Muslims or mystics? Demystifying Sufism in the wake of Egypt's deadly attack

Muslims or mystics? Demystifying Sufism in the wake of Egypt's deadly attack
Extremists hold Islam - which inextricably includes Sufism - as it is normatively practiced around the world in contempt. Egypt's deadly attack on Friday must be understood within this context.
5 min read
25 Nov, 2017
Egypt's attack on a mosque on Thursday has raised questions about what Sufism is [Getty]

In the aftermath of recent terror attacks perpetrated in cities across the Western world, politicians have emerged amid the chaos to declare that the extremists will not succeed in their war on Western liberal values.

If, however, we accept that attacks on tourist attractions, clubs and cafes in Western cities are an affront to all that the West represents, Friday's attack on a mosque in Egypt should stand for nothing less than an attack on Muslims and Islam.

The atrocity, in which at least 235 people were killed during Friday prayers, sent shockwaves across the world. However, while Muslims around the world received this attack as an affront to the faith and its believers, many analysts were at pains to explain the attack in other terms.

The victims, we're told, were targeted because they were no ordinary Muslims. 

Whether intentionally or otherwise, the result has been to preserve a willful ignorance of the fact that its is ordinary Muslims of various shades who bear the brunt of extremism's ugly consequences.

Friday's attack on Rawda mosque in Egypt's Sinai
region killed at least 235 people [AFP]
"One clue is the target," wrote Britain's Guardian newspaper, in trying to explain why a mosque of all places was targeted.

"Worshippers from the mystic Sufi strand of Islam, which is frowned upon by Muslims who follow the rigorous and puritanical version of the faith associated with many Gulf countries. ISIS sees Sufis as apostates, and thus not just legitimate targets, but obligatory ones," the article continued, seemingly suggesting that only puritan or extremist Muslims are 'rigorous' in their religious practice.

Elsewhere, other outlets similarly attempted to define who Sufis are, casting them as a seperate group who are distinct from the Muslim mainstream.

"Egypt attack: Why were Sufis targeted?" read the title of a Sky News piece.

"Who are Sufi Muslims and why do some Extremists hate them?" read another published by the New York Times.

In doing so, the pain caused to Muslims worldwide by Friday's attack was explained away as a localised trauma, rather than injury to the entire body of the faith's adherents.

Such an understanding fails to grasp that extremists hold Islam, as it is normatively practiced by Muslims across the world, in contempt, and not just minority groups within the faith.

Conceding the middle ground

By casting Sufism as a seperate sect within Islam, the middle ground within Sunni Islam is unfairly awarded by outside observers to the extremists within this sect.

Indeed, explanations of Sufism and who Sufis are are peppered with common tropes about 'mysticism' and 'spirituality' that portray it as a seperate and distinct practice. What is also implicitly suggested is that the Islam practiced by millions of Muslims around the world is, to contrast, devoid of spirituality.
The reality is, however, that Sufism, or rather Sufi-influenced Islam, has for centuries been an integral part of Muslim societies and practice.
Meanwhile, reports on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group liberally use the word 'Sunni' to describe these extremist groups.

The reality is, however, that Sufism, or rather Sufi-influenced Islam, has for centuries been an integral part of Muslim societies and practice.

This is best demonstrated in the fact that in the coming weeks, millions of Muslims around the world will celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and participate in a festivity considered to be a key practice of Sufis.

The day, which falls on November 30 this year, will be marked by a public holiday in most Muslim-majority countries around the world. Saudi Arabia is one of only a handful of Muslim states that has no public holiday for the Mawlid celebration - a reflection of the state's advocacy of Salafism.

The science of Islamic spirituality, or Tasawwuf (Sufism), is also taught in the Muslim world's top religious institutions, including Egypt's al-Azhar and Morocco's Quaraouiyine University - both of which are considered to be Islam's oldest seats of learning.

Sufism, it must be understood, is inseperable from the mainstream versions of Islam practiced by Muslims the world over.

Untangling the myths

In the West, Sufism is often associated with
romanticised images of Rumi and the
whirling dervishes [Anadolu]
Adding to the complications of using the word 'Sufi' are the connotations and exotic images that the term often conjures up in the West.

No explanation of Sufism for a Western audience is complete without mention of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet whose works at one point became the best-selling poetry in the United States.

Modern orientalist explanations of Rumi's works, however, conveniently minimise mention of his Muslim beliefs. This is done to the point the Mevlana appears in the imagination as John Lennon-like figure puffing on a peace pipe, lost in the dazzling dance of the whirling dervishes.

This, of course, is done for the purpose of palatability.  

Other prominent figures who have had shaped Western understandings of Sufism are the author Idries Shah and Inayat Khan, a musician who founded the Sufi Order in the West in London in 1914.

Shah, who died in London in 1996, argued in his works that the practice of Sufism predated Islam, while Khan preached a version Sufism that veered towards a universalism that is unlike the orthodox Islamic creed.

The common thread that runs through these cultural reference points is that they offer sanitised forms of Muslim spirituality that are packaged for consumption without the less appetising Islamic dogma and laws.

Sunni clerics like Ali Gomaa have long been used to prop up
despotic regimes in the Middle East [AFP]
Some Muslims have sought to capitalise upon this favourable view of Sufism in the West to argue that its propagation can counter the influence of extremists.

This view rests partly on an assumption that there is not enough Sufism around, while the truth is that the influence of Sufism has already deeply permeated Muslim societies.

Testament to this is the fact that despotic regimes in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world rely on Sunni, Sufi Muslim leaders to placate populations and defend even the most indefensible of government actions.

This can be seen in Egypt, where former Grandi Mufti Ali Gomaa's statements of unwavering support for the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are broadcast across the nation. In Syria, meanwhile, Bashar al-Assad's government has long benefitted from the zealous support of clerics like Grand Mufti Ahmed Badreddine Hassoun.