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Searching for the pathWhen Imam Junayd of Baghdad was asked "When did the name Sufi originate?" he said: "Sufism was a reality without a name; in our time, it is a name without a reality." In a four-part series marking the month of Ramadan, Fayza Hassan searches for remains of the controversial religious orders that have flourished throughout the Muslim world
DEFINITIONS OF SUFISM: The term Sufism originates, according to writer and philosopher Sheikh Fadhlalla Haeri (The Elements of Sufism, Element Inc,. 1993) from three Arabic letters, sa, wa and fa. The word may be derived from safa, which means purity, or from the noun safwa, which means those who are selected; some believe, writes Haeri, that the name may be derived from the word saf, referring to those who stand in a row, while others propose suffa for its origin, the suffa being "the low verandah made of clay and slightly elevated off the ground outside the house of the Prophet Mohamed in Medina, where the poor and goodhearted people who followed him often sat." Finally, there are those who assume that the word Sufi comes from suf, wool, and implies that the people who were interested in inner knowledge cared less about their outer appearance and often took to wearing a simple garment made of wool all year round.
Whatever its origins, the term Sufism has come to designate those who seek a way toward inner awakening and enlightenment. The term was not current at the time of the prophet, but came to be used only two centuries after his death.
EARLY DEVELOPMENT: According to historians, the Sufis began to appear in Egypt in the ninth century; Al-Kindi (d. 10th century) refers to the appearance of a small community in Alexandria whose members, calling themselves Sufis, "enjoined good and spoke against evil;" in his Muruj Al-Dhahab Al-Mas'udi places the first appearance of Sufis during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'mun (r. 813-833).
Within 70 years of the prophet's death, most of the basic tenets of Islam were being ignored, giving way to cultural and ethnic habits that were falsely attributed to his teachings. In fact, they were inspired by the Umayyads, who were intent on creating a dynasty, an ambition strictly forbidden by the prophet. They were eventually followed by the Abbasids, who were as impervious to true Islam as their predecessors. Confronted with blatant political and social contradictions, some Muslims started devoting their lives to prayer and the discipline of inner purification. These Muslims, unable to turn their energy against regimes they perceived as evil, turned it against the evil within themselves. They formed groups and tended to gravitate towards spiritual leaders who either descended from the prophet and appeared knowledgeable in the true doctrine, or showed outward signs of sanctity and were chosen as heads of a religious order. The movement seems to have exercised a strong appeal in Egypt, especially in rural areas, where people distant from the seat of power and the orthodox canon taught at Al-Azhar derived social and religious strength from membership in an established order.
Whether Sufism first appeared as a purified form of religious performance is not clear. In Egypt, it became equated with the veneration of Muslim -- and Christian -- saints and included numerous practices left over from a pre-Islamic past and thus frowned upon by orthodoxy. Sir Gardner Wilkinson, quoting Herodotus as having said that "the Egyptians could not live without a King," added that this observation "might find a parallel in the impossibility of their living without a pantheon of gods." Much more than a religious mentor, however, the sheikh's main function is to represent the saint venerated by a group of followers, and having been blessed by him (usually through a ru'ya or vision), to act in his stead, performing miracles and bestowing baraka (good fortune) on his behalf.
Occasionally, the high and mighty would attach themselves to a tariqa (way, Sufi order by extension) and become its benefactors, but by and large the most ardent Sufis came from the lower ranks of Egyptian society, especially the countryside. "In Egypt," comments researcher Rachida Chih, author of Le soufisme au quotidien (Everyday Sufism, Sindbad, Actes Sud 2000), "Sufism is first and foremost the attachment to a particular saint who is considered the conduit of men's prayers towards the Almighty, a more palpable way to reach God. The saint's representative on earth is the sheikh al-tariqa, whose main attribute is that he can perform miracles; he is also the holder of baraka, inherited from the saint, which he can bestow on his worthy followers. The baraka can be gained from the saint himself, by visiting his tomb, or at the time of the moulid (birthday celebration) when the sheikh is present among his people. Touching him or, better, kissing his hand is another way of obtaining baraka. Conventional Islam does not recognise the veneration of saints, the belief in their miracles or the celebration of their birthdays and is certainly against the concept of baraka. This is why today, although Sufi movements are thriving, they remain very much at the periphery of mainstream religious practices."
Ecstasy and entertainment remain perhaps the most pervasive images of the complex and multi-faceted aspects of Sufism
photos: Sherif Sonbol
INITIATION RITES: "It is impossible to become acquainted with all the tenets, rules, and ceremonies of the darweeshes, as many of them... are not to be divulged to the uninitiated," writes E W Lane in his Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. This did not prevent him from revealing to his readership -- thanks to an acquaintance who had been initiated himself -- how the ahd (initiation into a Sufi order) was conducted. The ceremony was described to him thus: "Having first performed the ablutions preparatory to prayer... [the novice] seated himself upon the ground before the sheykh who was seated in like manner. The sheykh and he (the mureed or candidate) then clasped their right hands together in the manner which I have described as practiced in making the marriage contract. In this attitude and with their hands covered by the sleeves of the sheykh, the candidate took the covenant, repeating after the sheykh the following words, commencing with the form of a common oath of repentance: 'I beg forgiveness of God the Great' (three times); 'than whom there is no other deity; the Living, the Everlasting. I turn to him with repentance, and beg his grace and forgiveness, and exemption from the fire.' The sheykh then said to him: 'Dost thou turn to God with repentance?' He replied: 'I do turn to God with repentance; and I return unto God; and I am grieved for what I have done [amiss], and I determine not to relapse' and then repeated after the sheykh 'I beg the favour of God, the Great, and the noble Prophet; and I take as my sheykh, and my guide unto God (whose name be exalted) my master [the full names of the saint patron of the order]; not to change nor to separate; and God is our witness. By God the Great!' (this oath was repeated three times). 'There is no deity but God' (this also was repeated three times) The sheykh and the mureed then recited the Fat'ha together, and the latter concluded the ceremony by kissing the sheykh's hand."
ZIKR: The religious exercises of most Sufi orders chiefly consist in the performance of zikr. Standing in a ring or in two rows facing each other, they repeat invocations accompanied by rhythmic movements of the arms, torso or head over and over until their strength is exhausted. "From long habit they are able to continue these exercises for a surprising length of time without intermission," commented Lane. "They are often accompanied at intervals by one or more players upon a kind of flute called a nay or a double reed pipe called arghool and by persons singing religious odes; and some darweeshes use a little drum called baz or a tambourine, during their zikr. Some also perform a peculiar dance," he added.
SOCIAL STATUS: Lane also noted that "[a]lmost all the darweeshes of Egypt are tradesmen or artisans or agriculturists and only occasionally assist in the rites and ceremonies of their particular order." Others, however, made a livelihood in the small cottage industries based on the moulid, from food preparation to supplying the visitors with water. Only a minority led a wandering life, subsisting on alms, "which they often demand with great importunacy and effrontery."
EGYPTIAN ORDERS: Valerie Hoffman (Sufism, Mystics and Saints in Modern Egypt, University of South Carolina Press, 1995) traces the proliferation of Sufi orders in 20th-century Egypt: "There were sixty Orders registered with the Sufi Council in 1958, and sixty-four in 1964. In April 1989 there were seventy-three recognized Orders." She cautions, however, that "the proliferation of Orders may not mean that more people are drawn into Sufism, but that an Order has split in two, as two rival teachers have emerged. These figures should not be taken at face value, however, since Sufi adepts form loose ties with their own as well as other tariqas. The dynamics that govern their formation, merger and disbandment are therefore constantly changing."
The Sufi orders in Egypt, according to Hoffman, are thought to be derived from four qutbs, or great Sufi saints of the 12th and 13th centuries: Abdel-Qadir Al-Jilani of Iraq (d. 1166), founder of the Qadiriya; Ahmed Al-Rifa'i of Iraq (d. 1178), founder of the Rifa'iya; Ahmed El-Badawi (d. 1276), originally from Morocco but buried in the Egyptian Delta, founder of the Ahmadiya; and Ibrahim El-Dessouqi of Egypt (d. 1297), founder of the Burhamiya. "Of equal importance for Egyptian Sufism," she estimates, is Abul-Hassan Al-Shadhli of Morocco, who died in Egypt in 1258 and was the founder of the Shadhiliya. In addition, one should take into account a plethora of lesser saints who, though obscure in their origins and deeds, can nevertheless command a significant following.
GOVERNMENT CONTROL: "Government sponsorship of the Sufi Orders goes back to the time of Saladin, who founded a Sufi retreat centre called Said Al-Saada and gave its sheikh preeminence over other sheikhs, with the title sheikh al-shuyukh, head of the Sufi Orders," writes Hoffman. "This position remained in [the sheikh's] family until 1946, when Ahmed Murad El-Bakri died and the position was taken over by Ahmed El-Sawi [El-Imrani]." After 1982, the head of the Sufi orders was Abul-Wafa' El-Ghunaymi El-Taftazani, dean and professor of philosophy at Cairo University. At present, the post is occupied by Hassan El-Shennawi, professor of religious philosophy at Al-Azhar. The function of the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders is to oversee the organised Sufis' affairs and ensure the propriety of the doctrine and practice they disseminate.
SUFIS IN POLITICS: Although Sufi orders declare an exclusive interest in the improvement of the self, they have a long history of involvement in Egypt's political affairs. According to F De Jong, throughout the 20th century, the Sufi orders, threatened by the loss of their economic power (with the reduction of income from religious endowments) and by the development of reformist movements, were forced to collaborate more and more closely with the state. With the creation of political parties, concurs Chih, and until the Revolution of 1952, the Sufi orders sought alliances with various poles of power: the parties, the palace or the British occupation forces. These in turn actively wooed religious figures from Al-Azhar and the prominent Sufi orders, to their own ends. Some sheikhs joined the Wafd Party, participating actively in the campaign of sabotage and boycott against the British or intervening in the elections to bring their favourite party to power. In return, the Wafd intervened in 1951 to resolve the conflicts in matters of succession which plagued the Afifiya-Shadhiliya order, thus reaping the gratitude (and support) of the order's higher echelons.
Sufi sheikhs, however, were not all partial to political games. De Jong cites the example of Ahmed Ali El-Sawi, sheikh of the Khalwatiya, who, encouraged by Mustafa El-Nahhas to present his candidature to the post of supreme leader of the Sufi orders, eventually declined the honour, which he considered incompatible with his function as spiritual guide. Ahmed El-Sawi El-Imrani, supported by both the sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mustafa Abdel-Razeq, and the mufti, Hassanein Mohamed Makhlouf, took over the function instead.
Sometimes the sheikhs moved to the fore of the political arena without giving up their own agenda. A case in point is that of Sheikh Mohamed Abul-Azayem, founder of the Azimiya, who, teaching Shari'a and Islamic jurisprudence in Khartoum, was forced to return to Egypt because of his anti-British views. On his return, he opposed the transfer of the caliphate to Egypt, a position at odds with that officially taken by the ulama and the head of the Sufi orders. During the 1919 Revolution, he opened the doors of his printing press to the anti-British organisation the Black Hand (Gam'iyat Al-Yadd Al-Sawda'). Furthermore, his was the only order to arm and send a number of adepts to Palestine (1948-1949) in cooperation with Mohamed Saleh Harb Pasha, head of the Muslim Youth Association, and Ahmed Hussein, head of the fascist organisation Misr Al-Fatat.
Among the orders that chose to align themselves with the British and the palace were the Dimirdashiya and the Ghunaymiya, later made to pay dearly for having attempted to curry favour with the enemy: at the onset of the revolution in 1952, all their assets were sequestrated.
Under the Nasser regime (1952-1970), comments Chih, the state controlled the religious authorities. Al-Azhar lost more of its religious hegemony, already weakened under Mohamed Ali; family endowments were canceled and the high echelons of the main religious institution were replaced by leaders favourable to the new regime. The head of the Sufi orders, Ahmed El-Sawi, was dismissed in 1957, for his role in attempting ideological reforms that would have facilitated a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood. In open conflict with Nasser, the Brotherhood launched an anti-Sufi campaign headed by Hassan Ismail El-Hodeibi and aimed at the official proscription of all Sufi practices, which had been permitted by a state keen on finding an ally in the Sufi orders against the Brotherhood.
In general, however, notes Chih, regimes in the Muslim world have practiced a policy of live and let live toward Sufism; to this day, the most vicious attacks against them have stemmed from the writings of Hanbali polemicist Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328), who condemned visits to shrines as a form of idolatry, a denunciation that extended to the veneration of saints, the search for baraka and the celebration of moulids. "He may not have been the first or the last adversary of Sufism," she says, "but he was definitely the most violent. It is under his influence that so many shrines were razed in Saudi Arabia by the Wahhabis in the 19th century."
THE SAINT OF THE TERRACE: Solicited or suppressed, many of the orders that were powerful during the golden age of Sufism tend to flourish whenever the political climate is favourable, going underground or disappearing when it is not. Others have been so popular over the ages that any attempts to quash them have met with effective, passive resistance. One such movement is the Sutuhiya, later known as the Ahmadiya, which gravitated around El-Sayed Ahmed El-Badawi, "the saint of Tanta."
LIFE OF A SAINT: This order, one of the oldest and best established, gathered the followers of Abul-Fityan (father of the young men) Ahmed bin Ali bin Ibrahim bin Mohamed bin Abu Bakr El-Qurashi El-Badawi Abul-Litamayn (twice veiled), nicknamed Al-Sutuhi (of the terrace: he lived on a terrace in Tanta) and Al-Attab (the fighter: because of the violence with which he dealt with his enemies).
Biographers seem unable to agree about the place of birth of Ahmed El-Badawi (1194-1273). Some trace it to Jerusalem, others to Fez (modern specialists lean towards a Moroccan birth); others still simply mention that he was born in Bilad Al-Sham (Greater Syria). According to El-Maqrizi, who wrote one of his numerous biographies, El-Badawi's parents belonged to the Syrian tribe of Banu Al-Birri. He seems to have travelled to Mecca with his family when he was 11, and studied the Qur'an, first under the guidance of his brother Hassan, then with two renowned ulama. He became famous in Mecca for his courage and the violence of his attacks against his detractors. Soon, however, he withdrew from society, refusing to talk and communicating only by gestures. He had a vision in which he was ordered to travel to Tanta. He went first to Iraq with Hassan and, on his return to Mecca, fasted and deprived himself of sleep for 40 days. It is said that his eyes resembled burning coals from staring too long at the sun.
In the month of Dhul-Higga 1132AH, he left Mecca once more, arriving in Tanta in Rabi' I 1135. There, he settled on the terrace of a house, from which he used to preach day and night (most biographers refer to the "screams" he emitted as evidence of his frenzy) until he died several years later. After his death, his reputation as a mystic and visionary quickly spread beyond Tanta. He is buried in that town, where his tomb attracts thousands of visitors from all over the country every year at the time of his moulid, one of the most celebrated in Egypt.
THE LEGACY OF AHMED EL-BADAWI: In the years following El-Badawi's death, his followers founded the Ahmadiya order, a movement based on his teachings, which gained great popularity among Tanta's indigenous population. The sheikh had died without having explicitly designated an heir and, at his death, several of his disciples struggled for the place. As in other Sufi orders, comments Chih, succession is not hereditary, in accordance with the principle instituted by the prophet that positions of power should not become dynastic. Many Sufi orders, furthermore, had adopted the rule of celibacy. El-Badawi's biographies place great emphasis on the idea that he refused to marry, says Chih.
The new sheikh is therefore the oldest or sometimes the most devoted of the disciples, unless external factors intervene. In El-Badawi's case, the crisis was eventually resolved and Sheikh Abdel-Aal was chosen over his opponent.
Despite the occasional official censure it generated from that time on, in particular because of the presence of women visiting the saint's tomb and their enthusiastic attendance at the saint's moulid, the Ahmadiya survived, often supported by the rulers themselves. In fact, its influence kept increasing, first with the support of the Burgi Mameluke Sultan Qaitbay (r. 1468-1496), then, during the Ottoman period, deriving its momentum from the storytellers of the time, who began producing ampler, more detailed oral biographies of the saint, recounting his extraordinary deeds in prose or verse, inflaming the imagination of their audience with the lengthy tales of the many miracles he had performed during his lifetime and afterwards. According to Chih, a Sufi sheikh's reputation depends solely on the number and magnitude of his karamat (miracles or mediation between the human and the divine). "This, of course, is the main bone of contention between traditional religious scholars and Sufi doctrines. In traditional Islam, no miracles or saints intervene with God on behalf of His creatures," she explains.
It is important to remember that there is an indigenous popular Sufism in Egypt that has traditionally been the refuge of the lower classes, says Chih. It is generally denigrated because of its unjustified reputation of encouraging backwardness, translated in an irrational belief in miracles and attachment to the sheikh of one's tariqa, the ardent desire to obtain his baraka for oneself and one's family, and blind submission to his teachings. In contrast, the elites favour more intellectual schools of Sufism, which concentrate their efforts on inner enrichment. The sheikhs of these tariqas are spiritual leaders who help their adepts down the road to perfecting their soul. The Biktashis and the Naqshabandis are cases in point.
It is interesting to note, she adds, that most Egyptians who gravitate towards Sufi orders tend to remain muhibbin (from muhibb: literally, someone who loves) as opposed to muridin (the murid is one who seeks initiation). The social attraction of the orders is very strong in rural areas, where the sheikh plays an active role in community life, giving advice and regulating the moral conduct of his charges. His role as maker of miracles and distributor of baraka is also crucial for people whose life depends to a large extent on events outside their control.
POPULARITY: Ahmed El-Badawi was particularly popular with women, who solicited his miracles, visited his shrine regularly and frequently reported being visited by him in their dreams or even while finding themselves in a deserted area.
El-Badawi's principal claim to fame is his ability to cure sterility in women and impotence in men. To this day, many of those cursed with either complaint flock to his moulid in Tanta (established in 1349 on the occasion of the prophet's birthday). It soon acquired a rather bad reputation due to the overwhelming presence of barren women, dancers and prostitutes who participated with too much abandon in the festivities. Moreover, many of his past adepts were accused of sodomy. It is for these reasons, as well as a fear that the Sufi movement would suddenly be gaining too much influence on the people, estranging them from their ruler, that Sultan Jaqmaq (r. 1438-1453) decided to cancel the moulid. It took place the following year, however, regardless of the ban.
WRITTEN BIOGRAPHIES: El-Badawi and his miracles have provided ample inspiration for many biographers. Apart from El-Maqrizi, Ibn Iyas (1448-1524) and Abdel-Wahab El-Sha'rani (1493-1565) are among the saint's most famous eulogists, the latter eventually founding his own Sufi order, the Sha'rawiya, considered an offshoot of the Ahmadiya.
The teachings of Sheikh Sha'rani and his close connection to El-Badawi became for a time the object of heated controversy in some religious milieus. After his death, El-Sha'rani's son, Abdel-Rahman (d. 1603), took over his father's zawya in Bab Al-Sha'riya and continued to disseminate the late sheikh's lessons. Father and son are buried in a tomb that is the object of frequent visits and around which a yearly moulid connected to that of El-Badawi still takes place.
The development of printing, however, allowed Abdel-Samad's Al-Gawahir Al-Saniya to be published in 1860; this biography of the "saint of Tanta" took precedence over the more ancient ones. It is considered today the definitive authority on the subject.
TRADITIONS: El-Badawi's reputation benefited from a powerful oral tradition, often taking the form of poems, which sustained the chronicle of Ahmed El-Badawi's miracles and the woes that befell those who refused to believe in his powers or shunned his moulid. With the introduction of the printing press in the 19th century, many of the saint's biographies were subject to scholarly scrutiny, refuelling the debate about the reasons for his enduring popularity.
The khalifa of Al-Sayyid Al-Badawi in procession in Tanta, October 1991 (From: Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, Al-Sayyid Al-Badawi, IFAO, 1994)
WESTERN INTEREST: 1880-1920, according to Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen (Al-Sayyid al-Badawi, un grand saint de l'islam egyptien, IFAO, 1994), is the period during which the tradition of Ahmed El-Badawi began to be transmitted by Arab authors in print, placing a number of accounts within reach of Orientalists who began to examine systematically the corpus of this popular literature.
They were preceded, however, by E W Lane, whose observations, written in 1835, give a detailed account of Sufi practices as well as a full description of the traditional celebrations attached to the veneration of saints. El-Badawi's order and his moulid, which Lane attended, are not forgotten: "Most of the Egyptians not only expect a blessing to follow their visit to the tomb of a celebrated saint, but they also dread that some misfortune will befall them if they neglect this act. Thus, while I am writing these lines, an acquaintance of mine is suffering from an illness which he attributes to his having neglected, for the last two years, to attend the festival of seyyid Ahmad El-Badawee, at Tanta, this being the period of one of these festivals. The tomb of this saint attracts almost as many visitors, at the period of the great annual festivals, from the metropolis, as from various parts of Lower Egypt as Mekkeh does pilgrims from the whole of the Muslim world. Three moolids are celebrated in honour of him every year -- one about the tenth of the Coptic month of Toobeh (17th and 18th January); the second, at about the vernal equinox; and the third, or great moolid, about a month after the summer solstice... Each lasts one week and a day, beginning on a Friday, and ending on the afternoon of the next Friday; and on each night there is a display of fireworks...
"The Ahmedeeyeh or order of the seyyid Ahmad El-Bedawee... is a very numerous and highly-respected order. Their banners and turbans are red... The Shinnaweeyeh [sect of the Ahmadiya] train an ass to perform a strange part of the ceremonies on the last day of the moolid of their great patron saint, the seyyid Ahmad Bedawee of Tanta. The ass, of his own accord, enters the mosque of the seyyid, proceeds to the tomb, and there stands, while multitudes crowd around it and each person who can approach near enough to it plucks off some of its hair to use as a charm... There is another sect of the Ahmedeeyeh called Owlad Nooh, all young men who wear tartoors (or high caps) with a tuft of pieces of various coloured cloth on top, wooden swords and numerous strings of beads and carry a kind of whip (called firkilleh), a thick twist of cords."
THE TWO SUCCESSORS: Less than 30 years after Lane's description of the Ahmadiya's practices, an important development occurred. Around this period Sidi Mohamed El-Bahiy died and was buried in the mosque of Al-Busa in Tanta near El-Badawi's tomb. A renowned Azharite, El-Bahiy, who had belonged to the Ahmadiya, was so popular with the inhabitants of Tanta that his cult was amalgamated to that of El-Badawi. As a result, not only did many Azharites frequent the moulid, lending it an aura of religious authority, but from that year on the Ahmadiya had two khalifas (designated successors), the first a successor to the order's original chosen spiritual leader and the other a direct descendant of Sheikh Mohamed El-Bahiy. They share alternatively the honour of conducting the grand procession at the time of the moulid, mounted on a horse, coiffed and robed in red and holding up an umbrella to ward off the candies hurled from the windows onto their heads by a delirious population.
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