The relationship between Sufis and the Egyptian government has over the years been generally smooth and this was mainly due to the fact that there was hardly any conflict of interest between the two parties and because Sufis by definition are usually not involved in the political scene.
In fact, Sufis were in many cases beneficial for the Egyptian state, especially as they offered oneof the many peaceful versions of Islam that countered extremism that militants have practiced under the banner of Islam. That is why the recent tension seems quite surprising and opens the door for speculations whether the decades-long harmony is being disrupted.
It all started with the commemoration of the birth of Sayyeda (Lady) Nafissa, great granddaughter of Prophet Muhammad and venerated Islamic scholar and teacher, when the state imposed fees on the ceremony that fell this year on March 8. Abdel Hadi al-Qasabi, president of the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders, explained that modest fees had been initially paid by the council, but this year additional fees were imposed on all citizens attending the ceremony.
“This means burdening around 15 million people who come from all over the country to take part in the ceremony and to express their love for Sayyeda Nafisa and seek her blessings,” he said. “Those are the average Egyptians whose moderation and devotion we should promote, but instead we are pushing them away.” Qasabi said the additional fees were not collected against receipts and the committees that collected them had no legal standing. “In addition, the fees themselves violate law number 118 for the regulation of Sufi orders and I suspect there is corruption involved here.” Qasabi, who is also a member of the House of Representatives and head of its Solidarity Committee, said he will demand summoning the prime minister, the minister of local development, and the head of the municipal council for questioning: “They have to explain to the parliament why this is happening and why such pressure is being put on the people.”
Moustafa Zayed, founder of the Coalition for the Youths of Sufi Orders, said that the municipality rents plots of land to Sufi orders so that they can erect the tents in which the ceremony is held, but this year the prices have remarkably risen. “This led many Sufi orders to stay away from main streets, which are now extremely expensive, and to rent, instead, plots of land in the cemeteries surrounding the Sayyeda Nafissa Mausoleum,” he said. Zayed added that Sufi ceremonies have lately started to witness the appearance of a number of politicians, journalists, and celebrities. “I believe that some people want to take advantage of the ceremony to advance certain agendas, but we will not allow this,” he said, not explaining, though, whether this is related to the rising prices.
Sufis did not take kindly to such statements coming from a senior official at al-Azhar. Sufi scholar Qandil Abdel Hadi said that Shouman misrepresents al-Azhar and that is why he preferred to address the grand imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb. “I am sure that the grand imam is aware of the significance of patrons in Islam and that he will never accept that they are insulted in this manner, especially by an official from an institution that represents Islam across the world,” he said, adding that not anyone is considered a patron as Shouman made it seem. “This is only done after a series of signs that affirm a particular person has the characteristics of a patron and only then the remains are exhumed.”
The General Sufi Coalition issued a statement condemning the “insults” Shouman leveled against Sufism and the patrons and their supporters. “A senior official like Shouman should use scholarly arguments if he wants to prove a specific point, but what he did is not different from what is done by extremist groups that only hurl insults and accusations,” said the statement. According to the statement, the existence of patrons is an integral part of Sunni Islam and cannot be questioned. “Patrons did exist and they had special spiritual abilities.” The statement concluded with not accepting an apology from Shouman, if he offers any. “We count on God to do the patrons justice.”
Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan traces the relationship between the Egyptian state and Sufis since 1952 and notes that while Sufi orders have not been technically involved in politics, they always played a major political role that was well utilized by successive regimes. “Unlike extremist Islamist groups, Sufis do not accuse the regime of apostasy and do not call for armed struggle against it, thus not presenting the regime as an enemy of Islam and not inciting people against it,” he wrote. “On the other hand, the regime offers Sufis protection from extremist groups that threaten to burn their shrines and attack their ceremonies.”