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Anatomy of Sufism

Long thought to be on the path to extinction, modern-day Sufism is as strong as ever in the Arab world even if serious study of the movement is lacking, writes Ammar Ali Hassan*

With its folk appeal, Sufism has had a vivid history in Islam from the time the movement was little more than sentimental leanings and yearnings filling the hearts of the pious to when it spawned institutions that prospered on a blend of faith and folk tales with an occasional flirtation with politics. For centuries, Sufism has defied predictions of its demise. It survived the harsh criticism of Islamist hardliners and withstood the waves of modernism that have swept over the Islamic world.

As other forms of religious association emerged on the scene, with variable emphases on charity or politics, Sufism was thought to be on the way out. But it has managed to stay the course despite the dire expectations. It has even managed to attract a new following among people who are highly professional, modern even.

But there is a big difference between Sufi societies that cope with modernism and get involved in public work so as to push their members to the top of the political echelon, as is the case in Turkey, and Sufi societies that inhabit a world of folklore and become little more than a festive phenomenon donning the garments of tradition. The latter are incapable of producing any political input, unless it is one that serves the status quo, as is the case in Egypt.

One can regard Egypt's Sufi societies as being a tributary of civil society, for they do engage in charity work, but that is not the whole story. It is hard to see them turning to activism or rising out of their political lethargy. It is even harder to imagine them ending their infatuation with myths that border on charlatanism.

Yet, Egyptian Sufism has produced some great scholars. It produced imams who challenged the sultans, drawing their immense political appeal from a public that was all too willing to bow to the power of myth, especially when it came with a dollop of material gain. Today, however, Sufism has become a mere servant of the authorities. One cannot fail to see this fact in Sufi festivities and detect it in Sufi discourse about authority. Indeed, there seems to be an umbilical chord binding Sufi organisations, administrative as well as spiritual, to the religious branch of the state.

In Turkey, politicians such as Erbakan and Erdogan have used their connections to Sufi groups to great personal advantage. They cultivated the tradition of tolerance for which Sufis are known. They made political capital of the pluralism inherent in Sufism and of its ability to coexist with others and condone alternative styles of life. Turkish politicians turned the empathy and asceticism of Sufism into democratic assets. In Egypt, this did not happen.

Sufi societies have played a major role in the history of many countries, including the Mahdis of Sudan, the Sanussis, Qadiris, Tijanis and Maridis of central and western Africa, and the Naqshabandis and Mulawis of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Some of these societies went on to create nations out of the rubble of imperialism. Some turned their congregational meeting rooms into agricultural associations. And all helped spread Islam in Africa, Asia and Europe -- or at least held their ground in the face of the communist tide in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

In general, however, there is a lack of scholarship on the relationship between Sufism and politics. Apart from a handful of books, most of which focus more on the past than the present and are of a tentative rather than scholarly nature, there is little one can use. Material on this subject is lacking.

In Egypt, it is necessary to examine Sufi societies from a political perspective for several reasons. Firstly, there are many followers of Sufi societies, and they come from all sections and levels of society. Some say that membership of Sufi societies today exceeds 10 million people, with followers varying in their social, cultural, educational and professional profiles. There are 78 Sufi societies available to serve their needs.

Secondly, Sufism runs deep in Egyptian culture, and it was important in the formative years of some of the main figures of political Islam. Sheikh Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a member of the Hasafi society, for example, working as a secretary for the Hasafi Charitable Society ( Al-Gam'iya Al-Khairiya Al-Hasafiya ) in Mahmoudiya. Sheikh Mahmoud Khattab Al-Sobki, founder of the Sharia Society for Followers of the Mohamedan Book and Teachings ( Al-Gam'iya Al-Shar'ia lil-Amilina bil-Ketab wal-Sunna Al-Mohamediya ) also started his life as a Sufi. Imam Mohamed Abdu started his life as a follower of the Khalili Society.

Thirdly, some still believe that Sufism is apolitical because it focuses mainly on asceticism, love, knowledge and successiveness ( welayat ). To show the error of such a view, one needs to discuss the actual practices of the followers of Sufi methods and examine the theoretical principles of Sufi thinking.

Fourthly, at a time when civil society is being hailed as a possible counterpart to the state, a study of Sufi societies -- which can be regarded as a form of civil society -- may be useful. Sufi societies appeared much earlier than other forms of civil society. They first came onto the scene in the 12th century, whereas modern civil society organisations appeared well into the 19th century. Furthermore, when Sufi societies are examined, it can be seen how the state has tried to take them over. The fact that the state has for years intervened in Sufi affairs and used Sufi societies to promote itself is all too obvious.

Fifthly, Sufi societies are indirectly involved in politics, simply because they often do the bidding of political groups. Although they may not have political demands of their own, the power their members derive from being part of a non-political group is not to be discounted. In fact, voluntary work is often dedicated to implicit political goals, regardless of the nature of the organisation involved. Members of Sufi societies have a greater political clout than people who have no organisational links whatsoever.

Sixthly, there is a need to examine the political culture of Egyptians, for old habits die hard. We cannot aspire to raising the cultural level of the nation without taking a good look at its values and leanings. Because Sufism has impacted the psychology and mentality of many in Egypt, it needs to be examined as a prelude to outlining the path of progress in Egypt.

Lastly, political modernisation, now more than ever an urgent need in the Arab world, cannot take place without religious reform. There is a need to reinforce the culture of democracy in politicised and non-politicised religious institutions. In our societies, where religion moves every political and social juncture of society, it is necessary to reform religious views as well as politics.


The first Sufi society appeared in Egypt during the time of Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin). In the Mamluk era, more societies appeared throughout the land. As Khanqas (charity hostels) and madrasas changed the landscape of the towns, Sufism developed a system of initiation in which the murid (hopeful adherent or beginner) would have to work his way through the system to become a naqeeb (chief or dean), and a khalif (master) would keep followers in line and demand their full obedience.

The Sufi rank and file came to resemble a military organisation, hardly surprising in Mamluk time when the whole state apparatus was always on alert and ready for endless war. In Ottoman times, the Sufis became more influential and acquired more zawyas, or congregational halls. They divided Egypt into areas of influence that did not tally with those of the state. Moreover, the manner of their organisation changed over time. For one thing, the power of the sheikh mashayekh (chief sheikh) gradually eroded. In Ayoubid times, Sufi societies had had to submit to the authority of an overall chief ( sheikh khanqah ), a man to whom the state gave power over all Sufis. This system remained in effect until Nasser Mohamed bin Qalawun established the Nasserite khanqah in Siryaqus and made its chief sheikh the highest Sufi chief in the country.

This system ended in Ottoman times, when a system of four-way leadership was put in place. The state gave the leadership of all Sufi societies to four families. One was the family of Al-Sadat of Bani Al-Wafa. Another was the family of Mohamed Shamseddin Al-Hanafi. The third was the family of Madyan Al-Ashmuni, a student of Al-Hanafi. The fourth was the family of Abi Al-Abbas Al-Ghamri.

This four-way distribution of Sufi power remained in force until Sheikh Al-Sadat, who died in 1813, brought the entire Sufi community under his leadership. So powerful was Al-Sadat that he brought the Al-Ahmediya, Al-Saadiya and Al-Shaabiya societies to heel. The historian Al-Jabarti, one of his contemporaries, says that Al-Sadat took over the administration of the country's main mausoleums, including Al-Husseini, Al-Shafei, Al-Zeinabi and Al-Nafisi. This meant that Al-Sadat was in control of their immense revenues. Suffice it to say that he lived and died a very wealthy man.

Sheikh Mohamed Tawfiq Al-Bakri, who took over the Sufi Societies Command ( Mashyakhat Al-Turuk Al-Sufiya ) in 1892, issued a decree on 2 June 1903 making the sheikh mashayekh, or chief sheikh, run Sufi affairs through a council consisting of the sheikhs of the major Sufi societies. The system remained in force until 1976. The Bakri decree included 16 articles, and it gave Sufism a council to run its affairs for the first time in its history. Aside from the chief sheikh, the council included four members who were to be elected every three years. In 1905, another decree was passed making the appointment of a Sufi sheikh contingent on his knowledge and moral standing.

After the 1952 Revolution, the Sufi societies continued to operate under the Bakri decree until the republican leaders introduced a new Higher Sufi Council, while retaining aspects of the former decree. Under president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, elections for the General Assembly of the Sheikhs of Sufi Societies ( Al-Gam'iya Al-Amma li-Mashayekh Al-Turuq Al-Sufiya ) used to take place at the offices of the Cairo governorate. They took place every three years and were supervised by the Cairo governor. The Higher Sufi Council retained the power to appoint the sheikhs of Sufi societies all over the country.

Law 118/1976 stipulates that the Higher Council of Sufi Societies is to consist of 16 members named as follows: the sheikh mashayekh, or chief sheikh, is the head of the council. He is to be appointed by a decision of the president of the republic from among the sheikhs eligible for membership of the Higher Council of Sufi Societies; ten members of the Sufi Society sheikhs are to be elected by the General Assembly of the Sheikhs of Sufi Societies; a representative from Al-Azhar is to be selected by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar; a representative from the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) is to be selected by the respective minister; a representative from the Ministry of Interior is to be selected by the respective minister; a representative from the Ministry of Culture is to be selected by the respective minister; a representative from the Ministry of Local Administration is to be selected by the respective minister.

This law gave the Sufi Mashyakhah Ammah, or General Council, the authority to appoint deputies in various parts of the country who would be authorised to communicate on behalf of the Mashyakhah with the authorities. The sheikhs of the various societies retained their power to appoint deputies and sub-deputies in various governorates, cities and villages.

The law also made it incumbent on the sheikh of each society to gather his followers in a specified place on a regular basis for purposes of induction and training. He also had to inspect his deputies and sub-deputies and check on their performance. The sheikhs of societies were to report to the sheikh mashaykh, or chief sheikh, on their activities.

The law prohibited the creation of new Sufi societies unless the new society could prove that it was different from the existing ones in name and approach. A decision sanctioning the formation of a new society would need to be made by the minister of awqaf and Al-Azhar affairs, after consulting the minister of interior and obtaining permission from the Higher Council of Sufi Societies. Once these steps were made, the decision to create the new society would appear in the official gazette.

Since the beginning, Sufi societies were based on cohesion within the group. From the murid, the lowest- ranking member, to the sheikh mashayekh, the superior of all sheikhs, there is a clear chain of command and one that maintains continuity in the movement. This system was hospitable to newcomers, with things getting more structured as members moved up the ranks.

This brief description of Sufi organisation shows that the main method for attaining a high rank in the movement is through appointment. While it is true that the 1976 law allowed for the election of the members of the Higher Sufi Council every three years, generally speaking a man could only become a sheikh through inheriting the post. And while the men at the top gave orders and issued guidelines, those beneath them were asked to report on the conditions of their followers. They were allowed to make suggestions, but these were not binding on the higher echelons.


To better appreciate the precision and sophistication of the organisation of the Sufi movement in Egypt, one has to go into the details of every society and its affairs. There is hardly a village or town in Egypt that does not have followers of Sufi societies. They hold nights of zikr (religious chanting) and hadras (religious parades) on given days. The sheikh tariqah (society chief or grandmaster) is superior to the sheikh seggadah (carpet chief or local chief), who tells the naqeeb noqaba seggadah (chief of deputies) what to do. And the latter supervise the khalif al-kholafa (chief of sub-deputies) and the khalifs (sub-deputies), who in turn keep an eye on the noqaba (acting deputies), the munshids (singers), and the murids (beginners or seekers).

For every sheikh tariqah there is an army of deputies, sub-deputies and acting deputies spanning many towns and villages. The sheikh is revered by his subjects, but he does not live isolated in the equivalent of a religious ivory tower. Instead, he is a kind of brother to his subjects, leading the congregation in a hierarchical structure that goes back, through genealogical descent, to the Prophet Mohamed.

The bonds within the society are normally viewed as ritual kinship, a kind of affinity that is not derived from birth but from mutual affection, the power of rite and the sentimental bonds of common practice. What is seen in Sufi organisation is a web of strong attachments rather than a family-style structure. The murids call each other "brothers", and they draw mutual benefits from their adopted family. The sheikh tariqah shares a ritual bond with the sheikh seggadah and with the other followers. He refers to members of his society as "sons" and sees himself as responsible for their welfare, just as a real father is responsible for his children.

The deputies are all brothers in ritual and fathers to the beginners and sub-deputies. They are expected to inquire after the well-being of the murids and help them resolve any problems. These bonds of brotherhood and fatherhood run throughout the society, with everyone taking part according to their organisational standing.

Sufi organisations are a mix of divergent individuals, of people who may differ in their discipline, approach and nature. It can be hard sometimes to tell whether the organisation is official or non-official. In a way, the Sufi groups are civil society groups bearing all the features of voluntary organisations. But the fact is that they are ruled in the last instance by the authorities, which gives them a gloss of officialdom and makes them a mixed breed.

Although Sufi societies are open to the public and voluntary in nature, appearances can also be deceptive. The sheikhs inherit their posts from their fathers, and many feel obliged to follow a path they would not have normally chosen. Likewise, many of the sons and relatives of Sufis join the societies because their relatives keep pushing them in this direction. Because Sufism is regarded as the righteous path by common tradition, many enrol in Sufi societies to please God and clan. Although membership is theoretically open to all, there are certain ways of ensuring that troublesome people, including the politically outspoken, are left out.

Sufi societies share many similarities in their daily operations. The sheikh's authority, the litanies and the singing rituals are more or less the same. Many of the traditions transcend the boundaries of time and place, for some societies were formed by foreigners on the move or by people who did not stay in one place very long, as was the case for the Makkiya Fassiya Society. Others are quite conventional, and yet they seem to hold a certain appeal for the most modern sections of society, including engineers and doctors, army men and business people.

There is a great diversity in the size of Sufi societies. There are massive societies that have maintained their status for decades, such as the Rifaei society, and there are tiny societies limited to certain areas. Sufi societies are open to both sexes and all ages, from children to octogenarians. They make up a spectrum of organisations that are loyal to their chiefs and offspring. This hereditary aspect of Sufism is one of the elements of authority that one glimpses in Sufi organisations, along with other laws that govern performance and rituals.

Aside from these administrative concerns, there is also a spiritual chain of command. The Sufis believe in a hierarchical structure that they believe reflects the structure of the world. They envision a universe that is divinely divided into abdals (substitutes), awtad (pillars), aqtab (poles), nogabaa (leaders) and noqabaa (chiefs). These ranks can be rigid, and followers are not allowed to move up the ladder without going through spiritual trials. The murid needs to have qualities allowing him to be promoted within the Sufi structure, for example. These include loyalty, the desire to help one's "brothers", the willingness to cooperate with fellow members, kindness towards one's parents, compassion to one's family, hospitality, kindness to neighbours, etc.

Once the murid manages to fulfil his quota of good deeds, he is promoted to a naqeeb (chief) or salek (path follower), at which point he is asked to respect his sheikhs and show even more humility towards his fellow members. A Sufi is asked to strive to do more to help others and obey God. He is asked to be obedient and humble. Only with humility can he be promoted to the level of naqeeb (chief) or wasel (path finder).

Those who achieve such levels of initiation are expected to refrain from disputes with those from other creeds, to maintain the secrets of the Sufi societies, to avoid interfering in other people's business and to recognise the fact that the ability of others to understand the faith and the world may be more limited than theirs. A murid 's becoming a salek is only the first part of the way, for then he can move on to becoming a magzub (drawn to faith), at which point things take a different path. A magzub is on a higher spiritual plateau, one that ends in being a motadarak (path ender), who no longer needs the material world.

When the practical consequences of the four pillars of Sufism (asceticism, love, successiveness and intuition) are considered, together with the way Sufism in Egypt has dealt with the authorities, the public and other Islamic movements, it will be seen that placating the authorities has long been a main feature of Sufism. The Sufis supported the former sultans for political gain and social status, and more modern rulers use the Sufis to bolster their own legitimacy.

With some rare exceptions in which Sufis opposed the rulers, one may safely conclude that Egyptian Sufism provides a strong example of religion being used to justify government. Even when rulers have held eminent Sufis in awe, the latter have not used their status to reverse injustice or to build up an alternative power base to oppose the regime.

There was the rare case of the Ibn Al-Sufi insurgence in southern Egypt in ancient times, a long-running rebellion that gave a hard time to the Tulunid and then the Akhshid armies. There was also the case of the Ansar Al-Haq (supporters of righteousness) led by Mahmoud Abul-Azayem, sheikh of the Azaymi Society. In more modern times, there was General Mohamed Saleh Harb, head of the Muslim Youth Society, and Ahmed Hussein, leader of the Young Egypt movement. The Ansar Al-Haq sent 200 men to fight in the 1948 Palestine war, and they are said to have fought valiantly in Gaza between April 1948 and February 1949.

The Sufis are also attracted by military mythology. Concerning the mediaeval Crusades, for example, folk tales in Egypt describe how Ahmed Al-Badawi (the Muslim wali, or saint, of Tanta) managed to release Muslim prisoners held by the Crusaders. Much later, during the 19th-century Orabi Revolution, Sufis circulated a rumour to the effect that a chicken had laid an egg bearing the words " nasrallah qarib " (the victory of God is soon). Another rumour had it that the country's three major walis, or saints (Al-Desouki, Al-Badawi and Abdel-Aal) had given Ahmed Orabi, the leader of the Revolution, three cannons to use against the invading British forces.

Nevertheless, the history of Sufism is generally one of consistent submission to rulers and the avoidance of confrontation. Only with a few exceptions have Sufis ever stood up against invaders or unjust rulers.

Sufism is based on inspiring leadership, or charisma. It does not draw its hierarchy from the system of land ownership, and it is not a utilitarian organisation based on the exchange of mutual benefits among members. Neither is it a specialised organisation based on dedication to a certain field of knowledge or profession. At the end of the day, Sufism is held together by the personal charisma of the mashayekh al-tariqah, or the grandmasters of the movement.

Finally, the paths of the political development of the Sufi societies in Egypt tend to converge. Despite different circumstances in their manner of inception, personal qualities of the sheikh, economic capability, organisational rigour, geographical boundaries and number of followers, all Sufi societies are politically alike.

Superficial differences in litanies, chants and rituals fade when one looks at actual practices. The role the sheikh plays in the grooming of the murids is the same everywhere. When a difference in the political culture surfaces among different societies, this is likely to occur because of the social milieu in which the followers live, not because of the thinking behind the rituals of the societies themselves.

* The writer is a researcher in socio-political science and author of The Political Upbringing of Sufism in Egypt , soon to be published by Dar Al-Ain, Cairo.

C a p t i o n : Visitors of the moulids of Sidi Ibrahim El-Dessouqi and El-Rifaai

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