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Every year for five days in October, the small town of Desouk in Egypt’s Nile Delta attracts millions of visitors and becomes the country’s centre of Sufism.
The occasion is the celebration (moulid) of the birth of Sufi master (Wali) Ibrahim El Desouki, who lived in Desouk in the 13th century. His shrine lies in the town’s central mosque.
The town is turned completely upside down for the moulid. Its streets are jammed with people and full of attractions. There are circus acts with clowns, magicians, knives throwers, snakes and dwarfs; carousels, bumper cars, and top spins.
“People from all around come here, they usually rent a place to stay for the whole week,” Mahmoud al-Sayed, a farmer from the village Milig, told Fanack. The majority of visitors are farmers (fellaheen), often travelling for hours in organised bus trips from Egypt’s Delta villages and beyond.
Those who cannot afford housing stay on the streets or in the Ibrahim El Desouki mosque itself, which is packed with people sleeping and eating on the floor. Some small walking lanes are left open for others to visit El Desouki’s shrine, pushing themselves forward towards the tomb, to hold its bars and pray. The worshippers also touch a stone in the mosque’s walls, said to contain the footprint of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), for blessing.
“Ibrahim El Desouki is known for answering prayers of the people by delivering them to God; whenever you ask him for something, it happens,” Al-Sayed said. “When I go to the mosque and stand next to his tomb, I feel his greatness and prestige.”
The religious character of the feast is also apparent by the presence of Sheikhs from different orders and stands manned by often-famous Sufi performers. They sing Sufi music, and many in the audience perform Dhikr, a spiritual form of movement while citing the name of God – not to be confused with a dance. Others sit and listen quietly, smoking their shishas.
El Desouki is the founder of the Sufi Desouki order, also referred to as the Ibrahimi order. A great deal of good deeds, or Karama, are attributed to him. For instance, he is said to have saved a young boy who was eaten by a crocodile by ordering the crocodile to spit out the boy alive.
The Desouk moulid is one of the many in Egypt. Tanta, also in the Nile delta, is home to the moulid for Al-Sayyid Al-Baddawi, founder of the Baddawiyahh Sufi order. Alexandria celebrates Sufi master Abu al-Abbas al-Morsi. Similar to El Desouki, they also hail from the 13th century. In Cairo there are three large moulids (mawalid) in celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, his granddaughter Sayyida Zeinab and great great granddaughter Sayyida Nafisa.
The most famous moulids in Upper Egypt are in honour of Abdel Rahim Al-Qenawi in the city of Qena. South of Marsa Alam, there is the moulid Abul Hassan Al-Shazli, in honour of a Sufi master that died on his way to Mecca for pilgrimage (Hajj). In addition, there are numerous other smaller moulids. In Milig, Al-Sayed’s village, there used to be a large moulid in honour of Ali al-Wassal, which the police cancelled several years ago over security concerns. Deadly fights had broken out during the last celebration, Al-Sayed said. Now the moulid is celebrated over one night with just one singer.
Not everybody in Egypt is fan of the moulids. Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood consider it haram (forbidden) in Islam, as they reject venerating ‘saints’ and pilgrimages to any other place than Mecca. While Al-Sayed considers Ibrahim El Desouki to be something like a mediator who makes his prayers heard, other Muslims would say that in Islam the relation to God is a direct one, with no place for someone in between.
Moreover, orthodox-conservative currents consider music and dancing, even Dhikr, as forbidden in Islam.
Ahmed, a Muslim in his 20s hailing from Mahalla in the Delta, does not go to the moulids. “Of course not, I think it is just a dirty business to take money from uneducated people,” he told Fanack. “They don’t know anything about religion.”
For Ahmed, the moulids are “not Islamic”. “Only Sufis are going to them, not others, like Salafists,” Ahmed believes, while acknowledging that Sufism in itself is part of Islam. “But what people who call themselves Sufis do nowadays is not according to Islam, it’s close to Shi’ism,” Ahmed said. But, he stresses, it is the tradition of moulids that is bad, not the people themselves. “I just don’t agree with them.”
Sufis have also been a target for violent extremists. Al-Qaeda affiliates blew up Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali in 2012 and Salafi groups torched two shrines in Tunisia in 2013. Pakistan’s Sufis have also been targeted, including during a major bombing at a Sufi shrine in 2017 killing over 70 and another one in October that year. The Islamic State (IS) offshoot operating in North and Central Sinai killed a Sufi preacher in 2016 and warned it would not allow Sufi practises. The most dramatic attack happened in November 2017, when IS attacked a mosque frequented by Sufis in North Sinai, killing over 300.
Al-Sayed is part of the Sufi Rifa’i order, which he says is something that goes from father to son. “True Sufis go to all the Dhikr nights organised by the order they follow and to the moulids.”
H.A. Hellyer, a researcher in Islamic studies at the Atlantic Council, told Fanack that there are different levels of commitment to an order. “Being part of an order generally means following a certain approach to developing and nurturing your relation with God.”
It can be a symbolic relation with the order or its Sheikh, such as simply loving and praying for the wali, he added. Others will recite the awrad, teachings or memoires of the wali, or will follow the Sheikh as murids (disciples). “In this case the Sheikh of the order is their mentor and helps them learn how to develop their relation with God,” Hellyer explained.
Talking with Egyptian Muslims about moulids sparks diverse reactions and often heated debates. Some say Sufism goes against mainstream Sunni Islam. “In Sufism people go to the Sheikh to bring them closer to God, while according to Sunna there is no mediator between man and God,” was what several believers told Fanack. They believe Sufism is bid’ah, or ‘innovation’, which is used to describe a new religious practise that diverts from the original Islam. Others don’t reject Sufism, but consider the beliefs surrounding moulids and walis as superstition.
Hellyer rejects such a notion of separating Sufism from Sunni Islam. “Sufism is mainstream, normative and orthodox,” he said.
“Before the rise of Salafism in the 18th century, the notion that Sufism as a science en masse would be bid’ah was nonsense,” he said. “Old institutions all over the Islamic world have been influenced or shaped by Sufism in one way or another, and are clear that Sufism is an integral part of traditional Islamic teachings.” For instance, Sufism has heavily influenced Egypt’s Al-Azhar, and the brother of current Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb is the leader of an important Sufi order.
The rejection of Sufism comes from the rise of Salafism in the region, Hellyer said, and a more general trend of modernism that separates religion from the spiritual, denying the reality of an immanent transcendent in the world.
Some have argued that the popularity and widespread presence of Sufism make it a powerful ideological means to deter people from radicalisation and being recruited by groups like Al-Qaeda and IS. “The Sufi community in North Sinai…powerfully kept thousands of youths from joining the ranks of IS and has continued to engage them on social, intellectual and most importantly religious levels,” Sinai expert Muhannad Sabry told The Independent after the major attack in November 2017.
Hellyer sees this differently. “Sufism is not a counter-extremism tactic; it is a religious method to reach knowledge of God,” he said. “Seeing Sufism as an answer to radicalisation also diverts us away from understanding the political and socio-economic motives of those being radicalized, while also putting Sufism at the political service of the state.”