Iraq’s Sufis targeted by radicals

Sunday 17/07/2016
Iraqi Sufi Kurds pray in the Kurdish town of Akre, 500km north of Baghdad, during a ritual ceremony to commemorate the birth of the Prophet Mohammad.

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.