Introduction to Sufism in Egypt

Sufism (or Tasawwuf) is Islamic mysticism. Sufism practitioners are generally known as Sufis and pursuit the perfection in worshipping Allah. Sufism can be described as an aspect or dimension of Islam and Sufi orders (tariqa) can be found in Sunni, Shia and other Islamic groups. Each order has its own sheikh, who is the supreme guide followed by disciples (muridin), its own rites or initiation, and its own code of conduct.

Sufi dance show in Wikala al-Ghouri courtyard, Cairo – Photo Credit: Melody Patry

Sufis are characterized by their attachment to dhikr (“Remembrance of God”), which consists in the invocation of Allah’s divine names, verses from the Qur’an, or sayings of the Prophet in order to glorify Allah. To join a Sufi order, one has to memorise the mantras, learn religious texts by heart, and then begins the real journey, aspiring to turn from a physical being into a spiritual one.

You might know the ‘Whirling Dervishes’, who belong to the Sufi Mevlevi or Mevleviye order and who are known due to their famous practice of whirling as a form of dihkr.

There is about 74 Sufi orders in Egypt. According to Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Khaleq al-Shabrawi of the al-Shabrawia order, quoted in Ahram online’s guide on Sufi origins in Egypt, sufism in Egypt appeared around the 9th and 10th centuries (i.e. 3rd and 4th Hegira centuries). Islamic studies specialist and writer Ammar Ali Hasan says that the Egyptian government has for long offered encouragement to Sufi orders and that Sufis also run a lot of charities and Koranic schools, a service that is much appreciated in the countryside and working class neighbourhoods.

However, in recent times, some Muslims have questioned the necessity of tariqa, arguing they were alien to the Prophet himself and that the word Sufism is absent from prophetic speech.

On April 2011, tensions escalated in Egypt between Sufis and Salafis after the destruction of holy shrines belonging to holy men and women held in the highest esteem by the Sufi community. Al-Ahram Weekly reported that many among

and outside the Sufi community believed that the shrine affair was a pre-meditated attempt by the counter-revolution at dividing the Muslims’ ranks and creating another form of sectarian strife – as is the case between Sunnis and Shia in some Islamic countries – similar to earlier attempts at dividing the ranks of Christians and Muslims.

Melody Patry, Cairo 18 November 2012