Book review: Earning the trust of the Jaafari

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Thursday 26 Jul 2012

Researcher Nouran Fouad delves into the mystic life of an Egyptian Sufi order

Book Cover

Al Sufiyya fi Misr (Sufism in Egypt) by Nouran Fouad, Cairo: Dar Al-Hilal, 2012. pp366

Although followers of Sufi orders in Egypt are sometimes estimated to be millions, and although they have influenced society in various ways, few studies exist that focus on this topic. It's true that a number of books on Sufi theory, history and philosophy exist besides the canonical texts themselves, but current social and field studies are still limited where they exist at all.

That is why the publication of this book by scholar Nouran Fouad in an inexpensive and accessible series edition is a remarkable event, although the book itself may warrant some editing for the benefit of the general reader, since it was originally written as a social study of the Jaafari order. A fairly recent Sufi order, the Jaafari prompted the need for a deep understanding of its followers in the wider context of Sufism in Egypt, the role and interrelations of Sufi orders throughout the country.

According to Fouad, among the reasons Sufism spread so quickly in Egypt is that it appeared at a time when Egypt was in need of a new school of thought to fill the gap left by ancient beliefs, which had deteriorated during the Christian era, paving the way for Sufism. It is known historically that Dhu An-Nun Al-Masry (H 425) was the first to lay the foundations of Sufism during the third century of the Hegira; he was joined by two others: Abu-Bakr Al-Daqqaq and Abul-Hasan Bin Binan Al-Jammal. The development of Sufism continued throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, but the largest Sufi school was not founded until the sixth century by Abdel-Rehim Al-Qina’i.

The author of the book relies on a field study of one order to demonstrate how it became a social unit with branches throughout Egyptian society, starting with its home centre in Bani Addi, Upper Egypt. To be able to complete the study, the author had to earn the of from the Sheikh of the Jaafari order, "They do not believe in woman followers, yet this was overcome by staying in a special place for women where they can follow the activities of men through special windows, also allowing the exchange of news about the families and a very important source of information. This allowed the researcher to become a follower, without making a vow to the Sheikh as is common to all Sufi orders."

The founder of the order, Sheikh Saleh Al-Jaafari, passed away in 1979. He was educated at Al-Azhar University and studied under some of the greatest teachers of the time; like all other Sufi sheikhs, though his family belongs to the tribe of the Jaafra, who straddle both Egypt and Sudan, his family tree leads back to Imam Ali Ibn Abi-Talib. As soon as Sheikh Saleh passed away, his son took over as head of the Sufi order as per the tradition among Sufis; the son was brought to Egypt from Sudan, where he lived before the death of the father.

The first centre for this order was established in Cairo next to the shrine of the founder, and carries the name of the Islamic Organisation for Social Care; administratively, it answers to the Social Affairs Organisation. Since then, many centres have been established: Aswan alone has some 18 centres; there are also centres in Helwan, Qalyoubia and Alexandria, in addition to centres outside Egypt in Malaysia, Indonesia and Libya.

It is certain that the Jaafari order, similar to other orders, had recently taken a social-service turn, offering medical, educational and social care services, in addition to libraries and other types of community support that warrants more funding – not attacks from Salafists who have gone so far as to attempt to burn shrines after the 25 January revolution.


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