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The relationship between Salafism and Sufis – two movements of Sunni Islam with different interpretations of Islam – is historically diverse and reflects some of the changes and conflicts in the Muslim world today.
Salafism is associated with literalist, strict and puritanical approaches to Islam. In the Western world it is often associated with the Salafist jihadism Sufism is associated with the use of prayer, music, dance and the teachings of Sufi masters—who may serve as an intermediary between God and humans—to achieve a spiritual sense of the meaning of God.
While there are Muslims who believe that Salafism and Sufism "overlap", the "standard" Salafi response to Sufism has been called "polemical". According to various observers, Salafists have been "usually ... unrelentingly hostile to devotional Sufi practices", arguing that Sufism is "irreconcilable with true Islam", and one of the elements "corrupting" modern day Islam. Relations between the two movements have been described as one with "battle lines drawn", or a "rift" found in "practically every Muslim country", and in "the Muslim diasporic communities of the West" as well.
Much of the antagonism against Sufism by Salafists is attributed to the writings of the eighteenth century figure, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and those who followed him. Some argue that his original followers were more conciliatory towards what they viewed as Sufism, with the son of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab writing,
"We do not negate the way of the Sufis and the purification of the inner self from the vices of those sins connected to the heart and the limbs as long as the individual firmly adheres to the rules of Shari‘ah and the correct and observed way."
Following a tripling in the price of oil in the mid-1970s and the progressive takeover of Saudi Aramco oil company between 1974 and 1980, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia acquired large sums of revenue from oil exports. It began to spend tens of billions of dollars throughout the Islamic World to promote the movement of Islam favored in that country — known as Salafi Islam. According to Pnina Werbner, Saudi funding of "the Wahhabi/Salafi critique" (along with the forces of modernization) put "Sufi tariqas" in "danger of disappearing altogether" in the 1970 and 80s. Though the tariqas have "revived themselves" since then, Werbner describes the twenty-first century as dawning "with battle lines drawn up between" the two groups "within the world of Sunni Islam."
Islamopedia.org states that Salafi groups have been "accused of perpetrating the destruction and burning of a number of Sufi mosques and shrines" as of 2011, a "reflection of the resurgence of the long suppressed animosity" between the two groups. The Grand Mufti of Al Azhar Ali Gomaa, himself an adherent of Sufism, criticized this trend as unacceptable.
Difference in beliefs and practices
There are a number of Sufi beliefs and practices that Salafi believe are "un-Islamic":
- Definition of bid‘ah (innovation in religious matters) — traditional Sufi scholars argue for an inclusive, holistic definition whereas Salafi scholars argue for an exclusive, literal definition that entails anything not specifically performed or confirmed by the Prophet.
- Mawlid (celebration of the birth of the prophet Muhammad) — considered bid‘ah by Salafis.
- Urs (commemoration of the death anniversary of Sufi saints) — considered bid‘ah by Salafis.
- Nasheed (poetry in praise of the prophet Muhammad) — opposed by Salafis. However, Some Salafis consider poetry in praise of the prophet with no music to be permissible.
- Dhikr ("remembrance" of God) ceremonies — opposed by Salafis.
- Tawassul (intercession) the act of supplicating to Allah through a prophet, pious person or Sufi saint, living or dead. According to Salafis, "relying on an intermediary between oneself and Allah when seeking intercession" is among the "ten actions that negate Islam". Some Salafis believe that a living pious man can be asked to pray to God as Tawassul.
- Wasilah (intercessionary powers of the prophet Muhammad) — Salafis hold Wasilah akin to shirk (polytheism). They argue that the prophet Muhammad was a mortal and being so is no longer alive and thus incapable of intercession on behalf of those who pray to him. Sufis hold that although not physically present in the world, the prophets, martyrs and saints are still alive. Some Salafis believe that Wasilah mentioned in Quran and hadith can be taken like Wasilah of good deeds or Wasilah of different attribute names of God
- Ziyarat (visiting the graves of prophets and Sufi saints) — The Sufi practice of visiting the graves of Saints is also objected to by Salafis. Salafis believe that a Muslim can take journey to only three holiest place of Islam that is Mecca, Medina, and Mosque of Jerusalem as mentioned in of the hadith of prophet.
Relations by country
Salafism/Wahabbism is opposed by some Hui Muslims in China, primarily by the Sufi Khafiya, some Hanafi Sunni Gedimu and a number of Jahriyya. The Yihewani (Ikhwan) Chinese sect founded by Ma Wanfu in China was originally inspired by the Wahhabi movement, but evolved away from their origins. When Ma Debao and Ma Zhengqing, attempted to introduce Wahhabism as the Orthodox main form of Islam in China, Yihewani reacted with hostility, accusing Ma Debao and Ma Zhengqing of being traitors of foreign influence, alien to the native popular cultural practices of Islam in China, "Heterodox" (xie jiao), and "people who followed foreigner's teachings" (wai dao), and Wahhabi teachings were deemed as heresy by the Yihewani leaders. Yihewani eventually became a secular Chinese nationalist organisation.
Ma Debao established a Salafi / Wahhabi order, called the Sailaifengye menhuan in Lanzhou and Linxia, separate from other Muslim sects in China. Salafis have a reputation for radicalism among the Hanafi Sunni Gedimu and Yihewani. Sunni Muslim Hui tend to avoid Salafis, even family members. However Salafis in China are so low in number they are not included in classifications of Muslim sects in China.
Before the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Kuomintang Sufi Muslim general Ma Bufang, backed the Yihewani (Ikhwan) Muslims and persecuted the Salafi / Wahhabi Muslims—forcing them into hiding, preventing them from moving or worshiping openly. The After the Communist revolution the Salafis were allowed to worship openly until a 1958 crackdown on all religious practices.
Sufism has been called the "default setting" of Muslim religious life in Egypt where there are 74 Sufi orders (tarikas) and an estimated 15 million practicing Sufis. The number of salafis in Egypt has been estimated at 5-6 million. Before the 2011 revolution Scholar Tarek Osman describes Salafis as the "most important or pervasive Islamic force in the country," with an influence "many times more than that of organized political Islam."
A May 2010 ban by the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) of centuries old Sufi dhikr gatherings (devoted to the remembrance of God, and including dancing and religious songs) has been described as "another victory for extreme Salafi thinking at the expense of Egypt's moderate Sufism". Clashes followed at Cairo's Al-Hussein Mosque and al-Sayyida Zeinab mosques between members of Sufi orders and security forces who forced them to evacuate the two shrines.
In early April 2011, a Sufi march from Al-Azhar Mosque to Al-Hussein Mosque was followed by a massive protest before Al-Hussein Mosque, "expressing outrage at the destruction" of Sufi shrines. The Islamic Research Centre of Egypt, led by Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, has also renounced the attacks on the shrines. According to the newspaper Al-masry Al-youm (Today’s Egyptian), in Egypt's second biggest city — Alexandria — the headquarters for 36 Sufi groups and home of half a million Sufis, "16 historic mosques" belonging to Sufi orders have been "marked for destruction by Salafis". Aggression against the Sufis in Egypt has included a raid on Alexandria’s most distinguished mosque, named for, and housing, the tomb of the 13th century Sufi Al-Mursi Abu’l Abbas. According to Guardian journalist Irfan al-Alawi, "Salafis have alleged that Sufis are agents of the west as well as heretics. The extremists want to take control of Sufi mosques, after they destroy shrines within their precincts." In the governorate of al-Qalyubiya, two Salafis were arrested at the end of March 2013 after "a group of their followers razed five local shrines."
In November 2016, images were released purporting to show the execution of the 100-year-old Sheikh Sulaiman Abu Haraz, "considered one of the symbolic Sufi clerics and elders of the Sinai Peninsula". The images were released by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis – ISIS-affiliated extremist group in Egypt which rebranded itself as "ISIS-Sinai" when it pledged allegiance to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). The group had kidnapped Sulaiman Abu Haraz earlier at gunpoint from in front of his house in Arish city.
On 24 November 2017, a gun and bomb attack on the al-Rawda mosque (known as the birthplace of the founder of Sufism in the Sinai Peninsula) killed more than 305 people and injured more than 128, making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history and the second deadliest attack in 2017. The mosque in Bir al-Abed in the northern Sinai was attacked by around forty gunmen during Friday prayers. As of late November, no group had claimed responsibility for the attack, but it appeared to bear "all the hallmarks" of an attack by ISIS, and occurred in a district in the Sinai where Islamic State intends to "eradicate" Sufis, according to an insurgent commander interviewed in a January 2017 issue of the Islamic State magazine Rumiyah.
In the Pankisi Gorge, home to the Kists, a small Muslim ethnic group, the Sufi-Wahhabi split is generational. The older Kists keep Sufi traditions, but young people scorn the old practices and pray in "new, gleaming mosques". Pankisi is reportedly the "only place in Georgia where people keep Sufism alive." Wahhabism entered into "a dozen Pankisi villages in the 1990s, popularized by young people educated in Arab countries". (The "Wahhabis" do not use the term but agree they are practicing a form of Sunni Islam "similar to that which prevails in Saudi Arabia.") Because of close family ties, there has been no violence between the two groups, although Sufis protested loudly over the tearing down of a Sufi shrine to make way for a new Wahhabi mosque.
For "nearly 700 years", the Sufi tradition of Islam has been "part of the cultural and spiritual life" of Kashmir. However, according to journalists Tariq Mir and Asit Jolly, Wahhabism or Salafism is making "deep inroads" into Kashmir society. Since 2000 or so, "Salafist preachers" have spread across Kashmir and that movement of Islam has grown rapidly, now making up 1.5 million of the nearly eight million Indian Kashmiris. Some 700 well patronized mosques and 150 schools have been built in Kashmir by the "religious and welfare organisation", Jamiat Ahle Hadith funded primarily by Saudi Arabian sources. According to state police and central intelligence officers, this construction is part of $35-billion program reportedly devoted to the building of mosques and madrassas in South Asia.
Kashmir's predominantly Sufi-Hanafi community is reportedly anxious over Jamiat Ahle Hadith's rapid proliferation, its increasing popularity among youth, and "mysterious fires" in 2012 that left six Sufi places of worship either completely or partially burnt (although investigators have so far found no sign of arson). Journalist Mir wonders how Sufism will fare against Wahhabism/Salafism inroads "in an age of globalization, free travel, and religious satellite channels". Many Sufi Barelvis believe that the beneficiaries of Saudi largesse are not just the Ahl-e-Hadith (who come closest to Wahhabism) but also the variety of Sunni Islam espoused by seminaries like the Darul Uloom Deoband and Nadwatul Ulema.
(The term "Wahabbi" in India can have contradictory definitions depending on the user of the term, according to author Yoginder Sikand. It is used by Barelvi and related Muslims to refer to Sunni critics of "practices associated with the shrines of the Sufis". These critics being principally Deobandi and Ahl-e Hadith Muslims. Deobandi used the term to refer to the more strict Ahl-e Hadith who oppose taqlid (‘imitation’) of one of the four Madhhab (major schools of Sunni jurisprudence), and any form of Sufism. The Ahl-e Hadith refer to themselves as "Salafi" not Wahabbi.)
Following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, several Sufi religious sites in Libya were deliberately destroyed or damaged. While as of 31 August 2012 "no group has claimed responsibility" for the attacks on the sites, the Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A’al was quoted describing the attackers as "groups that have a strict Islamic ideology where they believe that graves and shrines must be desecrated," an apparent reference to Salafists. The BBC has also identified the destroyers as "Salafist Islamists".
In September 2012, three people were killed in clashes between residents of Rajma (50 km south-east of Benghazi) and "Salafist Islamists" trying to destroy a Sufi shrine in Rajma, the Sidi al-Lafi mausoleum. In August 2012 the United Nations cultural agency Unesco urged Libyan authorities to protect Sufi mosques and shrines from attacks by Islamic hardliners "who consider the traditional mystical school of Islam heretical". The attackers have "wrecked mosques in at least three cities and desecrated many graves of revered Sufi scholars". However, the destruction and desecration did not cease with the Libyan Civil War. In April 2016, Salafists destroyed the shrine and graves of martyrs of the Italian occupation in the town of Misrata.
From April 2012 to January 2013 the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Jamāʿat at-tawḥīd wal-jihād fī gharb ʾafrīqqīyā) and Ansar Dine were in control of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in North Mali. "About 30 militants armed with assault rifles and pickaxes" destroyed three mausoleums 30 June 2012, and three more the next day according to witnesses. The group said it planned to destroy all 16 of the main shrines in Timbuktu. Ansar Dine, the group claiming control of the city, is blamed for the attacks. Its leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, stated "Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them." Another leader, Abou Dardar, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that "not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu."
The destruction was criticized not only by Sufis but by a number of Arab and Muslim authorities, political parties, and authors, and even at least one Salafi leader. Nabil Na’im (a senior leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad), criticized the way the Salafis in Mali handled the "problem" of shrines.
According to Ramzi Amara,
Today the Izala is one of the largest Islamic societies not only in Northern Nigeria, but also in the South and even in the neighbouring countries (Chad, Niger, and Cameroon). It is very active in Da‘wa and especially in education. The Izala has many institutions all over the country and is influential at the local, state, and even federal levels.
Sufism has been a "part of the fabric of life in the Pakistan region for centuries". Salafi Islam is a more recent addition, having been introduced into Pakistan from "Arab-Afghans" (i.e. Arab and other Muslims from outside Afghanistan, who came to Pakistan to fight in Afghanistan) mujahedeen were fighting Soviet occupiers in the early 1980s. They found common agendas and support from Deobandi movement. In Pakistan the dynamic between Sufi Muslims and fundamentalists has lately entered an especially intense phase with the proliferation of militant groups.
There are hundreds of shrines to Sufi saints spread across the cities and countryside of Pakistan. From March 2005 to 2010, 209 people were killed and 560 injured in 29 attacks on Sufi shrines. In 2010 bomb attacks escalated, detonating in the presence of thousands of worshipers, and in the nation’s largest cities, such as Karachi and Lahore. Five attacks that year killed 64 people. In 2017 at least 70 people were killed and 250 wounded in one bombing—of the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sehwan, in southern Sindh during a devotional dance.
At least some of the attacks are attributed to banned militant organizations of Salafi backgrounds. Salafist criticize dancing and drumming at shrine festivals, which in their view, does not accurately reflect the teachings and practice of the Prophet and his companions.
While traditionally Christian, Russia has a number of Muslim-majority Republics or "federal subjects", such as Dagestan and Chechnya.
(In Dagestan "Wahhabi" is the term used by most Dagestanis, although practitioners prefer the term "pure" or "true" Muslims.) While Islam arrived in Dagestan in the late Middle Ages as Sufi Islam "infused with local customs", Salafists began to have an impact by way of Afghanistan after the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s (although one Salafist scholar—Yaseen Rasulov—maintains that the ideas of salafist jurist Ibn Taimiyah were already popular in Dagestan in the 16th and 17th centuries and that Salafists have always led jihad against colonizing Russians). According to the Abu Dhabi National newspaper
Salafis dislike the Sufi alliance with the government. Sufis run the government-sanctioned Spiritual Board of Muslims, to which the official clergy belong. They also support a secular state. Salafis do not.
According to the Economist magazine "The Islamisation of the conflict" between Caucasus Muslims (in Dagestan and Chechya) and Russia after the 1994 and 1999 Chechnya Wars "opened up a fierce sectarian fight between Sufism" and Salafism. By the late 2000s the Salafis in Dagestan "were winning support among young Muslims", while the Sufis were "tainted by association with a corrupt and dysfunctional state". Salafist are associated with the forest-based insurgency that has killed an average of three policeman a week in 2011, while police killed 100 people they identified as rebels, over a nine-month period in 2011.
In October 2011, Sirazhutdin Khurikski, an influential Sufi sheikh in southern Dagestan, was killed. In late August 2012, a revered Sufi scholar Sheikh Said Afandi and 5 others were among killed in Dagestan suicide bomb attack. A seventy-five-year-old cleric in the Sufi Brotherhood, Afandi was a key Sufi leader in the North Caucasus and had publicly denounced Salafism. Another Sufi Sheikh, Ilyas-haji Ilyasov was assassinated on 3 August 2013, just a year after Said Afandi.
Despite historical tensions between the two groups, as of mid-2015 "they are uniting in the face of twin threats: IS recruitment and the Russian government’s lawlessness."
The President (Aslan Maskhadov) of another Muslim-majority "federal subject" of Russia, Chechnya, took the side of Sufism against Salafism, saying, "We are Nakshband and Kadari and Sunnites, and there is no place for any other Islamic sect in Chechnya. ... We cannot tolerate a situation where the enemies of Islam trample under foot the century-old traditions of the Chechyn people, desecrate the name of our saints ..." According to the BBC, however, his efforts "to ban the fundamentalist trend of Islam known as Wahhabism" were unsuccessful.
In Saudi Arabia for many years Sufi brotherhoods, (also known as "mystical" brotherhoods), were proscribed by the government, and a "monopoly on religious matters" was given to the official "scholarly Islam of ulemas", according to Gilles Kepel. The official religion supported by the ulema in Saudi Arabia is often referred to as Wahhabism, but according to at least one source (Saudi author Abdul Aziz Qassim), its adherents prefer to call it the "Salafi movement of the Sheikh".
However, the 9/11 attacks (where 15 of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Saudi), brought scrutiny to the official religion in Saudi. Amongst other things it has "put the brakes on the practice of takfir" of other interpretations of Islam by the Saudi religious establishment, according to one Sufi in Saudi Arabia quoted in a Washington Post article. As of 2006 Sufi gatherings are legal in the Kingdom.
Traditionally, Islam in Somalia has followed moderate Sufism (as well as Ash’ariyah theology and Shafi’i jurisprudence). Salafi theology has arrived in Somalia in recent decades via the influence of students educated at Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia and migrant workers returning from Saudi. Somali students of religion educated in Saudi Arabia, were often employed by the many Saudi institutions created to preach "the right theology" (i.e. Salafi theology) and received "massive economic and technical assistance" from their well-funded former hosts.
Extreme versions of Salafism such as Al-Shabab and earlier Hizbul Islam have used force to impose their version of Islamism (though those groups appear to be in conflict with most Salafi scholars). Under areas of Al-Shabab rule in Somali, Sufi ceremonies were banned and shrines destroyed. As the power of Al-Shabab has waned, however, Sufi ceremonies are said to have "re-emerged".
According to the Beirut-based Al-Akhbar news site, conflict has been "simmering" between the two largest "religious sects" in Sudan—Salafis and Sufis. Al Jazeera estimates that more than 60% of Sudanese are affiliated with Sufism, while 10% are tied to Salafi groups, though that number is growing. Salafis, particularly the largest and oldest Salafi group Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyyah, oppose Sufi beliefs and practices they find to be "heresies and perversions" and have been active preaching publicly against (what they believe are) unIslamic activities. Arab Afghan Jihadist Salafists have also been active in Sudan since the 1990s, sometimes violently. In January 2012 a fight broke out between Sufis celebrating the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday and salafis.
Dozens of people were injured before the Sudanese police arrived at the scene to stop the fighting. Beyond the known differences between the two groups on the permissibility and religious legitimacy of the celebration, this specific clash took place in the context of rising tensions between the two groups [(Sufi and Salafi)], that arose after unknown persons dug up and burned the tomb of a Sufi on 2nd December 2011. The exhumed body was that of Sheikh Idris oud al-Arbab ... The Sufi sects had accused the Salafi groups of desecrating and burning the tomb; the Salafis had denied any involvement, but the relationship between the two groups became increasingly tense leading up to the assault on the mawlid on 31st January 2012.
Following this disturbance and complaints by Sufis, the Khartoum government announced a ban on Ansar al-Sunnah clerics preaching in public areas. Several "Sufi domes and shrines" have also been destroyed in Sudan, something Ansar denies any involvement in.
In an article on the rise of Salafism in Tunisia, the media site Al-Monitor reported that 39 Sufi shrines were destroyed or desecrated in Tunisia, from the 2011 revolution to January 2013. The shrines, called zawaya, are mausoleums built to house the remains of ancient holy men.
According to journalists Peter Beaumont and Patrick Kingsley,
The Salafist component in Tunisia remains a small minority, but it has prompted rows and mistrust among secularists and moderate Islamists. The Salafists are spread between three broad groups: new small political movements that have formed in recent months; non-violent Salafis; and violent Salafists and jihadists who, though small in number, have had a major impact in terms of violent attacks, arson on historic shrines or mausoleums considered to be unorthodox, demonstrations against art events ... and isolated incidents of attacking premises that sell alcohol outside Tunis.
In the United States, Sufi leader Muhammad Hisham Kabbani is well known for his vocal criticism of Wahhabism. Kabbani, who moved to the United States in 1990 as an emissary of his teacher, Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Al-Haqqani, the grand shaykh of the Naqshbandi order, has described Wahhabism as being "like an octopus" because 'Its tentacles are reaching everywhere.' According to Kabbani, when he arrived in the US from Lebanon in 1990 he was shocked to hear Wahhabi doctrines being preached at Friday sermons. 'I asked myself: Is Wahhabism active in America? So I started my research. Whichever mosque I went to, it was Wahhabi, Wahhabi, Wahhabi, Wahhabi.' In 1999, during a forum organised by the US Department of State, Kabbani charged that '80 per cent' of the mosques in the US were run by extremists.
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Even back in 1971, [J. Spencer] Trimingham argued that the Sufi tariqas were in decline and danger of disappearing altogether under the dual threat of modernization and the Wahhabi/Salafi critique heavily supported by propaganda materials funded by the superior wealth of the Saudi regime. ... However, this has not materialized: during the decades of the 1980s and the 1990s, tariqas have revived themselves as they have begun to fight back against the Wahhabi/Salafi critique, and the twenty-first century dawn with battle lines drawn up between these two conflicting groups within the world of Sunni Islam.
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