Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Sufism: diverse and mystical

Religion- Sufism
Sufi Muslims sway to the beat of religious songs in al-Hussein district of Cairo during a religious ceremony marking the last days of the holy month of Ramadan. Photo AFP

Etymologically speaking, the word Sufism derives from the root ‘suf’ (wool), which denotes both the woolen garment that Sufi Muslim ascetics and dervishes wear in rejection of colourful, sophisticated clothes, and the notion of ‘saf’/‘safw’ (purity, clarity).

The concept of Sufism is both complex and multidimensional. Its complexity is due to its long history and absorption by various cultures in Asia and Africa; its multidimensionality lies in the various interpretations of its tenets and doctrines. Subsumed under ‘Islamic mysticism’ (as opposed to legal Islam), the concept of Sufism in its broader sense incorporates individual self-purification, spi-itual reconciliation of body and soul, and universal values to which all humans adhere.

In principle, Sufi Islam may be orthodox or popular. The former type is associated with the ‘official’ dimension of Islam and is based on the foundational sources of the Islamic religion: the Koran and Sunna (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings). The latter type is also based on the Koran and Sunna but includes additional beliefs and practices that the conservative segments among orthodox ulama (religious scholars) consider non-Islamic, such as saint veneration, trances etc. However, as the medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun stated, what makes Sufism attractive is its freedom of faith: each individual is free to have a personal relationship with God and also free to choose a way to worship and establish a direct relationship with God.

As people live in geographically different places, Sufism has been understood and experienced differently through time and space. The most celebrated Sufis are Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (12th century), Jalal al-Rumi (13th century), Baha al-Din Naqshband (14th century), Ibn Arabi and Rabia al-Adawiyya.

Sufism is flourishing in many parts of the world, the most important of which are Turkey, India, Pakistan, but also Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. In Morocco, for example, a Sufi is a wali Allah (friend of God). Other terms include nasik (devotee), abid (worshipper), majdhub (ecstatic, whose mental capacities are affected by intense attraction to and sense of intimacy with God). In Morocco, Sufism is an old spiritual tradition that continues to attract young people. The main reason for this attraction is that progress and change are part and parcel of Moroccan Sufi spirituality.

Hence, festivals such as the annual Fes Festival of Sacred Music, and the accompanying intellectual and cultural encounters, chants and trances, constitute a powerful social medium whereby the secular and the sacred are fused in enchanting moments that lift the individuals above material concerns, reconcile body and soul and bring the local and universal together.

As such, Sufism can be a source of inspiration for youth seeking interfaith dialogue. By allowing a spiritual space that material modernity cannot offer, Sufi Muslims help Moroccan communities to adapt to the pressures of modernity and today’s turbulent times. The attractiveness of Sufism is also due to the fact that it does not ban modern means of entertainment, unveiling or mixed dancing and chanting. Rather, the difference between virtues and vice is not determined by appearance but by intent and action.

Sufism is a characteristic of various strands of Moroccan music. It is very present in the lyrics of urban artists like Jil Jilala and Nass al-Ghiwane (1970s) as well as Saharan Gnawa music and even the Rolling Stones. The Gnawa are the descendants of African slaves brought to Morocco between the 12th and 17th centuries. More recently, Fnaire, a hip-hop group, has mixed Sufi traditions with American rap and is extremely popular with young people.

Sufism transcends specific sects and shrines and encompasses styles of music that self-identify as modern. Typical of this is rai, a version of hip-hop that draws on Sufi poetry by focusing on the body, simple expressions and the invocation of the male and female saints’ healing power. The saints are seen in this poetry as spiritual masters who are capable of uniting individuals with God.

Beyond Morocco, Sufism can be found across North Africa and some parts of Western Africa including Senegal.

Popular music in many of these countries is a mix of religious lyrics that are deeply rooted in the oral traditions of sub-Saharan Africa. Their melodies are often akin to American blues and jazz. The popularity of Sufi music resides in the various dances that it inspires. Just like the Moroccan Gnawa songs and dances, these types of music are accompanied by singing rhymed poetry in a high-pitched voice and frequent repetitions of the Islamic statement of faith (‘there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’), which appeals to the crowds.

Another country where Sufism and Sufi practices are popular and deeply rooted is Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world. According to the Religious Literary Project of the Harvard Divinity School, 15 per cent of Egyptians engage in Sufi practices and many of them are members of Sufi turuq (plural of tariqa, which can be translated as brotherhood or order). These turuq are numerous in Egypt and members gather in zhikr circles during which they collectively and repeatedly recite God’s name.

Apart from zhikr gatherings that are part of formal turuq, many Egyptian Muslims visit the shrines of spiritual leaders, which can be broadly described as a Sufi practice that constitutes part of the culture of significant segments of Egyptians.

Islamic ibtihalat and tawashih are also prevalent in Egyptian religious and popular culture. These ibtihalat and tawashih involve the recitation of lyrics and prose that praise God and Prophet Muhammad. They may or may not be accompanied by musical instruments.

It is important to note that mainstream Sufis, including Sufis in Egypt, identify as Muslim. They do not constitute a different sect or a separate religion. However, Sufism started to come under attack particularly with the rise of Salafism. Salafis are ultra-conservative Muslims who seek to restore Islam to how they believe it was during the time of the prophet, his companions and the early Muslims. They became active in Egypt during the so-called Islamic revival of the 1970s and 1980s, and their influence and following have increased since. Salafis believe that Sufism is an ‘innovation’ that conflicts with Islam’s early ways as they interpret them. Both Salafis and Sufis argue that they as-pire to self-purification, although they each do it in their own way.