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The Meaning of Sufism



By Ibrahim El-Houdaiby

3 July, 2014

In the Description de l’Egypte, the French scholars accompanying Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century noted that only a small minority of Muslims were not affiliated with the Sufi Tariqas or orders that played such an important role at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, various historical records emphasise the roles played by these Tariqas and their networks in Cairo’s first and second revolts against the French occupation. However, during the following decades the Tariqas seemed to hold a less influential position in Egyptian society. Only one Tariqa had a significant presence within Ahmed Orabi’s forces when they fought the British in 1882, and the Sufis participating in the 1919 Revolution had no significant presence in leading or extending it.

However, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Sufism is now facing novel challenges, thanks in large part to the developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sufi Tariqas have been an integral component of Egyptian society since Ayyubid rule (1171-1341 CE), when Saladin, the ruler of Egypt and founder of the dynasty, encouraged the Tariqas to fight back against Shiism after two centuries of Shiite Fatimid rule. The Tariqas were supported by massive financial endowments, transforming Sufism from a state of individual asceticism and worship into a form of social capital. Thanks to key Sufi figures including Al-Shazuli, Al-Badawi, Al-Dessouki and others, many gathered under the banner of the Sufi sheikhs and enormous Auqaf funds were established to sponsor the Tariqas’ activities.

It was not long before a rapprochement between the Tariqas and the scholars of Al-Azhar took place. Most of the scholars and students subscribed to the Tariquas and all the sheikhs were scholars. The Tariqas therefore became the social manifestation of Al-Azhar and acted as mediators between the scholarly religious institution and other social institutions, most importantly the guilds. The Tariqas were established to serve different professions, including butchers, craftsmen and merchants, and they had the effect of tying workers’ professional lives to their spiritual paths.

Both the scholarly and Sufi institutions relied heavily on the institution of religious endowments in funding their activities, including supervising healthcare and educational institutions. Sufism and Sufi Tariqas therefore played a central role in Egypt’s social order up until the nineteenth century.

On his ascent to power in 1805, Mohamed Ali launched a top-down modernisation process in Egypt. Defined by the US political scientist Samuel Huntington as a process that involves “the rationalisation of authority and the replacement of a large number of traditional, religious, familial and ethnic political authorities by a single secular, national political authority,” this modernisation process led the country down three paths that irreversibly changed its structure and identity.

First was the modernisation path itself, which was manifested, among other things, by the establishment of a modern army, modern educational and irrigation systems, and modern infrastructure.  Simultaneously, an “Egyptianisation” path was underway. Egyptian nationalism was born in the institutions set up by Mohamed Ali, starting in 1822 with the recruitment of 4,000 Egyptians to the military, formerly comprised of mercenaries.

This modernisation and Egyptianisation facilitated the third process, which was the state’s growing power. The newly established state gradually co-opted previously independent social institutions through undermining their independence. A decree issued in 1835 established a central authority to oversee religious endowments, for example. Initially having only a limited administrative role, the decree was followed by several others broadening its scope and eventually in 1957 giving the state the power to confiscate or reorient endowments in line with its definition of the public interest.

The guilds were also dismantled and their labour redirected into military industries. The government later took over all the guild functions under the Khedive Said. Laws defining the necessary qualifications for Al-Azhar scholars were issued in 1872 and 1885, and a High Council of Al-Azhar was established in 1908. The Al-Azhar grand sheikh’s job description was defined by a decree issued in 1911, and the educational system was modernised in 1930.

The religious authority of the Ulema, or religious scholars, was expropriated by the state through its abolition of the religious (Sharia) courts in 1956, and in 1961 a decree was issued transforming Al-Azhar into a public university and its grand sheikh into a civil servant. As a result, the state successfully dismantled the traditional social institutions, replacing them not by modern civil institutions but by the central power of the modern state.

The Path of The Tariqas: the Sufi Tariqas went down a similar path, though with only nominal intervention from the state in the ratification of their grand sheikhs.

Laws regulating the Tariqas were adopted in 1895, followed by others in 1903 and 1905, eventually giving the state power over their establishment and roles. Decades later, law 118 of 1976, which still regulates the Sufi orders, institutionalised the High Council of Sufi Tariquas  this having a membership consisting of the grand sheikh of the Sufi orders, appointed by the president, and representatives from the Ministries of Religious Endowments, the Interior, Culture, and Local government. With four government representatives on its board, the Sufi Council clearly lost its autonomy from the state and became part of the state apparatus.

A few other factors contributed to pushing the Sufi Tariqas closer to the state. The nationalist movement, with its modernist outlook, and modernist reformers including the theologian Mohamed Abdou deemed Sufism to be “superstitious”, “backward” and “ignorant” and consequently detached themselves from the Tariqa networks. The king and the British, on the other hand, realised the importance of the traditional networks of the Tariqas. This, alongside their traditional politically conservative outlook, pushed them closer to the state.

Parallel to the ascent of the modern state, or rather because of it, was the ascent of Islamism. The emergence of the state as the depository of all authority triggered the recycling of Sharia law to enshrine the legitimacy of its newly born bodies. Instead of the Sufi Tariqas being its most important manifestation, Sharia law was being increasingly manifested in political and legal terms. Early attempts to codify Sharia law took place at the hands of Qadri Pasha, the minister of justice at the time, and signalled the triumph of the modern state rationale and an attempt to subordinate religion to it.

Modern education replaced the traditional madrasas and Kutub, or religious schools, further contributing to empowering the newly absolute state. By the turn of the twentieth century, Abdou among other scholars had accepted the now almighty state and advocated using it to remake society through legal changes and education.

Only a few years later, the Muslim Brotherhood was established as a modernist movement par excellence. Like the Sufi Tariquas the Brotherhood was comprised of religiously motivated actors attempting to “live” the Sharia as they understood it, but, unlike the Tariqas its members were activists employing modern notions of organisation, strategy and ideology, and their project and understanding of Islam revolved around the state and had a primarily socio-political instead of socio-cultural outlook.

Their project of Islamisation included the codification of Sharia, a notion hijacked from the state, and the establishment of the trans-national, but modern, state. Their very presence, being the antithesis of Sufism, brought the Tariqas closer to the state, the only power capable of countering Islamism.

It is only through this historical overview that one can fully understand the contemporary transformation of the Sufi Tariqas. Decades of political apathy, or quietism, in the Tariqas was not necessarily a reflection of Sufi apathy, but rather marked a retreat in understanding of the Tariqas’ roles and the emergence of other platforms for Sufis to engage in polity and society.

The formal Tariqas mostly defended the ousted regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, but as they were not conventional platforms for political mobilisation considerable numbers of Sufis were mobilised to support the demonstrations. The Islamists’ rapid ascent to power in the aftermath of Mubarak’s ousting posed a serious threat that provoked Tariqa politicisation.

Wahabi involvement in the destruction of shrines, recurrent talk of codifying Sharia, and the fear of the imposition of a predominantly Wahabi religious identity also triggered the rapid awakening and politicisation of the Sufis, who soon started collaborating with different social, political and state actors to contain and roll back the Islamist ascent.

The revitalisation of their networks over the past couple of years has helped the Tariqas mobilise their constituencies considerably more, for example in the massive anti-Brotherhood demonstrations of June 30 2013.

The ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi and the subsequent repression of the Brotherhood has not brought an end to the current Sufi transformation, however. In fact, Sufism today is faced by unprecedented challenges and opportunities that will trigger even more change. The collapse of the Wasatiyyah, or Neo-Islamist Project championed by the Brotherhood, its networks and preachers, allows for the re-emergence of Sufi hegemony over the religious sphere and hence opens windows of opportunity for Sufism.

Moreover, social alienation, a product of modernity, creates a need for enhanced spirituality to which Sufism can be an answer. Nonetheless, the continuing dominance of statist and market-oriented ideologies poses counter-challenges to which Sufis are reacting differently. The New Age Movement, with its focus on drawing on both eastern and western spiritual and metaphysical traditions, for example, contributes to a growing perception of Sufism as an “alternative path” to Orthodox Islam and a Fiqh-free spiritual path akin to yoga and similar practices.

The realisation of this growing demand is causing a new wave of new preachers to adopt a Sufi-friendly discourse, and the Sufi Zikrs and spiritually oriented preaching have become integral components of their discourse. The marketisation and commercialisation of Sufism is further taking place through the co-opting of Sufi figures by satellite TV channels and the growing ties between them and the business class. Political actors, realising the power of the Sufi orders, have also been keen to invoke Sufi notions in order to win the support of key Sufi figures. These, in return, have increasingly capitalised on their religious capital to direct voters, a fact to which the recent constitutional referendum and presidential elections clearly attested.

Amidst these pull and push factors, and the countless images, symbols and names associated with them, it may be that the essence of Sufism is evaporating and little fresh water is left in the Sufi well.

What is Sufism? One could hardly think of other terms that are as contested in their meaning as Sufism. The reason can be easily traced to what many Sufis will tell you: in the beginning Sufism was a reality and a practice without a name; now it is a name without a reality.

With the gradual decay of its essence, the focus has shifted to the image of Sufism in orders, practices, rituals and symbols. Diversity in these respects, as well as because of the Wahabi-influenced “Islamic resurgence” of the twentieth century, has contributed to both portraying Sufism as an alternative to Orthodox Islam and disconnecting it from other components of Islam, namely Aqida (theology) and Fiqh (jurisprudence).

For centuries, Sunni Islam has been centred around the inseparable pillars of Fiqh, Aqida and Sufism. There are references in the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, that narrate a conversation between the Prophet Mohamed and Gabriel (who appeared in human form), where the Prophet divided religion into Islam, Iman, and Ihsan, the first comprising “acts,” the second “beliefs” and the third defined by the Prophet as “serving Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet He sees you.”

Towards the end of the second century of Islam, the study of “acts” was institutionalised in the four equally authentic schools of Sunni jurisprudence. The schools, named after four key scholars, Abu Hanifa Al-Noaman (79-150 AH), Malek Ibn Anas (93-179 AH), Mohamed Ibn Idris Al-Shafei (150-204 AH) and Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (164-241 AH), differ methodologically on their tools and techniques of interpretation and extrapolation.

Less than one century down the road, the study of theology was institutionalised in two mutually acceptable schools named after Abul-Hasan Al-Ashari (260-324 AH) and Abu-Mansour Al-Maturidi (died 333 AH). Ihsan, later known as Sufism and the spiritual component of Islam, took a longer road towards institutionalisation, only materialising towards the end of the seventh century.

This is not to suggest that Sufism was not dealt with as a field of scholarship and path at earlier times. In fact, as early as the second century in the Islamic period, Sufi saints emerged, including Dawoud Al-Taiy (died 165 AH), Maarouf Al-Karkhi (died 200 AH), Al-Harith Al-Muhasabi (died 243 AH), and Al-Sarey Al-Saqati (died 251 AH). The latter’s nephew and student Al-Junaid Al-Baghdadi (221-297 AH) was one of the first scholars to produce Sufi literature and is widely referred to as Imam Alqawm.

Volumes of Sufi literature were produced between the third and sixth centuries, including Isvahani’s Hilyat Al-Awleya, Salmi’s Tabaqat Al-Sufeya and others, but the next milestone for Sufism came at the hands of the theologian Abu-Hamed Al-Ghazali (died 505 AH) in his book Ihyaa Ullum Al-Din, in which he dealt extensively with the diseases of the Nafs (self) and outlined the Sufi path.

While fiqh and aqida were institutionalised in mazhabs (schools), Sufism was broadly institutionalised in seven Tariqas (paths) named after seven saints of the sixth to eighth centuries: Abdul Qader Al-Jilani (471-561 AH), Ahmed Al-Rifai (512-578 AH), Abul Hassan Al-Shazuli (571-656 AH), Ahmed Al-Badawi (596-675 AH), Ibrahim Al-Dessouki (653-696 AH), Mohamed Bahaaeddin Al-Naqshaband (718-791 AH), and Ahmed Al-Khalwati. Other Sufi masters also established paths, notably Jalaluldin Al-Rumi in Anatolia, Abdullah Ibn Alwi Al-Haddad in Yemen and Ahmed Al-Teijani in the Maghreb, but these were either tied in different ways to one of the seven main Tariquas  or were more limited in terms of their impact and geographical presence.

Sufis say that the “number of paths (to the Lord) is equal to the number of creatures’ breaths.” The paths’ essence is more or less the same, though countless attempts have been made to put it into words. It has been defined by the scholar Ahmed Zarouk as “purifying the heart and filling it with the love of God,” by Ibn Ajeiba as the “journey to the King” and by others as the “killing of the Nafs.” Divergence, however, has not only been limited to definitions, but has also been extended to symbols, practices and rituals between different Tariqas and between different branches of the same Tariqa.

Common to the Tariqas: only a few features are held in common by the different Tariquas and each represents a cornerstone of the Sufi path.

The first is the Silsila, or chain, linking Tariqa members to the Prophet through a lineage of sheikhs. All Tariqas are connected to the Prophet through his cousin Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb, and the Naqshbandi Tariqa is connected in addition through his companion Abu-Bakr Al-Seddik. This connection is important for several reasons, the most important being that it helps safeguard the Tariqa from Bid’ah, or innovation, in religion, a practice condemned by the Prophet. The sheikhs are supposed to transmit the spiritual knowledge they have acquired themselves from their sheikhs going back to the Prophet.

Indeed, the Quran refers to the Prophet as an “illuminating lamp” (33:46), and Sufis argue that the transmission of this light and Madad(support/blessings) is made possible through this uninterrupted lineage.

The second common feature of the Sufi Tariqas is the emphasis on a sheikh and his personal relationship with his Mureeds (followers). The Quran instructs Muslims to “follow the way of those who turn back to Me” (31:15), and unlike in modern education the long history of Muslim scholarship emphasises this teacher-student relationship.

Al-Shafei, for example, emphasises that knowledge can only be transmitted through “the extensive companionship of a teacher,” and scholars warn against those who “have acquired their knowledge [solely] through books.” It is through this companionship that the sheikh can see the Mureeds Nafs and provide instructions for taming it.

The central figure in the path, a Sufi sheikh is not loose-handed in dealing with his Mureeds, and he should have sufficient knowledge of Sharia. The Sufis insist that the Sharia and Tariqa are inseparable; collectively they lead to Haqiqat (truth), as “light is embedded in Sharia,” and the purpose of Sufi education is to purify the Nafs such that one is ready to receive this light.

The path, and the sheikh’s instructions, should therefore by fully in line with Sharia, and all seven founders of Tariquas  and all the sheikhs in Sufi history, have therefore acquired this knowledge. They all subscribe to the foundations of a recognized Mazhab in Fiqh and Aqida. 

These unifying pillars constitute the essence of Sufism. Sufi sheikhs capitalise on the knowledge and Madad inherited from their teachers to guide the Mureed on his path, employing three main tools: Zikr (literally the remembrance of God, but meant as a pronouncement or invocation), instructions and Haal (presence). The Mureed is instructed in different Zikrs, mostly using the different names and attributes of God in specific forms to weaken different evils within the Nafs. This is coupled with the sheikh’s other spiritual instructions, which help the Mureed to transcend such evils and purify the soul.

The soul is also purified by accompanying the sheikh, whose presence provides the mureed with Madad and helps purify the soul. Ahmed Ibn Attallah Al-Sekandari (died 709 CE), a reputable Sufi master, advises Mureeds “not to accompany [a sheikh] whose presence does not awaken you and whose words [and instructions] do not lead you to Allah.”

Teaching through silence, meditation, and Kholwa (sanctuary) are therefore integral components of the Sufi path and practices inherited from the prophets and saints. Sufis will tell you that these teachings will do the Mureed no good if he or she does not submit, however. Acceptance and submission to both the will and instructions of God and the spiritual instructions of the sheikh are foundational pillars of the Sufi path, and ignoring them deprives the Mureed of Madadand hinders his path down the road.

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby is a political researcher focusing on political economy and Islamic movements in the Middle East He explores how Egypt’s Sufi orders have developed over the centuries, becoming more involved in politics only in the wake of the Arab Spring