The hostility between Sufis and Salafists, long suppressed in the minds and hearts of both parties, has revealed its fangs for all to see. The shrines built to commemorate and worship saints in the Sufi tradition is a very physical embodiment of the clash in ideology and faith of the two groups. For Sufis these are sacred sites at which to pray and worship through celebration, for Salafists they are an abomination against Islam and the teaching of the Prophet.
This fractious relationship has recently taken a violent turn with the destruction of shrines by Salafists across Egypt, attracting attention to the diverging paths of faith as the attacks spread. The latest act was the burning of the tomb of Sidi Izz El-Din in Qalioubiya, which sparked the crisis and confrontation between the two groups.
A bearded man was apprehended by local residents after he threw a Molotov cocktail on the wood that covers the shrine of Sidi Izz El-Din. Word quickly spread that the young arsonist, who fled the town for fear of persecution, was part of the local Salafist group, something denied by the group’s leadership.
An extraordinary general assembly of the Sufi Council, which represents Egypt’s 20 million Sufis, was convened by its head, Dr. Abdel Hady El-Qasabi. The assembly discussed how to deal with these developments and announced the formation of popular committees (unofficial guards) to protect the shrines and those of Al al-Bayt (the descendents of the Prophet Mohammed).
The Muslim Brotherhood has become involved, lending its weight in an attempt to contain the crisis between the two parties; a prominent leader in the group, Dr. Gamal Heshmat, declared his readiness to mediate between the Sufis and Salafists. A meeting between all parties has been agreed for a later date to calm things down.
Another meeting was convened by the ministry of religious endowments in Alexandria between prominent Salafist and Sufi leaders. A memorandum of reconciliation was signed, whereby the Salafists asserted that they had neither demolished the shrines nor would they incite such behaviour.
In return, Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a member of the Salafist Call in Alexandria, denied the demolition of shrines: “We do not change the evil thing with our own hand because this matter is within the jurisdiction of the political ruler.” He also pointed out that the sunnah (religious teachings) of the Prophet state that a grave should be no more that a few inches above the ground: "Oh God, do not make my grave an idol to be worshipped… God's wrath is intensified on the people who have taken the graves of their Prophets as tombs."
Although the Prophet ordered Ali bin Abi Talib, recognised by Sunnis as the fourth caliph and Shias as the first imam, to make any grave level with the ground, Sheikh Burhami said that the Salafists would not go so far as to implement this with their own hands. Instead they would educate the community “about the seriousness and the gravity of following the myths and keeping the existence of these shrines.” He said that the Salafists will clarify the abuses that these shrines commit.
The sheikh said: "After the outreach to people, we will call upon the governing body or authority to demolish the shrines when it is seen that the public interest is established and, thus, removing the evil will be without trouble and will not lead to the temptation of an even greater evil. This would be made at the time that the governing authority sees appropriate and after making sure that the people become aware that such practices are far from religion, and nothing but myths." The sheikh continued by referring to the words of the Prophet: "No graves are to be taken as mosques. I am forbidding you from doing so."
Hostility to Sufism is nothing new; Salafists believe that Sufis invent and introduce practices contradictory to the religion (including the building of mosques that have graves and advocating the supplication through the Muslim saints). The Salafists also reject the notion of moulids (an annual religious festival to mark the birthday of a saint, prophet or head of a religious order), condemning the events that take place occur during these celebrations, which they view as contradictory to the teachings of Islam. To their minds, the Sufis are nothing but “odds and ends.”
This self-righteous fury of the Salafists has sparked rumours that they are threatening to demolish Islamic Cairo’s iconic El-Hussein Mosque, which Sufis revere for being the burial place of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein. These rumours have been denied by Salafists. Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a prominent Salafist, responded obliquely by pouring scorn on the site’s significance for Sufis. “There is no tomb in the El-Hussein mosque,” he said.
The Sufis, for their part, view the Salafists as a group of radical extremists whom they accuse of receiving financial support from Saudi Arabia in order to spread radicalism, extremism and terrorism in the community, including the demolition of shrines and large mosques.
While the shrines are not the only contentious issue between the two groups, they have stirred their mutual antipathy into a fiercely violent battle over the soul of religion.