Egypt’s youth are breath­ing fresh life into the branch

Once out of favour for its su­per­sti­tion and lack of po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment, the mys­ti­cal branch of Is­lam is be­ing re­claimed by Egypt’s ed­u­cated youth

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS -

It is Thurs­day evening. As the week­end be­gins, Mo­hamed, a 29-year-old po­lit­i­cal science grad­u­ate, gath­ers with fel­low mem­bers of his Sufi or­der in a cosy old flat in Cen­tral Cairo. They will sing dikhr, which means re­mem­ber­ing: they re­peat to­gether the name of God and of the Mus­lim revered fig­ures. Their words and the rhythm of the chants lead the wor­ship­pers to the state of mind they crave: con­nected to God, im­mersed in love, un­der­stand­ing and for­give­ness, and re­leased from the world and its dif­fi­cul­ties. The dikhr is not dis­sim­i­lar to that prac­tised by Su­fis in tra­di­tional mosques, more of­ten on a Fri­day. But the com­po­si­tion of the group is dif­fer­ent. At the Al-rifa’i mosque in Old Cairo, for in­stance, the wor­ship­pers are made up of lo­cal, ru­ral or work­ing-class peo­ple, like Samir, who comes from a gov­er­nate just north of Cairo. A mon­shid, who as­sists the sheikh in lead­ing the prayers, he joined the Al-rifa’i group some 50 years ago, at­tracted, he says, by the idea of tol­er­ance and love be­tween the peo­ples of all re­li­gions. Speak­ing to The Africa Re­port out­side the mosque, Samir was care­ful not to go into any depth about his be­liefs, con­scious of the pres­ence of the po­lice who guard the mosque. In Egypt re­li­gion is such a sen­si­tive is­sue that only au­tho­rised spokes­peo­ple from the gov­ern­ment and Al-azhar, the coun­try’s Sunni Mus­lim in­sti­tu­tion, are per­mit­ted to talk to jour­nal­ists about it.


In con­trast to the group at the mosque, Mo­hamed’s or­der is mainly com­posed of young, ur­ban, highly ed­u­cated peo­ple. Some say the group also wel­comes nonMus­lims and athe­ists. The flat where they meet be­longs to their sheikh, who is not al­ways present : he is of­ten away in Europe, where he works as a doc­tor. The rise of a younger group of Su­fis con­tra­dicts the trend that re­search- ers in the 1960s and ’70s pre­dicted in Egypt, says Costantino Paonessa, an aca­demic re­searcher based in Cairo. Su­fism, once the dom­i­nant re­li­gion, had be­gun re­ced­ing as peo­ple moved to the cities. The wor­ship of Su­fism’s revered fig­ures as saints, able to per­form mir­a­cles, was frowned on by the more ra­tio­nal be­liev­ers, and even more so by the grow­ing num­bers of Mus­lim Brother­hood, or Salafists.


In par­tic­u­lar they de­cried the an­nual mawlid cel­e­bra­tions, where thou­sands of peo­ple gather around the tombs of these saints amid a del­uge of trin­kets, sweets, snake-charm­ing and other fun­fair en­ter­tain­ment. Crit­ics also de­nounced some or­ders as cults whose lead­ers were swin­dling peo­ple out of money. To­day there are be­tween 10 and 20 mil­lion Su­fis in Egypt – up to a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion. “Stud­ies have shown a de­crease in the num­ber of young peo­ple join­ing or­ders in the coun­try­side,” says Amr Ez­zat, a re­searcher and of­fi­cer at free­dom ad­vo­cacy group the Egyp­tian Ini­tia­tive for Per­sonal Rights. “But in bet­ter ed­u­cated and wealth­ier so­cial classes, they may fol­low sheikhs who talk phi­los­o­phy, in English, and not nec­es­sar­ily Egyp­tian.” Even the folk­loric el­e­ments of Su­fism are un­der­go­ing a new pop­u­lar­ity. For­mer ac­tivists and pho­to­jour­nal­ists have started go­ing to mawlid cel­e­bra­tions, where fam­i­lies camp out­side and men and women dance to­gether to the rhyth­mic dikhr chants and mu­sic, em­body­ing a trance-like state, shak­ing their heads back and forth and spin­ning in cir­cles. Mo­hamed makes the link be­tween this and the spirit of the Arab Spring: “They en­joy see­ing crowds of peo­ple, all walks of life to­gether, com­ing from all over Egypt,” he says. “We used to see that in demon­stra­tions over the past years, but now they’re ba­si­cally for­bid­den.” Mo­hamed ad­mits there is a cer­tain ‘hip­ster­i­sa­tion’ of Su­fism, with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of well­ness cen­tres of­fer­ing Sufi med­i­ta­tion and the verses of the Sufi poet Rumi on ev­ery­one’s lips. But for him it goes be­yond that : “Don’t

Su­fism’s the­o­log­i­cal tenets res­onate with the young who be­lieved in so­cial change

un­der­es­ti­mate the spir­i­tual call­ing. There is a part [played by] folk­lore and the new-age ap­petite for the ‘Sufi’ trend among the wealthy in Egypt these days, but some of us re­ally need some re­lief.” He joined his Sufi group last Oc­to­ber and since then has been at­tend­ing once or twice a week. His prac­tice, he says, has ful­filled his re­li­gious and spir­i­tual needs and im­proved his psy­cho­log­i­cal state. For the Egyp­tian youth whose hopes were high in 2011 af­ter the upris­ing the past years have been heart-break­ing. Su­fism’s the­o­log­i­cal tenets, based on love, tol­er­ance, do­ing good and let­ting go, res­onate with the young who be­lieved in so­cial change, and who shun Salafism, as well as the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s po­lit­i­cal Is­lam and the athe­ist wave that rode the post-2011 pe­riod. “Af­ter the top­pling of Mubarak, many young peo­ple left their [Sufi] or­ders, dis­ap­prov­ing of the pas­siv­ity of Sufi lead­ers in pol­i­tics – none [were] speak­ing up against in­jus­tice”, says Tarek Ghanem, a mem­ber of the Cha­zli or­der and an ed­i­tor on the Is­lamic An­a­lytic The­ol­ogy re­view. In 2011, a Sufi sheikh in Cairo, Emad Ef­fat, tried to carve a path that would be closer to the Azhar in­sti­tu­tion, but could not unify pro-revo­lu­tion and pro-es­tab­lish­ment fac­tions. Ef­fat him­self was killed dur­ing the De­cem­ber 2011 clashes be­tween demon­stra­tors and se­cu­rity forces.


Su­fism’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion on the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum can be para­dox­i­cal, says re­searcher Ez­zat: “Su­fism [si­mul­ta­ne­ously] car­ries lib­eral po­ten­tial­i­ties, be­cause of its spir­i­tual as­pect – as op­posed to a le­gal­ist, rule-abid­ing view of re­li­gion – and con­ser­va­tive ones, as it can be very in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic, and not both­ered about so­ci­ety as a whole.” Amr Yakan is a 23-year-old singer and sales worker who iden­ti­fies as Sufi, al­though he does not be­long to a spe­cific group or or­der. De­scrib­ing his songs as Sufi, so­cial­ist and com­mu­nist, he says: “I know I am try­ing to make two worlds meet that are not sup­posed to. Like­wise there is a con­tra­dic­tion in­side me, be­tween my mind and my heart. Be­tween what I know and see about pol­i­tics and re­li­gion [as] the opi­ate of the peo­ple, and what I feel. I be­lieve in God, and I be­lieve rea­son will never move peo­ple like their hearts will,” he says. “I sing bet­ter when I sing in the way that feels right […]. And my heart goes to the songs I grew up with, the Sufi singers.” Yakan comes from a re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cally con­ser­va­tive home. Though his par­ents dis­ap­proved of his tak­ing part in the revo­lu­tion and of his way of prac­tis­ing his re­li­gion they even­tu­ally came to ac­cept it. “They are real Su­fis even if they do not know it,” he says. “They are so lov­ing and tol­er­ant. Su­fism is not even about a re­li­gion, you could be a Chris­tian Sufi, I guess you could even be an athe­ist Sufi. It is all about a state of mind and be­ing, hu­man­ity.” So­phie An­muth in Cairo

Clock­wise from left: Men sing dikhr at the tra­di­tional Al-rifa’i mosque; mawlid cel­e­bra­tions in the Ga­ma­leya quar­ter of Cairo; dikhr and danc­ing in the street

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