Debating political Sufism
Debating political Sufism
Wednesday, September 10,2008 09:59
By Ahmed Maged

CAIRO: Bringing together an estimated 11 million followers in Egypt, Sufism today is undergoing a transformation: the ages old religious practice which has thus far remained apolitical is fast-delving into the political equation.


Despite the fact that Sufism is still associated with an ascetic and spiritual approach to life, today’s Sufis are no longer the simple folk of yore, in their patchy galabeyas carrying incense burners, crying ‘hayy’ urging people to remember that God is indeed alive.


“Professionals, businessmen and even members of parliament now belong to the various Sufi schools,” Mohsen Fahmy editor-in-chief of the specialized Sufism magazine Al Tasawof, told Daily News Egypt. A channel slated to launch in 2009 aims to spread moderate Sufi thought.


“Initially the Sufis showed almost no interest in politics because they were bound to a time-consuming routine focused on consolidating moral orientation and closeness to the Almighty, but today many Sufis are involved in politics,” explained Fahmy.


There are about 74 Sufi orders known as “tariquahs.” These include El Shazlia, El Rifaaia, El Mohamadia and El Burhaniya. However followers of these schools argue that Egyptians are Sufis by nature and that many Egyptians are in fact Sufis without necessarily following any of these “turuq” (plural of tariquah).


But Mohamed Fouad Shaker, a Sufism expert and the head of the Islamic Studies Department at Ain Shams University, says that in its essence Sufism was never  synonymous with negativism and dependence, which means that Sufi involvement in public activities should not come as a surprise.


“Those dervishes in rags we see in Sufi festivals and celebrations can’t be classified as Sufis. Sufis aren’t socially isolated, but as it stands, Sufism is neither about revolutionary movements nor the resistance against enemies,” said Shaker.


Sufis are known for their love and reverence for Al El Beit, the descendants of Prophet Mohamed. They are inclined to moderation rather than compulsory asceticism. They are also known for their honesty and aversion to treachery and deceit.


“While being seen as a remedy for today’s rampant religious extremism, Sufism will soon become a political card,” said Essam El Sawy, a follower of the Burhaniya tariquah.


Lately Sufi followers have been struggling to assert their presence in a way that appears openly political. Despite severe criticism, some Egyptian Sufi Sheikhs attended from April 25 to 27, 2008 the annual International Association of Sufism symposium in California, suspected of being a Shia mouthpiece because the religious affiliation of one of its founders Dr Ali Kianfar.


Another conference was organized this year by the same association and took place in Cairo from Jan. 18 to 21. Titled “Sufi Perspective on World Peace and Responsibility,” the event was attended by officials from the US Embassy in Cairo and a number of foreign diplomats as well as 3,000 representatives of the 74 Sufi tariquahs.


Criticized by the media as an American attempt to promote Sufi thought in order to counter the fundamentalist tendencies in Egypt, the conference recommended the dissemination of Sufi principles through participation in various social and cultural activities.


“With their large gatherings and loyalty to their teachers, the Sufis are a true paragon of the genuine, peaceful religious spirit, but I don’t think they are capable of countering religious fundamentalism,” said Mahmoud Ashour, a Muslim scholar at the Islamic Research Center.


Echoing this view Shaker regretted the fact that Sufi orders lack the qualified scholars necessary for such a mission.


“Their teachers are incapable of discussing problems that require certain understanding and knowledge. They speak of the karamat (supernatural abilities) of a Sufi sheikh. This reflects badly on Sufism,” said Shaker.


He recommends that before assuming such a role, Sufis must prove that they are free of political aspirations or personal interests.


Recently, adherents to several Sufi tariquahs have expressed their unwavering support for the current regime’s policies.


 “When [Egyptian] President Mubarak won the presidential elections in 2005, we held two big rallies in Beheira and Aswan to show our support,” said Sufi magazine editor Fahmy.


That support, however, goes back even farther to the time when late President Anwar Sadat was received with much fanfare by the heads of Sufi orders at Cairo Airport after he signed the Camp David Peace Accords with the Jewish state in 1979.


With the exception of Sufi figures like Sheikh Ahmed El-Badawi, who resisted the Crusaders in Mansoura, and El Ezz bin Abdel Salam, a Sufi Imam who declared disobedience against the Sultan of Egypt for his reluctance to wage war against the Crusaders, Sufis have been accused through history of being passive at time of crisis.


In his book “Sufism and Islam” Amr Farroukh wrote: “When the Crusaders attacked Mansoura in the middle of the seventh century, the Sufis convened a big meeting. Do you know why? To read Al Qishiri’s treatise on the miracles of the pious Imams. No wonder then that the colonizers should lavish money and power on the Sufis. This type of Sufism is bound to dampen the spirit of resistance in nations.”


Renowned Sufi scholars Imam El Ghazli, Ibn Arabi and Ibn El Farid had all lived during a period of strife but none of them joined the jihad or invited others to it, according to historical records.


“The Sufis have always been at the forefront of cultural and intellectual jihad, one that could hit its target without producing a single terrorist or shooting a single bullet. To sum it up: we have been invited to appear on the political scene, why should we turn down the invitation?” contended the Sufi editor.


A huge organized group, Egyptian Sufis might pose a threat at a time of crisis once they decide to break their peaceful isolation and play a vital role in political life, analysts argue.


That could be the reason why the sole world superpower is suddenly taking interest in the Sufi orders which could have the potential to develop into a real power due to their large numbers, said one local report.


 “Numbers aside, in the Sufis system the murid [follower] fully abides by his teacher’s guidelines and instructions. It isn’t even like the hardliners who could sometimes question their dictator, the Emir of the group.”


Bearing this in mind, we must imagine what would happen if Sufis become a political force led by power-wielding teachers, explained Shaker.


Apart from their association with the US, Sufis’ adoration for Al El Beit has historically caused many to suspect that Shia Egyptians — also known for their excessive love for Prophet Mohamed’s descendants — are using a Sufi camouflage to spread their beliefs and practices.


According to an article that appeared on Al-Arabeya website on September 2005 Mohamed El Derini, a prominent Egyptian Shia activist and writer, had declared that a million Egyptian Shia are practicing their faith under the disguise of Sufi followers.


“We do share the love of Al El Beit with the Shia but we can never allow them to use us to spread their sect in Egypt,” said Fahmy. “We’re aware this is part of a colonial policy of divide-to-rule.


“We don’t deal with the Shia as enemies but their beliefs and practices can never be accepted by us and we continuously warn our followers about how the Shia-Sunni divide has created tensions in the Muslim World,” he continued.


For many Sufis believe, the future of the Muslim world hinges on the spread of Sufi ideals which have offered serenity and psychological relief to Muslims through the ages, as well as peaceful participation in political life at a time when fundamentalists have wreaked havoc and instigated violence likely to endanger Egypt’s stability.