Sufi leaders have called for government protection and are forming local committees to protect sacred sites under attack
A resident looks at damage to the Sidi Abdel Rahman shrine at a mosque in al-Qalyubiya, north of Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/REUTERS
In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, many moderate Muslims have expressed anxiety over the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country’s political and social life, while human rights monitors have warned against discrimination and attacks on the Coptic Christian minority.
But something else long feared has happened there as well. According to the authoritative newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, 16 historic mosques in Alexandria belonging to Sufi orders have been marked for destruction bySalafis. The newspaper notes that Alexandria has 40 mosques associated with Sufis, and is the headquarters for 36 Sufi groups. Half a million Sufis live in the city, out of a municipal total of four million people.
Aggression against the Sufis in Egypt has included a raid on Alexandria’s most distinguished mosque, named for, and housing, the tomb of the 13th century Sufi, al-Mursi Abu’l Abbas. Born in the then-Muslim city of Murcia in southeastern Spain, al-Mursi emigrated to Alexandria. He was a disciple of and successor to the Sufi sheikh Abu’l Hassan al-Shadhili, founder of the powerful Shadhili Sufi order, which remains influential throughout north Africa, south Asia, the Muslim communities of the Indian Ocean, and Indonesia.
Salafis have alleged that Sufis are agents of the west as well as heretics. The extremists want to take control of Sufi mosques, after they destroy shrines within their precincts. One object of their manoeuvres is the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in Alexandria, which was the site of mass protests, involving thousands of people, co-ordinated with those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, during the movement against ex-president Hosni Mubarak.
The Alexandrian Sufi leader sheikh Gaber Kasem al-Kholy has said: “Coptic Christians are a main target for those extremists, but we need to speak out about the suffering of the Sufi people. We have a considerable number of followers, and we are willing and able to protect Egypt’s legacy.”
The devastation of Sufi shrines in Alexandria has already led to counter demonstrations in the city. Al-Kholy has announced that local committees would be formed to protect Sufi sites, and has distributed forms soliciting youth to serve as volunteers. He said the Sufis have submitted a memorandum to the Egyptian military enumerating 20 Sufi institutions that had been attacked.
On April 5, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Sufi sheikh Mohamed Alaa Abul Azayem, of the Azeemia Sufi order, announced that it would found an “Egyptian Liberation party” to combat both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi fundamentalists if either took power and threatened the Sufis. The political project has also involved members of the National Association for Change, the reformist Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, and the Islamic Popular Leadership Organisation.
In addition, Sufi residents of the Egyptian governorates of al-Minufyiaand Aswan have entered complaints with the government’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments and public prosecutors, demanding state protection for Sufi structures, against radical encroachment. Radicals in Al-Minufiya had previously assaulted Coptic citizens. Violation of Sufi rights has also been reported in the al-Buharya governorate.
In the governorate of al-Qalyubiya, two Salafis were arrested at the end of March after a group of their followers razed five local shrines. Fighting broke out with townspeople who gathered to protect the tombs.
Egyptian Sufis have described themselves as “soldiers of God” responsible for the defence of shrines and tombs. A protest against radical violence was called last week by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, at the Hussein mosque in Cairo, and was joined by a leader of the Shia Muslim minority, Muhammad al-Derini.