RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When Hala al-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 al-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 concludes 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, 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 al-Audah, said on a popular satellite TV program last month that it was OK to mark birthdays and wedding anniversaries with parties as long as the Arabic word that describes the events “” “eid,” meaning feast “” is not used.
That prompted a quick denunciation by Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti and top religious authority, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al Sheik, who said such celebrations have 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 al-Audah, 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 the Prophet Muhammed, 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.”…
*The Ayatollah Khomeini said that.