Sufi orders and their origins

Al-Sayyed Husein, Monday 24 Sep 2012

A concise guide to the origins, past and present of Sufism in Egypt


Sufism runs deep into the Egyptian psyche, and not just in the countryside. Look around the mosques of al-Husein, al-Sayyeda Zeinab, and al-Sayyeda Nafisa and you’ll see people flocking to pay homage to their favourite saints. And on mouleds, or the nights marking the birthday of the saints, religious singing and other forms of festivities transform the mosques and their vicinity into festival grounds.

We have about 74 Sufi orders or turuq (sing. tariqa, literally method but used in the sense of society or order) in Egypt. Of these, 41 have branches in Cairo and 4 in Alexandria. The best known of the Cairo turuq are the al-Rifa’ya and the al-Hamdiya al-Shazliya and the most popular in Alexandria is the al-Naqshabandiya.

Sufism in Egypt can trace its origins to third or fourth Hegira centuries (ninth and tenth in the Gregorian calendar), says Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Khaleq al-Shabrawi of the al-Shabrawia order. Each order has its own sheikh, who is the supreme guide, its own rites or initiation, and its own code of conduct. Every tariqa has a path of evolution drawn for its disciples to follow, and every path is made up of and maqamat (stations) and ahwal (conditions).

The maqamat are the stations of spiritual advancement the disciples are encouraged to take. They involve work on certain mental conditions involving acceptance and awareness of the world. Repentance, patience, satisfaction, certainty, faith, and love are among the best-known maqamat. 

One of the first and greatest Sufi figures in Egypt is Abul Noun al-Masri, (d. 245 hegira/ 859). He is the one credited with delineating the first maqamat and ahwal. 

It wasn’t, however, until the second half of the sixth century (twelfth century), that Sufism spread in Egypt like wildfire, owing in great part to the sponsorship of Sultan Salaheddin al-Ayyubi (aka Saladin) who founded and funded the first Sufi monasteries, called tekiyat (sing. tekiya). 

According to Sufi researcher Abul al-Fadl al-Isnawi, the al-Malatiya, al-Qosariya, al-Khoraziya, al-Hallagiya, al-Nouriya orders all appeared in the third and fourth centuries of the hegira.
In the fifth century of the hegira (eleventh century in the Gregorian calendar) the al-Ghazaliya order was formed by followers of the teachings of the great medieval scholar Mohammad al-Ghazali.

As the Sufi orders multiplied in the sixth and seventh hegira centuries (twelfth and thirteenth centuries), the al-Qadriya, al-Akbariya, al-Rifa’iya, al-Shazliya, al-Ahmadiya, and al-Badawiya came into being. Outside Egypt, the Sufi orders of al-Shashtiya, al-Khalwatiya, and al-Biktashiya formed at around the same time.

In its purest form, Sufism involved one way or another of communal living, often sponsored by the state or the upper classes. Sufis lived in establishments of monastic composition called zawaya (sing. zawya), Rawabet (sing. rebat), and khaniqawat (sing. khaniqat). They performed religious rituals involving group singing and chanting, even dancing and observed an austere style of living, one which glorified poverty and dispensed with the trappings of the material world.

But why has Sufism has spawned so many orders in Egypt during medieval times?

According to Professor Mostafa Fahmi, the multiplicity of orders reflected the variant interpretation of religious text and theory by various sheikhs. With each sheikh providing an alternative spiritual path and lifestyle, the disciples had a greater freedom to pick and choose. Some sheikhs would focus on spiritual purification, others on mantras, and others still on physical endurance. 

There is, however, much in common among Sufi orders, says Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Maguid al-Sharnoubi. For example, every tariqa has four marateb (sing. martaba), or stages, that the disciples have to endure. The first and most of these marateb is repentance, which is viewed as the foundation of all spiritual work.

The second martaba involves the repetition of religious mantras. The third is about self-control and the fourth is about self-knowledge.

To join a Sufi order, one has to memorise the mantras, learn religious texts by heart, and then begins the real journey, that of giving spiritual meaning to all the text, that of turning from a physical being into a spiritual one.

In all Sufi orders, the sheikh’s status is paramount, bordering on the divine in some cases. The sheikh is the grand master, ultimate teacher, and supreme role model.

The disciples, or muridin (sing. murid), have to prove their loyalty to the order and its cause through the practice of fasting, the chanting of mantras, and other forms of self-control. Every murid is also required to take an oath of loyalty to the sheikh and the order.

Although poverty is a main feature of Sufism, as true Sufis are supposed to look behind the material into the spiritual, it is common for the well-to-do to join Sufi orders. In Egypt, many engineers, doctors, professors, journalists, and teachers are members of Sufi orders.

Islamic studies specialist and writer Ammar Ali Hasan says that it the Egyptian government has for long offered encouragement to Sufi orders, relaying their mouled’s on television and reporting their activities. This is only one reason for their popularity. Another is that in mouleds, or saint days, the Sufis attract big crowds through the entertainment and festive mood they create and the singing and nights of chanting they organise.

Sufis also run a lot of charities and koranic schools, a service that is much appreciated in the countryside and working class neighbourhoods, says Ammar Ali Hassan.

The endowment system, which offers generous funding to Sufi orders, is also another reason for their popularity. In pre-industrial times, Sufism was also closely integrated into the guild system. It was common for guild chieftains to seek the intercession of Sufi sheikhs in trade dispute, and many members of the guilds doubled as members of the Sufi orders.

The Sufis have generally lived up to their public image of modesty and lack of intrusiveness. This makes them acceptable to large sections of the general public, who admire their spirituality and their peaceful demeanour.

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