The massive November 24 terrorist attack by Islamic State on a Sufi mosque in a town of little importance, Bir al-Abd, in northern Sinai, resounded across the world. Despite the presence of members of the security services, the al-Rawda mosque also serves as the local headquarters of a prominent Sufi Brotherhood founded by the local al-Jarir clan, a branch of the powerful Al-Sawarkah tribe. The number of dead, somewhat over 300, were shockingly high, yet not higher than the tolls in two earlier Islamic State massacres. In 2014, IS fighters killed 700 men of the Shu'aytat tribe in Dayr al-Zur. "Over a three-day period, vengeful fighters shelled, beheaded, crucified and shot hundreds of members of the Shaitat tribe after they dared to rise up against the extremists." In 2016, a series of bombings in Karrada, a Shi'i district of Baghdad, took some 347 lives.
Islamic State -- though defeated in Syria and Iraq -- remains a major threat in many parts of the world. Its fighters returning to Europe have carried out attacks in Brussels and Paris, and yet others have been welcomed back by naïve government agencies who hope to make them into innocent citizens again by rewarding them with benefits and housing.
In a stunning list of attacks, CNN has identified Islamic State as a global threat: Since declaring itself a caliphate in June 2014, the self-proclaimed "State" has conducted or inspired over 140 terrorist attacks in 29 countries in addition to Iraq and Syria, where its carnage has taken a much deadlier toll. Those attacks have killed and wounded thousands of people.
The massacre at Bir al-Abed is not the first time Islamic State has attacked a Sufi shrine or mosque, nor is it the first time Sufi Muslims have been attacked by Salafi hardliners. Everything and everyone deemed by IS leaders to be "unIslamic" or "insufficiently Islamic" are eligible to be killed or demolished. Ancient sites in Syria; Shi'i Muslims, their mosques and shrines in Iraq; and Yazidis in northern Syria and Iraq have all been the objects of major attacks, in many ways echoing similar massacres by the Wahhabis of Arabia in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
It is easy to trace the recent attack to deep-seated Islamic intolerance, both scriptural and traditional. But the massacre in Sinai raises particular concerns missed by much of the media outside Egypt itself. Fundamentalist Muslims certainly do regard Sufis, Shi'is, Ahmadis, and believers in post-Islamic movements such as the Baha'is, or even followers of reformist trends of Islam as apostates worthy of death as much as they regard Hindus, Buddhists, Yazidis, Sikhs and others as targets for Muslim outrage.
Sufism, however, is more difficult to define, especially in Egypt. The Sufi form of Islam is not and has never been a sect that has broken away from the mainstream faith. Sufis believe in exactly the same things other Muslims believe. Its intellectuals and poets down the centuries have developed mystical and metaphysical ideas that have elevated Islam above its basic origins, producing some of the most outstanding thinkers in the religion. But many of these mystics have served as authorities on Islamic law, as judges, and as government officials.
From the 12th century, Sufis established growing numbers of religious brotherhoods that took Islamic practice in new directions. Sufis perform the daily prayers in mosques the same as all other Muslims. Sufis fast and go on pilgrimages just as anyone else. In the past, they would fight in jihad wars alongside (and even in advance of) others, often building their sacred centres on the borders. Most Sufis are Sunnis: there are very few Shi'i brotherhoods.
In due course, Sufism spread to every corner of the Muslim world, with particular concentrations across North Africa and the Indian sub-continent. The originally Moroccan Shadhili order remains influential as far as South Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Indonesia. One of its several branches is based in Yemen, with followers in Pakistan, India, and Myanmar. Another branch has followers in Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, and the United States.
In 19th-century Egypt, virtually every Muslim belonged to one Sufi order or another. Clearly, it is not a negligible sect. In modern Egypt, 20% or more of the Muslim population belongs to a brotherhood, but Egyptians in general visit Sufi shrines on festivals, pray at the tombs of Sufi saints, and engage with Sufis without any great sense of difference, sharing mosques, schools, clubs, and more simply as fellow believers in Islam. According to Jonathan Brown, writing for the Carnegie Foundation: "Sufism should be seen as the default setting of Muslim religious life in Egypt".
In a recent article for The Atlantic, H. A. Hewllyer makes this point even more strongly:
Until relatively recently, it would have been unthinkable for students in Muslim communities to consider Sufism anything other than an integral part of a holistic Islamic education. The essentials of theology, practice, and spirituality — that is, Sufism — were deemed basic, core elements of even elementary Islamic instruction. And religious figures known for their commitment to Sufism would not have been considered a minority; they would have been by far the norm. Indeed, the very label of an Egyptian "Sufi minority" being bandied about since the mosque attack is a peculiar one: Sufism isn't a sect — it's integral to mainstream Sunni Islam.
Most notably, the head of Cairo's al-Azhar university, regarded as the most important Sunni institution of religious authority and Islamic law in the world, is always a Sufi shaykh. Egypt's Grand Mufti is also a leading Sufi practitioner. The Supreme Council of Sufi Orders deals with the brotherhoods at state level, as a quasi-governmental organization. This alone indicates that Sufism is very far from being a sectarian form of Islam. It may be forbidden in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, persecuted in Iran, and hated by hardliners in Pakistan, but to most Egyptians, it is a part of everyday life.
The head of Cairo's al-Azhar University, regarded as the most important Sunni institution of religious authority and Islamic law in the world, is always a Sufi shaykh. To most Egyptians, Sufism is a part of everyday life. Pictured: Shaykh Ahmad Al-Tayeb, the current Grand Imam of al-Azhar and former president of al-Azhar University. (Photo by Steffi Loos/Getty Images)
After the revolution to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, starting on January 25, 2011, the political situation in Egypt changed markedly. For a full year, Muslim Brotherhood-supported Mohamed Morsi served as president and rapidly shifted the country to a virtual Islamist state. In 2013, however, he was ousted in a coup led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who became president the following year. When that happened, Egyptian Sufis placed their trust in al-Sisi to protect them from the Salafi extremists, who had been assaulting them and their holy places for many years.
During this period, a more contentious political arrangement emerged, with the formation of new parties and the banning of others. The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, which had won a massive 47.2% of votes in parliament in the 2011-2012 elections, was banned in 2014. But other radical Salafist parties emerged, forming an Islamist Bloc, in which the al-Nour party is now the largest. There were over eleven such parties, and though a lawsuit designed to ban them and other religious parties was files in 2013, it did not succeed.
For all their mystical values, Sufis have never been altogether apolitical. They are often involved in military and revolutionary activities. In Egypt, as early as 2011, some Sufi political parties were formed, beginning with the Egyptian Liberation Party (Hizb al-tahrir al-Misri). The Rifa'i Order, one of the largest, created the smaller Sawt al-Hurriyya (Voice of Freedom) party. The Egyptian Liberation Party is strongly supported by the 'Azmiyya Order, but numbers in its ranks Armenians, Muslims, Copts, and Nubians. Its members have also marched alongside Coptic Christians calling for equal rights. Designed to protect the Sufi brotherhoods and the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, it is portrayed as a reformist civic party. Its political and socio-economic policies would fit well in any Western democracy, and its opposition to extremism and violence presents a real challenge to its Salafi opponents. Indeed, a 2007 report by the Rand Corporation advised Western governments to "harness" Sufism, saying its adherents were "natural allies of the West."
The Egyptian Liberation Party and Sufis generally have been broadly supportive of President al-Sisi. At a conference in Cairo this April, the head of the 'Azmiyya Order, Shaykh 'Alaa Abu'l-'Azayem, told a journalist from Al-Monitor:
"I have told President [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi to take care of the Sufi leaders. We are the ones who stand against terrorism, fighting not with weapons but ideas."
This is not to say that the new political activism of some orders has been universally accepted by the Sufi community as a whole. The Grand Shaykh of the Orders, 'Abd al-Hadi al-Qassabi, has been highly critical of the shift from spirituality into politics, and further rifts have followed.
In the end, the Sufi parties are outnumbered by those of their Salafi opponents, meaning that the brotherhoods and the wider Sufi-oriented public must look to the state for protection. In that context, it is important to stress that the massacre in Sinai was not simply another Islamic State attack on people it considered heretics (effectively, in their interpretation of Shari'a law, non-believers), but an assault on everyday mainstream Islam in Egypt, a declaration of apostasy for the vast majority of Egyptian Muslims.
As the core constituency for the Muslim Brotherhood and a major centre for Salafi Islam, Egypt cannot afford further divisions within its society. A breakdown of its present consensus could lead to wider strife. With Islamic State active in Libya, Sinai, and Sudan -- already a radicalized country; with Syria in a state of collapse and Lebanon in peril, controlled by Hizbullah, Gaza still controlled by Hamas, Turkey increasingly radical, IS increasingly active in Jordan, and Israel stuck in the middle, the stability of Egypt is paramount for Middle East peace. Should the Salafis allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and linked to Islamic State in Sinai take control of Egypt, we may be sure that the fragile peace treaty the country maintains with Israel will collapse. It is at all costs essential that that must not happen, not just for the sake of Israel, but for the benefit of the vast majority of the Egyptian public, as well as for the region.
Dr. Denis MacEoin taught Arabic and Islamic Studies (including Sufism) at Newcastle University. He is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.