SOAS University of London

“Fairgrounds of the Faithful: Moulids-the Sufi Festivals of Egypt

Sufi Munshid, or singer of religious songs, at Sufi festival, Fanta, Egypt

Date: 12 October 2017Time: 10:30 AM

Finishes: 16 December 2017Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: Exhibition Rooms

Type of Event: Exhibition

From Morocco to Indonesia there are hundreds of thousands of Sufis. One of their most vibrant expressions can be found in the Egyptian Sufi/Dervish festivals called ‘Moulids’ which celebrate the birth of Islamic saints who founded a particular Sufi order. (‘Moulid’ means to give birth in Arabic). 

Everywhere in ‘Moulids’ there is spiritual activity accompanied by a cacophony of sounds, smells and colours. For days the normal activities of the mundane world virtually cease to exist, instead devotees bow down in submission to and celebration of the Divine. 

One of the most important activities in the ‘Moulid’ is the ‘Zikr’. Here sometimes devotees line up, in front of musicians and rhythmically sway back and forth, whilst chanting the name of God. The hypnotic music and often hyperventilated breathing induce a state of trance in which the dervish claims to find union with God. 

Tim Coleman first started photographing these celebrations in 1990 when he went to the ‘Moulid’ of Sayed el Badawi, in Tanta, the largest ‘Moulid’ in the world. He later made the documentary film – ‘Beyond the Pyramids Lie Fairgrounds of the Faithful’ - one of the few full-length documentaries on the subject and is included in the exhibition. 

Although the future of the ‘Moulids’ is probably safe for the time being, some of the practices documented in this exhibition are now banned and since the 1990s there has been a significant reduction in the size of these festivals. The Egyptian government walks a fine line between, on the one hand granting concessions to the religious orthodoxy, which would like to ban ‘Moulids’, while on the other allowing them to continue knowing they bring a huge spiritual and emotional release to large sections of the population. 

This exhibition by the renowned multi award winning photographer and documentary filmmaker, Tim Coleman is the culmination of nearly three decades of documenting these remarkable festivals. Its purpose is to give the viewer access to a world most have never seen, and more importantly a world whose future may be under threat. 

“Loving, tolerant and peaceful. Not words usually used by the western media to describe Islam. But these values lie at the heart of Sufism: the mystics of the Islamic world. Clearly, with its principle message of love, Sufism is now needed more than ever.” 
Tim Coleman