13. Will popular Islam survive the revolutions?


Shrine of sheikh al-Qurna near Luxor (left) and sufi tomb in cemetery of Aswan (right).

The revolutions in the Middle-East have inadvertently unleashed a force that cannot be controlled. Radical groups, which were before held back by the now toppled regimes, have started to attack sufi graves. The most highlighted incident was the destruction of the ancient and famous sufi sanctuaries in Timbuktu by armed radicals, who called themselves Ansar Dine (soldiers of faith). But this attack was not an isolated incident, but was part of a wider campaign against sufi graves. What are the reasons behind these attacks and why especially against these graves?

For the answer to this question one has to go back to the begin period of Islam. In the 9th century when the Islam had literally conquered a large part of the Middle-East and North-Africa, certain Muslims (later called sufis) began to denounce the growing wealth and materialism of the Omayyad Empire. They sought instead a simple, ascetic live which would bring them closer to God. The way to God was found through rites, like dhikr (the continuous repetition of a religious formula), which would put them in a state of trance and let them make a mystical journey towards God. The movement spread throughout the Muslim world. In North-Africa the sufis began to organise themselves in orders (turuq) during the 13th and 14th century. An order was led a sheikh who taught and initiated his disciples (murid or ikhwan) in the way (tariqa) to illumination. Some orders remained small, while others, like the Shadhili order, spread over the whole of North-Africa.

The sheikhs, who became famed for their wisdom or miracles,did not only attract visitors during their live, but also after their death. Known as “friends of God” (awliya’ Allah), their tombs became sites of pilgrimage, where people asked the sheikh for his blessing (baraka) or help. Their day of birth (mawlid) and death (mawasim) became local festivals. This worship of holy men is known in North-Africa as Maraboutism and does also include female and Jewish saints. But being a holy man did not mean being a man of peace as shows the Egyptian sheikh Ahmed El-Badawi (1119-1276) who fought the crusaders, and the Moroccan saint Sidi Moumen (d. 1907) who died defending the ports of Casablanca against the French. In Libya the Sanusi order fought the Italians (albeit unsuccessfully) in the last century, but its leader became later the first (and last) king of Libya. The sufis, their saints and their orders formed a major political force in North-Africa until middle of the 20th century.

However, in the 18th century a preacher called Muhammed bin Abdel-Wahhab (1703-92) began against Sufism and saint worship in the Arabian Peninsula. His goal was to bring Islam back to its pure, original form at any cost. His principal idea was that there was one God (tawhid). Any Muslim who seem to challenged this oneness, was in his eyes guilty of shirk (polytheism and idolatry) and should thus be killed as a kafir (unbeliever). According to him was saint worship shirk and sufis crypto-Christians. Banned and denounced for his radical ideas (even by his brother), Abdel-Wahhab allied himself to a local emir (leader), Mohammed Ibn Sa’ud. Together they conquered the peninsula, razing many tombs including those of the Prophets family and forcing the population of Mecca to flee in terror. They were stopped by an expedition of Mohammed Ali, the viceroy of Egypt between 1808 and 1814. While the sufis in North-Africa praised the wahhabis for their asceticism, they criticised them for their narrow-mindedness and killing of fellow Muslims.

A century later, the latest renewal movement came into being: Salafism. Its founding fathers envisioned, like their wahhabi brothers, a restoration of the pure Islam, the Islam of the forefathers (salaf). Both groups share many ideas, but the salafists see reform (islah) and not violence the way to Islamic renaissance (nahdha). Islam should thus be purified from popular elements like saint worship. The opinion on Sufism is more divided as some salafi, like Hassan al-Banna (1906-1946), saw Sufism as the ideal teaching method. Inspired by Sufism al-Banna incorporated many sufi elements in the organisation that he founded, calling it a Brotherhood (ikhwan) and himself its Guide (murshid). However, his organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, became soon more anti-Sufism and more sympathetic towards Wahhabism. This was the result of the interaction between its members and wahhabi scholars, when Muslim Brothers fled to Saudi-Arabia to escape persecution at home in the 40’s and also in the 70’s.

The rise of the salafis and wahhabis does not mean that sufis and saint worship are dying out in the current Arabic societies. Sufis account for 20% of Egypt’s Muslim population and they hold important Islamic positions, like sheikh al-Azhar (head of Egypt’s famous Islamic university) and Grand Mufti (Egypt’s highest religious leader). However, they have little political cloud in contrary to the salafis and wahhabis. During the 2011 and 2012 parliamentary elections the last two secured a majority in both houses, while the sufi-based Egyptian Liberation Party failed to obtain a single seat. Especially the increasing political involvement and cloud of the wahhabi inspired Nur Party puts the sufis under pressure. The party sees sufis as unbelievers and supports the destruction of sufi tombs as a way to stop saint worship and the popular festivals surrounding them. Its supporters and other ultraorthodox elements started to attack and destroy sufi shrine in Alexandria, the Delta and Sinai. The attacks subsided after angry demonstrations and fatwas (religious opinions)of the al-Azhar and Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa against the attacks. However, they did not stop. In June 2012 the shrine of sheikh Zuwayed, who participated in the Islamic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, in the Sinai was completely destroyed by unknown attackers after having survived earlier attacks.

The situation is little better in Egypt’s neighbour, Libya. Sufis and their tomb have an important role in Libya’s current society. The founder of Ghaddafi’s tribe is worshipped as a saint and his grave attracts many pilgrims. And the yearly festival held in honour of sheikh Abdul-Salam al-Asmar in Zliten is well-known. However, some puritans consider saint worship black magic and the festivals unislamic. These puritans have made use of the Libyan revolution to arm themselves and impose their will through force. In October 2011 were the first attacks on shrines in Tripoli and Janzour, where the armed attackers excavated the bodies of sufi saints to rebury them elsewhere. More attacks followed, but some were stopped by local militia. The National Transitional Council denounced the attacks and Libya’s Mufti, sheikh Sadik Al-Ghariani, issued later a fatwa condemning the destruction of the graves as unislamic. Also the Tunisian Islamist leader, Rashid Ghannoushi, visited Libya in hope to reconcile the sufis and the purists and stop the attacks. But all this was in vain as the attackers bulldozed in August 2012 a sufi shrine and graves in Tripoli, after they had succeeded earlier to destroy the tomb of earlier mentioned sheikh al-Asmar in Zliten. However, their ideas are not accepted by most Libyans who accuse Saudi-Arabia and Qatar to bankroll and support such groups to spread their stricter version of Islam.

Sufism and saint worship remains also popular in Libya’s neighbour, Tunisia. Students spend some time with a sufi order or in the tomb of a saint to find the solitude and divine blessing necessary to pass their exams. Tunisians make also no distinction between their Muslim and Jewish saints. Although some Tunisians, like Rachid al-Ghannouchi, consider saint worship and Sufism as sources of backwardness and obscurantism, the sufi shrines remain unmolested for now. The biggest potential treat to them are the groups of protesting ultraorthodox Muslims. These groups started to protest after the Tunisian revolution against everything that they did not like and they are not shy to use violence. After targeting TV-stations, journalists and Jews, they beat up Mohammed Mourou, a founder of the ruling Ennahdha Party, during the conference “Islam and tolerance” in August 2012. Accused of tolerating the violence of the ultraorthodox Muslims, the Islamist government quickly reacted to this incident. The minister of Interior and member of Ennahdha, Ali Laârayedh, accused them of causing fitna (disorder within the Muslim community) and threatened to shoot them with life bullets during their next protest. Hopefully is this enough to rein in their violent behaviour and will the ultraorthodox Muslims not chose the sufis or their shrines as their next target.

Sufism has not only formed a protest against the decadence of the ruling class in the Middle-East, but also an important political force until the 20th century. It forms with saint worship still an important cultural force within contemporary Middle-Eastern societies, but it is under growing pressure of the teaching of Salafism and Wahhabism. Both oppose ideologically saint worship and Sufism, although the first takes a more tolerant and non-violent approach than the last. With the toppling of the old dictatorial regimes, more radical elements have used the power vacuum to impose their will and attacked sufi shrines. The authorities have denounced these attacks, but seem to be unable to completely stop them. The sufis on the other hand may still have popular support, but lack political support in case of Egypt or weapons in case of Libya. The only exception is Tunisia were the tombs remain for now safe. Will popular Islam survive? It will be hard, but let’s hope that their tolerant message will win from the radical one of their attackers.


Main internet sources and further reading

– Egyptian daily Egypt Independent – egyptindependent.com

– Libyan daily The Tripoli Post – tripolipost.com

– Tunisian daily Journal Le Temps – letemps.com.tn

– Cook, M., On the origins of Wahhabism, in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1992), pp. 191-202

– Dallal, A., The origins and objectives of Islamic revivalist thought, 1750-1850, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 3 (1993), pp. 341-359Pu

– Encyclopaedia of Islam (EI), Salafiyya; Tarika; Tasawwuf; Wahhabiya, Leiden 1960-2005

– Kugle, S.A., Sufis & saints’ bodies, Chapel Hill 2007

– Levtzion, N., Islam in Africa and the Middle East, Aldershot 2007

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