Top Saudi Cleric Says Birthday Cake is Devil’s Food

September 08, 2008 11:41 AM
by Anne Szustek
Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority issued a fatwa against the celebration of birthdays, saying they are not permitted in Islam. Other Muslims, including one cleric, disagree.

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Well-known Saudi cleric Salman al-Audah, speaking out against Saudi religious law, said last month on a satellite television program that celebrations of birthdays and wedding anniversaries are halal, or permissible, in Islam, just as long as the word for Islamic feasts, “eid,” is not used to refer to them.

“It is normal for a son or daughter to celebrate birthdays. They can invite their friends for a meal on this occasion. I see nothing wrong in this,” he was quoted as saying by Saudi paper Arab News.

But this statement was quickly shot down by top cleric Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Alsheikh, who argued that any celebration outside of the two major Muslim feasts is alien and emulates holidays of Jews and Christians, which he and other Saudi religious scholars say is forbidden by Islam. “Christians have Mother’s Day, an eid for trees, and an eid for every occasion,” Al-Alsheikh was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

Sheikh Abdullah Al-Manie, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, agreed, and encouraged al-Audah to take back his permissive comments. “When we celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, we are imitating other religions—something that our Prophet (peace be upon him) warned us against,” Al-Maine told Arab News.

The Saudi party-goods industry still pulls in business regardless. Stores offering decorations and party favors such as Cinderella-shaped piñatas are readily available. The Islamic fatwas leave some Saudis uneasy, however.

Saudi woman Hala Al-Massad told the AP she enjoys hosting birthday parties with cake and juice, “but I sometimes feel I’m doing something haram,” the Islamic term for “forbidden.”

Background: Sharia law, holiday celebrations in the Middle East

Sharia, which can be translated as “the way” in Arabic, is the Islamic legal system delineated in the Quran. It is applied to varying extents in Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, sharia is effectively the national constitution and covers all facets of daily life—from family affairs to banking—as well as celebration of holidays, some Saudi religious scholars argue.

In addition to birthdays, the Saudi Ministry of Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice put the kibosh on the sale of Valentine’s Day paraphernalia this February in Riyadh. Representatives of the group visited shops in the Saudi capital city to order the removal of any scarlet red items from the shelves, including roses. The color is thought to symbolize romantic love—thus promoting intermingling between unmarried members of the opposite sex. Kuwait threatened to impose its own ban on the holiday for similar reasons.

Despite the holiday’s roots as a Christian feast day, other Muslim-majority countries have embraced Valentine’s Day—namely its avenues for moneymaking. Much like they have been for the past decade, since the Western holiday’s popularity took off in Turkey, decorations have appeared in the windows of traditional tripe soup shops and pharmacies on Tünali-Arjantin, the main shopping drag in Turkish capital Ankara. Taking into account that drugstores in Turkey only sell medications, these are businesses that, to an American observer, may seem incongruous with the notion of romantic love. Turkish writer Nazlan Ertan concurs. “Is anyone likely to take his sweetheart for a tripe soup and then present her with a supradyn tablet for the rest of the evening?” she wrote in the Turkish Daily News.

Egypt has also taken up Valentine’s Day
. A poster on TravelBlog detailing her visit to Cairo noted that her hotel restaurant gave all female patrons red roses on the holiday and served “love-themed dishes.”

Not all in the region are taking part in the annual cupid fest, however. Arabian Business cited a February 2008 Maktoob Research poll taken of 3,195 people either married or in a serious relationship from 11 Arab countries. Some 46 percent of survey participants responded that celebrating Valentine’s Day would run counter to their religious beliefs and 58 percent thought the holiday was only meant for the Western world. The religious beliefs of the respondents were not mentioned in the Arabian Business article.

Even celebration of important dates in Islam has become a subject of debate as to whether or not they contravene the teachings of the religion. Mawlid, the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, is treated as a feast day by most Muslims. In Pakistan, for example, Mawlid is feted with candy, a 21-gun salute in provincial capitals, and temporary remission of some prison sentences.
Tunisians celebrate the day by preparing asida, a traditional flour-based porridge for which some families splurge and buy Turkish pine nuts.

Nevertheless, in Saudi Arabia the holiday is as frowned upon as secular birthdays. Saudi religious scholars broadcast fatwas on Arabic-language satellite television decrying Mawlid festivities. On Qatar-based channel Al-Jazeera, Egyptian Islamic scholar Youssef al-Qaradawi said the holiday is “an act of jahiliya [pre-Islamic ignorance],” Muslim Media Network cites.

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