Tunisian Sufis committed to defending their message
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.\"