On the Meaning of Being a Sufi: The Wayfarer in the Footsteps of Al-Hallaj

Published in Egyptian Streets

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The Sufi is the traveler in the way of Love. This is how Khaled Muhammad Abduh defines the Sufi in his most recent book, On the Meaning of Being a Sufi. The book is a collection of essays that vary between narratives, personal experiences, academic insights and glimpses of the lives of great Muslim spiritual figures who deeply affected his life.

One such figure is the Persian mystic and Sufi master Al-Husayn ibn-Mansur al-Hallaj (c.858- 922AD/244-309AH). Since his introduction to the life and writings of Al-Hallaj during school years, Abduh became a wayfarer in his path.

In the introduction of his book On the Meaning of Being a Sufi, Abduh describes how Sufism was drawn into his life. His interest in the field of comparative religions made him immerse himself in extensive readings in the Sufi literature. After a while, he came to the realization: “I understood that Love cannot be taught. It cannot be sought in books.” He decided that the spiritual experience of the Sufi masters had to be felt; it had to be lived. This explained to him why so many meanings in Sufi texts are hard to grasp. “The inability to understand is in itself a realization,” a close friend consoled him when was faced with the difficulty of interpreting the full meaning of Al-Hallaj’s words.

Born in southern Iran, Al-Hallaj received a spiritual education from the great mystic Sahl al-Tustari. At a certain point, he distanced himself from the teachings of his Shaykh, embarking on his own spiritual journey. Seen as highly controversial, Al-Hallaj angered the orthodox theologians of his time, who disapproved of his mystical experiences as recorded in his writings and poetry. He was arrested on charges of heresy, imprisoned, tortured and finally crucified. The life and death of Al-Hallaj have stirred great debate and great emotion, but most importantly they have created of him an icon of the dervish sparing his own life for the love of the Divine.

Khaled Muhammad Abduh is known in the social media circles as Khaled Al-Hallaj. To his followers, he symbolizes a quest for learning and a world of enlightened spirituality.

Abduh launched an online site for Islamic and Sufism studies known as Tawaseen after the name of one of Al-Hallaj’s most famous as well as most controversial books.

The site aims at creating a platform for the Arab reader to have access to the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of Islam. By providing full attention to Sufism studies, Tawaseen hopes to renew the interest in serious scholarship on Sufism, as well as to redress the misconceptions about Sufism. Abduh says, “Tawaseen is not promoting any Sufi order or Tariqah. Indeed, it is the Sufi orders that almost killed the spiritual aspect of Sufism by caging it within a system of thought and behavior that has to conform to the hierarchy of its institutional leadership.”

Abduh graduated from Dar al-Ulum, obtaining both his B.A. and M.A. He is currently working on his Ph.D. from the Department of Philosophy in the Faculty of Art in Cairo University.

Like Al-Hallaj, Khaled Muhammad Abduh received guidance in the Bektashyah order, named after the 13th century Haji Bektash Veli from Khorasan. After a while, Abduh decided to embark on his own spiritual journey. He later developed a critical view of Sufi orders, calling for reforms and for what he describes as post-tariqah Sufism, i.e. a Sufism that goes beyond dogmatism and delves deeper into the spiritual aspects of Islam.

It is the latter point that made him find refuge in the world of Jalaluldin al-Rumi. He says: “Mevlana’s company enchants me. Sometimes I look at his name and smile. I think about how at a certain time he made me reunite with myself, and made me gaze at something beautiful that I will never forget.” He observes that Al-Rumi had all the training he could get due to the religious status of his father; however, it was only the encounter with his mentor, Shams Tabriz, that made him blossom spiritually.

Abduh also co-authored a book entitled Al-Rumi Between the Orient and the Occident.

Despite his academic training, Abduh is a wayfarer par excellence. Talking to him will take you to two irreconcilable worlds: Analytical criticism on the one hand, and ecstatic mysticism on the other. His sharp words reveal the quality of a solid researcher who takes nothing at face value. Yet, he does not hide an anxiety that is symptomatic of those yearning for internal fulfilment; a search for what is beyond external knowledge; a higher Truth.

He says: “The path is not a distance to cross in order to reach it. Our steps do not get us any nearer. Perhaps, the search is the path; perhaps the pain, the wonderment, the joy; perhaps the sum of it all. All what I know is that there is no path for an ever-renewed being that is paved for him/her by others.”

Abduh’s book On the Meaning of Being a Sufi is highly important at a time witnessing an increased interest in the Sufi symbols. He sees this phenomenon as a consequence of the tearing down of the authority figures of religion as well as the disillusionment Egypt had with its short experience of Islamist rule.

Such disillusionment created what he calls a segment of Egyptians that seeks an Islam-lite and that, by misperception, thinks they can find in Sufism. The Islam-lite fans are attracted to the dancing dervishes, to the festivities of mulids and inshad concerts. They recite lines by Al-Rumi and Al-Hallaj and feel their energy, but they do not go any deeper.

On the increased mania in Egypt about the dervish as an icon of the Sufi path, Abduh thinks that the attraction to the superficial aspects of Sufism has done injustice to the dervish. “In my observations and life experience, I witnessed the dervish as the real flesh of Sufism. He is not a symbol. He is this person in humble disguise giving out from his soul to assist others. The dervish has only one destination: Allah,” he explains.

The significance of the book On the Meaning of Being a Sufi is that it sets the tone for a true understanding of what Sufism is, away from the superficial attraction to its symbols. It starts from a realistic understanding of where Egyptian youth stand, and why they are in an almost state of disbelief. Disbelief in authority; disbelief in a faith not genuinely internalized. He says: “The Sufi searches for a heart that beats with life; he requests to be guided to ascension every moment in which he can renew his connection with God.”

Abduh will discuss On the Meaning of Being a Sufi in a book-signing event on March 22 at 7 p.m. in Al-Balad Bookshop.



The Hidden Spiritual Sanctuary of Cairo Where Sufi Mystics Celebrate


Walking through the southern qarafa cemeteries along the base of the Muqattam hills on a Friday morning is a sport for residents of this part of the huge Cairo necropolis, for beggars and for those who are following in the footsteps of Sufi saints, awliyaa’.

Several spiritual figures have chosen this secluded spot to build their zawiyas (recluse prayer areas) to meditate in isolation, far from the bustling city life. In their seclusion, they spent their time in dhikr, literally meaning remembrance of God. One such figure is al-Sayida Nafisa, the great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who resided in Cairo from 809 CE until her death in 824 CE.  Accounts tell of her voluntary seclusion in a retreat cell there where she meditated in khilwa, or utmost isolation from worldly preoccupations and a total concentration in the presence of God.

With time, the southern qarafa came to be called the Valley of the Overpowered by the Love of God (wadi al-mustad’afin) in reference to it being an abode of the saints.

The first Friday of the month of Muharram is a day that Sufi murids (students) and seekers never miss. It is the mawlid of al-Muharram, one of the established festivity traditions of the Wafa’iya Sufi order. This tradition was brought about in the 18th century to celebrate the new Islamic year by dhikr circles, prayers and almsgiving.

The minaret of the mausoleum and mosque of the Sadat Wafai’iya has already been decorated with neon lights in the past days in anticipation of the festivity. On Friday, visitors from various places inside and outside Egypt came to attend the mawlid and pay tribute to the Wafa’iya saints who, for centuries, were the heads of a great Sufi order and constituted one of the elite social and spiritual families of the city of Cairo.

Photo Credit Serag Heiba

The Wafa’iya is a Sufi order established by Muhammad Wafa (1302-1363) who was born in Alexandria. His family has its origin in Tunis and Sfax, and his ancestry goes back to Idris I (d. 791), the founder of the city of Fez and the first ruler of the Idrisid dynasty. Through this lineage, Muhammad Wafa is thus a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from the side of Hassan ibn Ali.

Muhammad Wafa was initiated into the Shadhili order by Dawud ibn Makhla (d. 1332), a student of the great Sufi scholar Ibn Ata’ Allah al-Sakandari (d. 1309), whose mausoleum is a short walk from the Sadat Wafa’iya mosque.  Wafa lived for a while in Akhmim, in Upper Egypt, then moved to Cairo, where he built his zawiya. His fame spread slowly and he acquired the name Wafa when one day the Nile water dropped to an alarming level. Fearing famine, the people of Cairo asked him to pray God. He went to the river’s edge and recited a prayer after which the water rose to its regular level, making the people believe that he commanded the Nile to rise and that his command was fulfilled (wafa).

After a long spiritual training, Muhammad Wafa established his own order. When he died in 1363, his younger son Ali, who came to be renowned for his poetry and treatises on mystical philosophy, followed him. Ali, as the khalifa of Wafa, was succeeded by 21 followers from his family until 1907 when the 22nd and lastkhalifa, Ahmad Abu al-Futuhat died leaving no male descendants.

On the day of the mawlid, the square in front of the mausoleum and mosque turns into a busy area where iftar tables are spread and rows of chairs are showcased to welcome visitors and guests.  Upon entering the mausoleum, one immediately notices the contrast between the noise of the outside and the serenity and tranquility of the inside. A strong smell of musk diffuses all across. Its source is the wooden chamber at the center containing the tombs of both Muhammad and Ali Wafa. Around this central chamber are 17 tombs of other members of the Wafa’iya. The number of tombs gives an air of solemnity to the place and one cannot help but be in awe.

The entrance to the central mausoleum has a headstone marking the genealogy of Muhammad Wafa. Next to it is a marble column with carvings showing the spiritual motif of the Wafa’iya: My Lord, the Everlasting, the High, and the All-Wise.


A small mosque is in front of the mausoleum and it has a beautifully decorated wooden mihrab. To its left, one sees an intriguing little door on top of which is written.


God grant us a seclusion with You and an isolation from all except You

This door is a reminiscence of the earliest zawiya built by the Wafa’iya in this area, which later turned to be a family burial area. In 1777, Sultan Abdul Hamid I issued a firman to repair the zawiya and build the mosque, which until then was nonexistent.

The mawlid proceeds in a peculiar way that is totally different from similar festivities by other Sufi orders. There are no signs of the market activities that usually accompany the religious festivities all over Egypt. There are no signs of tanoura dervish dancers or musicians. Perhaps it is because of the location in the heart of the qarafa cemeteries, or perhaps it is because of the nature of the Wafa’iya order that is known for its highly intellectual mysticism. Seekers who follow in their footsteps are scholars rather than dervishes.

Throughout the day, people come to quietly pay tribute to the Wafa’iya tradition. They recite al-Fatiha in awe and sit peacefully to enjoy the religious chanting in praise of the Prophet, or the poems of Ali Wafa sung by chanters who volunteer on the occasion of the mawlid.

One of the most famous poems written by him is entitled The Heart Has Stilled, which is believed to be one he wrote shortly before his death:

The Heart has finally stilled

So live contentedly thee Body

This bliss is everlasting and eternal

I have become the neighbor of the Beloved

And the one who is near Him lives in plenitude

So live in God’s sanctuary, under His banner

There is no fear in this dwelling; no sorrow

Do not fear loss because you have an abode

Of all desires; you have support from His Hands

He is the God of beauty, the sender of secret counsel

He is in all splendors the One and the Singular

The celebration of the mawlid definitely has a different flavor in the Sadat Wafa’iya Mosque. It is a true spiritual journey. Upon leaving the mausoleum and mosque, every visitor will be reminded by a quick glimpse to the right hand-side of a verse composed in the eulogy of the Wafa’iya:

The saints, no matter how high their ranks get

Are slaves, but the masters are masters 

It is this verse that inspired the title sadat (literally meaning masters) that is usually added to the names of the Wafa’iya to credit them for their mystical, poetic and scholarly mastery.


Uncertainty in Egypt: From Terrorism to Youth Anarchismaen

Site of the bomb at Shubra El Kheima.

The so much longed for dream of stability in Egypt seems to be unreachable. Waking up with the news of the car bomb explosion that targeted the National Security Building in Shubra El Kheima early this morning and injured at least 24 people, Egyptians carried out their daily routine with an apathetic attitude, almost submissive to the loaded summer of unrest.

Hours after the large explosion that shook Cairo early this morning, Egyptian Facebook users started sharing the page of a Black Bloc group that claimed responsibility for the attack. Activists of the group stated, “We claim the full and complete responsibility for the explosions that took place an hour ago. We also announce our official presence within the coming days in the Arab Republic of Egypt if political detainees, who are arrested with no criminal charges against them, are not released”

The group sent a message to the National Security Authorities stating, “The explosions are a reaction to what you do. The current situation in Egypt confirms that you do what you have always been doing since Mubarak. Free the detainees before the execution of the big event”.

The group also announced a second launch of their activities or “A Comeback” and posted a link to a new page, “Black Bloc Students” reporting its goals and activities.

However, the official Black Bloc Egypt denied any connection to the statements or the page. It described it as a fictitious group that aims at shedding doubt around the activists who founded the group back in 2013. The group officially accused the state security of trying to portray them as terrorists.

The first appearance of the Black Bloc date back to January 24, 2013, right before the second anniversary of the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. The group consisted of militant revolutionaries and soccer fans who expressed their dissatisfaction with the rule of President Mohammed Morsi as well as with the practices of the Ministry on Interior. They were visible in the demonstrations that preceded Morsi’s ousting with their black outfits and masks. They also used the tactics of street fights, railway blockage and vandalism.

Black Block members during a demonstration in Alexandria in March 2013. Credit: Omneya Elnaggar

In their video clip entitled “The first statement of the Black Bloc”, the group asserted that they aimed to bring down Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Members of the group mentioned that they were inspired by footage of clips of Black Bloc activities in Greece. They carry black banners showing the letter ‘A’ in a circle, the international sign of anarchism.

Despite the conflicting statements between the two pages, the official page of Black Bloc Egypt declared that they are planning for a comeback because they are against the Islamists and the army. One of their posts asserted, “Let the Islamists and the army play each other. Afterwards, it will be our turn to confront the winner”.

The comeback of militant anarchism by youth activists could be a sign of growing political dissidence unrelated to Islamist opposition. The bombing came after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified an anti-terrorism law on August 16 that increased police and judicial powers in the fight against terrorism.

The ratification of the anti-terrorism law was criticized as an attack on freedoms and a restriction to human rights in Egypt. In a statement, Human Rights Watch stated that “the law increases authorities’ power to impose heavy sentences, including the death penalty, for crimes under a definition of terrorism that is so broadly worded it could encompass civil disobedience”.

Recent attacks in Egypt included the car bomb explosion in front of the Italian Consulate in downtown Cairo on July 11, the assassination of state prosecutor Hisham Barakat in a car bombing in June, and the large-scale Islamic State operations in the Sinai Peninsula.


In Search of Spiritual Ecstasy: Egypt Goes Whirling

Sufi whirling dervishes performing at Beit Sanqar al-Saady in Cairo

Sufi whirling dervishes performing at Beit Sanqar al-Saady in Cairo

In a time when the materialistic world and its achievements seem to lie at the heart of the modern day pursuits, many youth have found themselves void of any spiritual belonging, leaving them with a yearning to find Allah (God).

Despite the deeply rooted origins of Sufism in Egypt, the recent times have seen a growing interest in Sufism and all that relates to it. Meanwhile, the symbolic Sufi dervish has become an icon for those who seek inner peace and tolerance.

The period following the toppling of President Mohamed Morsi’s regime saw a clear shift of attention towards Sufism, which may be traced back to multiple reasons.

The intimate merge of political campaigning under the name of the Islamic doctrine caused many Egyptians to be disillusioned, thinking that the political actors represented Islam. Furthermore, the association of political Islamist groups to the recurrent violent acts across Egypt made a lot, especially the youth, question the essence of religion.

Needless to say, this portrayal of Islamic religion didn’t logically add up the more people contemplated them. For as long as time, many people have often found sanctuary in religious teachings. But if religion does not inspire beauty and change from within, then one should dig for the fallacies of the mindsets calling out for such faulty religious practices.

Sufi Dervishes. Credit: Omneya Elnaggar

The diligent pursuit for moderate religious teachings has led many wandering worshipers to the tolerant path of Sufism. Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is the continuous search for the divine by taking religious practices to a more internal, intense and soul-searching dimension. A core concept is dhikr (remembrance of God). Seekers of the Sufi path observe God’s dictates in their own thoughts and deeds.

Consequently, a growing number of Facebook communities started to attract thousands of followers, offering them a new stream of messages to decipher. While many of the Sufi teachings communicated on these online communities tend to be subtle ones, they are usually of deeper meanings which individuals tend to relate to differently.

However, the rising zeal about the inner mystical dimensions of Islam didn’t just stop at the virtual online world. Bookstores across Egypt also reported an increase in the demand on books about Sufism.

Sufi performance arts in Egypt have attracted more attention during the past few years

Last year, Diwan Bookstore, Alef and the AUC Press confirmed that their number one best-selling book was The Forty Rules of Love -a novel about Rumi by the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak. Other books on Sufism had a great demand as well, including books by Youssef Zidan, Ahmed Bahgat and Ammar Ali Hassan.

Shafak’s novel which revolves around two parallel axes intertwining the 13th century life story of Rumi and his spiritual instructor Shams of Tabriz with the modern day story of the protagonist, Ella, exposes the forty rules of love taught by Shams of Tabriz. Those teachings included messages such as: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.”

Even though the Sufi teachings are projections of the novel rather than being academic writings, it succeeded at inspiring thousands of Egyptian readers to follow a more curious path of inquiry towards Sufism.

A whirling dervish clad in flowing white garments. Credit: Omneya Elnaggar

Yet despite the tolerance and peace that Sufism is famous for, Sufis have for long been dubbed heretic and “shrine worshipers” by Muslim extremists. This has raised doubts in the minds of many about the Sufi practices.

However, true Sufism means abiding by the main tenets of doctrinal Islam -Qur’an and Sunna- and moving to a further and deeper dimension of Tazkiyat al-Nafs (the refinement of the soul). Every Sufi practices the higher jihad against his/her own soul to tune it with the true Muslim ethics in order to attain Maqam al-Ihsan (the station of spiritual excellence). In this state, Muslims worship God as if they see Him as established in the Hadîth by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

If the literary world of The Forty Rules of Love has inspired thousands of Egyptians to inquire about Sufism, there was an earlier similar influence in the music and the world of performing arts by the Egyptian Mawlawiyyah.

The popularity of the troupe and its singer Amer Eltony has increased over the last years, and he has become a leading figure in the world of inshad (the art of chanting invocations of God). Eltony initiated the revival of the Sufi heritage through performing arts in Egypt since he established the troupe in 1994.

Eltony during a Sufi performance combining inshad and the whirling of dervishes

Through the breathtaking poetry of great Sufi masters, the mesmerizing music and the whirling enchantment, Eltony and his whirling dervishes are famous for performances that are enthralling to say the least. The effect of the Sufi lyrics has turned their performances to a group meditation. In fact, he described the Egyptian Mawlawiyyah as an inspiration to follow the Sufi path while asserting that it is not a Sufi order.

It was natural that a dervish mania in Egypt blossomed from the success of the Egyptian Mawlawiyyah. Fans of the troupe follow their performances regularly, often describing the experience as elevating to a world of ecstasy where they can enjoy the lightness of their souls as they are detached from the worldly clinginess.

Moreover, the influence of the troupe has extended to inviting appreciation for the Sufi poetry by great masters such as Suhrawardi, Ibn ‘Arabi, Omar Ibn al-Farid and al-Hallaj.

Fans of the group savor the lyrics with an unequalled enchantment. Eltony’s chant that starts with a slow rhythm takes them through different stations ormaqamat: repentance, awe, hope, contraction, expansion, love, extinction… etc. The rhythm gains momentum and speeds up, meanwhile accompanied with the whirling of the dervishes clad in flowing white garments.

Al-Mawlawiyya al-Masriya during a performance in Egypt

As the stage turns to a heavenly vision of light that engulfs the audience in its magical energy. Eltony chants for al-Hallaj, saying:

I swear to God, the sun has never risen or set without Your love being the twin of my breath;
Neither have I confided in anyone except to talk about You.
Never have I mentioned Your name in gladness or in sorrow,
Unless You were in my heart, wedged in my obsessive thoughts.
Nor have I touched water to quench my thirst without seeing Your image in the glass.
Were it possible for me to reach You I would come to you at once, crawling on my face or walking on my head.
I say to our minstrel that if he is to sing, he should choose for this theme my grief at the hardness of Your heart.
What cause do the foolish have to blame me? They have their own faith and I have mine.

Eltony and the Mawlawiyya al-Masriyya troupe chanting Sufi poetry

Eltony believes that the lyrics have their own soothing energy. He describes his inshad as an expression of the various ahwal (spiritual states) and maqamat(spiritual stations) of the Sufi masters who wrote the poetry, and not just a verbal poetic expression.

In addition to Sufi music, various cultural centers such as Al-Rab’ Cultural Center, Rab’ al-Salam Art School and al-Balad Bookstore now organize Sufi meditation and singing events.

If you have been inspired by the Sufi messages of The Forty Rules of Love, or by the beauty of the lyrics chanted by Eltony, then we advise you keep an eye on the various events across Cairo where you can be introduced to more aspects of Sufism.

You can also attend Amer Eltony and his troupe’s performances at the Damanhour Opera House on August 15 and at the Sayed Darwish Theater in Alexandria on August 17.