Aboul Fadl al-Isnawi
Some Arab political leaders have recently promoted Sufism as a wall to ward off the violent extremist movements, and the relations and cohesiveness that the Arab Sufi orders have woven since 2014 reflect their ability to implement their political, social and developmental roles. However, despite the cohesion of these orders in recent times, their strategies and organizational structures vary depending on the particular order, the location, the size and the level of challenges facing them.
In view of this increasing burden placed upon the Sufi orders, it has become necessary to discover the reasons for their failure to perform their roles and functions in some Arab nations, while in other countries they have been successful.
In addition to the above, several important questions may be raised: What are the Sufi orders’ limits of implementation and what are the main obstacles they face? What impact does the level of cohesion between them have on achieving these strategies and how can they be activated?
An answer to these questions is needed. The political and social factors and transformations after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in June 2013 positively affected the functions and roles of the Sufi orders. This is especially true in the Arab Maghreb countries, where the support of the authorities for the Sufi orders corrected their course of action. This has played a major role in their ability to confront violent extremism and penetrate the social structures of extremist movements by playing a social role, representing social solidarity and combating poverty in rural and marginalized areas, as well as playing an important role in crisis management and mitigating the effects of natural disasters.
To answer the previous questions, the paper can be divided into three axes. The first axis deals with the level of cohesion between the Sufi orders in the Arab countries, the second observes the strategies of the Sufi orders since 2014, and the third tackles the obstacles to implementing these strategies and how to develop the spiritual role in the Arab region.
- Sufi cohesion in Arab countries:
Sufi orders have spread geographically throughout the Arab region in the North African countries of Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania, and East Africa and Somalia. They are located to a lesser extent in the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain, although these represent extensions of orders originating in the African region and Yemen. Sufism is also strongly spread in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Despite the state of splits that have hit many the local Sufi orders recently, making them number close to 300 orders, the level of cohesion between the Arab Sufi orders has been increasing since the rise to power of the radical Islamist trend in some Arab countries after 2011. The main features of this cohesion include moving from the narrow nature of their work at the level of the state to a wider scale on the regional and global levels, with the aim of creating a kind of joint defense for their stability and to confront threats. Many groups have been established bearing names based on universal Sufism, such as the World Federation of Sufi Orders, a France-based international organization of Sufi orders that aims for cooperation and cohesiveness among the world’s Sufi orders, and the International Council of Sufi Orders, which aims to unify the Arab Sufi orders in the face of radical religious movements.
However, the cohesiveness between the Arab Sufi orders is not limited to founding Sufi institutions. Rather, there is another path that exemplifies the expansion of orders; namely, that some Sufi sheikhs have sought to settle and remain in another country, establishing new branches of their orders in those countries. The most important orders taking part in this cross-border social cohesion are the Tijani order in Sudan, the Rifa’i in Egypt, the Rahmani in Algeria, the Burhani in Tunisia, the ‘Alawi in Morocco, the Shadhili in Syria, the Issawi in Libya, and the Ba ‘Alawi and Ghazali orders in Yemen.
Based on the above, the level of Sufi cohesiveness and relations since 2014 can be divided into two levels. The first relates to internal mobility, while the second is related to the trans-boundary expansion of the state.
Internal cohesion among Sufi orders operating under a governmental legal framework:
Considering this level of Sufi relations, which dates back decades to Egypt and Sudan and was dominated by the spiritual relationships among the Sufi sheikhs and mystics, is widely represented in most of Egypt’s governorates and parts of Sudan, the emergence of the violent and bloody face of the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorist organizations like ISIS have threatened the survival of Sufi orders. This led to the restructuring of this form of relationship, which has since gone on to focusing on countering societal problems.
Most orders adopted the policies and positions of the regimes in the face of violence and extremism, using the same slogans expressing their unity and power. For example, Sheikh Abdel Hady Al-Qasabi, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, said after the incident of the Al-Rawda Mosque in Sinai in November 2017 that “terrorism targets all Egyptians, not only Sufis.” He then held a meeting with the Sufi leaders to develop a unified position to support the Egyptian state in its fight against terrorism. In Sudan, the Sufi orders converged to make crucial decisions, the most important of which may be meeting with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in January 2018 and agreeing to support his candidacy for a new term in 2020. Sudanese Sufi orders also set up associations, the most recent being the establishment of the General Federation of Sudanese Sufi Youth in October 2018.
But the success of this move depends on the position of the authority of the Sufis and the desire of the state to use them to adopt its main issues, in addition to the financial capabilities of the orders, which is the most important and decisive factor in building widespread Sufi ties and institutions within states. In Egypt, the alternative to financial ability is tribal and familial ties. In Morocco, the support of the Moroccan authorities for the Sufi cohesion remains superior to all incentives. In Sudan, the overlap among the Sufi orders and their tribal and regional character remains the decisive factor in supporting the Sudanese Sufi cohesiveness.
Networks expanding among the orders sharing common roots:
After 2014, Sufi-Sufi relations began to play roles parallel to the role of official state institutions for the improvement of international relations (spiritual diplomacy), motivated by the state’s mandate for the orders. This role has emerged in areas with many Sufis and is influential in the course of decision-making.
The networks of mystical Sufi relations on the external level take several forms, according to the target, and here we refer to the mystical networks that extend in more than one country, which has not been resorted to by the governments of the countries until the present time. And Sufi networks directed at a specific task, official state institutions may not be fully implemented, and these two types of Sufi networking can be addressed as follows:
- Widespread networks – The one way is to try to raise followers and lovers in different countries of the world, as the Qadiri order has done. This form of Sufi mysticism is predicated on Sufism directed (the Moroccan situation in West Africa). This form of Sufi relationship is based upon the idea of integrating the roles of the order’s followers and creating economic and financial advantages for the mother order so that it can play its role within society. The most important orders with this type of relationship are the Desouki-Burhani order with its proponents moving from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan and Sudan to European and Western countries. This order gained followers in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Canada and the United States. The students of Sheikh Mohammed Bahaa al-Din al-Naqshbandi also moved from Egypt and Syria to parts of Asia, especially the Central Asian region. These orders have transferred the behavior and beliefs of their sheikhs from their environment to new areas in countries and continents completely different socially and environmentally. In this way, the Sufi orders have moved from being merely regional orders and movements to socially and economically active movements and groups operating across borders.
- Narrow networks –This type of Sufi relationship began to appear on the Arab scene after the proliferation of violent extremist organizations and the intensity of Arab-Arab competition, in addition to international competition for wealthy areas and large markets in Africa. The Sufi orders of this type of regional network carry specific mandates from the decision-makers in their countries, often aimed at achieving a specific policy. This model in Sufi-Sufi relations has been the most important since 2014 because it is based on specific roles and calculated strategies.
- Strategies for Sufi Action:
The areas of the Sufi action strategy have expanded since 2014, including aspects defending the state identity and national security from terrorist organizations, aspects of internal crisis management in some states (conflict resolution and disaster management), and support for strategic relations between states. The implications of Sufi action strategies can be addressed as follows:
Defense strategy – protection of national security:
Sufi orders played a significant role in defending the state and protecting national security since the time of colonization. The Sanussi order took up arms in the face of the European colonizers in modern Libya in the early 1900s. The Qadiri order in Sudan took up arms against the foreign colonizer there.
However, despite the previous role of the Sufi orders in the defense and protection of Arab national security, this role has evolved and become more disciplined since the emergence of ISIS in 2014. In Egypt, Sufi orders and tribes in Sinai coordinated to face terrorism and help the army and police forces deal with the terrorist elements. In the Maghreb, the Sufi methods play a role in the fight against terrorism and the implementation of the Moroccan state’s strategy to resist the jihadist tide. Algerian Sufi orders are also spreading moderate religious discourse, and Sufi orders in Sudan are countering extremist organizations.
What helps the Sufi orders play this role is the solidity of their social composition, in contrast to the hardline Islamic trend. The fact that Sufism is associated with families and large tribes may be an important factor in their association with the security institutions of the country. In addition, the authorities are satisfied with their active and practical existence in the society.
Social strategy –solidarity dimension:
The level of implementation of the social strategy in Sufism is due to a number of factors, the most important of which are the financial ability of the order, the limits of spreading within the state’s territory, the level of centralization of the work and the organizational structure of the order. If the social strategy of the Sufi orders includes a series of roles, the solidarity dimension remains the most powerful and clearest among them, because the social-geographic form of Sufi orders and their integration into tribes and families allows them to accept grants and donations and redistribute them to the poor and needy. The multiplicity of Sufi headquarters and lodges makes them more like ambulances, always ready to receive refugees, travelers, and other “sons” of the path. Sufism in Sudan represents the ideal model of this pattern.
As far as the social strategy of Sufi orders, Sudan and Morocco are the countries best implementing this strategy. One of their most important roles in this strategy is collectively supporting marriages in poor and rural communities. However, the difference between the social strategy of the Sufi orders in Sudan and Morocco is representation in the primary locality. The orders do not exceed the borders of the state except for a few international orders such as the Qadiri and Tijani.
Development strategy – support for state institutions:
The economic development strategy in the Sufis is still limited and has disappeared at the internal level in the Sufis in many Arab countries. Although the strategy is limited to trans-state roads, it is still limited in supporting the state to solve its economic problems, and is limited to the development of the financial sector.
To illustrate the above, it can be said that there is no self-sufficient developmental Sufi economy influential in the policy of any Arab state, while the areas inhabited by Sufi sheikhs are the most affected by the Sufi economy. Until now, the Sufi economy still occupies a limited place in the national economic ladder of Arab countries, even though Sufi capital exceeds billions in some Arab countries such as Sudan. The economic development strategy of the Sufis means that they lack the national initiatives that seek to provide their own capital, being limited to grants and assistance, which makes them fail to integrate with economic institutions.
Although the development strategy of the Arab Sufi orders is still weak in adopting real visions for achieving financial independence, they have succeeded in playing another developmental role, as represented by educating members of society, especially in poor and marginalized areas, where the Sufi orders moved from Quranic education to the deployment of integrated model schools.
In addition to the educational role of the Sufi orders in some Arab countries, there is another developmental role that has begun to be promoted by some Arab regimes, including Egypt, which is human building. This role is strongly utilized by the Sufis of Sudan to fight drugs and alcohol while inviting people to spiritual retreat in mosques equipped with rooms for study and worship.
Political strategy –trend towards partisan action:
The Arab Sufi orders are considered to be lagging in the implementation of this strategy compared to the Senegalese Sufi orders, where the initial feature of Sufi orders’ systematic political action in Arab countries, which was the establishment of political parties, began in 2012, or one year after the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions.
The Egyptian experience is the most obvious in the embodiment of this situation, where Sufi orders established a number of political parties in this period, including the Egyptian Liberation Party, the Renaissance of Egypt, and Sufi Victory. Although the Egyptian orders exercised organized political action through parties that were organizationally connected to the orders, announcing their electoral support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and trying to form coalitions in the 2012 parliamentary elections, this model has not appeared in any other Arab countries. In Sudan, the political strategy is limited to electoral participation and support from the president, where President Omar al-Bashir met with Sudanese Sufi leaders, who then declared their support for him in the 2020 presidential election.
In Egypt, there are a large number of Sufi sheikhs at the head of the official institutions of the state, including Mahmoud Al-Sharif, a deputy of the Egyptian House of Representatives, and Sheikh Abdel Hady Al-Qasabi, the head of the Egypt Support Coalition, the main backer of the government in the House of Representatives. In Morocco, the Sufi orders and lodges are used to rehabilitate the Moroccan religious field in order to strengthen its support for the monarchy and confront the jihadist tide in northern Morocco and the Sahel-Saharan region, which represents Morocco’s national security portal.
Crisis management strategy – addressing the effects of natural disasters:
The crisis management strategy in Sufi orders is to manage and resolve conflicts between tribes and families in rural areas. Sudan and Morocco have outperformed in this strategy, while Egyptian Sufis continue to apply it only for resolving local conflicts.
Egypt and Sudan embody the strategy of conflict management and resolution the most compared to the Maghreb countries. In Egypt, sheikhs play a key role in resolving tribes’ and families’ struggles for revenge, especially in Upper Egypt. The mastery of this role has helped to centralize the Sufi orders in the social component of these regions, where support has been given to the elders of the Dandarawi, Naqshbandi and Idrisi orders for completing these reconciliations.
In Sudan, the role of Sufi orders in conflict management and dispute resolution is through Sufi reconciliation committees. The main issues of dispute settled by the Sudanese Sufi orders are irrigation disputes, agriculture and grazing disputes, and inheritance and personal status disputes. The success of this Sufi role in Sudan is due to the Sufi interconnectedness with the social structure of the Sudanese state.
In addition to the success of some Arab Sufi orders in the management and resolution of conflicts, there is another role played by assisting the state in dealing with the effects of natural disasters such as floods. Their economies are strongly demonstrated in Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and Algeria, especially in areas hit annually by floods. It should be noted that the role of Sufi orders may not include the construction of housing for the affected, but Sufi headquarters and lodges are available as temporary housing.
The success of the Sufi orders in implementing the crisis management strategy and addressing the effects of natural disasters has helped to promote the peaceful coexistence of societal components and contributed to the consolidation of stability and coexistence among the various religions in those countries. In Egypt, there is constant contact between Sufis and Copts, especially on official occasions, where many Sufis are keen to visit the Cathedral of St. Mark in Abbasiya every year to promote the spirit of social peace between Muslims and Copts.
Support for strategic relations between states:
The extended nature of the Sufi orders, their ability to move safely between countries and the concentration of some in border areas has led to the Sufi orders supporting strategic relations between neighboring countries. In this context, the ‘Alawi and Tijani orders have been supporting Moroccan-Algerian relations since the Sahara crisis, especially since these two orders have branches in both countries.
Sufi orders’ inauguration of international links such as the World Federation of Sufi Orders helps the Sufi orders play a role in the political development of different countries. Some Arab countries have even begun to employ Sufi orders in international relations.
III. The challenges and limits of Sufi action strategies:
Some Sufi orders attempting to apply and disseminate their strategies of action and transfer their models to orders in other countries have been faced by various obstacles:
Internal challenges and the limits of their generalization:
The internal challenges are related to the institutional environment of the Sufis and concern the problems of the Sufi orders, such as perpetual latency in some countries and the intense centralization of their work. The most important of these challenges can be observed as follows:
- Traditionalism in the rotation of Sufi capital – It is noted that most Sufi orders in the Arab countries do not have economic institutions to help them finance their previously mentioned strategies. Despite the multiplicity of sources of financial income for the Sufi orders, whether from donations or external and internal financing, they are misrepresented in the form of unconditional financial subsidies. This means that the financial attrition of Sufi orders is difficult to compensate quickly.
- Constant disagreement and controversy among the Sufi orders – The limited networking with civil society organizations that have the ability to finance and support, and the lack of coordination between the Sufi sheikhs or unification of their attitudes towards societal problems causes a decline in the demand for Sufi orders.
- Decline in material support provided to Sufi orders by governments – Excluding the cases of Morocco and Algeria, as well as some Gulf countries like the UAE, this problem is causing ongoing financial turmoil. Although there has been considerable government support for the Sufi orders in recent times, this support is not widespread in the Arab region. In Egypt, government support is limited to the domain of morals, and therefore the Egyptian Sufi orders are unable to implement their strategies of work, being limited to the Mawlid gatherings only. The orders’ failure to fulfill their role in the recent period has left a gap that is being filled by the radical Islamist currents.
- Centrality of work and perpetual latency of most Sufi orders – Although the number of Arab Sufi orders approaches approximately 300 local, regional and international orders, 90 percent of these orders are concentrated in a narrow geographical area or are confined to areas with a small number of adherents. There are orders whose roles do not exceed the boundaries of the village, and others do not exceed the boundaries of the region or centrality where the order has its headquarters. Most Sufi orders appear on the public scene in their own country on seasonally, such as during Mawlid celebrations and official events. The weakness of the institutional structure of Sufi orders in some Arab countries causes weak sources of funding for the order from its members. This is in addition to the crisis of the transfer of leadership within the Sufi orders, which often ends with the wind-down of the order, the decrease in its membership, and the occurrence of internal divisions and splits. This leads to the decline of Sufi orders rather than their universality.
- Misconception of some Sufi orders as to the limits of their political, social and developmental role – A large number of Sufi sheikhs limit the role of their orders to the practice of dhikr (spiritual remembrance) and spiritual work, believing that there is no connection between Sufism and politics or between Sufism and social and service work. This perception has limited the work in some Sufi orders to practices that are questionable to the Arab street. This misunderstanding of between the Sufi orders and the people needs to change through the dissemination of knowledge-based Sufism, which revives and develops the social culture of these orders.
- Scientific and electronic limitations through social networks – Despite the importance of communication between the Arab Sufi orders in the current period, they are influenced by the Arab reality and the crises of its parties. If the extremist Islamist movements have exploited the internet and the means of social communication in the implementation of their bloody plans and the rapprochement of their elements, the Sufi orders are still late in using these means, even though efficient exploitation of the internet may develop sources of funding and a type of inexpensive networking between branches.
- Absence of the role of women in Sufi orders and the masculinity of their organizational structure – Although women have become a major player in Arab politics and a key element in sovereign institutions, having become ministers and judges, they are still beyond Arab Sufi calculations. This loses them a portion of funding from businesswomen, and impedes the social solidarity work that advances women’s progress and improves their performance.
- Targeted by extremist Islamist organizations – Since 1990, Arab Sufi orders have been subjected to constant threats by terrorist organizations. Their graves have been destroyed, as has happened in Libya, Iraq and Yemen, in addition to Egypt’s Sinai. This problem has caused the displacement of some Sufi sheikhs, causing them to be separated from their lovers and followers.
External challenges and ways to address them:
- Multiplicity of international Sufi organizations and links – The multiplicity of Sufi ties may be the most important challenges of Sufi rapprochement at the regional and international levels, as many Sufi organizations around the world have contradictory objectives.
- Weakness of the level of Gulf support for Arab Sufi orders – Despite Gulf countries’ increased expenses to combat terrorism, their support for the Sufi orders in Arab and African countries is still limited compared to support directed to other Arab institutions and organizations. This is in addition to the decline of European and American support for the Arab mystical methods since the rise of political Islam to power in some Arab countries.
- Influence of Sufi orders on the level of international relations between their countries – Despite the single emergence of Arab Sufi orders, they began to be affected by the foreign policies of their respective countries, and some Arab countries have begun to employ them politically. However, this has led to Sufi-Sufi conflict in some areas.
Facing the previous challenges that reduce Sufi orders’ ability to implement their strategies of action requires several steps to be taken:
- Transferring the economic patterns of the Senegalese Sufi orders, especially as this model led to the independence of those Sufi orders from materialism. It is also necessary to popularize the economic model of the transnational orders. This economic model is based on the formation of joint stock companies from the order’s adherents and lovers, which transforms orders from traditional groups of local social movements to uninterrupted movements with the outside world, influenced by the environments in which they moved and are influential. Thus, they play a multiplayer role that helps them compete with civil society institutions.
- The electronic development of Sufi orders and achieving knowledge-based communication between the Sufi orders through the exchange and transfer of experiences and social roles played by some orders in the Arab region.
- Expanding the Maghrebi Sufi model and expanding the establishment of Sufi centers and lodges, especially in the African regions in constant conflict, so that these centers become safe havens for people to resort to following disasters and epidemics. The ideal model in this context requires studying what the Tijani order has done in South Kordofan, Sudan.
It is possible to say that the development and support of Sufi action strategies has become necessary and urgent for the time being, given the new role played by Sufi orders. This includes renewing religious discourse in the Arab region, fighting against terrorism and extremism, and socially penetrating the social folds of radical Islamist political trends.