Aqeeqa: Drama in English & Kreol / Drama an Kreol E Angle

The author of AqeeqaAssad Bhuglah, is an economist and international trade specialist who served as a trade expert for the government of Mauritius from 1981-2016. In the social and cultural field, he produced several books on historical figures as well as fictional works. The play Aqeeqa is his first work with an explicit religious theme, and deals with the Islamic birth ritual consisting of naming, hair shaving and animal sacrifice.

Play in six scenes
Aqeeqa is a bilingual play - in six scenes - of some 30 pages, excluding the glossary, list of characters and other introductions. The protagonists are Mr. Shabaan (approximately 75 years old, terminally ill), his daughter Salma, staying in the same house, and son Sameer, living with his wife Zahira in Canada. Other characters are mainly functional: a domestic servant, an Imam, a midwife, a barber, a supplier of goats, a cook and a leader of a musical troupe. All scenes are taking place in the drawing room of Shabaan’s residence on Mauritius.
In the first scene he receives a videocall from Canada. Sameer’s wife Zahira is pregnant and is expecting to give birth to a baby boy. After several miscarriages this is an anxious time for the family. Mr. Shabaan immediately starts to invite neighbours and friends to prepare for the aqeeqa. Maria: “Aqeeqa, what’s that?” Salma: “It’s a family feast just like the baptism for a newborn child.” Maria: “Well! Aqeeqa! We call it communion in Kreol.” 
The Imam is consulted for advice for a good name and in between the Imam repeats the important ritual elements scheduled to take place before the aqeeqa: “First of all as soon as the baby is born, his dad or a close relative must say Azaan in his right ear and Iqamat in his left ear. Secondly on the 7th day you celebrate an Aqeeqa in honour of the baby as thanksgiving to Allah. It is also recommended to perform Tahnic, i.e. you take a drop of honey or date juice and rub it on the lips of the baby. That will give his mouth a desire to recite Quran.” (p. 18).

Since Zahira is not allowed to embark on the long flight to Mauritius the Imam gives his approval to celebrate the different elements of the aqeeqa in two different places: the hair shaving and naming will be performed in Canada, whereas the sacrifice of the two sheep will be carried out in Mauritius. Because the sequence of the three elements is important, [i] the nine hours’ time difference between the two localities is discussed. The Imam declares: “My big concern is that we complete the rituals of Zabah before maghrib prayer.” (p. 38). The final scene finds all the characters assembled, including the new-born baby and his parents on a video screen. The Imam asks the father if he has performed the call to prayer in the ears of the baby, the naming, circumcision and shaving. After he gets the confirmation, the Imam as well as Shabaan, the cook and the barber leave the room to kill the two animals outside. When the Imam re-enters he declares: “I have the pleasure to inform you that the 'Aqeeqa' of Muhammad Salman Zakiruddin Jalaluddin has been completed. Bhay Shabaan you may continue entertaining your guests.” (p. 39) The final page describes the guests starting to eat biryani and the musical group singing a qawwali.

The play illustrates at least three different characteristics of Muslim communities in Africa: they live in a (religiously) plural society, their rituals are increasingly influenced by an awareness of Arabic texts, and finally the ceremonies are more and more taking place beyond their own localities.

The play reflects the cultural, religious and linguistic diversity of Mauritius. For instance in Scene two:  “Each [guest], according to his / her tradition replies: Good day, Salaam, Namasté, congratulations” (p. 12). Later, Shabaan orders his domestic servant to “distribute the [food] vouchers among the poor sitting by the main gates of the Masjid, Church, Mandir and Pagoda.” (p. 33). In the Kreol edition of the book the aqeeqa is explained with a Christian idiom as “baptem” and “kominion”. The book comes with an extensive glossary of Arabic, Urdu, English and Kreol words, while the apparently well-known loan words from Bhojpuri are not even glossed.

The population in Mauritius is predominantly Hindu or Christian according to the 2011 census but Muslims form a sizeable minority of 17%. Praise for this work on the back cover comes from professor in biochemistry and chairman of the Islamic Cultural Trust Fund Anwar Hussein Subratty as well the minister of Arts & Cultural Heritage Avinash Teeluck, a Hindu. In his foreword the president of Mauritius Prithvirajsing Roopun (also a Hindu) mentions: “The book “Aqeeqa” […] adds value to the cultural richness of Mauritius. It promotes inter-cultural exchanges”. This is also how the author frames his work: a “drama based on Muslim folklore and traditions of Mauritius around the birth of a child. It evolves in the background of conviviality and “vivre ensemble” in the multicultural setup of Mauritius where people of all faiths and creeds join and share the joy and emotion of celebrating the birth of a child.” (p. 5).

In a few places there is a hint of potential friction or rather a sensitivity for someone’s religious feelings. When the guests start dancing a Mauritian sega, Salma shouts: “Hey everybody! Stop shaking your bodies! Imaam saheb is here […] we need to show him some respect”.

Islam and texts
The birth ritual is presented as “Muslim folklore” based on Arabic texts. In the subplot in scene 3 where a suitable name for the unborn is selected, a “book that contains a long list and glossary of Muslim names” (p. 21) plays a vital role. The author chose the Arabic word aqeeqa to denote the ceremony and prints it in bold throughout the English edition to highlight its foreign origin. This trend is visible in other Muslim societies as well. Whereas this particular life cycle ritual is easily adopted in the process of Islamization it is usually not known as aqeeqa, but referred to  with local names such as suna (Hausa), sbu’a (Morroccan Arabic), innde (Woodabe, Nigeria) Inderi (Mafa, Cameroon).[ii] During the last decades we see more and more awareness of the textually based, ‘true’ nature of the ritual. To my surprise we found in Kigali a recent Kinyarwanda translation of a 14th century Arabic text on the aqiqa: Impano y'umukundwa : y'amategeko ajyanye n'umwana wavutse (691-751 H) = Tuh'fat al maw'dud bi ah'kami al mawulud  (Kigali 2019). Rasanayagam’s analysis of the ritual from an Uzbeki point of reference makes sense here. He presents the “ aqiqa to’y [ as …] an enactment of a more actively self-conscious commitment to a textually informed interpretation of Islam”.[iii]

Diaspora and transnational relations
Throughout the play, there is a continuous consciousness of the world outside Mauritius. In all scenes the videocalls from Sameer from Canada, are an essential part of the discussion. The differences between societies and cultures influences the choice of a proper name. At one point Shabaan proposes the name Qalbudin but the imam convinces the audience that the Arabic letter ‘qaf’ will be pronounced as ‘kaf’ and then the word ‘heart’ will change into the word ‘dog’.  The expectant father decides: “For sure this name is not appropriate in the Canadian society where they wouldn’t pronounce it properly”. In our modern times, there’s no way we can choose a name like that.” (p. 20).

Also the discussion about the performance of the ritual in two different places is not particular to Mauritius. In many instances Muslim donors all over the world finance a aqeeqa in for example a rural area in Africa and there one or more animals are slaughtered while someone shows the camera the name of the child. As Salma explains in scene 4: “Yes dad, with video conference and WhatsApp everything is possible now!“ (p. 30).     

Gerard C. van de Bruinhorst

External links:

Launch of the book Aqeeqa:

Slaughtering of an animal during an aqeeqa

See also:

De invloed van pluralisme op naamgevingsrituelen bij de Dagomba Het ‘aqiqa-ritueel in Noord-Ghanese context / Gerard C. van de Bruinhorst

[i] Mohammed Hocine Benkheira, “Pour out the blood and remove the evil from him”: the creation of a ritual of birth (‘aqiqa) in Islam in the eighth century”  in: Reidar Aasgaard, Childhood in History, London: Routledge pp. 193-208.

[ii] Aubaile-Sallenave, F. (1999). Les rituels de naissance dans le monde musulman. Sacrifices en islam, 125-160.

[iii] Rasanayagam, Johan. Islam in post-Soviet Uzbekistan: The morality of experience. Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 176.