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
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.
TRINKETS AT THE TOMBS
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.
TWO WORLDS MEET
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