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Once Shunned, Sufis Enjoy Revival as Counterweight to Militants

April 27, 1995

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Age-old prayers echo through the cavernous al-Hussein Mosque, chanted by young and old in an unbroken circle. Swaying in baggy white robes, the Sufis _ or Islamic mystics _ propel themselves toward ecstasy.

Over two hours, they endlessly invoke the name of God, slowly picking up the tempo. Some are lost in bliss; others seem semiconscious. A few shut their eyes, swaying at the waist or nodding their heads as they seek the meditative state that can bring them to the essence of Sufism _ communion with God.

The ritual, central to Sufis’ beliefs, is an intense, mesmerizing expression of Islamic devotion that fuses mysticism into Egypt’s increasingly religious landscape. The Sufis are emerging as a powerful force in society, claiming 5 million followers among Egypt’s 59 million people and quietly gaining new adherents among the middle class.

For Egypt’s government, the Sufi renaissance _ with its disavowal of politics _ offers a counterweight to militant Sunni Muslims who have carried out a three-year campaign of violence aimed at turning Egypt into an Islamic state.

``The Sufis provide a very viable alternative for people dissatisfied with their everyday life, and it’s very convenient for the government,″ said Hoda Lutfi, a professor of Arab history at the American University in Cairo.

Sufis, known in the West as ``whirling dervishes″ from the practice of some, have for years been maligned by Arab governments and orthodox Muslims as a superstitious relic of medieval Islam.

Their wild celebration of saints’ birthdays, ecstatic rituals and belief in the power of shrines and talismans are anathema to more austere orthodox Muslims. The veneration of saints and visits to tombs appears to some a violation of Islam’s belief in one god.

For governments, Sufism was seen as the retreat of the poor, the ``religion of the streets″ _ the opposite of the modern, secular image most Arab countries wanted.

But in the past two decades, Arab governments have turned back to explicit Islamic symbols after socialism and Arab nationalism failed to deliver promises of a better life. That failure helped create violent Islamic movements, but it also propelled some people toward Sufism.

Thus by supporting Sufis _ through allowing meetings, permitting groups to construct buildings and keeping away the police who used to monitor gatherings _ the Egyptian government bolsters its Islamic credentials.

``It offers the government a way of supporting explicitly Islamic movements without supporting enemies of the government,″ said John Voll, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and an expert on Islam in Egypt and Sudan.

Sufis date back almost to the dawn of Islam, and most orders trace their founding to the prophet Mohammed’s successor, Abu Bakr, or his son-in-law, Ali, in the 7th century.

The term Sufi, ``a man of wool,″ was coined in the 9th century as a name for mystics whose ascetic practices included wearing coarse woolen clothes. It soon applied to all Islamic mystics _ believers that unity with God can be achieved through prayers, meditation and chants _ whether they were ascetic or not.

Sufism’s popular appeal and ability to incorporate local traditions hastened Islam’s spread across Asia and Africa. In many ways, it forms a symbiosis between the orthodox and the popular.

In Egypt, it fits in with flamboyant traditions left over from the reign of Shiite Muslims during the Fatmid period that ended in the 12th century. Many Egyptians, not just Sufis, attend festivals for saints’ birthdays. And the birthday of the prophet Mohammed is a much bigger holiday here than in other Muslim nations.

Sufis’ numbers have multiplied. In 1960, there were 20 orders registered with Egypt’s government. In 1985, there were 60. Today, 73 are recognized by the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders.

``The youth today are looking for a sound way to respond to society. The principles of Sufism comfort the heart,″ said Abdel-Hamid Abdel-Latif, the council’s secretary-general. ``And we are active men _ engineers, doctors, officers and leaders.″

But a battle with orthodox Islam simmers.

Sufism’s growing ranks and adherence to traits deemed heretical by other Muslims have incurred the wrath of radicals, who see Sufis as corrupting Islam. The Sufi belief in Mohammed as a spiritual presence angers many orthodox who consider him a man who brought God’s word, then died.

The tension has exploded in the past.

In Tanta, a city in the Nile delta, the sacred shrine of Sayyid al-Badawi, long a popular Sufi pilgrimage site, was attacked in the 1980s. A number of tombs in Zagazig, north of Cairo, have been desecrated.

Meanwhile, traditional quarters in Cairo that are home to some of the most venerated tombs have proved infertile ground for militants, virtually untouched by the extremist presence.

Ali Darwish, a soft-spoken Sufi poet, says violent movements do not appeal to Sufis who see the way to a better society coming through the individual trying to become a better person, more in touch with God.

``It suits the Egyptian mood, the Egyptian nature. It’s not extremist and it’s not fanatic,″ Darwish said. ``The seeds of Sufism are embedded in Egypt.″

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