In Saudi Arabia, a Resurgence of Sufism
Mystical Sect of Islam Finds Its Voice in More Tolerant Post-9/11 Era
By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 2, 2006; Page A13
JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A hush came over the crowd as the young man sitting cross-legged on the floor picked up the microphone and sang, a cappella, a poem about Islam’s prophet Muhammad. His eyes shut tight, his head covered by an orange-and-white turban, he crooned with barely contained ardor of how the world rejoiced and lights filled the skies the day the prophet was born.
The men attending the mawlid — a celebration of the birth and life of Muhammad — sat on colorful rugs, rocking gently back and forth, while the women, on the upper floor watching via a large projection screen, passed around boxes of tissues and wiped tears from their eyes.
The centuries-old mawlid, a mainstay of the more spiritual and often mystic Sufi Islam, was until recently viewed as heretical and banned by Saudi Arabia’s official religious establishment, the ultraconservative Wahhabis. But a new atmosphere of increased religious tolerance has spurred a resurgence of Sufism and brought the once-underground Sufis and their rituals out in the open.
Analysts and some Sufis partly credit reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States for the atmosphere that has made the changes possible. When it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi doctrine — which had banned all other sects and schools of thought — came under intense scrutiny from inside and outside the country. The newfound tolerance Sufis have come to enjoy is perhaps one of the most concrete outcomes of that shift.
“This is one of the blessings of September 11. It put the brakes on the [Wahhabi] practice of takfir , excommunicating everyone who didn’t exactly follow their creed,” said Sayed Habib Adnan, a 33-year-old Sufi teacher. The government “realized that maybe enforcing one religious belief over all others was not such a good idea.”
When Adnan moved to Saudi Arabia from his native Yemen four years ago, Sufi gatherings were often clandestine, sometimes held in orchards outside the city, or in basements and without microphones, for fear of drawing attention. “I couldn’t wear this,” he said, pointing to his turban. “Or this,” he said, pulling at his white cotton overcoat. “Or I would be branded a Sufi. You couldn’t even say the word ‘Sufi.’ It was something underground, dangerous, like talking about drugs.”
Sufis here say they are not a separate sect or followers of a separate religion, but adherents to a way of life based on the Muslim concept of ihsan . Muhammad explained ihsan to the angel Gabriel as “worshiping God as if you see Him. Because if you don’t see Him, He sees you.” Another Sufi characteristic is a strong belief in the power of blessings from the prophet, his close relatives and his companions.
Sufism had previously been predominant in Hejaz, the western region of Saudi Arabia, which includes Muhammad’s birthplace, Mecca; Medina, where he is buried; and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah. Muslims prayed often at shrines where the prophet’s daughter Fatima, his wife Khadija and his companions were buried. Mawlids were public affairs with entire cities decked out in lights, and parades and festivities commemorating the prophet’s birthday and his ascension to Jerusalem.
When the al-Saud family that would later come to rule Saudi Arabia took over Hejaz in the 1920s, the Wahhabis banned mawlids as a form of heresy and destroyed the historic shrines of Khadija, Fatima and the prophet’s companions, fearing they would lead to idolatry and polytheism.
Wahhabis, crucial allies in the Saud conquest of the disparate regions that became Saudi Arabia in 1932, were awarded control of religious affairs.
Discrimination against Sufis, among others, intensified after armed Wahhabi extremists took over Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979, demanding that a more puritanical form of Islam be applied in the country. Though the government quelled the uprising and executed its leaders, authorities were shaken by the incident, and lest other Wahhabis defy them, they allowed them more rein.
Soon after, extremist clerics issued a religious edict, or fatwa, declaring Sufi’s spiritual leader, Muhammad Alawi Malki, a nonbeliever. He was removed from his teaching position, banned from giving lessons at the Grand Mosque, where both his father and grandfather had taught, and interrogated by the religious police and the Interior Ministry. After Malki was later attacked by a throng of radicals incensed at his presence in the mosque, he could pray there only under armed guard.
Meanwhile, thousands of cassettes and booklets circulated calling Sufis “grave-lovers” and dangerous infidels who had to be stopped before they made a comeback. Their salons were raided, and those caught with Sufi literature were often arrested or jailed.
The tide finally turned in 2003, with the new atmosphere that took hold following the Sept. 11 attacks, when the future King Abdullah, then the crown prince, held a series of meetings to acknowledge the country’s diverse sects and schools of thought. One of the guests was Sufi leader Malki. When he died the following year, Abdullah and the powerful defense and interior ministers attended his funeral. The rehabilitation of his legacy was almost complete.
“We were then upgraded from infidels, to people who are ignorant and practicing their religion wrong,” said Wasif Kabli, a 59-year-old businessman.
But many Sufis complain that despite outward appearances, Wahhabis continue to destroy shrines in and around their holy places, their salons continue to be raided and their literature is still banned.
Wahhabis and Sufis view Islam from opposite directions. To Wahhabis, who emerged from the kingdom’s stark, harsh desert, a believer’s relationship can be only directly with God. To them, Sufis’ celebrations of the prophet’s life smack of idolatry, and supplications to him, his relatives and companions appear to replace or bypass the link with God.
Sufis answer that the prophet celebrated his own birthday by fasting on Mondays, that he himself offered to intervene with God on behalf of Muslims and that he could often be found in the evenings at the grave sites of his wives and companions.
Last month, on the occasion of the prophet’s birthday, a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered to celebrate at a private residence. Sufi books, cassettes and DVDs were selling out in one corner of the large garden where the event was held. Adnan, the Sufi teacher, was one of four speakers who addressed the crowd. He asked: Why are we Sufis always on the defensive? “Nobody asks [soccer] fans for religious proof that sanctifies their gatherings at the stadium because of their devotion to their team,” he said. “How come we are always asked for an explanation of our devotion to our beloved prophet?”
Muhammad Jastaniya, a 20-year-old economics major and part of a new wave of young Saudis who have embraced Sufism, said what drew him was the focus on God.
On a recent moonlit evening, Jastaniya sipped sugary mint tea with his friends on rugs spread on the rooftop of a Zawiya, or lodge where Sufis go to meditate, chant or sit in on lessons. The words ‘God’ and ‘Muhammad’ were written in green neon lights, and Islam’s 99 names for God were stenciled in black paint around the wall. “To be a Sufi is to clear your heart of everything but God,” he explained. “The Islam we were taught here is like a body without a soul. Sufism is the soul. It’s not an alternative religion — it can contain all Muslims.”
That thought seems to be taking hold, even in faraway corners.
Salman al-Odah, the country’s most popular puritanical cleric, who was jailed in the 1990s for opposing the presence of U.S. troops in the kingdom, accepted an invitation to visit Sufi cleric Abdallah Fadaaq’s mawlid and lesson last week. The scene at Fadaaq’s house was an obvious sign of conciliation.
Al-Odah sat with his hands neatly folded in his lap, wearing a red-and-white checkered headdress and clear wraparound glasses and sporting the short scraggly beard that indicates a conservative. Fadaaq, who at 39 is emerging as the new symbol of Hejazi Sufism, wore the white turban, the white overcoat and shawl typical of Sufis, wooden prayer beads resting on his lap. “It’s true that there are differences between the way people practice their faith in this country, and this is an indication that people are using their minds and thinking, which is a good thing,” Fadaaq said. “But what we should concentrate on are the expanses that bring us together, like the prophet. We must take advantage of what we have in common.”