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