By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi
In the fifth issue of Rumiyah, the Daesh magazine, an ISIS leader based in Sinai says he wanted his group to “wage war” against Sufis and others because of their “sorcery, soothsaying, and grave-worship.” The New York Times also reports that 11 months ago, an ISIS publication said that Sufism was a disease that the group would try to exterminate in Egypt…….
While striking against Sufis, Shias, Yazidis, Druze, or any other minority Islamic sects, the Salafist jihadists often quote the famous Hadith of division among the Ummat (Iftiraq e Ummat), which goes like this:
“This Umma (community) of mine will split into 73 sects; one will enter the heaven and the 72 will be in hell.” When asked which sect was the true one, the Prophet (pbuh) replied, “al–jama’a,” that is, the group which most literally follows the example or “Sunna” of the prophet and his companions. Inevitably, an Egyptian ISIS commander situated in Sinai averred recently that the terror outfit particularly hated the Sufi orders and their practices, including the Shrine visitation, veneration of other faith traditions and what he called ‘sorcery and soothsaying’. More to the point, when an ISIS terrorist assassinated an elderly Sufi practitioner, Shaikh Sulayman Abu Hiraz, on the charge of sorcery, the cult of this ideology in Egypt and Syria referred to Sufism as a “disease” that needs to be “eradicated”.
Of late, ISIS terrorists have gunned down the Sufi worshipers in the Rawda mosque in Egypt’s sparsely-populated Peninsula, Sinai with a shocking escalation in the carnage, with Egyptian officials reporting 305 dead until now. Notably, the mosque belongs to a Sufi order whose followers is regarded by the extremist Islamists as apostates because they venerate the Sufi mystics and visit their shrines. Sufis in Egypt like anywhere else are generally tender and kinder at the heart of their worldviews.
Though there were no immediate claims of responsibility for this decade’s deadliest attack in Egypt, it has left us entangled with crucial questions to problematise. One such question has aptly been raised by an American journalist who earlier worked in The New York Times: “Friday’s attack was not only particularly gruesome, but worrisome to a government that has repeatedly claimed to be making progress in the war on Jihadis”.
Tellingly, Egypt is the first Muslim country which has mulled down the entire corpus of extremist Islamist literature in the country’s religious and educational centres. It has literally banned the extremist thoughts from flourishing in the new Egyptian generation’s minds. Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutub, Maulana Maududi and almost all those who expounded upon the political Islamist theologies in their books have been ousted from the universities and schools. In his piece in The Times of India, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed that Egypt has been at the forefront in the counter-terror mission. (1)
But the ghastly murders in mosque that too on a day of special prayers like Friday, has revealed not only that religious extremism remains a deadly threat in Egypt, but also that the Sisi regime’s avowed counter-terror strategy has failed miserably. Inevitably, the Egyptian government officials and the counter-extremism analysts are puzzling over the Egyptian strategy to tackle the ideology of terror and bloodshed which went on the rampage on Friday. Mohammed Sabri, an Egyptian Arabic-language journalist who knows Sinai well opines that the anti-terrorist campaign has been mismanaged for years. “The campaign has been plagued by lack of indigenous support due to the Egyptian military’s brutality, extra-judicial shootings, and other violations of human rights”, he says.
It would be useful to take an in-depth look at the interplay of terror, religion and politics in Egypt. An age-old intellectual and theological centre for Sunnis of the various Sufi orders across the world, Egypt was rebuilt by the Fatimids—the direct descendents of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through his daughter, Fatima, and her husband, Hazrat Ali, cousin of the Prophet. In 909 A.D, Fatimids established themselves in Egypt and built the magnificent city of Cairo (popularly known in Arabic as Qahirah) as their new capital. In fact, the advent of the Fatimids marked a new era in the Islamic history. They posed serious intellectual questions and geopolitical challenges to the existing Muslim order. More than their expansionist political and dynastic motives, they were inspired by a renewed intellectual and religious philosophy which ushered in a revolution and revitalization of Islam. This theological divergence in Egypt is the key reason why the puritanical Salafists often target mainstream Egyptian people including the Sufis, Shias besides the religious minorities. But they particularly decry the Egyptian Sufi orders for their unique approach towards worship.
ISIS ideologues despise the Egyptian Sufis for their belief that one can build close personal relationship with Allah in an almost informal manner. But the Salafist clerics hold an antithetical view which relates to Tajseem and Tashbeeh(anthropomorphism) of Allah as the one existing in necessary separation from individuals on Earth. Ibn Taymiyya—the founder-ideologue of Salafism—writes in his book: “Whoever speaks with the Tashbeeh (resemblance), which comprises Tajseem (Anthropomorphism), makes Allah like the created bodies which are other than Him and this is clear and manifest falsehood from both a rational and Shari’ah point of view. Such people are the Mushabbihah (Anthropomorphists) whom the Salaf have criticized. They (the Salaf) said: “The Mushabbih are those who say: Seeing like our seeing, and Hand like our hand and Foot like our foot”, and thus this is making resemblance in the genus (jins) which is the most obvious corruption” (2)
In order to explain this doctrine, Um Abdullah Al-Misawi writes for the popular Salafist portal, as-salaf.com: “Tashbeeh in Allah’s attributes occurs by likening Allah’s attributes to the attributes of the creation such as when a Muslim believes or says that Allah’s Life is like the life of the creatures; or Allah’s Word is like the word of human beings; or Allah’s Face is like the creations’ face and so on. So, negation of Tashbeeh and Tamtheel would be to believe that Allah’s Attributes are not like the attributes of the creations and that they are upon a manner that befits the majesty of Allah and His perfection, which we do not know; and our duty is to believe in them and submit”. (3)
However, Sufis seek to form individual communion with Allah through the acts of worship. As such they are declared ‘heretics’ by the Salafists. But in much of the Egyptian society, Sufi belief and form of worship is accepted and practiced by the mainstream Muslims. This points out the reason why Friday worshippers at the Sufi mosque in Egypt suffered a brutal terror attack. These Egyptian Sufi followers dated their acts of worship back to Prophet Muhammad’s companions (Sahabis) and the early mystics (Tabi’ees) who shunned the increasingly expansionist, materialist and despotic Muslim empire for prayer and seclusion. Some of them even used music in their prayers trying to focus on achieving a state of ecstasy in the worship, though the more institutional Sufi orders in Egypt avoid music.
As a matter of fact, the moderate majority of Egyptian Muslims is traditionally anchored in a Sufi-oriented narrative of Islam and hence does not reconcile with the intolerant Salafist theology. Only in 2011, Mohammad Morsi came into power through the support of the political Salafist outfit, Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-ul-Muslimin) taking advantage of the Tahrir Square revolution. It was the time when Hosni Mubarak, a quasi-military leader in Egypt, was ousted. But Salafism was not compatible with the mainstream Egyptian Muslims’ predominantly secular ethos. Therefore, although the MB supporters left no stone unturned in electing Morsi as their president, he faced the ire of the Egyptian Muslims and was dethroned in 2013.
Even the clergy of the Sunni Islam’s largest seat of learning, Al-Azhar University endorsed the new Egyptian government’s blackout ban on the books of Sayyed Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi and all other ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood. Daily News Egypt reported Ashraf Fahmi, an official in the religious ministry, saying that even small libraries in mosques were purged from books that call for extremism. “Any book, irrespective of its author or publishing house, that contradicts the teachings of Islam, will be confiscated”, he said. (4)
Consequently, many democratic countries like India viewed the new Egyptian government as an ally interested in eliminating the extremist creed from its roots. In fact, since Sisi came to power a few years back, major reforms have been introduced to curb the extremist cancer.
But Indian Muslims, barring a few Sufi clerics, hypothesize that the Radwa mosque terror attack was an ‘Israeli-US’ counter to opening of Gaza Crossing and Palestinian refusal to accept the so-called Saudi Peace Plan, which is a total surrender to Israeli Occupation. Undeniably, Egypt is now working closely with Israel to ‘combat terrorism’ and control weapons and personnel flows through tunnels in the Sinai between Israel and Egypt. But surprisingly enough, even the Israeli assistance has not managed to quash the growing Salafist insurgency in Sinai? This creates deeper questions and doubts on Sisi’s strongly-worded counter-terror strategy. Sisi had explicitly stated that one of the key concerns of his government is eliminating the extremists who have held the moderate Islam hostage in the country.
Recently, Al-Azhar has appointed senior imams and Islamic chaplains to purge the Egyptian mosques of all discourses inciting sectarian bigotry. The prime concern of Al-Azhar, as stated in its Arabic organ, is to nurture imams to preserve the essential message of Islam in Egypt, based on the predominant Shafi’ee school of thought, which castigates the violent Takfirism (declaring Muslims apostate to justify their killings). The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaikh Shauqi Allam whom this writer met at India’s World Sufi Forum spoke: “Takfirism is constantly invading the minds of our youths. Therefore, we must tackle the various forms of continued exploitation of religion, with an aim to root out Takfirist ideology at its core.” Even the former Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa declared the Takfirists as the ‘most misguided’ (Adal al-Dalin).