In Egypt, Sufis form their own parties
Cairo - The man preaching in a northern Cairo mosque during a recent Friday prayer did not launch into the usual diatribe against the West, Jews or “unfair” Arab rulers. He only advised the people in front of him to be honest, sincere and true descendants of the Prophet Mohammad.
“Life is so fleeting and if we spend it lying to and harming each other, there will be no good in it,” the preacher said. “You are, God says in the Quran, the best nation to have been raised up for humankind. So let us be so.”
In this, the sheikh was breaking away from the usual discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist preachers who controlled Egypt’s mosques in recent years.
Almost everyone sitting before the preacher knew he had Sufi leanings, even if he did not explicitly state them. He is one of thousands of preachers taking the place of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in Egypt’s mosques.
Egypt’s government, observers say, is playing the Sufis against the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-orthodox Salafists to get rid of the last two groups.
In addition to a presence in the pulpit, Sufis have established political parties for the first time. They have representatives in parliament and are entering decision-making circles after years of marginalisation.
A Sufi figure had been appointed adviser to the imam of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning. Sufis were on the panel that drafted Egypt’s constitution in 2014.
“Sufis just fit into the current authorities’ vision of how moderate Islam should be,” said Ashraf Abul Saud, a researcher into the political evolution of Egypt’s Sufis. “This is why they have support at the highest level.”
Some estimates put the number of Egyptian Sufis at more than 20 million. They are a strong part of popular and religious culture with their colourful religious celebrations.
Sufis, though, have abstained from politics. Their recent turn, observers say, stemmed from when their very existence was threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
The Sufis, Ali Abul-Kheir, another expert said, are viewed by the Brotherhood and the Salafists as heretics who have nothing to do with Islam. “This is why they came under perpetual attack when the Brotherhood was in power,” he said.
Sufi concentrations were attacked, mosque mausoleums — cherished by the Sufis — were destroyed and Sufi practices came under fire from both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.
The Religious Endowments Ministry, which controls the nation’s more than 110,000 mosques, says it does not give special favour to the Sufis. “We keep mosques away from politics,” Mohamed Abdel Razik, a senior ministry official, said.
There still seems, however, to be more to the ongoing empowerment of the Sufis than the mere desire of the authorities to use them against the Brotherhood and Salafists.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who enjoyed strong Sufi support during the June 2014 election, is said to be a Sufi.
The president’s support to the peace-loving and moderate Sufis comes at a time when Egypt faces a stubborn Islamist-led militancy in the Sinai peninsula.
Abul Saud said, apart from their peace-loving nature, the Sufis fit into Sisi’s vision for what Islamist groups should be.
“First, they do not have the dream of ruling,” Abul Saud said. “In this, they differ from the Brotherhood and the Salafists, which want to rule and impose Islamic law.”
Alaa Abul Azayem, the chief of al-Tahrir, one of three Sufi parties on Egypt’s political stage, agreed, saying: “Ruling a country like Egypt is a very heavy burden, in fact. We only ask God to help President Sisi.”
Nevertheless, as much as they were motivated by threats to their presence, the Sufis’ turn to politics also threatens their presence. The God-fearing and peace-loving Sufis were primarily admired for their asceticism and devotion to God.
“This means that, by being politically involved, the Sufis will change their very ascetic nature,” Abul Saud said. “This can in the future make their followers stay away from them, which threatens to bring the whole Sufi house down at the end.”