Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Sufi message of love

Gihan Shahine delves into the mystic realm of Sufism and the tasks facing those on its spiritual path

 

“When you step into the zone of love, language as we know it becomes obsolete. That which cannot be put into words can only be grasped through silence.”

— The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

 

Silence, indeed, seemed to be the language of many worshippers, when words become “obsolete” and are sometimes even replaced by tears of awe and repentance, at the highly-revered mosque and mausoleum of Al-Sayeda Zeinab in Cairo.

It was a busy afternoon a few days before the start of the holy month of Ramadan, and the impressive architecture of the ancient Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque was bedecked with lights and had become a mecca for many worshippers, particularly Sufis who tend to hold more zikr ceremonies (recitations of the names of God and the Prophet Mohamed) at this time of the year.

The bustle of heavy traffic and a shopping spree in preparation for the holy month had created a cheerful atmosphere in the populous area surrounding the mosque. However, once inside, worldly matters seemed to vanish, and the mystical state of mind brilliantly portrayed by Turkish author Elif Shafak in her bestselling novel The Forty Rules of Love, inspired by popular mediaeval scholar and poet Jalaleddin Rumi’s message of love, seemed to reign.

It is in the ancient Mosque of Al-Sayeda Zeinab that the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed is believed to be buried. The magnificent architecture of the interior, the lighting and the adornment of the mausoleum, the decorated domes, the high ceiling and gigantic chandeliers, together with the sound of the asr, the afternoon call prayer, all produced a profound sense of spirituality.

Controversy surrounding who is buried in the mausoleum attached to the mosque notwithstanding, there is no doubting that mosques housing shrines for the ahl al-beit (the family of the Prophet Mohamed) or saints have a different aura from others and are the destination of many Sufi and non-Sufi worshippers throughout the year, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mosques like Al-Hussein, Al-Sayeda Nafisa and Ali Zein Al-Abedine in Cairo, the Sidi Al-Morsi Abul-Abbas Mosque in Alexandria and the Al-Sayed Al-Badawi Mosque in Tanta in the Delta are all cases in point. It is in those mosques that many Sufi worshippers seek to enter into “the zone of love” that in Shafak’s word is bound to “transform lives”.

“For your faith to be rock solid, your heart needs to be as soft as a feather.” This is one of the lessons delivered by Rumi in Shafak’s book and which Hajja Fekria, a Sufi worshipper in her 50s, seemed to be seeking in the solitude of the Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque. It is at this time of the year that Fekria spends her days visiting mausoleums and helping the poor as one way of attaining that “soft heart” mentioned by Rumi.

“I have always had passion for the shrines of the ahl al-beit,” Fekria confided with a smile as she sat in a corner of the mosque reciting the Quran. “The respite I find here can only be felt; no words can describe it. It is also here that I come to do visits and pray and help the poor. And when I go back home at the end of the day, I myself feel reborn. It’s a feeling of true bliss.”

It was only a few weeks ago on 10 April that Sufi orders in Egypt were celebrating the moulid (birthday) of Al-Sayeda Zeinab. However, this year the anniversary was politically tinged with support for the fight against terrorism, and it was celebrated under tight security, with no tents being erected to ensure the safety of pilgrims.

The Sufis have been targeted by terrorist groups that accuse them of unorthodoxy and have threatened to destroy their shrines. The Islamic State (IS) terrorist group attack on the Al-Rawda Mosque in Arish in Sinai, where most of those killed followed a Sufi order, still lingers in collective memory as perhaps the deadliest-ever attack, killing 305 worshippers during Friday prayers last December.


Illustration of whirling dervishes by Mahmoud Said

Earlier, in November 2016 IS terrorists had beheaded 98-year-old Sheikh Suleiman Abu Harraz, a leading Sufi figure, after kidnapping him in Arish. This event and the atrocity at the Al-Rawda Mosque brought Sufism into the limelight, and many commentators have since written on Sufism and its relation to politics, Salafism, and religious orthodoxy.

“Because the Al-Rawda Mosque was often frequented by Muslims linked to a Sufi order, the massacre also brought to light the deeply flawed ways Sufism is discussed, both by those who denigrate Sufism and by those who admire it,” noted an article called “The Dangerous Myths About Sufi Muslims” in the US publication The Daily Atlantic.

 

UNDERSTANDING SUFISM: Jihadists are not the only ones who misunderstand Sufism, accusing it of being unorthodox in religious terms. Many Salafis similarly accuse Sufism of being heretical, with some even condoning the destruction of Sufi sites in Egypt.

However, Sufism has been very popular in the West, and its spiritual emphasis, underlining the values of brotherliness, tolerance, charity and love, has been perceived as a gateway to spreading Islam in the West, as it earlier has in Africa. When asked why Rumi has such “extraordinary popularity” across the world, Shafak said that “in an age replete with cultural biases, dogmas, fundamentalisms of all sorts, and clashes, Rumi’s voice tells us something different, something much more essential and peaceful.”

Rumi’s message “is a very inclusive, embracing, universal voice that puts love at its centre,” she elaborated. “No one is excluded from that circle of love.”

Many Western commentators thus tend to regard Sufism as “a form of Islam that could put an end to the strength of extremist political groups and organisations”, said Ammar Ali Hassan, the author of a book on Sufism. “Some Orientalists consider Sufism to be the heart of Islam,” Hassan wrote in an opinion piece in Al-Ahram Weekly. “Some are certain that the future of the Islamic world will inevitably belong to the Sufi current.”

Sufis, for their part, insist that Sufism is not a sect. Omid Safi, a scholar of Sufism and director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Centre in the US, was among those critical of the fact that “much of the coverage [of the Al-Rawda Mosque massacre] presented the victims not as just Muslim worshippers, but rather as Sufis, as if they represented a different religious community.”

“The media’s characterisation of Sufism as a separate sect within Islam is inaccurate and problematic,” Safi cautioned.

“The Sufis know that it is love that brought us here, love that sustains us, and it will be love that will deliver us back to God,” he wrote in a blog on onbeing.com. “This is personal for me. It is the Sufi teachings that inspire me in life and move my heart. And because it is personal, seeing it appropriated in this moment for malicious political purposes is also hurtful to me.”

The Daily Atlantic similarly lamented that until very recently “it would have been unthinkable for students in Muslim communities to consider Sufism as anything other than an integral part of a holistic Islamic education. Religious figures known for their commitment to Sufism would not have been considered a minority; they would have been by far the norm,” it noted.

A study entitled “Sufism in Egypt” conducted by Harvard University in the US defines Sufism, or tasawuf in Arabic, as “an Islamic modality that emphasises self-purification and the attainment of spiritually advanced states through the assumption of specific practices and disciplines, typically through affiliation with a particular brotherhood and its leader, a sheikh.”

Sufism is generally conceived as the spiritual development of a Muslim to the level of ihsan (perfection), or as Imam Al-Ghazali, a leading mediaeval theologian, puts it, as “truthfulness to God Almighty and good conduct with people”.


Sufi zikr in the 19th century

“Anyone who practises these two things is a Sufi,” according to Al-Ghazali. Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Samie, secretary-general of the Al-Azhar-affiliated Fatwa Council in Cairo, an institution of orthodox Sunni Islam, further explained that “ihsan, as the prophetic tradition has it, is to worship God as if you see Him. However, even if you can’t see Him, surely He sees you.”

Abdel-Samie explained that “Sufis strive to reach that level of ihsan, but, as ordinary human beings, they may make mistakes on the way.” He insisted that adherence to Islamic Sharia Law lies at the core of those who practise Sufism, as it does for other Muslims, and as such Sufism does not go against Islamic theology, but is Islamic orthodoxy in its purest sense.

“Sufim is a practice of zikr and of benevolence, a renunciation of worldly pleasures, and a reunion with the world around us, a spiritual experience that a Sufi seeks in his struggle to purify his heart and his attempt to adhere to Islamic tenets,” Abdel-Samie continued. For someone to reach that spiritually advanced state of “self-purification” and the renunciation of worldly matters, a Sufi needs guidance, explaining the Sufi affiliation with a tariqah, or order, which follows a specific method, and its leader, a sheikh, who guides him on his journey and inner search for God.

“Those who want to follow the path have to study theology, know the Quran by heart, and then seek the guidance of a sheikh who can help them through a spiritual experience that may be fraught with fears and queries,” Abdel-Samie told the Weekly.

Sufi scholar Abbas Nadri explains Sufism as a form of seeking the way to God through “the fast process of the emotions” rather than “the slow and steady process of reason.” However, “this does not mean that Sufism denies reason; rather, it requires reason as the first building block of faith, and then builds on it by using emotions and spirituality, usually advancing much faster than reason alone,” Nadri wrote on Qora.com.

 

SUFI THINKERS: There have been many great Sufi scholars and many scholars of all branches of Islam who have adopted Sufi thinking. “Sufism is a branch of Islamic theology that is taught in Al-Azhar University, where many doctoral theses have been written about it,” Abdel-Samie said.

Sufi Mohamed Abdel-Samad Bashir, who belongs to the Al-Ashraf, meaning that his family lineage can be traced back to the Prophet Mohamed, explained his mystic experiences and the different phases a Sufi disciple needs to go through. “The purification of the heart is the essence of Sufism,” Bashir stated. “The heart renounces worldly matters and becomes more receptive to tagaliyat, or the revelations of God. This makes a Sufi benevolent to all humans and in harmony with the universe.”

Such love and reunion seem to lie at the core of Sufism, as illustrated by Rumi in one of his famous quotations. “You can study God through everything and everyone in the universe, because God is not confined in a mosque, synagogue or church. But if you are still in need of knowing where exactly His abode is, there is only one place to look for Him: in the heart of a true lover,” Rumi said.

Bashir explained that those seeking to follow the Sufi path (mureed) have to go through the marateb and maqamat, or spiritual stages of a Sufi disciple. The marateb must start with a complete adherence to the basic tenets of Islam and with repentance, acceptance and submission.

“The mureed then develops from verbal litanies, or zikr by the tongue, to that by the heart and ultimately by the soul to a level where the Sufi disciple feels in total spiritual reunion and harmony with the universe.” Only then, Bashir said, “does a mureed develop into a murad, one selected by God as seeing His will operating in the universe and sets aside his own choices and desires for those chosen by God in a state of total submission to God’s will. Many of those who have reached this stage become extremely tolerant, with some even experiencing small miracles.”

Why, then, are Sufis sometimes accused of unorthodoxy? “I have no idea, but I know that Sufis have no hostility toward anyone,” Bashir replied. A true Sufi, he insisted, “has an inner wealth of beauty that makes him see everything around him as beautiful, and he is kind and benevolent to all humans. Sufis take part in charity, and many open their doors to the poor despite their limited incomes.”

One bone of contention, however, is that many Salafis consider chanting and shrines, associated with Sufism, as counter to what they see as orthodox religious doctrine. In the moulids of the Sufi orders, zikr may involve music and dancing, dervish-type whirling, and snake-charming practices that are deemed un-Islamic by many scholars.

Abdel-Samie explained that apart from extremists who have problems understanding religion, the problem is that for some scholars Sufi practices seem to downplay the Sharia. There may also be those who “may pray at the graves of saints or get involved with dancing during zikr events, and these things are not really true Sufism and do not conform to correct theology.”


Al-Hussein Mosque

“Muslims are demanded to love the prophet and his family and to visit their holy shrines, but this should be done in conformity with orthodox theology. They pray to God, not to the prophet and his family. They only receive the blessings of the places where the prophet and his family are buried,” Abdel-Samie explained.

The dancing and mixing of the sexes during Sufi moulids also have nothing to do with true Sufism or true Islam. “We try hard to educate people, telling them that these things are against the principles of Islam,” Abdel-Samie explained, insisting however that tasawuf has nothing to do with these malpractices in itself.

“It should always be clear that there is a difference between those seeking the Sufi path, who may make mistakes and indulge in wrong practices on the way, and Sufi scholars who have a full understanding of the Quran and Sharia Law,” he added.

 

SUFISM IN EGYPT: Sufism exists across the world, and in Egypt there are roughly 15 million Sufis who follow 74 officially-recognised tariqah. The most famous of the Sufi orders are the Al-Rifaaiya, which is said to have two million followers, the Al-Hamdiya Al-Shazliya and the Al-Azmiya. The Al-Naqshabandiya is perhaps the most popular tariqah in Alexandria.

Each order has a leading sheikh, to whom followers have to pledge allegiance, and each has its own method, mostly recitations and rituals, that a mureed has to follow to develop his spiritual path to God. According to the Harvard University study, “Sufism has deep historical roots in Egypt, and the Egyptian landscape is marked with hundreds of sites significant to historical and contemporary Sufis.”

Those roots go back to the 12th century CE when Sufism became very popular and even an integral part of Egypt’s social fabric under the rule of the sultan Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (1171-1341 CE), known in the West as Saladin, who encouraged the tariqah, providing them with massive funds (endowments) and a social role by establishing Sufi tekiya (monasteries).

“Thanks to key Sufi figures including Al-Shazli, Al-Badawi, Al-Dessouki, and others, many gathered under the banner of the Sufi sheikhs and enormous awqaf (endowment) funds were established to sponsor the tariqah’s activities,” according to a chronicle of the Sufi orders in Egypt published in the Weekly as “The meaning of Sufism”.


Al-Hussein Mosque

Sufism thus developed to include social activism as well as individual spiritual experience, contributing to its widening popularity. “In the Description de l’Egypte, the French scholars accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century noted that only a small minority of Muslims were not affiliated with the Sufi tariqahs, or orders, that played such an important role at the turn of the 19th century,” the Weekly wrote.

The tariqahs had key roles to play in the Egyptian resistance to the French occupation at the time, a fact that may refute the myth that Sufism is totally apolitical. Many historical accounts also refer to the key roles that renowned Sufi figures like Abul-Hassan Al-Shazli and Ibn Abdel-Salam played at the forefront of campaigns to defend Egypt from the armies of king Louis of France during the mediaeval Western Crusades.

“Indeed, various historical records emphasise the roles played by these tariqahs and their networks in Cairo’s first and second revolts against the French occupation in the late 18th century,” wrote the Weekly. “However, during the following decades the tariqahs seemed to hold a less influential position in Egyptian society.”

Laws regulating the tariqahs were later adopted in 1895, followed by others in 1903 and 1905, eventually giving the state power over them. The Supreme Council of Sufi Orders was founded in 1903 as the authority in charge of the Sufi orders in Egypt. According to Law 118/1976, the Sufi orders are not allowed to engage in activities not authorised by the Supreme Council.

“The council oversees the appointment of sheikhs (Sufi authorities), grants permits for moulids, and performs a variety of other duties,” wrote the Harvard study. “The body is charged with ensuring that Sufi practices are consistent with Islamic norms and laws and includes 10 elected members representing sheikhs from different tariqahs as well as five appointed members who represent Al-Azhar University (where many of the upper faculty are respected Sufis), the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Culture, and local administrations.”

This “creation of bureaucratic institutions intended to regulate Egyptian Sufism” has resulted in the fact that many Sufi orders have lost their independence and may be perceived as being supportive of consecutive governments. The fact that the Sufi Council has four official representatives on its board has made it lose its autonomy from the state, and the Sufi inclination toward a largely apolitical attitude has been perceived as one reason why it has been tolerated by consecutive regimes.

This, the Harvard study speculates, may be an added reason behind “the disapproval of, and hostilities towards, Sufism, particularly because of the Sufi orders’ and prominent Sufis’ support for the government.”

The Arab Spring in 2011 was a turning point for some Sufi tariqahs that decided to form political parties and engage in politics. The Sawt Al-Huriya (Voice of Freedom Party) formed by the Al-Rifaaiya tariqa and the Tahrir Masr (Egyptian Liberation Party) formed by the Al-Azmiya, are cases in point.

In a study entitled “The Political Role of Sufi Orders in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution”, Hassan said that the Revolution “threw a large stone in the stagnant pond of the Egyptian Sufi orders, resulting in waves that will not allow Egyptian Sufism to return to what it was before.”

However, the Sufi leaders remain divided about such changes. “Grand sheikh of the Sufi orders Sheikh Abdel-Hadi Al-Qassabi has denounced the formation of the political parties and suggested that they could lead to greater societal rifts,” wrote the Harvard study. “Proponents of the parties have insisted that their formation was necessary to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Salafi political parties from eroding the freedoms and protections granted to Sufi orders,”

however. “With changes to the constitution banning political parties based on religion, these parties have secularised their rhetoric and aligned with larger secular political coalitions,” the study added.

Al-Qassabi has told the publication World Affairs that “we are a committee followed by one-and-a-half million Sufis from all over Egypt who agree that moral concepts should be kept away from political points of view,” his comments being reproduced in a story entitled “The Sufi’s Choice: Egypt’s Political Wild Card”.

“If some Sufis feel they can blend into the political mainstream and be effective, we support them in doing so provided they are working in the best interests of the country,” he said.

However, the majority of Sufis prefer to keep their faith distinct from political activism.

Both Abdel-Samie and Bashir insist that the very concept of Sufism as a spiritual experience that goes beyond worldly matters does not conform to political activism.

“A Sufi should focus on reforming society, but starting with his own family and relatives and then his neighbours and friends,” Bashir opined. “Sufis may engage in politics in a reformist, corrective way that would benefit society,” Abdel-Samie concurred. He referred to the roles of Sufi officers Hassan Al-Tohami and Hassan Abbas Zaki in the 1952 July Revolution as cases in point.

“However, joining political parties would be a grave mistake for Sufis,” Abdel-Samie concluded.

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