Tunisian Sufis committed to defending their message

Sunday 03/12/2017
Not afraid. A Tunisian member of the Sufi order sits at the shrine of Sidi Belhassen Chedli in Tunis. (AFP)

Tunis- As Sufi Muslims are targeted by jihadist attacks and their shrines destroyed by radical Salafists, Tunisian Sufis said they remain committed to the moderate and humane values of their interpre­tation of Islam.
Despite intimidation attempts by ultraorthodox militants, Tuni­sian Sufis said they consider it a special and joyful duty to celebrate Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.
“The horrible attack on Egypt’s Sufis shows the danger of the mis­conceptions of Sufism promoted by radicals. Sufis follow the same teachings of Islam and believe God is sought in all the details around us,” said Mohamed Hassen Bouab­dallah, president of the Union of the Tunisian Sufi Orders.
“These terrorist groups do not represent the teachings of Islam. We pray for the forgiveness of all Muslims and it pains us to hear about such incidents. Those who lost their lives in the attack are mar­tyrs whether they were Sufis or no.”
“How can Muslims kill their brother Muslims?” Bouabdallah asked. “This is an unforgivable sin in Islam. Everything else can be forgiven except for that.
“It is tragic but we are not sur­prised. This is the reality of those who claim to be the true holders of faith. It is sad to have God’s name as an excuse for such killings. We can only pray for them to be guided to the true path.”
Sufism has for centuries con­stituted an important piece of Tunisia’s religious tapestry as well as its cultural identity with Sufi be­liefs and rituals a part of Tunisian culture.
“Sufism as a religious belief is deeply rooted in Tunisian society and culture. Many orders exist in Tunisia, such as the Tijani order which was brought by Ibrahim al- Riahi from Morocco who later be­came one of the imams of Al-Zay­tuna mosque. There are also the Ismailia order, which has 100,000 followers in the country, and the Kasemia order, with 250,000 fol­lowers,” Bouabdallah said.
“The influence of Sufi rituals and beliefs is evident in all parts of Tu­nisia. For example, the celebration of the birth of the Prophet, which is a Sufi ritual, is celebrated in all homes across the country,” he said.
Bouabdallah said Tunisian cul­ture displays many aspects of Sufi traditions and values. In addition to celebrating the Prophet’s birth, Tunisians often visit the shrines of Sufi saints.
“Even in their daily discourse, Tunisians show great admiration for the Prophet as a reference and a guide to follow in their daily life. Tunisians use the sayings of the Prophet as a part of their culture which are parts of the Sufi beliefs,” Bouabdallah said.
“Thousands of Tunisians — and many of them are women — visit the shrines almost daily. These rituals can be diverse ranging from folkloric to circles of Dhikr. This is to show that Sufism is deeply rooted in our culture.”
The Union of the Tunisian Sufi Orders strives to protect the fol­lowers of the Sufi orders in Tunisia and to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of Sufism. After the revolution, Sufism came under attack and prominent shrines were destroyed by religious extrem­ists who said visiting shrines is blasphemy.
“After the revolution, we received threats from radicals who considered Sufis to be misguided, which prompted us to unite against the threat of extremism. The creation of the union of Tunisian Sufis was the result of our realisation that we needed to protect each other and to preserve the Sufi heritage from destruction,” Bouabdallah said.
“We believe in the sanctity of our message. As Sufis, we are followers of the teachings of the mosque of al-Zaytuna. Radical groups showed how ignorant they are as opposite to Sufi beliefs that spread teachings of tolerance and peace. Even if this means we are in danger, we are not afraid of defending our message.”
Since the creation of the Union of the Tunisian Sufi Orders in 2011, Tunisian Sufis have sought gov­ernmental recognition of their im­portance as a religious and cultural component of Tunisian identity.
“Since the revolution, we have been working with the govern­ments on establishing recogni­tion of all Sufi orders in Tunisia by being part of the cultural and religious activities,” Bouabdallah said. “For instance, the opening of the heritage month was or­ganised in a shrine. The idea is to promote awareness of the danger of radical groups in Tunisia and that by spreading the teachings of our imams and our preachers of al-Zaytuna.
“As Sufis, we are trying to cor­rect these misconceptions about Islam and we are trying to be more present in the media scene even if that could put us in danger. We are against the promotion of extrem­ists’ teachings. We are trying to show that Islam does not exclude others, that Islam promotes love, peace and tolerance.”
Following the attacks on shrines in 2012, many Tunisians were alarmed about the potential loss of Sufi culture as part of the national heritage. The union called for the creation of a Sufi library to contain all historical references and manu­scripts of Sufi culture.
“We are also trying to work with the ministries on designating the right caretakers of the shrines so that the cultural and historical heritage is protected,” Bouabdallah said.
As the Prophet’s birthday neared, Tunisian Sufis prepared for celebrations, religious chants in mosques and gatherings to honour the teachings of the Prophet.
“Tunisia was one of the first countries to celebrate the birth of the Prophet. It started in 920 dur­ing the rule of the Fatimid Dynasty and it continued through the years to become a part of the Tunisian culture. In addition to praying and chanting religious poems in the mosques, Tunisians also cook special kinds of dessert,” Bouabdallah said.
“The Sufi orders prepare for the chanting circles in the mosques and have gatherings in pub­lic spaces where people are invited to join the circles of Dhikr. This is an opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Prophet.
“Unlike the extremists who only refer to this date as the death of the Prophet, we prefer to celebrate and enjoy the birth of the man who brought us out of the darkness into the light, the man who is our guide and mentor.\"