Sufism (tasawwuf) is an Islamic modality that emphasizes self-purification and the attainment of spiritually advanced states through the assumption of specific practices and disciplines, typically through affiliation with a particular brotherhood and its leader, a sheikh. Sufism has deep roots historical roots in Egypt, and the Egyptian landscape is marked with hundreds of sites significant to historical and contemporary Sufis. Today, roughly 15% of Egyptians are either members of Sufi brotherhoods or participate in Sufi practices, and there are 77 officially recognized Sufi orders (tariqat, sing. tariqa). Popular Sufi practices in Egypt include the recitation of litanies collectively and individually (zikr), the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad during mawlid ceremonies and other expressions of love for the Prophet and his family, and visitations to saintly figures’ tombs (ziyara).
The Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, founded in 1903, is the government body responsible for the regulation of Sufi brotherhoods. The Council oversees the appointment of sheikhs (Sufi authorities), grants permits for mawlids, and performs a variety of other duties. The body is charged with ensuring that Sufi practices are consistent with Islamic norms and laws, and includes ten elected members representing sheikhs from different tariqas as well as five appointment members who represent al-Azhar University (where many of the upper faculty are respected Sufis), the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Culture, and Local Administration. Law no. 118 (1976) states that Sufi orders are barred from engaging in any activities not authorized by the Supreme Council.
The creation of bureaucratic institutions intended to regulate Egyptian Sufism is consistent with changes to the state and the expansion of the state into religious affairs. Additionally, it points to a changing public discourse around Sufism over the course of the 20th century, during which criticism from Islamic reformists and the wider public—calling Sufism unorthodox, superstitious, and heretical—forced a response from Sufi leaders emphasizing its consistency with Islamic orthopraxy.
The development and rising popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood was one such challenge. Hassan al-Banna criticized modern Sufism (he himself was a member of a Sufi order prior to the Brotherhood’s creation) but praised the Sufi asceticism of the early Islamic period. The Muslim Brotherhood’s structure is noteworthy for its similarities to Sufi orders. Brotherhood members then and now tend to view Sufism as a corrupt form of Islamic practice, bordering on un-Islamic. Salafis condemn Sufism as heretical, and in recent years have been implicated in the destruction of Sufi sites in Egypt. However, disapproval of and hostilities towards Sufism may be colored by political in addition to religious views, particularly by the Sufi orders’ and prominent Sufis’ support for the government—including the current post-coup military government—and their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sufism is rarely political; for this reason, they were largely tolerated under contemporary Egyptian presidents and were supportive of past regimes. However, a number of Sufi political parties formed in the wake of the Arab Spring. For example, the Rifa’iyyah formed Sawt al-Hureyya (The Voice of Freedom Party) and the ‘Azmeyyah announced Tahrir Masr (The Egyptian Liberation Party). Sufi leaders have been divided on these changes; Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Orders, Sheikh Abdul Hadi al-Qassabi, denounced the formation of political parties and suggested that it could lead to greater societal rifts. Proponents of the parties insisted that their formation was necessary to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Salafi political parties from eroding freedoms and protections granted to Sufi orders. With changes to the constitution banning political parties based on religion, these parties have secularized their rhetoric and have aligned with larger secular political coalitions.
The Rifa’iyyah Order is among the largest orders in Egypt, and is especially popular among lower socioeconomic classes. It was founded in 12th century Iraq by Ahmad al-Rifa’i, and members were known for miraculous acts during heightened spiritual states including snake-charming, fire-swallowing, and piercing their cheeks. These practices inspire tremendous wonder in those who participate and observe, but are also frowned upon by members of other orders and non-Sufis who regard them as excessive and even heretical.
The Shadhiliyyah Order is the largest Sufi brotherhood in Egypt, where it been popular since the 14th century, and is notable for its flexibility and lack of complex institutional structure, permitting it to adapt to a wide variety of contexts. It has over 70 branches globally, many of which are present in Egypt. The Order emphasizes Sunni Islamic piety grounded in the Qur’an and hadith, self-purification, and Sufi mysticism. Its founder, Abu’l-Hasan al-Shadhili (d. 1258) was born in Morocco, where the Shadhiliyyah first took hold, and followed al-Shadhili to Egypt, where he settled and is buried in Alexandria. Among the most celebrated Egyptian Sufis is Ibn Ata’ Allah al-Iskandari (d. 1309), the third sheikh of the Shadhiliyya, whose aphorisms and discourses remain an important contribution to the body of Egyptian Sufism, and Imam al-Busiri (d. 1294), author of “Poem of the Burda,” the most commonly recited poem in the Sunni Muslim world.
Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, Muslim Communities of Grace: The Sufi Brotherhoods in Islamic Religious Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
Valerie J. Hoffman, Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995).
Islamopedia Online, “Contested Sufi Electoral Parties: The Voice of Freedom Party and The Liberation of Egypt Party,” Islamopedia Online (http:/www.islamopediaonline.org/country-profile/egypt/islam-and-electoral-part...), September 3, 2011, accessed January 10, 2014.
Islamopedia Online, “Salafi Violence against Sufis,” Islamopedia Online (http://www.islamopediaonline.org/country-profile/egypt/salafists/salafi-...), August 3, 2011, accessed January 10, 2014.
Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).