When Hala Masaad invited her girlfriends over to celebrate her 18th birthday with cake and juice, the high school student was stepping into an unusual public debate. Is celebrating birthdays un-Islamic?
Saudi Arabia’s most senior Muslim cleric recently denounced birthday parties as an unwanted foreign influence, but another prominent cleric declared they were OK.
That has left Masaad with mixed feelings about her low-key celebration last month. She loves birthday parties, she says, because they make her feel that she has “moved from one stage of life to another.”
“But I sometimes feel I’m doing something haram,” she said sheepishly, using the Arabic word for “banned.”
The Saudi ban on birthdays is in line with the strict interpretation of Islam followed by the conservative Wahhabi sect adhered to in the kingdom. All Christian and even most Muslim feasts are also prohibited because they are considered alien customs the Saudi clerics don’t sanction.
Only the Muslim feasts of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, which follows the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, are permitted.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, including in Egypt, Dubai, Lebanon and Iran, people routinely celebrate birthdays, especially for children. Among middle-class and affluent families, parties can be elaborate, with cakes, toys, clowns, ponies and many presents. In Egypt, the prophet Muhammad’s birthday is celebrated by handing out special sweets -- in the shape of a doll for girls and a horse for boys.
Even in Saudi Arabia, it’s not hard to find Saudis who celebrate birthdays or stores that cater to putting on parties, despite the ban.
What makes the latest controversy notable is that it started when a prominent cleric, Salman Awdah, said on a popular satellite TV program in August that it was OK to mark birthdays and wedding anniversaries with parties as long as the Arabic word that describes the events -- eid, or “feast” -- is not used.
That prompted a quick denunciation by Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti and top religious authority, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al Sheik, who said such celebrations had no place in Islam and gave a list of foreign customs he suggested were unacceptable.
“Christians have Mother’s Day, an eid for trees and an eid for every occasion,” said Al Sheik, who also heads the Presidency for Scientific Research and Religious Edicts, speaking to Al Madina newspaper. “And on every birthday, candles are lit and food is given out.”
There is no question that the television remarks by Awdah, who is not employed by the country’s religious establishment, contradicted several fatwas, or religious edicts, issued by senior Saudi clerics over the years.
One such ruling, by the previous mufti, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Baz, said Muslims should not emulate the West by celebrating birthdays -- even that of Muhammad, which is marked in most other Middle Eastern countries as a holiday.
“It’s not permissible to take part in them,” he said. “Birthday parties are an innovation . . . and people are in no need of innovations.”
Still, some Saudis welcomed a loosening of the prohibition.
“Allowing such celebrations can be an element that can strengthen ties among people and contribute to an increase in the happy occasions in our society,” wrote Ibrahim Dawood in a column in the newspaper Al Eqtisadiah.
Others, including several prominent Muslim scholars, issued statements backing the ban and denouncing Awdah.
Sheik Abdullah Manie, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said Awdah’s remarks were a “slip of the tongue that he should retract.”
“We Muslims should have our identity that sets us apart and makes us proud,” he said in a statement.
Some Saudis worry the controversy will be used by conservative members of the religious establishment, including the religious police, as a green light to crack down on all celebrations.
Despite the continuous fatwas against them, it’s not hard to find merchandise for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or even Western holidays like Valentine’s Day. But importing the items can be tricky for shop owners.
One store owner said it’s hard to say when shipments will be intercepted. A month ago, an order of balloons, hats and banners was confiscated, said the owner, who did not want to be identified.
Still, business was brisk at one gift store recently, where parties might cost from $4,000 to $32,000, depending on the decorations, giveaways and number of guests.
Customers can browse albums of wall decorations, table settings and cakes, and order party bags with coloring books and school supplies.
But one Jidda resident, Riham Ahmed, 20, said she didn’t like birthdays. “It’s enough to have two eids,” said the economics major. “My birthday is a normal day. Even my parents don’t congratulate me.”
Her sister Arwa agreed.
“I missed my 25th birthday by two days [in August] and only remembered it when I checked the calendar for prayer times,” she said. “I don’t like it when someone tells me, ‘Happy birthday.’ It’s like a reminder that I’m getting closer to death.”