Sufi shrines still play role in Tunisia
Tunis - At the Sufi shrine of Sidi Mehrez in the old city of Tunis, the hall is marked by a serene silence as visitors cross the threshold. Some stop to drink from the shrine’s well, believed to bring blessings. Others, inside the mausoleum, read verses from the Quran and pay their respects to the saint. Women holding candles sit near a fence surrounding the tomb praying to God and asking for the blessings of the saint.
“Sidi Mehrez is the saint protector of the Medina. He is called the ‘Sultan of the Medina’. I cannot possibly pass by this street and not visit his tomb and read Al-Fatiha on his soul,” said Naima, a visitor at the shrine.
Sidi Mehrez is one of the many renowned Sufis in Tunisia whose shrines are much-venerated by Tunisians. Sidi Belhassen al-Chedly rests on the hill top overlooking the Djellaz cemetery.
A home for the Sufi brotherhood of Shadhiliyya, the shrine receives visitors from many countries as he has a strong following across the Maghreb. Sidi Bou Said el-Beji, the mentor of Sidi Belhassen, rests on the hill overlooking the sea in the northern suburb of Sidi Bou Said. Believed to protect Tunis from attacks from the sea, he was called “The Master of the Sea”.
Lella Manoubia, a Sufi woman known for her social activism, was laid to rest in a shrine on the western side of Tunis. The city is believed to be protected by the saints Sidi Mehrez, Sidi Belhassen, Sidi Bou Said el-Beji and Lela Manoubia from different corners.
“Tunisia is geographically fashioned by the presence of the saints. We cannot think of the impact of Islam without thinking of the architectural space that Sufis occupy in the country. These places are deemed sacred due to the sanctity of these Sufis,” said Lotfi Aissa, a historian specialising in the history of Sufi saints in the Maghreb.
Al Chedhly ventured on a trip across the Maghreb from his home in Morocco to retreat to a cave in a hill in Tunis. Sidi Bou Said el-Beji found retreat in a mosque near Beb Bhar where he devoted his time to prayer and contemplation before he moved with his disciples to contemplate at a minaret in Carthage.
“A Sufi is, by definition, someone who leads a hermit life where they often retreat from public life to meditate on the teachings of their religion before choosing their companions and starting their brotherhood,” said Aissa.
He added: “Sufism is about altruism and generosity. A Sufi is someone who gives to others even when he is in need, someone who accepts the difference of other people.
The importance of these shrines does not only consist in spiritual and religious dimensions but also in their social role. A shrine is a home of a Sufi and Sufis are only considered as such when they prove their commitment to the faith by proving their generosity and providing comfort and peace to people. “In addition to companionship, a Sufi is to feed the people in need. Anything can be postponed but food. The Sufis have this saying, ‘If it wasn’t for bread, there will be no prayer or faith.’ These Sufi shrines still feed the poor today. Saints are believed to protect people from misery,” said Aissa.
“The shrines save people from the pain of hunger and also provide shelter.
Tunisians revere the sanctity of the Sufi shrines and continue to celebrate the rituals of the shrines despite recent attacks by religious extremists. Whether in their daily talk or everyday habits, Tunisians swear by the saints and ask their blessings when encountering obstacles. “It perpetuates a form of faith in Sufis. It is a question of equilibrium and safety as long as it brings about peace and helps us live peacefully. The Sufis help asking the right questions: What is life? What is death? What is madness? This is the dynamics of this life. These shrines bring peace to people who find in these places the answers,” said Aissa.
In 2012, salafist radicals destroyed more than 40 Sufi shrines, claiming the Sufis and their followers are infidels who do not respect Islam.
“These Islamist groups think of the Sufis and their followers as infidels since Sufi rituals do not comply with strict religious teachings, but these are rituals one believes in to find peace with the idea of death. How do you expect someone to live knowing this life has an end, an end that is inescapable?” asked Aissa.
“They need to exorcise the anxieties of the unnamed questions that we cannot express. It is not about religion as much as about the spiritual tradition.”
As she leaned to drop the candle of the floor of the tomb of the Sufi, Zina whispered something then read Al-Fatiha.
“I visit these shrines as part of the rituals. It does not mean I believe in them more than God. I believe and pray to God first but I respect and venerate these Sufis so I come here to give them offerings once in a while. It is a peaceful place to be,” Zina said.
Many others, like Zina, seek serenity in such shrines after coming from far-away towns and villages. They spend the night at Sidi Belhassen or Sidi Bou Said during annual or monthly rituals. They travel for hours to take part in circles of religious chanting.
“Tunisians visit shrines in pursuit of this inner happiness and peace. Shrines suggest the idea of communion. They chant and sing to become one spirit. It brings us together and creates a common identity: a feeling of belonging,” said Aissa.
He added, “Sidi Bou Said el-Beji said that the happiest man is one who gives expression to any feeling. These rituals are an expression of feelings and that is happiness for these people.”