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Persecution of Sufis over the course of centuries has included acts of religious discrimination, persecution, and violence both by Sunni and Shia Muslims, such as destruction of Sufi shrines, tombs and mosques, suppression of Sufi orders, murder, and terrorism against adherents of Sufism in a number of Muslim-majority countries. The Republic of Turkey banned all Sufi orders and abolished their institutions in 1925, after Sufis opposed the new secular order. The Islamic Republic of Iran has harassed Sufis, reportedly for their lack of support for the government doctrine of "governance of the jurist" (i. e., that the supreme Shiite jurist should be the nation's political leader).
In most other Muslim-majority countries, attacks on Sufis and especially their shrines have come from adherents of puritanical and revivalist schools of Islamic thought (Deobandi, Salafi movement, Wahhabism, and Islamic Modernism), who believe that practices such as visitation to and veneration of the tombs of Sufi saints, celebration of the birthdays of Sufi saints, and dhikr ("remembrance" of God) ceremonies are bid‘ah (impure "innovation") and shirk ("polytheistic").
Examples of people presumably executed for their Sufi views and practices include: Abbasid mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj in 922, Ayn al-Quzat Hamadani in 1131, Ishraqi philosopher Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi in 1191, Ottoman mystic and mutineer Sheikh Bedreddin in 1420, and the wandering dervish Sarmad Kashani in 1661 in Mughal India. The exact reasons for executions in some of those cases were disputed.
Suppression of Sufism in the Islamic world has a long history and it has been motivated by both religious purposes and in later centuries, also political purposes. Though some Muslims see Sufism as a pious and pure expression of faith, its doctrines and practices have been rejected by others.
Revivalist Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) wrote about what he called the metaphysical "deviations" of Sufism, and criticism of Sufism is attested in the writings of Ibn Jawzi. Subsequent Muslim theologians influenced by Ibn Taymiyya's doctrines such as Muhammad ibn Ali al-Shawkani, Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab etc. would arise to attack the mystical beliefs and practices of various Sufi Tariqahs. In the 19th century, these ideas became popular and several Islamic reformers began condemning Sufi practices as contrary to Tawhid.
During the Safavid dynasty of Iran, "both the wandering dervishes of 'low' Sufism" and "the philosopher-ulama of 'high' Sufism came under relentless pressure" from powerful cleric Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi (d. 1110/1699). Majlesi—"one of the most powerful and influential" Twelver Shiʿi ulama "of all time"—was famous for (among other things), suppression of Sufism, which he and his followers believed paid insufficient attention to Shariah law. Prior to Majlesi's rise, Shia Islam and Sufism had been "closely linked".
In 1843, the Senussi Sufi were forced to flee Mecca and Medina and head to Sudan and Libya.
Sufism was seen as emotional and uncontrollable, reaching beyond reason to a state of ecstasy and Truth reached through practices of dancing and physical self-deprivation. It is regarded as a dissenting form of worship at odds with authoritarian power structures. This was in conflict with the trends of the 19th century and focus on the nation-state, which continued through the end of World War I. The drive for modernization that characterized this era favored a "rational" style of religion. Suppression of Sufism during this period was guided by political consideration rather than the objections of Islamic orthodoxy. Sufi leaders were influential and thus posed a threat, at least potentially, to the existence of the fledgling nation-states in the aftermath of the war.
After the Sheikh Said rebellion, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, first President of the newly founded Republic of Turkey, banned the Sufi orders in 1925. Iranian reformer Ahmad Kasravi participated in burning Sufi literature. Though Sufism has declined in the past century, it has enjoyed a resurgence in Turkey and artworks on Sufi themes may be found exhibited in the art galleries of Istanbul, such as the work Miracname by artist Erol Akyavas, which depicts time and the cosmos as symbols of the "miraculous journey". In Iran, prominent figures in Iranian intellectual circles continue to be influenced by Sufi traditions including Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati.
In recent years, shrines, and sometimes mosques, have been damaged or destroyed in many parts of the Muslim world. Some Sufi adherents have been killed as well. Ali Gomaa, a Sufi scholar and Grand Mufti of al-Azhar University, has criticized the destruction of shrines and public property as unacceptable.
Since March 2005, 209 people have been killed and 560 people have been injured in 29 different terrorist attacks which targeted shrines devoted to Sufi saints in Pakistan, according to data which has been compiled by the Center for Islamic Research Collaboration and Learning (CIRCLe, a think-tank which is based in Rawalpindi). At least as of 2010, the number of attacks has increased each year. Pro-Sufi Barelvi dominate Pakistan's religious landscape, and as a result, they are victims of the anti-Sufi campaigns which are being waged against them by the Deobandi, according to John Schmidt, lawyer and former United States Associate Attorney General (1994-1997). Deobandi and Barelvi are the "two major sub-sects" of Sunni Muslims in South Asia that have clashed—sometimes violently—since the late 1970s in Pakistan. It is not clear whether Sufis are being persecuted by Barelvi or Deobandi state banned militant organizations, since both groups have been accused of anti-Shia terrorism.
In 2005, militant organizations began attacking "symbols" of the Barelvi community such as mosques, prominent religious leaders, and shrines.
Pakistani faith healers are known as pirs, a term that applies to the descendants of Sufi Muslim saints. Under Sufism, those descendants are thought to serve as conduits to God. The popularity of pirs as a viable healthcare alternative stems from the fact that, in much of rural Pakistan, clinics don't exist or are dismissed as unreliable. For the urban wealthy, belief in a pir's powers is either something passed down through the generations, or a remedy of last resort, a kind of Pakistani laetrile.
In this predominantly Muslim, traditionally Sufi region, some six places of worship have been either completely or partially burnt in "mysterious fires" in several months leading up to November 2012. The most prominent victim of damage was the Dastageer Sahib Sufi shrine in Srinagar which burned in June 2012, injuring 20. While investigators have so far found no sign of arson, according to journalist Amir Rana the fires have occurred within the context of a surging Salafi movement which preaches that "Kashmiri tradition of venerating the tombs and relics of saints is outside the pale of Islam".
Mourners outside the burning shrine cursed the Salafis for creating an atmosphere of hate, [while] some Salafis began posting incendiary messages on Facebook, terming the destruction of the shrine a "divine act of God".
Under the Al-Shabab rule in Somalia, Sufi ceremonies were banned and shrines destroyed. As the power of Al-Shabab has waned, however, Sufi ceremonies are said to have "re-emerged". Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a Sufi militants, backed by Ethiopia and the federal government, control parts of central Somalia and some cities in the southern regions of Gedo and Bakool.
In the ancient city of Timbuktu, sometimes called "the city of 333 saints", UNESCO reports that as many as half of the city's shrines "have been destroyed in a display of fanaticism", as of July 2012. A spokesman for Ansar Dine has stated that "the destruction is a divine order", and that the group had plans to destroy every single Sufi shrine in the city, "without exception". In Gao and Kidal, as well as Timbuktu, Salafi Islamists have destroyed musical instruments and driven musicians into "economic exile" away from Mali.
International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda described the Islamists' actions as a "war crime".
A manuscript from Timbuktu belonging to Al-Mukhtar ibn Aḥmad ibn Abi Bakr al-Kunti al-Kabir
A manuscript from Timbuktu belonging to Baba ibn Ahmad al-Alawi al-Maliki al-Maghribi al-Shingiti
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 2009, the moulid of al-Sayyida Zeinab, Muhammad's granddaughter, was banned ostensibly over concern over the spread of swine flu but also at the urging of Salafis.
According to Gaber Qassem, deputy of the Sufi Orders, approximately 14 shrines have been violated in Egypt since the January 2011 revolution. According to Sheikh Tarek El-Rifai, head of the Rifai Sufi Order, a number of Salafis have prevented Sufi prayers in Al-Haram. Sheikh Rifai said that the order's lawyer has filed a report at the Al-Haram police station to that effect. 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 denounced the attacks on the shrines. According to the Muslim Brotherhood website ikhwanweb.com, in 2011 "a memorandum was submitted to the Armed Forces" citing 20 "encroachments" on Sufi shrines.
On 24 November 2017, a group of Islamic terrorists attacked the Sufi-connected al-Rawda mosque, located in Sinai. At least 305 people were killed and more than 100 wounded during the attack; it is considered one of the worst terrorist attacks in the history of modern Egypt. Most of the victims were Sufis. The mosque is associated with the Jaririya order.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Libyan Civil War, several Sufi religious sites in Libya were deliberately destroyed or damaged. In the weeks leading up to September 2012, "armed groups motivated by their religious views" attacked Sufi religious sites across the country, "destroying several mosques and tombs of Sufi religious leaders and scholars". Perpetrators were described as "groups that have a strict Islamic ideology where they believe that graves and shrines must be desecrated." Libyan Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al, was quoted as saying, "If all shrines in Libya are destroyed so we can avoid the death of one person [in clashes with security forces], then that is a price we are ready to pay."
In September 2012, three people were killed in clashes between residents of Rajma, 50 kilometres (31 mi) southeast 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 attack had "wrecked mosques in at least three cities and desecrated many graves of revered Sufi scholars".
Tunisian Sufis largely adher to the Shadiliyya order. Despite the rise of Salafism and extremists in Tunisia, Sufism is still largely ingrained in its culture. Media site Al-Monitor reported that 39 Sufi shrines were destroyed or desecrated from the 2011 revolution to January 2013. For Tunisians Sufism is a way of collective healing and progress. The polling agency Sigma indicated that 43.1% Tunisians visit a Sufi shrine at least once per year. Sufi Shrines (Zawiya) in Tunisia exceed the number of mosques.
Said Atsayev—also known as Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkavi—a prominent 74-year-old Sufi Muslim spiritual leader in Dagestan, Russia, was killed by a suicide bombing August 28, 2012 along with six of his followers. His murder follows "similar religiously motivated killings" in Dagestan and regions of ex-Soviet Central Asia, targeting religious leaders—not necessarily Sufi—who disapprove of violent jihad. Afandi had survived previous attempts on his life and was reportedly in the process of negotiating a peace agreement between the Sufis and Salafis.
Matthijs van den Bos discusses the status of Sufism in Iran in the 19th and 20th century. According to Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, an expert on Sufism and the representative of the Ni'matullāhī order outside Iran, a campaign against the Sufis in Iran (or at least Shia Sufis) began in 2005. Several books were published arguing that because Sufis follow their own spiritual leaders they do not believe in the Islamic state's theocratic principle of the governance of the jurist and should therefore be treated as second-class citizens, not allowed to have government jobs, or be fired if they do. Since then, the Ni'matullāhī order—Iran's largest Sufi order—has come under increasing state pressure. Three of its khanqahs have been demolished. Officials accused it of not having building permits and of narcotics possession—charges which the Sufis reject.
The government of Iran is considering an outright ban on Sufism, according to the 2009 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. It also reports:
In February 2009, at least 40 Sufis in Isfahan were arrested after protesting the destruction of a Sufi place of worship; all were released within days.
In January, Jamshid Lak, a Gonabadi Dervish from the Nematollahi Sufi order was flogged 74 times after being convicted in 2006 of slander following his public allegation of ill-treatment by a Ministry of Intelligence official.
In late December 2008, after the closure of a Sufi place of worship, authorities arrested without charge at least six members of the Gonabadi Dervishes on Kish Island and confiscated their books and computer equipment; their status is unknown.
In November 2008, Amir Ali Mohammad Labaf was sentenced to a five-year prison term, 74 lashes, and internal exile to the southeastern town of Babak for spreading lies, based on his membership in the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order.
In October, at least seven Sufi Muslims in Isfahan, and five others in Karaj, were arrested because of their affiliation with the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order; they remain in detention.
In November 2007, clashes in the western city of Borujerd between security forces and followers of a mystic Sufi order resulted in dozens of injuries and the arrests of approximately 180 Sufi Muslims. The clashes occurred after authorities began bulldozing a Sufi monastery. It is unclear how many remain in detention or if any charges have been brought against those arrested. During the past year, there were numerous reports of Shi'a clerics and prayer leaders, particularly in Qom, denouncing Sufism and the activities of Sufi Muslims in the country in both sermons and public statements.
In 2009 the mausoleum of the 19th century Sufi poet Nasir Ali and an adjoining Sufi prayer house were bulldozed.
Between 4 February and March 2018, Iranian Sufis organized the 2018 Dervish protests, protesting the imprisonment of at least 10 of the group's members in Fars province. On 19 February, the Sufis organized a sit-in protest at a police station, located in the Pasdaran district of Tehran, where one of their members was held. Later, clashes broke out between the Sufi protestors and security forces. Police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the protesters. Five riot police were killed. According to the Iranian press, police arrested around 300 people, and there have been reports that some of the protesters may have been killed.
Not all Sufis in Iran have been subject to government pressure. Sunni dervish orders—such as the Qhaderi dervishes—in the Sunni-populated parts of the country are thought by some to be seen as allies of the government against Al-Qaeda.
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Although most Deobandis are no more prone to violence than their Christian fundamentalist counterparts in the West, every jihadist group based in Pakistan save one is Deobandi, as are the Afghan Taliban.
According to the Jamestown Foundation, Deobandi have also been victims of sectarian strife.
Who said we are against Sufism? We very much follow the Sufi traditions and all of our elders were Sufi practitioners of Sufi tradition (source: Ali, Md. "Deoband hits back, rejects "baseless" charge of radicalizing Muslim youth". 19 October 2011. TwoCircles.net. Retrieved 4 March 2013.)
Scores of Deobandi leaders and members of Ahle Sunnat wal Jamat (ASWJ, formerly the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan) have been assassinated in Karachi in recent years. Police sources say that the Sunni Tehrik, a Barelvi organization, is behind most of these assassinations. (source: Jamal, Arif. "Karachi's Deadly Political and Sectarian Warfare Threatens the Stability of Pakistan's Commercial Capital". Terrorism Monitor April 20, 2012. Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved 4 March 2013.)