Syria’s Sufis persecuted by ISIS, al-Nusra Front

Friday 12/02/2016
Destruction of Sufi tomb headstones in the province of Raqqa
in 2015.

Damascus - Followers of Sufi orders, labelled “heretics and apostates”, have been sys­tematically targeted by extremists advocating a hard-line interpretation of Islam. In Syria, al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS) have killed and imprisoned de­scendants of Sufi leaders and their followers, wrecked their shrines and accused them, among other things, of being supporters of the Syrian regime.
However, jurists and religious scholars in Syria agree that the Sufis of Syria and Iraq have “pure hearts true to the teachings of Prophet Mohammad, are firm believers in the one and only Allah (God) and follow orders and schools that pu­rify the heart.”
Sheikh Abdulhamid al-Kandah, mufti of northern Syria’s Hasakah province, stressed that the two well-known Sufi orders in Syria and Iraq — the Qadiriya Order founded by Sheikh Abdul-Qadir Gilani and the Rifa’iya Order founded by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Rifa’i, as well as their offshoots, such as the Naqsh­bandi Order — are schools of faith whose aims are to find grace with Allah and pledge total allegiance to the Prophet and his descendants.
Kandah argued that Sufism prin­ciples defied ISIS authoritarian ide­ology. “ISIS ideology refuses such (Sufi) views and considers ISIS’s leader as the only and true caliph who must be obeyed and acknowl­edged by all Muslims. Because of this ideological conflict, the Sufi orders and their shrines have be­come the target of ISIS’s ire and re­taliation.”
Ammar Kaddour, of the Sufi or­der of Sheikh Muhyiddin ibn Arabi, maintains that “Sufi philosophy is founded on complete obedience to Allah while ISIS ideology is found­ed on auto-deification”.
“They (ISIS) have usurped God’s role in judging and punishing peo­ple. They have also accused people of blasphemy while such judg­ments do not belong to human prerogatives but are Allah’s pre­rogatives,” Kaddour told The Arab Weekly.
ISIS’s campaign against the Su­fis in the governorates of Raqqa and Hasakah in northern Syria be­gan with inviting followers of Sufi orders to “go back to true Islamic teachings”, as outlined under ISIS ideology, and renege traditions and beliefs in place for centuries.
Sheikh Fayez Sheikh Namis, de­scendant of Sufi leader Sheikh Na­mis in Hasakah, recalled how ISIS tried to intimidate him. “In mid- 2014, I was contacted by some ISIS emirs. They wanted me to pledge allegiance to their caliph, [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi. When I refused, they threatened me with the de­struction of my ancestors’ and my father’s shrine,” he said.
ISIS pulverised Sheikh Namis’s shrine using 100 kg of explosives. They also destroyed five other tombs belonging to his descend­ants, Namis said, speaking by phone with The Arab Weekly.
“It wasn’t enough for ISIS people to destroy the shrines. They also executed two of Sheikh Namis’s great-grandchildren. They were less than 18 and committed no crime except being the descend­ants of Sheikh Namis. Moreover, scores of young people who de­fended the shrines before their de­struction were arrested,” he added.
The anti-Sufi campaign was ini­tiated by al-Nusra Front, which razed the first shrine in Ayn Al- Arus, north of Raqqa in 2013.
“Al-Nusra Emir Faysal al-Balu or­dered a bulldozer to be brought in to Ayn Al-Arus to raze the shrine but the machine broke down at the wall of the shrine,” recalls Moham­ed al-Jasem, a resident of the town. “So two members of al-Nusra brought in explosives and blew up the shrine. Less than 24 hours later, they were killed in a road accident.
“The destruction of the shrine sparked anger against al-Nusra from the local population, both Muslim and Christian.”
Sheikh Ahmed al-Ali, a follower of al-Qadiriya Order, said Sufis were targeted “because they did not declare jihad against the Syr­ian government”. “The Sufi orders were declared as forms of heresy and their followers accused of be­ing shabiha (pro-regime militia­men),” he said.
Even the shrines of the compan­ions of the Prophet, including the shrines of Ammar ibn Yaser, Abou Ibn Ka’b and Uways Al-Qarny, were not spared by ISIS, under the ex­cuse that they were built by Iran and were used to spread Shia ideol­ogy, Ali said.
More than 80 Sufi shrines and sites were levelled in Hasakah, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinc­es and Aleppo countryside, all ISIS hotbeds. These included the 1,000-year-old shrine of Ezzud­dine Abu Hamza, a descendant of al-Hussain, son of Ali ibn Abi Ta­leb, and the 300-year-old shrine of Sheikh Issa Rifa’i.
In addition to the shrines, ISIS followers systematically razed tombs and tombstones, which they regard as forms of heresy and reli­gious perversion.
“In the ISIS ideology, there is no room for moderate Islam. Only the Wahabi version of Islam (followed in Saudi Arabia) is recognised and it will destroy any form of religious moderation that stands in its path,” according to Sheikh Mohamad Ha­bib, a follower of the Rifa’iya Order.