking out, while dancing to Mulid, but they express concern about their eternal souls.

Mulid Dance

Dancers of the Mulid style are young, they may not even know to join into a zikr.  

They may consider the traditional style of music in the mawalid to be old-fashioned.  They are creative and athletic in their dance, adding hip-hop moves. 

The dancers and Mulid singers may not approve of dance for women, even though they dance.    Mulid dancers sometimes develop special styles or formats, which they call tashkil (a variation); for example dancing with butcher knives or the use of tahtib.   The Mulid music is meant for dancing, not sitting and listening. 

In the dance portion of our workshop, we also taught the Sonbat ghawazi style (as Amina has learned it, directly from Fatima Akef and observed in other performers) because it was once an integral part of the mulids; and the kheil (which refers to actual horse dancing, a dance by women pretending to be horses, and another dance by two performers in a cloth horse costume), and more.    Amina showed numerous film clips which illustrate how the mulid figures into Egyptian cinematic drama and we screened the long film based on the puppet show of Layla al-Kabira during our Mulid Masri event.  

The event, the dances and the information we shared were intended to enhance the understanding of the wild party that is the Mulid.   As a few of the academic chroniclers of mulids and Mulid music (Samuli Shielke and Jennifer Petersen) have observed, Egyptians also say that Cairo, or Egypt – indeed, any chaotic situation is a Mulid – or more to the point, mulid bidun shaykh (a Mulid without a shaykh to direct it).   Learning to create a festive and wildly fun party, and perform some new dance genres with an understandings of the references that lie within that celebration were our goals for this workshop.  

Selected References

Biegman, Nicolaas H.  Egypt:  Moulids, Saints, Sufis.  London: Kegan Paul Int’l, 1990. 

De Jong, F.  Turuq and Turuq-Linked Institutions in Nineteenth Century Egypt:  A Historical Study in Organisational Dimensions of Islamic Mysticism.  Leiden:  E.J. Brill, 1978. 

Frishkopf, Michael. “Tarab (Enchantment) in the Mystic Sufi Chant of Egypt.”  in Sherifa Zuhur, ed. Colors of Enchantment:  Theater, Dance, Music and the Visual Arts of the Middle East.  Cairo and New York:  American University in Cairo Press, 2001, pp. 239-276.

Lane, Edward William.  An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.  The Definitive 1860 Edition. Introduction by Jason Thompson.  Cairo and New York:  American University in Cairo Press, 2003.   

Lueg, Maren.  “Ecstasy and Trance in Tarab Performance,” Middle Eastern Music and Dance, December 2007   Course Notes Department of Music
Course: Performance Theory, December 2007,

Madoeuf, Anna. Mulids of Cairo: Sufi Guilds, Popular Celebrations and the ''Roller-Coaster Landscape" of the Resignified City.” In Diane Singerman and Paul Amar eds. Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, American University in Cairo Press, 2006, pp.465-487.

Mahmood, Sayed.  “Into the World of Moulid:  Director Sameh Abdelaziz on His New Film El-Leila El-Kebira.  Al Ahram.  Thursday 19 November 2015.  

Marcus, Scott L., Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture
New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Peterson, Jennifer.  “Playing with Spirituality:  The Adoption of Mulid Motifs in Egyptian Dance Music.” Contemporary Islam 2, No. 3, 2008: 271-295. 

 “Remixing Songs, Remaking Mulids:  The Merging Spaces of Dance Music and Saint Festivals in Egypt.” In Georg Stauth, Samuli Schielke, eds., Yearbook of the Sociology of IslamDimensions of Locality: Muslim Saints, Their Place and Space, 2008.

 “Going to the Mulid:  Street-smart Spirituality in Egypt.  In Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes:  An Anthropology of Everyday Religion.  Samuli Schielke, and Lisa Debevic.  New York and Oxford:  Bergahn Books, 2012.   

Schielke, Samuli.  Perils of Joy:  Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt.  Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2012.  

Sonbol, Sherif.  “Clinging to Tradition:  Celebrating the Prophet’s Birth the Old Way.” Ahram Online. January 4, 2015.  (on the manufacturing of Arousat al-Mulid).  

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 Moulid Masri Zaffa 

Moulid Masri Zaffa 



 Sherifa Zuhur

Sherifa Zuhur

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