Mystical branch of Islam – Rediscover Sufi heritage

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In the rectangular courtyard outside the Tijani zawiya, a Sufi centre in Fez, half a dozen groups of men sit in circles around aluminium trays filled with flat bread, fruits, milk and thick harira veg

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In the rectangular courtyard outside the Tijani zawiya, a Sufi centre in Fez, half a dozen groups of men sit in circles around aluminium trays filled with flat bread, fruits, milk and thick harira vegetable soup, waiting to perform the al Maghreb prayer before breaking fast.

Among them is 23-year-old Abdul Hameed al Warhi, who works in a shoe factory by day but spends most of his free time here, praying and partaking in mystical rituals with his fellow Sufis, whose strand of Islam, dominant in Morocco before a mid-20th century decline, is now enjoying something of a resurgence.

Following prayer and iftar, Mr al Warhi, wearing a brown T-shirt and black tracksuit bottoms, steps into the zawiya, which looks like a typical Moroccan mosque with colourful tiled walls and stain-glass windows.

In the middle of the room, thick copper bars and short marble columns seal off the tomb of Sidi Ahmed al Tijani, who founded the Tijani Sufi order in the 19th century.

“[Sufism] is the purity of intention and clarity of heart,” said Mr al Warhi, sitting on a red Persian carpet next to the tomb, which is revered by followers of this order, many of whom hail from as far afield as Senegal, Mali, Gambia and Mauritania.

Mr al Warhi is one of many Moroccans, especially among the youth, who are rediscovering their Sufi heritage, a development that has been promoted by Mohammed VI, the Moroccan king.

The mystical branch of Islam, with its philosophy of inner peace, social harmony and oneness with God, is seen by many in Morocco as the ideal counterweight to such strict interpretations of Islam as Salafism, which have gained ground in the past few decades, as well as answering the country’s spiritual needs.

“A lot of people who want to adhere to Islam follow ideologies that lead them to extremism and rejection of others,” said Mr al Warhi. “But Sufism is a peaceful and forgiving way that calls for dialogue and love of others.”

Sufi orders are mostly distinguished by their system of dhikr, which is a silent – that is, internal – or vocal chanting based on the repetition of prayers or the names and attributes of God, which number 99, according to Islamic tradition.

Essentially, the Sufis, like mystic branches of other religions, strive to obtain spiritual oneness with God, and dhikr, they say, is the vehicle that helps them achieve that.

“When I do dhikr, I feel comfort and tranquillity,” said Mr al Warhi. “A spiritual feeling that I can’t describe to you.”

At the central Sufi zawiya of the Boutchichi order in Madagh, a small village in the north-east of Morocco, just 15km west of Algeria, young worshippers sit in a circle after performing the al Ishaa prayer, the last of the day. They begin chanting a poem about love of the divine, without the use of musical instruments.

The tone is solemn and engaging: “Oh how happy are those who won God and saw in the world nothing but Him,” went one line.

As the chanting continues it grows louder and the young men gradually stand up with some of them clasping their hands around the backs of fellow worshippers, jumping up and down euphorically. Towards the end of each verse, a powerful voice resonates throughout the zawiya’s court, the ceiling of which is made of corrugated-iron sheets. The voice, loud and penetrating yet barely recognisable, said “ah”; the last letters of the word Allah.

Sufis say that in this ecstatic state the material world dissolves; and people react in different, spontaneous ways, including jumping, spinning and deep grunting.

For Hassan Boumata, 17, from Tiznit, a town in the southern region of Sous-Massa-Draa, it is because of this exhilaration he will always be a Sufi.

“A lot of people are looking for happiness but real happiness and serenity lies in dhikr,” said Hassan, who is still in secondary school.

If testament were needed to the revival of Sufism in Morocco, it was visible last year when 100,000 worshippers descended on the Boutchichi zawiya for the celebration of the Moulid, or the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.

Sufism has been one of the defining elements of Moroccan culture for centuries. Sufi zawiyas and shrines of Sufi masters are seen everywhere in the country. In the desert, the vast agricultural plains and fertile valleys, shrines for “men of God” take pride of place.

But during the latter half of the 20th century, Sufism declined in numbers and influence due, among other reasons, to the emergence of a number of competing secular and religious ideological strands, including Morocco’s first Islamist movement in 1969, influenced by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

But following the Casablanca bombings in 2003 and 2007, perpetrated by Jihadist groups inspired by the literalist interpretations of Salafi Islam, the Moroccan regime closed dozens of Quranic schools that were believed to be centres of Salafist preaching and pushed to rekindle public interest in Sufism.

In July, the Moroccan monarch wrote to an international Sufi gathering in Marrakech saying that Sufis “advocate co-operation and joint action to support fellow humans, to show them love, fraternity and compassion”.

The Alaouite Dynasty, which has ruled Morocco since 1666, adopts Sufism as a major tenet of the country’s Islamic faith.

It is believed the term Sufi was coined in the eighth century when it was applied to ascetics who wore uncomfortable woollen clothes to achieve spiritual discipline. Sufi is Arabic for wool.

Early on, a number of orders, or Tariqa, were established by certain Sufis who linked their chain of teachers back to the Prophet Mohammed. Only the few of those who attained high levels of Sufi knowledge had orders established after them.

Not everyone in Morocco appreciates the current rejuvenation of Sufism.

Back in Fez, Salah Iddin al Sharqi, 16, said he did not consider the zawiya to be a “house of God”. Walking through the packed, narrow alleys of the 12-century-old city, in a red T-shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops, Salah said some Sufi practices were not consistent with Islam.

“I believe in God and his messenger, but the zawiya is not a place of worship. There is someone buried in the zawiya and I don’t believe in praying in a place where someone is buried,” he said, referring to the tombs located in many Sufi zawiyas.

Others express outright hostility towards Sufism, saying it should be banned according to prophetic tradition.

Standing outside the Barrima mosque in the old city of Marrakech – which is across the road from a small Sufi zawiya – after al Ishaa prayers, three young, bearded men said certain Sufi practices amounted to “blasphemy”.

“Seeking the blessing [of the dead] is explicit blasphemy,” said one of the men.

Salafis have traditionally criticised the presence of tombs in some Sufi zawiyas as well as the reverence the Sufis hold for their sheikhs.

Even some Sufis question the practices of their fellow worshippers. Idris al Faez, imam of the Tijani zawiya in Fez who tends toward a more conservative version of Sufism, said he could understand certain criticism directed towards Sufis.

“There are some aspects of ignorance among some Sufis such as the mingling of the two genders and the use of music,” he said, sitting against the wall of the Tijani zawiya in Fez.

Still, proponents of Sufism argue that it was the absence of their brand of Islam, as well as the spread of satellite channels espousing anti-Sufi views, that has allowed extremist versions of Islam, such as Salafism, to grow.

“The absence of the role of Sufism … resulted in the emergence of all sorts of extremism,” said Fouzi Skali, a leading Moroccan Sufi expert. “We can’t imagine a civilisation with this type of behaviour of killing innocents. We have developed an ideology that is against the basic values of Islamic civilisation.

“If there is no change in moral values by which societies are ruled, we will be moving towards more crises and splits within societies,” said Mr Skali, who manages the annual Fez Festival of Sufi Culture.

Regardless of the ups and downs Sufism has experienced in the past and may experience again in the future, practitioners say it is ingrained in Moroccan culture and always will be.

“Sufism is the essence of Islam,” said Sidi Jamal, a Sufi master and son of the sheikh of the Boutchichi order in Madagh, as he sipped a bowl of soup. “The Prophet, his friends and early followers were all Sufis.”

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.