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 debate 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."
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 Ba-Dawood in a column in Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper.
Others, including several prominent Muslim scholars, issued statements backing the ban and denouncing al-Audah.
Sheik Abdullah al-Manie, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, said al-Audah'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 bringing in the items can be tricky for shop owners.
One store owner said it's hard to predict when shipments will be waved through and when they will be stopped. A month ago, an order of birthday balloons, hats and banners was confiscated, said the owner who did not want to be identified for fear of social repercussions.
Still, business was brisk at one gift store recently, where parties can cost from $4,000 to $32,000, depending on the decorations, giveaways and number of guests.
Customers can browse albums showing birthday wall decorations, table settings and cakes, and order party bags with coloring books, pens and school supplies.
One popular party game features a life-size papier-mache mannequin of a cartoon or storybook character, such as Cinderella — much like the pinatas popular at children's parties in the West. To get at the gift hidden inside, children take turns hitting it with a stick.
Buthaina Ba-Aqeel, 51, said she used to throw birthday parties at home for her children, but they were low-key and not on the same day the child was born — to avoid singling out one particular day during the year to celebrate.
But another Jiddah resident, Riham Ahmed, 20, said she doesn'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 Ahmed, agreed.
"I missed my 25th birthday by two days last month 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."