The main entrance of Al Rifai Mosque, photo by Amira Noshokaty
"O let us connect with Al-Rifaai, the King of Serpents," chanted the Egyptian woman with a beautiful voice as she approached the mausoleum inside the mosque and saluted the Sufi pillar by knocking on the door of the mausoleum, to ask permission to visit him and recite the Fatha.
No idle hands
Ahmed Al-Rifaai was the son of Saleh Ahmed Mohie El Dien Ibn Abbas, who died before his son was born in Iraq in 512 Hijri (1119 AD). Al-Rifaai’s family dates back to the Alawieen, descending from Prophet Muhammad.
He was a very bright student who learned religion and to recite the Quran at the age of seven. However, learning the Sufi pillars did not stop him from working to make a living. According to Souad Maher Mohamed's 2017 book Egypt's Mosques and its Pious Wallies, Al-Rifaai worked in many handicrafts, including as a wood chopper and a water carrier. One of his most famous quotes is "no one who is idle can join our [order]."
At the age of 25, he became the head of the Bataehi Sufi order, following the death of his maternal uncle Sheikh Mansour Al-Bataehi in Basra. He wrote numerous books before he died in his home village of Om Obida in 572 Hijri (1179 AD) and was buried there.
The King of Serpents
According to popular legend, Al-Rifaai made a pact with serpents that they would never harm him or any of his followers, a power that earned him the nickname “the King of Serpents.”
Although Sufi scholars have long denied any such supernatural powers, there is an explanation where such a myth may have started.
Nicolaas Biegman, in his book Egypt: Moulids, Saints, Sufis, explains that, according to legend, the imam’s enemies tried to kill him by placing a poisonous snake next to him while he was praying. However, a karama (miracle) kept the snake from biting him. This miracle was limited to Al-Rifaai and did not extend to his followers, Biegman adds.
The Rifaai Sufi order has very elegant yellow and often black flags, making their moulid processions instantly recognizable. Their chanting, accompanied by drumbeats, cannot be missed either. Participants in the celebration also show off some interesting abilities, such as piercing various body parts and walking on swords, which shows their knowledge of the body and which parts can be punctured without causing pain.
The Rifaai Mausoleum in Cairo
Although Al-Rifaai established the Sufi order that bears his name in Iraq, it spread to Egypt after his death, despite the imam never having travelled there.
It was established in the Al-Khalifa district in Cairo by the imam’s great-grandson Ali Abi Shibak, who was born in the city after his father moved there in 683 Hijri (1284 AD). He is now buried in the mausoleum that bears his great-grandfather's name.
However, the formal establishment by Ali Abi Shibak was preceded by Sheikh Abul Fath Al Waseti, who practiced the order’s beliefs in Egypt during the seventh century Hijra.
According to a sign at the entrance of the mosque, it was originally a Fatimid-era mosque, located next to a number of mausoleums known as Zawyet Al-Rifaai.
The current design, with ornate high ceiling and marble columns, was commissioned in 1869 by Khushyar Hanem, Khedive Ismail's mother, who intended it to serve as the burial place for the royal family. She wanted it to match the grandness of the Sultan Hassan Madrassa opposite the mausoleum.
It was customary for people to want to be buried next to wallis (people of faith). Khushyar Hanem, Khedive Ismail, King Fouad and Farouk and even one of the former Shahs of Iran are buried in their own mausoleums inside the Al-Rifaai Mosque.
"My path in religion is to rid of innovation, have a tireless will, honest work, a true heart and a self that is rid of desires," Imam Ahmed Al-Rifaai.