Sufism: For the Love of God

January 01, 2012 By Sankalita Shome
Regarded as the soft and moderate face of Islam by the West, Sufism talks to the heart, rather than the head and believes in content rather than context. Sufism has played a major influencing role in the social, cultural and spiritual life of the Egyptian society. Over the years, it has enjoyed a chequered history in Egypt, from being heavily patronized during the Mamluk period, to being completely sidelined as Egypt went about building a modern state, post 1952. Over the last decade and more, the Sufi groups had aligned themselves with the regime and now in the post-revolution era, they are in the process of trying to emerge as a political force

Defining the word Sufi

The question of are you a Sufi should be easy enough to answer; yet our query is met with much evasion and elaboration. The confusion also extends into defining the term “Sufi.”  According to some, the word is derived from “safa,” which means purity. According to another view, it is derived from the Arabic verb “safwa,” which means “the selected ones” - a meaning quoted frequently in Sufi literature. Valerie Hoffman, professor of Religion at the University of Illinois, says that, “the name Sufi (which is derived from “suf” or wool) began to be used in Syria and Iraq. It emerged in the late 7th century, when Muslim ascetics began to wear patched woolen cloaks as a badge of poverty, in probable imitation of the practice of Christian ascetics.” The problem with understanding Sufism, thus begins by the diversity of possible derivations of the word itself. Then, there is also the fact that the Sufis are reticent to talk about themselves.

Huda Lutfi, a historian and artist, explains this reluctance; “People are awkward talking about Sufism because it is a very personal thing.”

Kathy (pseudo name) is a Sufi of the Naqshabandhi order and has some more light to throw on this issue, as she says, “It would be bad manners to say that I am a Sufi; it is like saying that I am more pious than you. So, a real Sufi would actually not say it!”

Rise of Sufism

The history of the rise of Sufism shows that it existed from the time of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). “Sufism began as a movement of great piety and extreme asceticism, and Sufis would say that it existed in the time of the Prophet in the devotion and poverty of the “People of the Bench.” Sufism gained impetus as a reaction against the wealth and worldliness that grew among Muslims as a result of the conquests, especially the conquest of Iraq during the reigns of Umar (634-644) and Uthman (644-656),” explains Hoffman.

Sufism came to Egypt as early as the 8th century through the well-known Sufi Dhu ‘l-Nun al-Misri, who is said to have developed the idea of mystical knowledge, contrary to the popular perception that Sufism came to Egypt during the Mamluk period. “Sufism acquired an organizational dimension with the development of the Sufi orders (sometimes called brotherhoods) in the 11th century. The major Sufi orders developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, which is perhaps why people associate Sufism in Egypt with the Mamluk era,” clarifies Hoffman, who has spent two years studying Sufism in Egypt. “Sufism became a mass, popular movement in Egypt under the Ayyubids, and continued to grow in importance under the Mamluks.”

In fact, Sufism was so important in the Mamluk period that it was commonplace for the Sultans to belong to a Sufi order. Other eminent people of the court also patronized them through granting them lands and financing the construction of buildings. The period saw the construction of a number of khanqas, a type of a monastery, where the Sufis could retire to practice their faith.  

Every Sufi order has the Sheikh tariqa as the head.  The second in hierarchy is the Khalifa or successor, who is usually nominated by the sheikh during his lifetime. Next in hierarchy after the Sheikh and the Khalifa comes the Naqeeb. Initiation into a Sufi order comes through taking the oath of the tariqa, administered by the Naqeeb. Membership of the Sufi orders or tariqas is fluid, and a mureed (follower) has the freedom to change from one order to another.

Describing his personal quest, Omar Sayed El Ahl, a Sufi belonging to the Naqshabandhi order says that he came into the Naqshabandhi, after having practiced many other tariqas like the Shadhiliya and the Qadriya until he finally found peace with the Naqshabandhi. “This is the good thing about Sufism. The Sufis believe that you may come from a number of different places and from any direction but you are all going towards the same truth, towards El Haqiqa. There are as many paths to god as there are breaths,” affirms Kathy. “Also, the path can change with each breath.”
Sufi Rituals

The core of the Sufi ritual is the zikr. “A zikr involves a number of senses; it first starts with only the mouth intoning the name of Allah, then with the heart and finally with the whole body,” explains El Ahl.

Within Sufism, there are different approaches - some like dancing and music, some like movements such as zikr and some only chant the Quran. Every founder of a Sufi tariqa creates the rituals of prayer and worship that are practiced by the followers.

Sufism, undoubtedly has its appeals. Hoffman has authored a book on modern Sufism, wherein she has enumerated a number of reasons for Sufism’s popularity. She shares some of them with Community Times and says, “The practice of communal Sufi zikr, which often includes bodily movements and music, is undeniably emotionally and spiritually uplifting. It is also an important social activity for many people; in Upper Egypt and among Saedi immigrants in Cairo, people may hold a zikr as entertainment at a wedding, instead of having a belly dancer,” elaborates Hoffman. She further says that Sufism appeals to the people due to the sense of family relationships that exists among the members of a Sufi order. Also Sufism’s emphasis on love and high morality makes it attractive. “Sufis are very accepting of other people, in sharp contrast to the tendency towards mutual criticism found in Salafi groups.”
Egyptian Influence on Sufi Culture

What is interesting to note is how popular Sufism has been influenced by elements from the Egyptian culture. Moulid is originally an Ancient Egyptian tradition that was adopted by the Sufis.  The Sufi orders celebrate the birthday of the saint, (usually the birthday is the death day) because for the Sufi the afterlife is more important when the spirit is released from the body.

“Egyptians celebrate the birth of their Sufi saints as moulids (birth), which can last from one day to one week depending on the stature of the Sufi whose birth is being celebrated,” explains Professor Ahmed Alkadi, who heads the Department of Urdu at El Azhar University in Cairo. “It is more of a social occasion marked by entertainment rather than religious rituals.”

Alkadi points out that a moulid is not confined to Muslims alone and people from different religious communities participate in it. There are many similarities between a Sufi moulid and a Christian moulid. “What we are seeing is that the Sufi popular culture has a long historical tradition of being influenced by the Christian moulid culture because it is all saint culture. The Sufi order may have started in some other country but once it comes to Egypt, it is transformed by the local context where it exists,” explains Lutfi.

Sufism in the Dock

There are five main Sufi orders in Egypt - Shazli, Rifai, Khalwati, Ahmedia and Burhamia. These are further divided into a total of 75 to 80 sects. According to Alkadi, there are around 15 million followers of Sufism in Egypt and they belong to all segments of society and all branches of the government, including the judiciary, the police and the military. Describing the penetration of Sufism in Egypt, Hoffman says, “One can say with some certainty that Sufism is pervasive in rural areas and among the uneducated, but it is also very important in urban areas, and there are many more educated and middle or upper class people affiliated with the Sufi orders than is generally supposed.”

Despite its appeal and popularity, Sufism and its followers have occasionally been targeted as not being ‘legitimate’ or at times even described as “non-Islamic.” In fact, the very act of celebrating moulids of the famous Sufi saints meets with a lot of flak for allowing dancing, music and chanting and not being in line with Islam. Questions are always raised as to how compatible is Sufism to Sunni Islam.

Mark Sedgwick, a historian, who works on Modern Islam and has authored the book, “Sufism: The Essentials,” first published in 2000, tells Community Times, “A charge that is often leveled by the detractors of Sufism is that the Sufi practices are “bida’a”, (innovations) because they cannot be supported by the hadith - reports of the words and actions of the Prophet (PBUH).” To which El Ahl has a simple answer, “The Sufis believe in content, not context.”

Corroborating El Ahl, Hoffman insists that “Most Sufi leaders are very seriously observant of the Shari’a; if anything, Sufism is characterized by an intense attention to religious obligations. It is true that there have been individual Sufis and Sufi movements that have felt that their intimacy with God transcended observance of religious obligations, but such movements have not been popular in Egypt.”
Sufism is often regarded as the spiritual and the mystical aspect of Islam. But, does this fact alone make it different, and is not spirituality a part of every religion? Lutfi agrees that the spiritual aspect is present in every religious tradition, and in fact it is more difficult to achieve because it does not depend upon a rule of law.

Aisha Rafea, a Sufi practitioner and writer, whose father founded the Islamic Spiritual Society in the early 1950s, also asserts that Sufism takes its principles from the Quran and that is what inspires their teachings. In fact, the tenets of Sufism are more in accordance with what Quran says as it “focuses more on changing oneself, and on moral and ethical behavior.”

Sedgwick says that there are many Sufis who feel that their critics are taking a very narrow view of things, when they say that Sufism is incompatible with Islam. “It also depends on which practices you are talking about. There are some practices amongst the uneducated that they think are Sufi, and which better educated Sufis would say are not.”

The Sufi culture does involve superstitious beliefs, which are frowned upon by the educated, and there have been instances where fraudulent religious teachers have taken money from people to solve or heal their problems. The followers blindly trust the sheikhs and seek their intervention in every aspect of their lives. Rafea says that this particular aspect of the popular Sufi culture is something that is not appreciable. As the founder of the Islamic Spiritual Society, which practiced the Sufi zikr together with meditation, Rafea’s father differed from the traditional Sufi sheikhs in the sense that he did not interfere in the personal lives of the followers and encouraged the members to be responsible for their own actions.

Lutfi explains the perspective that she gained while teaching Sufism at the American University in Cairo, “There are many misconceptions about the teachings of Sufism due to the fact that they are a closed group and a person has to be initiated into a Sufi order. A lot of things that many Salafis think Sufis do and believe, for example, are not actually what Sufis do and believe.”

Many Sufi saints are buried in Egypt, including one of the most famous of all Sufis, Abu El Hasan El Shadhili, who was a Moroccan and spent most of his life in Egypt, and his successors organized the Shadhiliya order. People visit the tombs of such saints to seek their blessings. Veneration of shrines is something that is also regarded as non-Islamic. Yet, Hoffman points out, “Many people attest to miraculous experiences through visits to the tombs of the saints. Some of the saints specialize in particular problems, e.g. Sayida Zeinab is known for healing eye diseases, and Abu Su’ud caters to women’s problems. These powerful personal experiences, which are related enthusiastically to family and friends, enable Sufism to withstand any amount of outside criticism.”

Sufism and the State

As the society moved towards a modern state, the state patronage of Sufism and its practices started diminishing. “On one side, the modernist reformers targeted Sufism because it didn’t seem modern or rational to them. On the other side, Muhammad Ibn Abd El Wahab and his followers, in what later became Saudi Arabia, were strongly anti-Sufi and still are, and as their influence spread, so did hostility towards Sufism,” explains Sedgwick.

“In the time of Nasser, he wanted to build a modern state and therefore, Sufism was sidelined, because he felt that it was important to get rid of the superstitious beliefs,” says Lutfi.
After the Sadat period, there has been more openness to the Sufis, again inspired in part by the fact that the intention was to counter the stricter form of Islam and it was a way of fending off the politicized Muslim groups. So, there was more encouragement and openness for Sufis to celebrate their culture.

The Sufi orders in Egypt have a syndicate.  Hitherto, the chairman of the syndicate was appointed by the President of Egypt, reflecting the patronage of the previous regime.  The government supervised the running of the Sufi shrines through the Waqf Ministry.

Lutfi has an interesting point to make when she says that a lot depends on what the state adopts as its official ideology. “It depends who is in power and how they define Islam.” Over the years, the Sufi groups in Egypt have been largely apolitical, with their spheres of influence confined to the spiritual, social and cultural. At times, their huge social reach and popularity has also been a cause for concern, resulting in restrictions being imposed on the celebration of the moulids.  

Explaining this flip-flop move of the state, Lutfi says, “In all periods of history, this is one of the reasons for the modern state being threatened by any cultural movement. Their main popular celebrations take place in the public space; thousands of people attend, there is always going to be a threat to maintaining order in public spaces. As a historian, I have always seen, especially in moments of weakness as to how the state will not want to give the access of public spaces to thousands of people, [they are] always worried that it may turn into something else.”

Sufism Under Attack

Increasingly, Sufism is being targeted as not being a legitimate Islamic practice. In the aftermath of the 25 January revolution, a number of shrines belonging to the Sufis have been vandalized by the Salafis, demonstrating the intolerance of extremist Salafism.

“Today’s Salafis are really the theological descendants of Muhammad Ibn Abd El Wahab, and much that is taught in schools reflects the emphasis of the modernists, so Sufis are still targeted from both sides. As the Salafis grow more important and vocal, so does the targeting of Sufis. And that makes the future uncertain for them,” says Sedgwick.

However, Hoffman feels that these attacks cannot destroy Sufism, as it is the heart of popular Islam in Egypt. She is encouraged by the fact that the attacks on the Sufi shrines have provoked vociferous responses from Ahmed El Tayeb (Imam of El Azhar) and Dr. Ali Gomaa (the Grand Mufti), both of whom are Sufis, according to Hoffman. “It is noteworthy that some Sufis armed themselves and vowed to personally protect the shrines.”

Sufism: A Viable Political Force?

The Sufis, in response to these attacks, are taking tentative steps towards organizing themselves politically. For people who have always been accused of being politically apathetic, it must not be something that comes naturally to them. Do they really have it in them to become a political bloc to reckon with?

 “I don’t know how they will begin to change now, because it seems that every hidden group is coming out and trying to participate in politics,” Lutfi tells Community Times.  The ‘hidden groups’ that she is referring to are parties like the Salafis, who were persecuted under the Mubarak regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political activities were greatly curtailed. She further feels that, at the moment, the move by some of the Sufi leadership to align themselves, with the more liberal, open-minded political leadership is very logical, “Because they [Sufis] are very open; their Islam is more universal in the sense it opens itself to people who are more spiritually inclined.”

Alkadi points to the fact that the Sufis do have the support of secular and moderate elements including El Azhar. “If the Sufis get the support of liberal and secular parties, they can be a force against the fundamentalist forces. ”

Kathy, however sounds a word of caution regarding the political ambitions of the Sufis. “I am not so sure if we should get involved in politics. We are kind of background people, jumping to the head of the parade is an ego game.”

Summing up the situation, Sedgwick says, “I think what will happen to them depends on what sort of a place post-Mubarak Egypt turns into. If Egypt becomes more pluralistic, there will be space for Salafis and Sufis and everyone else.”