Adherents of Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam that has long been popular in Egypt, now see their tolerant traditions threatened by the growth of hard-line Salafism, an Islamic sect that claims to hearken back to the earliest form of Islam. As Salafi groups have been emboldened around the country, Sufis, like Coptic Christians and secular muslims, have come into conflict with the orthodox sect. However, Sufi leaders say they have plans to fight the rising tide of radicalism.
Over the past month, followers of the Salafi movement have been accused of attacking both Muslims and non-Muslim Egyptians in an attempt to impose their strict Islamic views.
In Alexandria, traditionally a stronghold for both Salafi and Sufi groups, at least 16 historic mosques belonging to Sufi orders have been targeted by members of the Salafi movement, who attempted to demolish tombs of important Islamic scholars because they oppose the veneration of saints as heretical. One of the mosques allegedly attacked by Salafis is the historic mosque of al-Mursi Abu al-Abbas, which dates back to the 13th century and is a popular site for visits by Egyptians from across the country.
Alexandria is home to more than 40 historic mosques with tombs belonging to the Sufi movement.
In the Upper Egyptian city of Qena, a group of Salafis allegedly cut off the ear a Coptic man. In area of Fayoum, clashes between “religious people” and vendors at a wine shop lead to one death.
Last week, members of the Salafi movement denied allegations of violence in a statement posting on a website associated with one of Egypt's most influential Salafi preachers. The statement said Salafis preach peaceful methods of change.
Meanwhile, one leading Sufi preacher said that concern over Salafi-inspired violence is justified.
“I don’t underestimate people’s fears concerning Salfis,” said Sheikh Gaber Kasem al-Kholy, the highest-ranking Sufi sheikh in Alexandria. “Of course, Coptic Christians are a main target for those extremists, but we need to speak out about the suffering of the Sufi people who were attacked by the Salafis.”
There are about half a million registered Sufis in Alexandria, which has a population of 4.1 million people. The city contains 36 of Egypt’s 76 registered Sufi orders.
Sitting in a Western-style café at the Imperial Hotel in downtown Alexandria, al-Kholy presented a moderate and modern vision of Sufism. “Sufis believe in good deeds. They don’t force religion on people as the Salafis do. They don’t manipulate religion as the Muslim Brotherhood does.”
In the 18th century, an Islamic scholar in the Arabian Peninsula named Mohamed ibn Abdel Wahhab formulated a strict form of Islam that he claimed conformed to the original values of the religion. He forbade man-made images, art and sculpture, and provided religious support to Arabian rulers in curtailing the rights of individuals and religious minorities.
The Salafi movement has its origins in Abdel Wahhab’s hard-line vision and is relatively new to Egypt, where a more pluralistic version of Islam has flourished much longer.
Al-Kholy, dressed in smart casual Western clothing and apparently unperturbed by the Western music in the café where he sits, sees Salafis as a threat to the Egyptian tradition of tolerance. Salafism “is a Saudi product,” he said, noting that Salafis do not even quote respected Egyptian scholars, but instead defer to their Saudi counterparts.
“Alexandria has been a multi-cultural city," he said. "Throughout history, people here welcomed Islamic scholars from various locations. As for the Salafis, they are people without history. They don’t like Abu al-Abbas. They accuse the great scholar and other Sufi historical figures of heresy.”
Salafis also accuse Sufis of sympathizing with Shia Islam, a main target for Saudi religious propaganda, which describes them as a sect that does not conform to the original Islam.
The issue of scholarship is an important one, al-Kholy said. “What’s alarming is that Salafi preachers don’t practice Ijtihad [progressive legal interpretation], in which they can renew Islamic thinking.”
Even the Sunni Muslim world’s most prominent religious institution is becoming caught up in the struggle between Salafism and more moderate strains. Cairo’s Al-Azhar, which was founded between 970 and 972, has long been the main source for Sunni Islamic learning. Its influence has impacted Islamic thinking throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
This month, the Salafi movement organized a conference at Al-Azhar University, and one of the movement's key figures, Sheikh Yasser Burhamy, accused the Sufi movement of heresy and of being sponsored by the United States.
“That was so silly. Yes we expect them to accuse us of heresy because the Salafis are single-minded people,” said al-Kholy. “But as for the American support, what we did is simply have visits for two American ambassadors in Egypt, a move we thought would introduce them to a moderate version of Islam.”
Francis Ricciardone, the former US ambassador to Egypt, showed great interest in attending various Sufi festivities.
Perhaps most worrying for the Sufi community is Salafi attempts to bring Sufi mosques under Salafi control. “They are now launching a war over mosques. They try to destroy historic mosques with tombs because they’re not Islamic for them, and also they are trying to have a monopoly over mosques,” said al-Kholy.
One of the mosques that Salafis are trying to bring under their control is Qaed Ibrahim Mosque, a gathering point for protesters during the 18-day uprising that lead to the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Under Mubarak’s rule, both Salafi and Sufi movements were largely apolitical. But Sufis are ready to become engaged with politics, al-Kholy said.
“That’s a historical trend for Sufis, not to clash with the country leaders. It might be a mistake, but now, after the revolution, I do think that this trend is going to change,” said al-Kholy.
Under the former regime, the highest authorities in Egypt’s various Sufi orders publicly backed Mubarak and his former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
“We were people without political aims, so we maintained good relations with the regime. In fact, we were totally wrong. The regime was indirectly putting us in an awkward position through its Ministry of Endowments,” argued Al Kholy.
Mubarak gave officials at the Ministry of Endowments full authority for the control of mosques, regulating the appointment of imams and the distribution of financial donations. Mubarak aimed to reduce the influence of extremists, but that strategy was a failure, al-Kholy said.
“Instead of combating extremism, the state was combating moderate Islam and giving mosques to the Brotherhood and Salafis as deals.”
Sufi followers across Egypt, such as in the Delta city of Monufiya and the Upper Egyptian city of Aswan, have filed complaints against the Ministry of Endowments and the public prosecutor, calling for the state to protect historic mosques from Salafi attacks.
“If the state doesn’t give enough time to protecting these sites, we as Sufis have to do something practical, such as establishing a political party to enable us to address our concerns against those extremists,” said al-Kholy, demonstrating how much Sufis may be willing to break with their apolitical past.
“We have a considerable number of followers, and we are willing and able to protect Egypt’s legacy of moderation,” he said.