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Libyan Sufis mark Prophet’s birthday

Originally published in Reuters
By Tom Heneghan
February 4th 2012

Libyan Sufis staged a joyous parade through the heart of Tripoli on Saturday to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, defying radical Salafi Muslims pressuring them to scrap the centuries-old tradition. Chanting hymns to the beat of drums and cymbals, marchers choked the narrow alleys of the walled old town to celebrate the feast of Mawlid, a favourite event for the pious Sufis whose spirituality is an integral part of North African Islam.

The celebrations were the first since the fall last August of Muammar Gaddafi, who kept religion under firm control during his 42-year dictatorship, and went ahead despite concerns that hardliners might attack the marchers as heretics. The tension between the traditional Sufis and the Salafis, a group influenced by Saudi Wahhabis and other ultra-conservative foreign Islamists, has become a key divide in Libyan politics as parties begin to form to contest free elections in June.

“We fought the tyrant (Gaddafi) because he was a dictator and we don’t want anyone like him to govern us again,” said biology teacher Mohammad Aref. “We are the majority.” Emhemed Elashhab, the sheikh (Islamic scholar) at one Islamic school where marchers assembled, said there were fewer than 2,000 violent Islamists in Libya. “All normal people are against their ideas,” he said.

The turnout of marchers and onlookers may have reached a few thousand but it was impossible to estimate because processions snaked through the old town from three different locations and the marchers never assembled together in one place. But Sheikh Khaled Saidan, one of the organisers, said: “There are more people than we expected. We are very happy.”

“This year is different without the tyrant. There are large numbers of people, they are marching together to celebrate,” said Najat Al-Mughrabi, who was waiting with other women at a corner to watch their sons march by. She said she was not afraid of the extremists. “They couldn’t do anything before (under Gaddafi), how can they do anything now?” she asked.

Sufism, a mystical strain among both Sunnis and Shi’ites, dates back to Islam’s early days. Apart from the standard prayers, Sufi devotions include singing hymns, chanting the names of God or dancing to heighten awareness of the divine. Sufis also build shrines to revered holy men and scholars and make pilgrimages to them. Hardline Islamists consider these practices grave sins that must be stopped, by force if needed. One night last month, extremists bulldozed through a wall of an old cemetery in the eastern city of Benghazi, destroyed its tombs and carried off 29 bodies of respected sages and scholars. They also demolished a nearby Sufi school.

“The extremists have taken advantage of the lack of order,” said Jamel Abdul Muhi. “Those who work in the dark are either bats or thieves. They are cowards.” Radical Islamist thinking came from abroad, Muhi said. “The mentality in Libya is moderate, we don’t have extremists here,” he said. “This is the historical nature of North Africa as a whole and as moderates we respect all opinions. There are lots of schools of Islam, this is human nature.”

Hisham Krekshi, deputy chairman of the Tripoli Local Council, expressed satisfaction the march was taking place peacefully despite concerns about reprisals from hardliners, who spread pamphlets in recent days urging people to shun the event. “This has been around for 14 centuries, you can’t stop it,” he said in one of the main souks, where the gold traders and cloth merchants had shut their shops for the day.

Even thought the Mawlid holiday passed without incident in the capital, Sufi leaders here say they remain concerned because many post-Gaddafi religious officials have Salafi leanings and have been appointing like-minded imams to mosques around the country. Salafi preaching is also widespread on Libyan television and radio, they say, which raises concerns among Sufis that they are being outflanked by a new and more political form of Islam.

Festivities began with Sufi devotions in traditional Islamic schools in the old town. At Zawiya Kabira, the largest one, men chanted rounds of rousing hymns in an incense-filled room while other distributed almond milk and biscuits to those outside. Boys lit firecrackers as lines of men danced out of the school and down the alleys, with women watching from balconies and doorways as the procession passed.

“Beloved Prophet of God, be the enemy of all His enemies,” was one of the slogans they chanted in Sufi-style repetition. At one point, marchers spilled out onto Martyrs Square, the old Green Square where Gaddafi used to address his supporters.

Mawlid was celebrated as a major popular festival, with families stocking up on sweets on Friday and placing candles or illuminated artificial Christmas trees outside their homes, a traditional gesture to greet the holiday. Muslims stressed the trees were not a sign of Christmas commercialism reaching Libya, but used because they were decorated with lights.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, hundreds of chanting Sufis gathered at zawiyas across the city and then marched to a central square flanked by some 30 armed militiamen for security. Some passersby joined along the way. Jumaa Mohammed al-Sharif, a teacher in an Islamic school, said the procession was also a mark of defiance to those who had damaged the graves and destroyed a zawiya last month.

“You would not allow the grave of your father to be disrespected and in our religion we are not allowed to disrespect the graves of even non-Muslims,” he said. “We caught some people who destroyed the zawiya and who disrespected the graves and we handed them over to the authorities but we were surprised when we later learned that they had been released.”

Al-Sharif said a Sufi preacher, Tawfiq al-Nahly, had disappeared some two months ago and still nothing was known about what had happened to him. Kamal al-Feitouri, a teacher and imam said: “The reason for the gathering is to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed and to reject the disrespecting of the graves.” He said boy scouts and orphaned children had also joined the procession. “The celebration is for all Muslims, it is not just for Sufis,” he said.

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