Unhappy Birthday

As someone born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I am quite familiar with the kind and amount of hostility Wahhabi teachings hold against the display of joy in most aspects of daily life because they view such display in contradiction with the piety and solemnity that is required in a Muslim. This can be explained by their obsession over superficialities and their disregard of all things mortal. The hostility is clearly seen in their attitude towards celebrating occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc.

So when I heard Sheikh Salman al-Awdah speaking on his TV show last week on the permissibility of such celebrations I was sure that he would get a lot a of heat for that statement. Al-Awdah, a former poster boy of Sahwa, has been increasingly distancing himself from the official religious establishment of the country, promoting more tolerant fatwas and opinions that obviously deviates from orthodox Wahhabism. His new approach gained him some popularity with the public, but not much from the old guard who seemed to ignore him.

This time, however, they think that he has gone too far. The matter of birthdays and anniversaries, silly and insignificant as it may sound, was just too much for them that the Grand Mufti himself came out saying “such a call is against righteousness.” Other scholars such as Sheikh Abdullah Al-Manie said al-Awdah made a mistake and urged him to retract what he had said.

The Wahhabis’ rationale (if you can call it that) for their contempt of celebrating birthdays and anniversaries is because they consider it to be in imitation of non-Muslim practices, but they don’t go out of their way to explain what is exactly so un-Islamic about it. The lame excuse of imitating others is xenophobic, but that is of course not surprising because xenophobia is very characteristic of Wahhabism.

Although the official religious establishment here is disturbingly zealous when it come to such trivial matters, they don’t mind twisting and zigzagging for political gain. For instance, until recently, marking the national day which falls on the 23rd of this month, was a big no-no. Then, and for reasons that I leave to your imagination, they said it is ok to dignify the day provided you won’t call it “Eid.” It seems to me like a mere technicality, but what do I know?

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