CAIRO — “Soft drink or whiskey?” Sufi Sheikh Alaa al-Din Abu al-Azayem asked shrewdly, grinning from behind his Koran-laden desk.
It wasn’t exactly what you’d expect from a grand imam in Egypt, and I’m still not quite sure if Azayem was serious, but the offer captures the inscrutable nature of Islam’s mystic Sufi tradition. A practice claimed by fifteen million of the country’s roughly eighty million citizens, Sufism has become the “default setting” for Muslim life in Egypt, in the words of a recent Carnegie Endowment report. And now, as both the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Islamist Salafi movement gain in power, Egypt’s traditionally apolitical Sufis are mobilizing. Two pro-Sufi political parties have turned up on the scene, and Sufi sheikhs recently broke with tradition by openly endorsing political candidates running in the nation’s presidential election. During the campaign season, candidates made a point of dropping in on major Sufi shrines and attending Sufi gatherings during their campaigns in a bid for the “Sufi vote,” which is becoming synonymous with Egypt’s “swing vote.”
With his slick gray suit and wry remarks, Sheikh Azayem’s appearance explains why some see Sufism as the miraculous harbinger of moderate Islam, the long-awaited wonder drug of the Muslim world. But this hugely diverse spiritual movement is not so easily pegged. It’s a deeply individualist Islamic-inspired belief system composed of nearly eighty different schools of thought, or tariqas, in Egypt alone, each with its own distinct beliefs, rituals, traditions, and favored saints.
Azayem heads the prominent Azmiya Sufi order, which has one million followers, the same number claimed by the fundamentalist Salafi movement that played so dominant a role in the recent national elections. The Azmiya order is rumored to have close ties to Iran and has been accused of proselytizing for the Shiite faith in predominantly Sunni Egypt. (Sufism is not, as is often thought, a third branch of Islam. It is a spiritual tariqa, or “way,” that allows adherents to be both Sufi and Sunni, or Sufi and Shia, or even—some claim—Sufi and Christian.) Historically one of Egypt’s more politically aware tariqas, the Azmiya order was an outspoken critic of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime before the Arab Spring.
Several months ago, Sheikh Azayem threw his weight behind a new political party called Al-Tahrir al-Masry, or the Liberation of Egypt Party, whose reformist Islamist platform boasts a strong Sufi orientation. “We were afraid for the future of Sufism,” he explains. “It was very possible for the laws that protect us to be wiped out and there wouldn’t anything to protect us from extreme ideologies.” Such an event could be traumatic for Egypt, where a third of the country’s adult male population is said to be Sufi.
“Sufis are trying to be more involved in politics,” Al-Tahrir al-Masry party leader Ibrahim Zahran explained over the phone recently. Zahran, who is not Sufi himself, is organizing political awareness sessions for young Sufis around the country. He said half of Al-Tahrir al-Masry’s more than forty thousand members are Sufi, adding that they are working to gain the loyalty of eight other Sufi orders. “What Sufis need to do,” he said, “is unite.”
Azayem’s endorsement of Al-Tahrir al-Masry was an important moment for a movement that has long kept to the political sidelines. Sufism does not have a particularly strong history of political activity in Egypt—unlike its adherents in, say, neighboring Sudan, where a major Sufi cleric led an armed insurrection against the country’s Egyptian rulers in the nineteenth century. Egyptian Sufis’ predilection for passivity is due in part to their emphasis on values like obedience, which has made them quick to acquiesce to authoritarian rule.
All that appears to be changing. Azayem recently launched a new ecumenical coalition called the Egyptian League for Rebuilding Egypt because, he said, “I was afraid for the Sufi way of life and for that of the Christians, our brothers.” The idea came out of a recent trip he took to America. Indeed, the Christian-loving, National Geographic –reading imam is just the kind of guy Washington would like.
After our conversation, the sheikh reappeared elsewhere in Cairo later that June evening in more radical form. Addressing a packed room above a mosque in the heart of the Egyptian capital, he launched a vitriolic attack on the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, now one of Egypt’s most influential Islamic groups and one that considers many Sufi traditions sacrilegious. According to Azayem, the group spies for Israel, takes money from Qatar, and is planning to attack the Egyptian army from across the Libyan border. He made these claims while campaigning against the Brotherhood’s candidate for president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, who has since taken office.
“So when we’re ruled by Morsi, does that mean we’re ruled by Netanyahu? Does that mean we’re going to be ruled by Qatar, by Saudi Arabia? The guns that they are smuggling from Israel, from the Red Sea, from Libya and Saudi Arabia, where are those going? Who are they going to fight? Are they going to fight the Egyptian army with them?” Azayem asked.
“They and their president are traitors!” he told the crowd from behind the microphone, having traded his Western-style suit for the long, white religious robe of the observant Muslim. The country’s ruling generals, he said, should “arrest them all,” emphatically comparing the appearance of a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt to the experience of being tortured. Applause shook the room.
This was four days before the Egyptian elections, and many voters were still trying to decide between Morsi and his rival, former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. “You have to choose between bitterness—Shafik—and torture—Morsi,” the sheikh stated. “Bitterness you taste once, and it’s over; torture lives with you forever.”
Listeners hung on every word, men and boys crowding around the podium, many of them carefully recording the sheikh’s speech on their cell phones and handheld cameras, the women listening by telecast downstairs. The atmosphere was almost Sunday school–like, with fathers constantly checking to make sure their sons were paying close attention to the revered Sufi teacher. Many of them padded around barefoot, having removed their shoes in a sign of respect, as one would at a mosque.
“I wish everyone could hear this, because it’s the honest truth,” the man sitting next to me said. “He describes Islam as it actually is: it’s as clear as the sun.” He later added, “Morsi’s a good guy, but the people behind him are training him and directing him”—a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. “These are not [Morsi’s] decisions or opinions. We want the president of a republic to have his own opinions.”
The occasion for Azayem’s speech was a Sufi saint celebration known as a moulid. Egypt’s biggest moulid is held in the city of Tanta every October and attracts more people than go to the hajj in Mecca. It is exactly the kind of event deplored by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who see Sufism’s esoteric practices—among them saint worship, snake charming, and whirling dervishes—as un-Islamic.
The Sufi tradition, long associated with quasi-contraband mystic figures and the world of magic, is divisive in the Muslim world as a whole. While Sufis have been present in Egypt for almost a thousand years, the movement has been the target of increasing hostility in recent months, with several beloved Sufi shrines sabotaged by attackers believed tied to radical Islamic groups.
After shrine violence last March, Azayem recalled, he thought to himself, “we need some kind of protection against the stupid ones who have taken control of the country,” referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. As he spoke, the middle-aged sheikh occasionally made furtive eye contact with a large poster of his younger self in full religious regalia hanging opposite his desk, as if performing some kind of self-examination. His office, meanwhile, appeared to be undergoing its own identity crisis, unsure if it should function more like a home or the receiving room of a religious leader. It was decorated in Islam’s signature green and littered with everything from religious pamphlets to anthropological studies like “Future Youth.”
Had he been there that day, Egypt’s grand sheikh of the Sufi orders would probably have frowned in disapproval. And not because of the furry Pooh Bear character sitting nonchalantly in Azayem’s office. “We do not mind if people involve themselves in political parties or political experiences, as long as they do so privately and do not attribute it to Sufism,” Sheikh Abdel Hady el-Kassaby told me from his more formal downtown office, from which he issues directives as the head of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Sufi Orders.
“We here are a committee followed by one and a half million Sufis from all over the republic [of Egypt] who agree that moral concepts should be kept away from political points of view,” Kassaby said.
Azayam’s response to Kassaby’s position: “This is what is called Sufism stupidity.” Still, it’s a point of view likely to resonate with many of Kassaby’s fellow believers in Egypt. While at least two hundred and twenty thousand Sufis are active in the country’s two pro-Sufi political parties—a figure just shy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s three hundred thousand–strong nationwide membership—the political orientation of the rest of the movement’s millions of believers, many of whom live in rural areas, is unknown. Generally speaking, most are believed to prefer keeping their political activity separate from their personal faith.
“The Egyptian state is secular,” Kassaby said sternly. Azayem, by contrast, believes sharia, or Islamic law, has a place in Egypt’s yet-to-be-defined political life. “It’s not as scary as people think,” he said, comparing its tenets to those of the Ten Commandments and taking care to distance himself from extreme interpretations such as those of supporters of the radical Wahhabi movement, for example, whom he called “idiots in their translations of the Koran, requiring a woman to cover everything
but her eyes.”
The two powerful Sufi leaders are divided by more than just their political opinions—they have history, and it’s not pretty. In 2008, Azayem was elected the grand sheikh of the Sufi orders, then controversially removed and replaced with Kassaby. President Mubarak eventually intervened and gave Kassaby the civil authority to run the powerful Sufi coalition. This so angered Azayem that he symbolically ran for Parliament in 2010 in order to send a message to Mubarak not to meddle in Sufi affairs. (He withdrew his bid before the vote.) The incident also prompted the formation of a break-off protest group called the Sufi Reform Front. Lawsuits were filed. The issue has yet to be resolved. Such divisions are likely to hinder any united Sufi role in Egypt’s future political affairs.
But if the Sufis ever were to unite, they would back a political model like Turkey, according to Sufi scholar Ammar Ali Hassan, author of a recent study, “Political Role of Sufi Orders in Egypt after the January 25 Revolution,” in which he argues that the movement is undergoing a political metamorphosis. Hassan reports that Azayem recently visited Turkey in order to study exactly such political imitation.
“Although politicians and political parties have long ignored the voting power of Egyptian Sufis, these parties have begun to change their way of mobilizing,” Hassan writes in his report. “The January 25 revolution threw a large stone in the stagnant lake of Egyptian Sufi orders, resulting in waves and an uproar that will not allow Egyptian Sufism to return to what it was before the revolution. Sufis’ desire to be free and for political and social self-realization are now greater than at any time in the past.”
Although caught up in the political awakening that has radically changed Egypt over the past year and a half, the Sufis are still trying to pick their way through the debris of the old order and find a path in the new one. For now they are wary of what the future holds. “The Sufi orders will continue to engage more in politics as long as Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood, tolerate such activity,” Hassan explained on the phone recently. “I don’t believe the Sufis will go against Morsi, because he is still eager to not upset them.” The other key factor for the Sufis is the fragile coalition between the Brotherhood and the Salafis. “The large appearance of Salafis bothered the Sufis—they feared that Salafis will be in charge of decisionmaking, so Sufis established the Liberation of Egypt Party to face them,” Hassan said.
Even the scrupulously aloof Kassaby is careful not to completely rule out political activity given the instability of Egypt’s political climate. “If some Sufis feel they can blend in with the political stream and be effective, we support them doing so, provided they are working in the best interest of the country,” he said, adding that “when there were attempts to violate the country, the first to stand in front of the violations were the Sufis, whether the threat was external occupation or internal.”
And if such a threat were internal—coming from, say, the Brotherhood? “I told you,” Kassaby responded, “we will not stand silent.”
Seated on a threadbare, mint-green couch in a dank room adjoining a Cairo mosque, Sheikh Mofamed Abdel Khaleq el-Shabrawi’s flashy Italian-style sunglasses and sleek suit caught me by surprise. So did his use of a football metaphor when he explained that Egypt’s Sufis need to prepare themselves for politics in the same way that athletes prepare for a big game: “We need to practice before the match.”
Shabrawi, who also sported an Egyptian flag pin prominently on his lapel, is head of the Al-Shabrawiya Sufi order and one of the founders of the Democratic People’s Party, an opposition group frozen by Mubarak after its formation in 1992. Now back in action, the party claims some three million members, two hundred thousand of whom are Sufi.
At the same meeting, the party’s secretary general, Ashraf Fatih el-Bab, argued that practice for this big game of politics has already begun and then proceeded to detail plans to “give ten acres of desert land to every young person, for example.” The party also seeks to subsidize farm equipment and gasoline, drill more wells, increase taxes on alcohol and what Bab called “immoral products,” and break up Egypt’s many monopolies. Finally, he said, the party will “spread the faith and introduce the Sufi movement around the country.” How exactly that fits in with the group’s stated civic agenda is unclear, but the promise is a clear example of growing sensitivity toward Sufi values in the political landscape of the new Egypt.
“Sufism is the moderate Islam, a movement based on social justice,” said Shabrawi. “Most of the time we’re busy worshipping God, but in these situations we have to take a stand . . . . We can’t stop doing political actions,” he concluded.
Just outside our meeting room, a small group of men was standing in two straight lines, facing one another in a manner unique to the order’s ritualistic Sufi worship. Soon the line began to ripple with bows as worshippers bent from the waist, their long white robes folding into the slanting afternoon light. Then they began to move slowly, as if in a dance, nodding their heads slowly up and down, eyes closed against the heady Cairo afternoon heat. Some leaned against the mosque’s ancient columns in meditation. Then they regrouped and again moved synchronously, chanting in unison to the rhythm of a heartbeat, their circling heads moving like small planets in a sanctified universe of prayer.
As I watched, I wondered if any of these men were among the hundreds of thousands of Sufis who decided to join a political party this year. My thoughts were interrupted by the reappearance of Ashraf el-Bab, the party secretary general I had just met with, who was eager to show me the mosque’s shrine of a major Sufi saint. The fact that I was being led around a mosque by the fervently religious head of a nominally secular political party perfectly summarized how tightly interwoven religion and politics remain in Egyptian society.
Bab, bubbling with pride and repeatedly gesturing to the shrine, insisted that I take a photo. I declined; I was working, not sightseeing. He insisted again—“No, really. Photo, photo!” Finally, I handed over the camera.
“For Facebook,” he said after the shot, winking.
That’s Sufism in Egypt today—full of surprises.
Kristin Deasy is a freelance writer based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Sharaf Alhourani also contributed to this article.