Considered more mystical than political, Sufis have enjoyed relatively little harassment from the authorities By Lamia Hassan
(Egypt Today Magazine, May 2011)
Sufis, more often than not, are not media-savvy, and they keep away from the limelight, giving
the impression that there aren’t many of them in Egypt. However, Sufis do have a strong presence; in fact, unofficial reports put the number of Sufi adherents across the country at 10 million.
Although it is said that Sufism first appeared during the ninth century in Iraq, Sufis usually trace their origins and roots to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who they consider to be their first sheikh. The 11th-century Persian Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali and the 13th-century Mawlana Jalaludin Rumi, from what is now Tajikistan, were among the early popular Sufi thinkers. Another revered scholar is the 14th-century Shah Naqshband Muhammad Bahauddin Uways al-Bukhari from what is now Uzbekistan and for whom the Al Naqshabandi order is named.
Sufism first became popular in Egypt following the 1952 Revolution and during the rule of the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Unlike other movements or religious sects, Sufism is more about philosophical or spiritual thinking than it is about dogma or political practice for instance. Sufism involves self discipline, above all, and regulating day-to-day behavior in an attempt to submit to God in preparation for the day when the soul meets Him.
Over 70 schools of thought and religious orders fall under the umbrella of Sufism in Egypt, but many of those orders originated outside of Egypt.
There aren’t any constraints or rules for people to become Sufi; anyone can become a Sufi, choosing the school of thought or sheikh they would like to follow under that umbrella.
Unlike Salafis, Sufi Egyptians have one sheikh leading the group — Sheikh Al- Toroq Al-Sufiya or the Sheikh of the Sufi orders, appointed by the Egyptian president — under which all the different Sufi schools fall. In practice, Sufis seek divine truth and love through ‘direct encounters’ with God, as shown in their prayers and the way they address Him. The origin of the name itself might not be very clear to the followers. Some believe it is derived from the Arabic word suuf (wool), since some of the early adherents used to wear worn-out wool, a harsh fabric that was meant to symbolize their disinterest in the material world.
Sufis achieve a mystical state of mind when performing their rituals. They are very famous for zikr, a ceremony that involves repetitive prayers coupled with certain movements aimed to be an act of remembrance of God.
Sufis visit shrines regularly and celebrate mulids (religious festivals) honoring the birth and death days of revered sheikhs or thinkers at mosques housing their shrines. The city of Tanta is famous for the popular Al Sayed Al-Badawi, while Alexandria has numerous shrines and a concentration of Sufi adherents as well.
Sufis are not confrontational in nature and have not been perceived as a political threat over the years.
Role in Post-Mubarak Egypt
Sufis are one of the few sects that did not have negative encounters with former President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
Although apolitical during the Mubarak era, Sufis have made a more open appearance in the public sphere post-revolution and for once showed their anger at the destruction of several Alexandrian Sufi shrines, allegedly by Salafis. So far, however, they have not shown significant interest in politics. et