“Die before you die,” the Sufis say, in a call for the death of the self or rather for the death of worldly things so that the soul can enjoy preeminence in the way the death of the body allows the soul to see the rewards of paradise.
The prominent Sufi poet Jalaleddin Rumi wrote in the 13th century that the life of lovers consists in death. “Thou wilt not win the Beloved heart except in losing thine own,” he said.
For the Sufis, death is the destination of one voyage and the beginning of another. They did not just contemplate death, but also the process of dying as a further step in the liberation of the soul on its spiritual journey through life.
For such reasons, it is significant to walk through the Cairo cemeteries where some Sufi saints are buried, says historian and guide Youssef Osama as he started a walk through the Al-Qarafa cemeteries, from south to north, at the base of the Moqattam Hills.
The start of the walk is “a stop that cannot be missed,” he said, the grave of 13th-century jurist Ahmed Ibn Attaei Allah Al-Sakandari.
Born in Alexandria in the second half of the 13th-century, Al-Sakandari was brought up in a family that rejected the Sufis.
It was on a meeting with Abul-Abbas Al-Morsi, a prominent Sufi in Alexandria, that Al-Sakandari had a change of heart and began to walk the path of Sufism, later living in a small chamber where he was also to be buried.
Osama stopped in front of a mosque annexed to the grave in the 1970s on an initiative of Abdel-Halim Mahmoud, then grand imam of Al-Azhar and one of the last Sufi figureheads of the institution until the current Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
“During his life, Al-Sakandari taught Sufi principles in Al-Azhar, but his most significant work is perhaps his book Al-Hikam Al-Ataeiya [Proverbs of Ibn Attaei Allah],” Osama said as he stepped into the mosque.
“True humility is the gift of those who bow to the greatness of the Creator,” Osama recited from the proverbs. “You have to walk your path — no matter how long — so that you can arrive at His presence,” he added.
It was time for prayers to be performed. A few men started, and then a few girls in headscarves entered. They prayed and seated themselves next to one of the walls of the mosque and started reading.
“Not many people come here, usually those with some Sufi attachment or interest,” Osama said. He added that “after all this is the heart of Al-Qarafa — one of Cairo’s oldest cemeteries built during the early decades of Islam in Egypt by a group of people who carried the name of Banou Qarafa whose origins were in Yemen.”
The guard of the mosque was reluctant to allow women with their hair uncovered to enter. “This is a mosque where women have to cover their hair even if they are not here to pray,” he said.
Tarek, a servant of Khelwat Al-Sayeda Nafisa (the prayer chamber of Lady Nafisa) opposite the mosque of Al-Sakandari, said “this is a part of Egypt that embraces the graceful bodies of Sufi saints who pursued the love of God and the afterlife in the love of this world and its material joys.”
A great granddaughter of the Prophet Mohamed who lived and died in Egypt in the eighth century, Al-Sayeda Nafisa was a scholar in her own right. Her mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo is a favourite destination for Muslims who wish to pray for health and peace of mind and heart.
Taha Hussein (Photo: Ahram Weekly)
It was there, at the base of the Moqattam Hills, that she would come for her own prayers.
“It is around this spot where she came for endless azkar [recitations of the names of God] that this place was built to provide food and water for whoever was passing,” Tarek said.
His family had had “the honour of serving visitors to this place for many consecutive generations. We provide whatever we can, as what we provide is from God and is to God,” he said as he served lunch and tea.
“One day it might be a big meal and another it might be a very simple meal, but it is all from the love of God,” Tarek added, as he handed over a few plates for re-fills.
It is common, Osama said, to find families like Tarek’s who put themselves from one generation to the next “at the service of the saints’ mosques and graves and are usually the followers of one Sufi discipline or another.”
Khelwat Al-Sayeda Nafisa (Photo: Ahram Weekly)
THE SUFIS OF EGYPT: According to history professor Amer Al-Naggar, “a true Sufi is a man at the heart of his community, reaching out to help those in need and providing for those who do not have enough of their own.”
In a 2010 book on Al-Toroq Al-Sufiya [The Sufi Paths], Al-Naggar argued that it was this engagement that originally allowed for the spread of Islam in West Africa, as Sufi figures found their way to Sub-Saharan Africa and initiated a tradition of love and giving that appealed to the hearts and minds of many.
The servants of God are for Al-Naggar the core of Sufism rather than those who exhibit “eccentric behaviour”.
There was an upsurge of Sufism in Egypt in the 12th century with the rule of Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin) who wished to use Sufism as a counter to the Shia faith that had characterised the earlier Fatimid Dynasty.
The Al-Sakandari shrine (Photo: Ahram Weekly)
The first Sufi khanqaa (cell) to be established under the rule of Salaheddin carried the name of Saïd Al-Souada (the happiest of joyful ones).
However, the presence of Sufis in Egypt dates to earlier years, as both Sunnis and Shias had Sufi traditions. According to Al-Naggar, since Sufism is about a spiritual state of remembering the power, hoping for the mercy, and aspiring for the love of God, “it is hard to think that it took long for Sufism to start.”
In a book on Sufism and politics in Egypt, historian Ammar Ali Hassan argues that during the Mameluke and Ottoman periods the disciplines of Sufism continued to flourish, and its followers continued to increase. Egypt’s rulers also used the powers of Sufi figures to consolidate their rule.
Over the years, Hassan argued, Sufism went beyond being a merely internal state of spirituality to being an organisational structure with a wide presence. In part, this organisational presence evolved into a movement with clear manifestations of secular power in parallel with its spiritual ones.
But Osama argued that this would not have been the case with the earlier centuries of the Muslim presence in Egypt, where Sufis would have gathered under the influence of individual leaders rather than a group or organisation.
Having talked with Tarek, because it is “unbecoming to reject the giving of a servant of God,” Osama moved on towards the graveyard of Al-Sadat Al-Wafaeiya (the honourable of Al-Wafaeiya). “There are 16 graves and of course there is also a mosque,” he said.
The path at the heart of the cemeteries is not deserted. Cars cut through as drivers try to escape the hassle of the city’s heavy traffic, or as they try to find a mosque to catch the late prayer before sunset.
The walk is peaceful, however, as the graves have been built over the centuries and trees that have been planted in memory of loved ones. Stopping in the shade of a tree for a drink of water, we are next to the grave of Taha Hussein.
One of the greatest literary figures of modern Egypt, Hussein defied the blindness that affected him at the age of three, poverty, and the archaic modes of teaching at Al-Azhar University in the early 20th century to find his own vocation in Arabic and French literature and criticism.
Hussein’s controversial book On Pre-Islamic Poetry that came out in the 1920s brought him much hostility from the leaders of traditional Islamic thinking, with these rejecting his argument for the contextual analysis of verses from the Quran and insisting that it was an attempt to criticise Islam and not to promote enlightened thinking.
Nour, a boy in his teens, came with buckets of water to the tree at the grave of a man born 130 years ago “whose few remaining relatives visit once or twice a year.”
Omar Ibn Al-Fared shrine (Photo: Ahram Weekly)
In the same way that the tombstones of the Sufi saints carry poetry in the love of God, the grave of Taha Hussein carries a poem he recited in Mecca and later in Marseilles recalling the stops on the long spiritual path of a man who willingly and knowingly wished to surrender all to the absolute will of the Creator.
Just as the faith of the Sufis was at times contested by more radical Muslim factions who found Sufi practices, especially moulids (celebrations), out of line with the Muslim faith, the faith of Taha Hussein was contested because of his literary analysis of the Quran.
“Nobody has suggested that Taha Hussein was a Sufi,” Osama said.
SUFI DISCIPLINE: The walk resumes through the alleys of the graveyard to the shrine of Al-Sadat Al-Wafaeiya, where a blind man is praying in total serenity.
It continues towards the shrine of Omar Ibn Al-Farid, a Sufi poet who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries.
On the way, Osama stops to look at a colourful and beautifully decorated door leading to the shrine of Sayed Al-Nakshabandi, a Sufi singer who died in the 1970s and who is best known for his religious singing, including the famous “Oh God, at your door I stand hoping for support and mercy.”
Al-Nakshabandi is associated with an established Sufi discipline whose title (Nakshabandi) translates from Persian as “he who draws the love of God in his heart.”
“Many people know his songs, and many, Sufis or not, love them and sing them, but only a very few know this place. I think this is one of the nicest things about this walk: it takes one through centuries of mystical love and singing,” Osama commented.
The drawings on the entrance of the shrine are as rhythmic in colour and detail as the songs of Al-Nakshabandi, or rather as mesmerising as the impact of his songs, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan.
“This is not a common stop for Sufis who seek the blessings of the grand saints. It is perhaps just for those who have found an echo to their divine love in the songs of Al-Nakshabandi that come here to say a prayer for his soul,” Osama added.
It is almost sunset, and the walk comes to the mosque and shrine of Ibn Al-Farid, a man who was born in Egypt to a family of Syrian origin and who spent his life between Cairo and Mecca writing mystical poetry before he died in Cairo.
“His name is associated with power. He was said to have performed the afternoon prayer in Mecca and the early evening prayer in Cairo,” said Mohamed, the guardian of the mosque.
It is far from ordinary for those who live around the mosques and shrines of the Sufi saints to speak of their power, particularly those related to being in two places so far apart at almost the same time.
“It is often thought that the Sufi saints had exceptional powers to walk their long paths in such a short time. I think that this story must have a metaphorical origin, mostly because in the Sufi creed a good-hearted follower does not necessarily need a very long time to walk the path of Sufism that starts with repentance and ends at the doorstep of God Almighty,” Osama said.
According to Al-Naggar’s book, there are many things that relate to the thinking of the Sufis, and their powers are just one of them. If one is a Sufi, one would probably believe in these powers, though one would not if one was not.
However, as Hassan argues in his book, when all is said and done Sufism is an integral part of Egyptian Islam, and one way or another it has acted against radical Islamic thinking.
“Only those who have harsh hearts do not like the Sufis. The Sufis love God, and they serve God, and God gives them powers that he does not give to others,” commented Mohamed before moving on to perform the call to prayer.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Walking a Sufi path