Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen is a professor of history at Sorbonne University, where she teaches early modern and modern Islam. She is the author or co-editor of several books on Sufism and Islam.
In 2019, the AUC Press published her book The Mulid of al-Sayyid al-Badawi of Tanta: Egypt’s Legendary Sufi Festival, translated from the French by Colin Clement.
Why is Tanta’s Mulid al-Sayyid al-Badawi so legendary?
It is a legendary mulid because it is the most important one in Egypt, and it was undoubtedly the first one to be established as well, first based on the Prophet’s mulid, at a lunar date, then following another rural, solar calendar.
Also, it has embodied the rural soul of Egypt since the fourteenth century, since it has been the object—more than any other mulid—of the attention of Egypt’s rulers, who, at various times throughout history, have done everything they can to develop it and turn it into an important trade fair.
It is also celebrated because it has long attracted pilgrims, traders, and travelers from all over the Muslim world, and even also from Europe.
You attended your first mulid there in 1987. Can you describe your first impressions?
I don’t think I understood anything at first! My emotions were very strong; there was an absolutely enormous crowd (although not to the same extent as nowadays), especially on the last night, because the mulid is a nighttime celebration.
There was tremendous excitement and exaltation in this crowd. I have wonderful memories of the noise, the joy, the crowds coming and going, and the music.
Who was Sayyid al-Badawi?
The historical character of al-Badawi is not well known because the book of Tabaqat by Ibn Mulaqqin, the oldest source that speaks of him, dates from the second half of the fourteenth century, at least seventy years after the death of the saint, and this first source is very brief—only three or four lines long.
It was in the fifteenth century, during the Mamluk era, that the al-Badawi legend flourished, offering a completely different portrait of him and gradually turning al-Badawi into a saint.
While he was undoubtedly a Bedouin from Syria, hence his name al-Badawi, he was now thought of as Moroccan, perhaps because of the large number of Maghrebi Sufis who came to Egypt and who passed through Tanta en route to the Hajj.
How has Tanta’s mulid evolved over time?
At Tanta’s mulid—I attended for the last time in 2016—there are indeed many more women, couples, and even young girls, because customs have changed a lot, and girls go out much more. Since there are fewer people, the crowd is also less dangerous.
Tanta lost its international dimension in 1914, then became a regional mulid, especially for the people of the Delta. Today it is an increasingly local mulid, although it is attended by Sufis from Cairo and Upper Egypt. But the pilgrims are, by and large, people from the Central Delta.
Is it difficult to attend Tanta Mulid as a foreigner?
Not at all! Although it is nicer to go to the mulid with Egyptian friends or to make new friends there. A mulid is an occasion for spiritual renewal and bodily celebration (the two are not dissociated in the universe of the mulid, unlike in the Salafist universe); it is also an occasion for a meeting, between the saint and his devotees, and among the people themselves.