RIYADH — In her 20 years, Reema Al Abdullatif has never had a birthday party.
"Neither Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, nor his Companions celebrated them, so I do the same," said Al Abdullatif, a computer science student at Riyadh's King Saud University. "Everything except Prophet Muhammed's deeds are fads to us ... [and] everyone who follows a fad is not a Muslim."
On her birthday, Al Abdullatif says she does "nothing at all. It's just a usual day, like every day. All my friends are like me. No one celebrates her birthday."
By contrast, 6-year-old Naser's birthday was marked with a noisy, fun-filled party attended by 35 of his friends, their mothers and nannies. There was a clown doing magic tricks, a popcorn stand, face painting, a "SpongeBob" cake and lots of presents. The paper tablecloth had pictures from "High School Musical," a Disney favorite of Naser.
"It used to be that people did not approve of birthdays, but it's becoming more and more acceptable," said Yasmin Al Twaijri, who attended Naser's party with her son, Abdullah. "They're realizing that it's ... just an opportunity for the children to have fun and enjoy themselves … [and] an opportunity for the parents to say 'Thank you, God, for giving us this blessing, our child.'"
An everyday affair in the West, birthday parties in Saudi Arabia offer a valuable insight into the religious views of this oil-rich kingdom's 22 million citizens. Officially, the Saudi religious establishment espouses one of the most ascetic, conservative versions of Islam, known as Wahhabism. But individuals differ in how they practice that faith.
Those differences recently became a matter of public debate after a popular cleric, Sheikh Salman Al Oudah, said Muslims could celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries as long as they did not refer to them as an "eid," an Arabic word that connotes a religious feast day.
"It is normal for a son or daughter to celebrate birthdays," said Al Oudah, who supervises the Web site islamtoday. "They can invite their friends for a meal on this occasion. I see nothing wrong in this."
The country's most senior religious official, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Alsheikh, responded quickly, reiterating the long-held official view that celebrating one's birthday is "against righteousness."
Al Alsheikh reminded Saudis they should only celebrate Islam's two religious holidays of Eid-al-Fitr, at the close of Ramadan, and Eid-al-Adha, which ends the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
The religious ban on birthday celebrations has a lot to do with preserving an Islamic identity in a world where cultures are ever faster melding into each other. Opponents offer two main arguments. First, as the student 20-year-old Al Albdullatif said, Muslims should not adopt "fads" or anything that the Prophet Muhammed did not condone.
Second, Muslims should not copy non-Muslims. Sheikh Abdullah Al Manie, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars headed by the mufti, said that "when we celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries, we are imitating other religions — something that our Prophet, peace be upon him, warned us against."
Al Manie urged Al Oudah, who is not among the government-appointed clerics, to "retract" his "slip of the tongue."
Other Middle Eastern countries are more relaxed about birthdays, and in Egypt, Prophet Muhammad's birthday is a festive national holiday.
But in Saudi, disagreement even runs through families, as Saudi blogger Eman F. Al Nafjan, who is in her 20s, noted. "Last December," she wrote, "I threw my son a big party for his 6th birthday, and all my in-laws boycotted it because they say it is Islamically prohibited."
Most birthday parties, offering juice and cakes with candles, are held in private homes, so they are off-limits to Saudi Arabia's religious police who enforce the country's strict moral code.
But public displays of birthdays are within their realm, which encourages reticence. "We're calling it a mother-and-child party," Naser's mother, Wafa Alrushaid, said when discussing his celebration.
And The Good Ship Lollipop party goods store in downtown Riyadh has no "birthday" merchandise on its shelves, which are stocked with such items as "Superman" paper plates and napkins, noisemakers, candles, pinatas, balloons, Hawaiian leis, Batman toys and life-size wall posters of Elvis.
Even the cake section avoids the “B" word. One sample with purple frosting reads, "Happy Sunnyday, Barney."
Hana Al Dawood, 28, who recently shopped at The Good Ship Lollipop for a birthday gift for her 8-year-old niece, Sarah, said: "My nieces and nephews would be devastated, and so would we, if someone forgets their birthdays."
Al Dawood, who works at a magazine, said she celebrated her own birthday because "it's a fun thing to do with my friends. I think it's quite backwards to think that they are religiously forbidden. I just think they are fun."