Iraq’s Sufis targeted by radicals
Baghdad - Viewed by Sunni insurgents and Shia militias as “heretical”, Iraq’s Sufi Muslims say they are caught between the hammer and the anvil as they and their shrines are attacked by armed groups in a lawless country.
Sufism, which is a mystical approach to Islam, has existed in Iraq for several centuries. Followers of Sufi orders stress prayer, meditation and the recitation of the 99 names of God in Islam to create a communion between themselves and Allah.
Sufi Sheikh Omar Abdul-Aziz said there are two main Sufi orders in Iraq: Qadiriyya and the Naqshbandi. The followers of Naqshbandi were involved in violence and attacks against government security forces after the 2003 US-led invasion, despite the common perception that Sufism is a non-violent form of Sunni Islam.
“We are peaceful people who meet only to show love to Allah and the Prophet Mohammad but we are being harmed by some people who link us to heresy,” Abdul-Aziz said, acknowledging that some Sufis are involved in violence in Iraq.
Some Sufi Muslims acted as a jihadist branch of the more extremist and sometimes violent Salafists, a group advocating the overthrow of local governments and replacing them with a caliphate-style rule.
Generally, relations between Salafists and Sufis are hostile. Salafists view Sufi practices, including singing, dancing and building and visiting shrines, as “polytheistic”.
The Men of the Army of al-Naqshbandi Order is the largest Sufi insurgent group in Iraq. It formed in 2006 after the execution of dictator Saddam Hussein. The group’s cells north of Baghdad are led by his former top aide, Izzat al-Douri, who replaced Saddam as leader of the banned Ba’ath party.
The Sufi insurgent group helped eject government forces from Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul mid- 2014. Naqshbandi fighters attacked police in the city as Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists advanced towards it.
ISIS extremists later waged a bloody purge against Sufis who refused to surrender their weapons and pledge allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
ISIS militants demolished several ancient Sufi shrines and mosques in and around Mosul and Sufi sheikhs were executed for alleged “sorcery” and “heresy”.
Followers of Sufi orders in Iraq have been frequently criticised by Sunni Salafists for practices they deem as non-Islamic such as worshipping their sheikhs and making the burial places of revered sheikhs pilgrimage sites.
Some Sufi rites, such as a sheikh feeding his followers broken glass or pounding metal bolts into them, are considered repulsive to many people.
“We had to close our tikyas (places where Sufi rituals are held) in Shia areas after we received threats, while in Sunni areas, we hold our rituals in private houses for only a short time,” said Abdul-Aziz.
Hameed al-Azami, a professor of comparative jurisprudence at Imam al-Adham College, which is supervised by the Sunni Endowment, said Sufism was founded as a reaction to corruption and opulence. He insisted that Sufism is part of the Islamic culture and that its followers believe that their piety and rituals bring them closer to God.
Iraqi Sufis are concentrated in Baghdad, the northern city of Kirkuk and its surrounding autonomous region of Kurdistan.
“Sufis in Iraq are not spared any of the problems in the country. What is even worse, they are often dragged into the problems of the radical Sunnis and the radical Shias,” Azami said.