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The Perils of Joy

Contesting Mulid Festivals in Contemporary Egypt

by Samuli Schielke

Publication Year: 2012

Mulids, festivals in honor of Muslim “friends of God,” have been part of Muslim religious and cultural life for close to a thousand years. While many Egyptians see mulids as an expression of joy and love for the Prophet Muhammad and his family, many others see them as opposed to Islam, an expression of a backward mentality, a piece of folklore at best. What is it about a mulid that makes it a threat to Islam and modernity in the eyes of some, and an expression of pious devotion in the eyes of others? What makes the celebration of a saint’s festival appear in such dramatically different contours? The Perils of Joy offers a rich investiga­tion, both historical and ethnographic, of conflicting and transforming attitudes towards festivals in contemporary Egypt. Schielke argues that mulids are characterized by a utopian momen­tum of the extraordinary that troubles the grand schemes of order and perfection that have become hegemonic in Egypt since the twentiethcen­tury. Not an opposition between state and civil society, nor a division between Islamists and secularists, but rather the competition between different perceptions of what makes up a complete life, forms the central line of conflict in the contestation of festive culture.

Published by: Syracuse University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, About the Author

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pp. 3-8


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pp. vii-10


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

This book presents the fruits of nearly fifteen years of research in and about the festive culture of mulids, festivals in honor of Muslim “friends of God”—or saints, a cruder translation. These years began in 1997, when I was spending half a year as a student in Cairo to learn colloquial Arabic, and friends took me to see the...

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pp. xiii-xiv

For this book, I owe so much to so many people that there is no way I can give all of them the credit they deserve. I thank Harri Juntunen and Essam Fawzi for initial inspiration and professor Stefan Wild, supervisor of my master’s thesis, for his support and assistance. I owe special thanks to my PhD supervisor Annelies Moors...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-18

In July 2009, Egypt’s Ministry of Health issued a ban on all mulids, Muslim and Christian saints’ festivals. The ban fi rst hit the annual festival of al-Sayyida Zaynab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.1 The festival was disbanded, and people who resisted the ban were arrested. The reason for the ban was the Mexican...

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2. At the Mulid

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pp. 19-52

Sometimes when I asked people what their town’s mulid looked like, they told me: “It looks just like a mulid!” On one occasion, I met a young man at a shooting stand during the mulid of al-Sayyida Nafisa in Cairo. He was having the time of his life and exclaimed: “The mulid is mulid!” (meaning approximately: “This mulid is really...

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3. Festive Experiences

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pp. 53-80

It has become commonplace to compare mulids with Catholic carnivals: colorful spectacles with entertainment, music, and processions in which the rules of everyday behavior are inverted.1 Although the analogy to carnival is compelling, it is far too simplistic to be taken as a research question. First, if we were to look for...

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4. Against Ambivalence

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pp. 81-110

Many Egyptians do in fact consider mulids subversive, but they definitely do not view this subversion in a positive light. For them, mulids are an ensemble of erroneous, backward, profane, and ridiculous beliefs that threaten the order of religion, society, and the nation. Some among them see mulids as altogether wrong and detestable. Many are sympathetic to the basic idea of venerating and celebrating...

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5. An “Other” of Modern Egypt

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pp. 111-135

The opposition to mulids is not just a response to the challenge they form to the worldview of modernism and Islamic reformism. Criticizing popular festivals as backward and un-Islamic is important for many Egyptians also because it helps them to define their own position within orthodox Islam and modern society. In the previous...

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6. A Cultural Icon

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pp. 135-151

Muhammad Fahmi ‘Abd al-Latif, author of Al-Sayyid al-Badaw and the Dervish State in Egypt (discussed in chapter 5) and a staunch critic of mulids, was also an admirer of Sufi music and a founding figure of Egyptian folklore studies. A furious attack on the cult of al-Sayyid al-Badawi, his book is also a rich ethnographic study...

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7. Legitimizing Celebration

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pp. 152-174

A great many people love mulids, or at least some parts of them, and argue for their point of view. The opposition to mulids and their exoticization as popular heritage are contested, most important, by a Sufi discourse in defense of mulids. This discourse is articulated by people who participate in mulids and defend their own...

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8. Transformations

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pp. 175-199

On 17 October 2002, the new Alexandria Library, a prestige project of the Egyptian government funded by UNESCO, was opened with a large celebration attended by numerous international dignitaries. By coincidence, the mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi was celebrated in Tanta the same night. While masses of people crowded...

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9. Conclusion

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pp. 200-208

At the end of January 2011, I was working on the final touches to this book. Then a revolution broke out in Egypt, I flew to Cairo on the first plane I could get, and on the first day of February I was on Tahrir Square witnessing one of the gigantic peaceful demonstrations that brought an end to the Mubarak era. There I ran into...

Glossary of Arabic Terms

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pp. 209-212


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pp. 213-240


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pp. 241-258


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pp. 259-269

Back Cover

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pp. 289-290

E-ISBN-13: 9780815651918
E-ISBN-10: 0815651910
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815633006
Print-ISBN-10: 0815633009

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 19 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2012