In Tunisia, Sufism is here to stay
Tunis - Since the country won its independence from France 60 years ago, Tunisia’s modernising elites have been tempted to confine Sufis and their ubiquitous shrines to the margins of society, considering them obstacles to social and economic progress.
Average citizens and many segments of the political and intellectual elites are now, however, eyeing centuries-old Sufism as a means of individual and collective healing as the country faces a multifaceted crisis with complex and overlapping economic, political and spiritual problems.
Old mores have been swept by a mostly Westernised lifestyle in every corner of the small country.
Despite the freedoms of speech and political organisation gained in recent years, Tunisians find themselves expressing doubt about their society’s self-image, its identity and spiritual make-up. Long accustomed to the notion of inevitable progress, many see old notions shaken by economic stagnation, radical Salafism and jihadist threats.
Attacks at landmark tourist sites and another against a bus carrying presidential security guards in 2015 ruined the country’ tourism industry and shattered the self-confidence of Tunisia — often portrayed as a bellwether of liberalism and moderate Islam.
A recent survey by the Sigma polling agency indicated that 43.1% of Tunisians asked said they visit a shrine at least once in a year, with the 11-century-old Sidi Mehrez mausoleum in old Tunis, the most visited shrine in Tunisia.
With almost every village, town or city being built near or around a shrine to a saint, zawiyas (shrines) outnumber Tunisia’s 2,500 mosques.
“Tunisia’s society and urban structures are linked to the history of Sufism. Cities, towns and villages had been built around saint tombs or festivals such as Sid Bouzid, Sidi Mansour, Sidi Bouali and the likes,” said Sami Brahem, a university professor and political scientist at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CERES), a government-run think-tank.
After five decades of tight state control over religious and cultural life, society has yet to find a clear approach towards religion. The current fluid situation generates anxiety about the country’s identity as Islamist extremists see a void they think they can fill.
The potential role of Sufism grabbed attention when hardline Salafists attacked the symbols of re-emerging Sufism in 2012, burning or damaging more than 40 shrines, including that of Sidi Bou Said, a saint whose tomb and shrine overlook the bay of Tunis.
“This (spate of attacks) is only the beginning. They (the Salafists) will follow by destroying the archaeological sites of Carthage, El Jem and Dougga. Then, they will force the men to grow beards and women to wear the niqab. They have a whole strategy to change the country,” warned Mazen Cherif, a Tunisian scholar and leading Sufi figure.
The anti-Sufi attacks and the wave of anger and anxiety they stirred were eye-openers. Sufism attracted sympathy as a moderate indigenous current threatened by Wahhabi-inspired Salafism.
“Salafism has had its heyday in crisis and distress. Today, it is time for an Islamic renewal with its brilliant civilisation and rich culture. Sufi Islam is the only kind of Islam to carry the banner of peaceful and humanistic Islam,” said writer Farhat Othman.
“The future is for Sufi Tunisia and with it for happiness in Islam.”
After a politically calculated refusal to choose between Sufism and Salafism during the first years after the revolution, Tunisia’s main Islamist political party, Ennahda, realised that Sufism was there to stay. Now, as Ennahda prepares to have a congress that could transform it from a fundamentalist to an Islamist-leaning party, some scholars argue the need for Sufis could become more acute.
“The spiritual and religious vacuum could widen with Ennahda changing and the state lacking a comprehensive Islamic policy. Only Sufism could fill the gap and satisfy the huge spiritual demands of the population,” said Brahem.
Other experts are less convinced by any contribution of Sufis in a modern society such as Tunisia’s.
“Tunisia is a rational society now. Sufis do not fit in that kind of society. Their strength is in mysteries and illusions,” said CERES researcher Mohamed Toumi.
Meanwhile, many Tunisians visit Sufi shrines, seeking individual solace amid widespread anxiety about the future as worrisome news swirl at home and in the country’s Arab environment.
Scholars say the importance of these shrines lies not only in their spiritual and religious dimensions but also in their social role. A Sufi shrine is erected to prove a commitment to the faith by providing comfort and peace. In addition to spirituality, Sufi shrines provide food and shelter for people in need.
The Sufis have this saying, “If it wasn’t for bread, there will be no prayer or faith.” Sufi shrines feed the poor through worshipper donations.
There is a network of Sufi organisations in Tunisia numbering some 30,000 followers mostly in the southern regions of Nefta and Redeyef.
“Because Sufis are generally not interested in politics and are totally involved in their rituals, they can teach people who follow them some kind of political passivity,” added Toumi. In turbulent times, that could contribute to citizens’ peace of mind.