Sufi Islam in Egypt

Sarah El Masry
22 Min Read
Folkloric performances sometimes overshadow the spiritual core of Sufism. (Photo by Hassan Ibrahim)
Folkloric performances sometimes overshadow the spiritual core of Sufism. (Photo by Hassan Ibrahim)

“The mawalid [plural of moulid, birthdates of the prophet’s family and other awliya’a, saints] have turned into popular as well as religious celebrations, so not every person who goes to them is a Sufi,” said Sheikh Mohamed Mazhar, the leader of the Borhameya order in Egypt.

Two of the major mawalid that Sufis celebrate annually were held in the past two weeks. On 18 October, over one million visitors travelled to Desouk in Kafr El Sheikh governorate to celebrate the moulid of sidi Ibrahim El Desouki. On the preceding Thursday another million visitors from all over Egypt and even from other Islamic countries flooded Tanta in El Gharbiya governorate to commemorate the moulid of Sidi Ahmed El Badawi. The crowds who went there sought not just blessings, but to recharge themselves spiritually and to be reminded of the virtues Islam calls for through the remembrance of these righteous men’s deeds and attitudes.

The mawalid combine religious rituals such as dhikr (recitation of the names of Allah and the prophet and some verbal prayers) and inshad (an Islamic religious singing that allows minimal musical instruments) as well as some folkloric traditions such as poetry recitals, singing, dancing and selling oriental desserts and toys. Sufis originally celebrated mawalid for spiritual reasons but over the years the folkloric traditions grew bigger and to overshadow Sufism’s tenets, leaving behind an image that Sufism is just a circus for the commoners, uneducated and poor.

Like other religious communities in Egypt, there is no official information about the numbers of Sufis, however most estimates approximates the number of Sufis to around 10 million Egyptians. These estimates are much dependent on attendance of mawalid, religious lessons and dhikr and inshad sessions.  While none of these events are restricted by any means to the disciples of the turuq (plural of tariqa, order or path of Sufism), many people can go in and out of a Sufi order which makes it even harder to make a precise estimate.

What it means to be a Sufi

As he sipped his coffee, Ahmed Cherif put aside his colourful rosary on the table and commenced a passionate discourse about what attracted him to Sufism.

“I have always admired inshad and praise sessions because when I lived in Alexandria many of my friends used to hold dhikr sessions. Also my uncle Sheikh Mazhar guided the Borhameya order, but we never connected on that level,” said Cherif.

After his graduation, he knocked at the door of Sufism.

He continued, “two years ago many things happened to me and I talked to him [his uncle], attended his lessons and got attached to him. I then discovered that Sufism was very different from how I perceived it.”

Cherif read about Sufis, their ideas, how Sufism started and he started adhering to the Borhameya order.

“My first perception of Sufism was solely focused on the physical practices rather than the spiritual ones. I knew there were different aspects of it for the heart and soul, but I hadn’t thought it over,” he said.

Cherif’s definition of Sufism crystallised in freeing your baser self from the shackles of materialism which controls everything. He elaborated, “today people decide for us what to wear, buy, eat and drink; we no longer feel spirituality. Even religion is now measured with material rewards. Do this and you will get a reward from Allah. How about doing this because you love it or because it’s right?”

He thinks that true followers of Islam should control themselves because the prophet, peace be upon him (PBUH), was not afraid of Muslims being infidels, he was afraid of them being tempted by el donia (worldly desires).

He explained, “you practice self-restraint because many times you follow your desires to fulfill your ego. However, if you submitted yourself and emptied the path between you and Allah, then you would break free from anything that enslaves you.”

He believes that you can learn from reading about something, but Sufism requires one to act upon its principles to truly experience it.

“We learnt in books on religion to love, respect and to be humble. I saw that Sufis conform to these values. I saw that differences dissolve in the order. People from all classes, professions get together and differences never came up. I felt it was genuine,” said Cherif.

He described the changes he observed in himself. Some trivial things that used to matter to him were no longer important. Conforming to the five pillars of the order disciplines the person; eating less to purify the body, speaking only to say good, limiting sleeping, refraining from vicious company and keeping dhikr.

“I thought, it actually works!”

Sufi orders  

There are many narratives about the origins of the word Sufi. Some opinions say the name comes from safaa (purity), mystics wearing souf (wool), or el estefaa, being chosen by Allah for their religiosity and sincerity.

Sheikh Mazhar of the Borhameya order explained what Sufism is in his mind.

He said, “Sufism is the rouh [soul] of Islam. It seeks to help people reaching ehsan [a level of perfection and certainty in worshiping Allah] because it is based on the principle of purifying the baser self.”

Sheikh Mazhar is a graduate of Cairo University in economics and political science. His father became the sheikh of the order in 1968. In 1993, the disciples of the order pledged allegiance to him because he was always accompanying his father and they trusted his knowledge of the order.

“The ruling principles of any order are to abide by the Quran and the Sunnah [actions and sayings] of the prophet (PBUH) in our manners, talks, and actions. The order is really about istiqama, incorruptibility,” he said.

In Egypt, there are more than 75 Sufi orders. Each was established by a grand master. The biggest four orders are El Badaweya by sidi Ahmed El Badawi, El Borhameya El Desoukeya by sidi Ibrahim El Desouki, El Shazoliya by Sheikh Aboul Hassan Al Shazli, and Al Rifa’eya by Sheikh Ahmed Al Rifa’i. Other orders such as Al Qenawiya by Sheikh Abdel Rahim El Qenawi, founded in Qena, Al Naqshabandiya, Al Kaderiya, and Al Khelwatiya have chapters in Alexandria and the Nile delta.

Sheikh Mazhar explained that the difference between the orders relates to the spiritual aspect rather than to the creed. In other words, each order is not a distinct religion in itself. Each order might follow a different fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) school, but the leader of the order does not invent a whole new school.

He said, “the methods followed by the grand master with his disciples differ, but the core ruling principles of Sufism are consistent throughout the different orders.”

Sheikh Alaa Aboul Azayem of the Al Azmeya order in Cairo agrees with Sheikh Mazhar. He said, “all the orders are spiritual paths to reach Allah.”

Sheikh Aboul Azayem gave an example of these minor differences among the orders saying, “In the Azmeya order we observe praying the five prayers on time, we have our distinguished dua’a [verbal prayers], our mawalid [many of them are common among all orders] and we follow the Malki school of fiqh.”

Steffen Stelzer, a professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo and one of the representatives of the Naqshbandiya order in Egypt, thinks the different label for the order are not important. Instead, he believes the emphasis should be on the core of Sufism.

“There is an old saying that says ‘at the beginning Sufism was a thing without a name, now it’s a name without a thing,’” he said. “What interests me is the thing and not the name; the living kernel of spirituality of any religion. It has been called Sufism in the context of Islam with the aim of pleasing Allah. If you’re a Christian, Jewish or whatever, and you’re aim is to please God then you can call that thing whatever you like. Labels and tags are not important.”

Stelzer’s story with Sufism took an interesting turn from someone who was not interested in Islam in 1980 to a leader of an order. The secret was in observing a true embodiment of Islam as a religion.

“People in Egypt knew what is right and what is wrong, but none of them was inviting. I did not see a true example of Islam. Then, I was interested in mysticism and I intended to learn about it in Japan through Zen Buddhism. Before traveling, I was introduced to a Sufi Sheikh in Turkey. That meeting made the difference and connected me to Sufism. I did not read about it before, it was the other way around, I met the person then I started reading about Islam.”

In addition to consistency in principles binding all orders, they emphasise purity and asceticism of the heart.

Sheikh Mazhar clarified that when people associate Sufism with austerity and asceticism they sometimes miss the point. According to him, Sufism and Islam in general are against excessive materialism. However, this does not mean that people should refrain from work. He said, “the Sahabah [the prophet’s companions] had their trade and jobs and the prophet did not ask them to dedicate themselves for worship only because Islam encourages people to work and be productive.”

Wahhabism, the antithesis of Sufis

Despite the authentic Islamic principles and foundations Sufism is based upon, as a doctrine it has been criticised heavily by its rival the Wahhabis (in Egypt Salafis adopt the Wahhabi doctrine).

Historically, since its foundation in the 18th century in Najd, the Wahhabi movement, named after Mohamed Abdel Wahhab, adopted an extreme interpretation of the Hanbali school of fiqh and sought to purify Islam from all bid’a (innovations and un-Islamic practices). The Wahhabis were against celebrating mawalid and consecrating shrines. They believe that by such practices Sufis tarnish the Islamic faith.

Stelzer commented on Wahhabis saying, “you have different ideologies competing to represent purity. The Wahhabis want to bring back the simplest forms and that’s what represents purity for them. The desires to purity have some dangers with them because you think that you’re the only clean one and that everyone else is dirty.”

On the other hand, Sheikh Mazhar agreed with some of the criticisms by Salafis and disagreed with others. He agreed that some Sufis are not good disciples of Sufism. Those disciples sometimes commit mistakes against Shari’a and in that case Salafis are right to criticise Sufism.

He said, “Ibn Timia [the grand Sheikh who influenced Abdel Wahhab] distinguished between the early pure forms of Sufism and the later forms. The former he praised and the latter he criticised. However, he was criticising with knowledge of the ruling principles. Some critics of Sufism slam it so hard and generalise the wrong practices they see without having knowledge of the principle.”

Sheikh Mazhar explained that having awliya’a and virtuous men is important in Islamic societies.

“If the awliya’a are not highlighted, then people will think that Islamic virtues like loyalty, asceticism, honesty are just theoretical manners restricted to prophets only. Showing them that in our time there were awliya’a who practiced these virtues strengthens their belief in religion.”

It seems that Sufi Sheikhs and representatives agree that with time Sufism developed practices that were and still are tarnishing the appearance of Sufism.

Sheikh Mazhar added, “some critics have to do with our cultural practices as Egyptians, like cleanliness of our mosques during the mawalid.”

Beyond the Salafis’ attempts to demonise Sufis, Sufis have been looked down upon because they were considered a source of backwardness and traditionalism in Egyptian society. According to Stelzer, this portrayal of Sufis dates back to the colonial era and the rivalry between east and west.

He said, “at a certain historical period in Egypt, resentment started building towards Sufism by the middle classes because it was thought to be for common and stupid people. To be able to follow up with advancement of the west you needed to get rid of the stupid circus stuff.”

Sufis in politics

Sufis Sheikhs were involved in politics with the old regime through the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders. Although the council is somewhat disconnected from Sufi orders and is regarded as a regulatory authority, its existence curbs the autonomy of Sufi orders from the state. It has registered about 75 orders, leaving a further 25 unregistered orders deprived of certain privileges in the public sphere, such as permissions to use streets for celebrating mawalid. The purpose of the council is to advance Sufi rights; however it is hampered due to its structure and its semi-governmental nature.

The Mausoleum of Al-Hussein in Cairo is a sacred Sufi site. (Photo by Sarah El-Masry)

“Although the council is supposed to serve Sufi communities, it does not represent Sufis really,” said Sheikh Aboul Azayem.

The council is made up of ten members that are elected from the general assembly of sheikhs of Sufi orders and five representatives appointed by Al-Azhar (the most prestigious Sunni institute in the Islamic world), the local authority and the ministries of interior, culture and interior. Some members of the council are affiliated with the National Democratic Party and the chairman of the council is elected by the council and approved by the president.

The current chairman, Sheikh Abdel Hady Al Kasaby, was approved by ousted President Hosni Mubarak and therefore after the revolution, the Sufi Reform Front was founded by Sheikh Aboul Azayem to counterbalance the council. After many attempts at mediation between the front and the council, a reconciliation took place in January and the current formation of the council is awaiting new elections next year.

The entry of Salafis into politics in post revolutionary Egypt induced Sufis to enter politics too. In the wave of polarisation between Islamist and secular groups that hit Egypt, Sufis were a vital card. Their great numbers and solid connections attracted political parties to take advantage of Sufi networks. The secular and “civil” camp aligned themselves with the Sufis who are naturally opposed to political Islam.

Only a few orders opted to enter the political arena and established a number of Sufi parties such as the Egyptian Tahrir Party, El Nasr Party (victory) and Sout El Hurriya Party (sound of freedom). Only the Egyptian Tahrir acquired legal status as a political party while the others are still under establishment. The Egyptian Tahrir was founded by Sheikh Aboul Azayem and the majority of the members of the party are adherents of Al Azmeya order.

Since it originated in 1930s, Al Azmeya order has been involved in politics by printing brochures against the British occupation in Egypt, issuing fatwas (religious rulings) against selling Palestinian lands to Zionist settlers and publishing books rebuking Wahhabism.

Due to its overt involvement in politics, Al Azmeya order, in particular, has been criticised by different media outlets. The media capitalised on the membership of Sheikh Aboul Azayem in the Iranian-based organization known as the International Academy for the Approximation between Islamic Sects (IAAIS) and some Islamist fronts insinuated that Sufis are being infiltrated by Shi’a groups to be used to spread Shi’a Islam in Egypt.

Sheikh Aboul Azayem commented on the accusations of spreading Shi’a Islam saying, “Iran is an Islamic power, calling it an infidel only helps Israel and divide the Islamic nation further.”

He believes that Al-Azhar should play a stronger role in reforming what Islamists ruin. He said, “Egypt is Al-Azhar. If Al-Azhar is virtuous, so is Egypt, if Al-Azhar goes off track, so does Egypt,” referring to the autonomy of Al-Azhar from the state and its impartiality.

Unlike Sheikh Aboul Azayem, both Sheikh Mazhar and Stelzer think that Sufis should be out of the political realm and if they are to play a role in it, it should be to guide those in power towards the true principles of Islam.

Sheikh Mazhar said, “politics has its own balance of power, is governed by interests and needs compromises that can endanger some religious values.”

Stelzer believes in Plato’s statement that the best leader suited to govern a country is the one who has least inclination to do so, because anyone who has the inclination to rule is in danger of serving himself rather than severing the people.

Sufis are not peculiar in their diversity and differences; they are like any other community. They cannot be considered a monolithic group, therefore their entry to politics was not a position taken up by all Sufis in Egypt. The same goes for their mistakes; they should not be generalised or taken out of the bigger context. It is worthy after the revolution to tear down the misconceptions about such a big constituent of society to grant the different communities the freedom they need in Egypt’s new era.

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