Sufism as an antidote to eradicate terrorism: afield study on religious sites in Southern Tunisia after the uprising (2011)
This paper represents an anthropological attempt that seeks to discover the features of change in Muslim religiosity in the region of Gafsa in Southern Tunisia after the uprising in 2011.So , we can search through this paper the struggle between the sufism’s peaceful aspect and the violence of jihadism.We will try to find out to what extend can sufism reduce the danger of jihadi salafism in Southern Tunisia. What is missing in the previous work is the neglection of the value of sufism among Tunisian people.
Keywords: Sufism; antidote; terrorism; Southern Tunisia; uprising 2011.
تمثل هذه الورقة محاولة أنثروبولوجية تسعى إلى اكتشاف ملامح التغيير في تديّن المسلم في منطقة قفصة بالجنوب تونس بعد الانتفاضة في عام 2011. لذلك، يمكننا البحث في هذه الورقة عن الصراع بين الجانب السلمي للتصوف وعنف الحركات الدينية المتشددة، وسوف نحاول معرفة مدى امتداد الصوفية الذي يقلل من خطر السلفية الجهادية في جنوب تونس.
الكلمات المفتاحية: التصوف؛ الترياق. الإرهاب؛ جنوب تونس؛ انتفاضة 2011.
The study of the belief in the saints and in the visit of Sufi shrines inside the Tunisian society was a subject of a great deal of national and foreign studies such as those of Mondher Kilani (La construction de la memoire 1992) and Ernest Gellner (Muslim Society) have affirmed the peaceful essence of sufism in Tunisia. However, no one has focused on that phenomenon in the region after 2011.
Many popular religious practices have remained constant and coexisting with individuals to day, despite the challenges it faced in the contemporary period, and which succeeded to reduce the chances of its existence, such as the spread of awareness among the general public and resisting the existence of this institution by the political authorities and by fundamentalist religious movements. So, this resistance that characterized the traditional religious establishment, affirmed the spiritual value in the life of Muslims, even if they were in the framework of this popular image, and also the value of religion as a social necessity, or a cultural and humanitarian instinct. In addition to that, Muslims today have become in direct need for a more spiritual dimension than ever, in order to achieve their psychological balance and cultural progress on the light of the current technological revolution.
This study aims to examine the feasibility of the anthropological approach (produced in the West) and in its ability to understand the phenomenon of mysticism or popular Islam in Southern Tunisia, and the focus is on the Southern region, basically, due to the spread of Sufi shrines in the desert areas and in oases , where we can observe deeply the value of the belief in many saints among a great number of people. And this study is based on field work through visiting several religious sites within the region of Gafsa . This region has known the genesis of several spiritual institutions such as zwaya of Sidi Badi, Sidi Omar, Sidi Mansour and the one of Al-Quassimiyah in Redeyyef and other popular religious sites.
The emergence of Sufism in Southern Tunisia
It is imperative to begin this chapter by examining the sense of the term ̎sufi ̎ (tassawwif) inIslam, and other terms which are in connection with such as Tarῑka (order) and Zāwiya( shrine) . The term Sufism viewed as a “sect” of Islam, while the “practice” of Sufism itself is said to have been present during the establishment of Islam in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, although it was only “institutionalized” between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
Fait Muedini( 2015) sees Sufism as an understood and “accepted term name for mystical Islam”. So, the mystic sees God in everything and in every space”. And because one can see God in everything, then perceiving God in humans is not an exception. explains that the Sufi theology of tawhῑd, or “Oneness of Being,” suggests that “what the eye sees and the mind records is an illusion, and that every apparently separate and finite thing is in Truth the Presence of the One Infinite” . Tasawwuf is the journey of the soul in search of the Truth, as well as its arrival. This is the renunciation of everything but God. Sufism is also defined by Lings,M ( 2005 ) as the central and the most powerful current of that tidal wave which constitutes the Revelation of Islam.
To follow the path of the mystics is to acquire as it were an extra dimension, for this path is nothing other than the dimension of depth. In the same context, Karamustafa ( 2007) states that Both ‘Sufi ’ and ‘Sufism’ are terms adopted from Arabic texts dating from the first few centuries of Islam, especially in the earliest major manuals of Sufism composed during the fourth and fifth/tenth and eleventh centuries.
Concerning the word Tarῑka, this term can signify ̎the manner of behaving̎, tarῑka is synonymous with tarῑk the ̎way ̎ or the ̎ path ̎. Thus, the tarῑka denotes the way which guides man from the manifest law (Sharῑʾā) to the divine reality (Hakῑka) or to God himself (al-Hakk ). Furhermore, the term is also used in this sense ( close to that of mad̲h̲hab), when the sufi shaykh wishes to summarise the teaching of their way, they grouped together under this term various principles and precepts regarded as essential for the guidance of disciples.
So, the terms sūfi and mutasawwif refer to devotees of a particular type of piety. And he goes on to say that the word sūfi most probably comes from sūf, the Arabic word for ‘wool’ and that it was originally used to designate ‘wearers of woolen garments’. The term tarῑka is often given as a synonym of silsila, this ̎ chain ̎dating back to the prophet. So, sufis had recourse to ̎ supportive lineage ̎ in order to legitimize its Muhammadan origin. Trimingham states that the the tarῑka was a practical method ( other terms were mad̲h̲hab, and sulūk ) to guide a seeker by tracing a way of thought, feeling and action, leading through succession of ‘stages’( maqāmāt, in integral association with psychological experiences .
experience of divine reality( haqῑqa).
Hence, Sufism had developed into more structured group organizations (understood as tariqas) that were often headed by a spiritual leader, often called a sheikh or pir. The followers of a ṭarīḳa often congregated in a place regarded as their own, such as the zāwiya or the ribāṭ (shrine), constructed at the initiative of the sh̲aykh̲ ̲ or of a benefactor.
Spahic Omer(2014), in his paper entitled From Mosques to Khanqahs: The Origins and Rise of Sufi Institutions, wrotethat The first instance of an independent Sufi institution was the establishment of a Sufi duwayrah (small house or convent).These institutions, functioned as multi-purpose gathering places and shelters for some Sufis and their follower.
After duwayrahs – and perhaps somewhat concurrently with their existence – one hears about ribāts as another Sufi institution. Ribāts were Sufi hospices that functioned as centres for Sufi worship and erudition. Ribāts were places of spiritual jihad or holy war. Later, in approximately the 3rd AH/9th CE century, some specialed ribāt complexes were built for the Sufis, serving exclusively as Sufi worship and learning centers. Finally, sometime after the establishment of ribāts, the khanqah started to emerge as a new and the most recognisable Sufi religious and educational institution. The name khanqah might have not been as widespread in some provinces of the Muslim West, especially North Africa, where the name for similar Sufi institutions was instead zāwiyah.
The visitation of shrines is a very common practice in Islam, and has its origin in the sūfi belief that “the saints of God die not, they merely depart from one habitation to an other”. And piligrame to a shrine is called ziyārāt, a visitation while the shrine itself is called a mazār, a place of visitation.
A shrine is generally visited on the occasion of theʾurs of the saint ( usually on Thursday ), and at such time special ceremonies are performed. It is a common practice to tie bits of thread or piece of cloth. On granting near the tomb, by way of reminding the saint of the favour asked.
As the number of disciples increased, the units were incorporated into larger complexes that not only provided space for teaching and accommodation for the devotees, but also served as centers of pilgrims, gathering, and retreat for the community at large. Subsequently the movement of founding these institutions continued to spread, in particular, as a result of the development of the mystic brotherhoods. Hundreds of hectares were placed under the zawiya’s protection in the form of religious endowments or hubus.And zawiya’s protection was often arranged for by its head shaykh; political refugees sometimes resided in sufi centers for extended periods of time.
Sufism began to emerge in Tunisian southern area during the seventeenth century with the Turkish administration. Due to political authoritarianism and social insecurity. In addition to political injustice, other factors helped the penetration of the phenomenon of mysticism in south-Tunisian areas. For example, ordinary people were in mere need for a simplified religion in order to absorb easily its teachings, far from Islamic scientists complex religious discourse.
The study of Mustafa Tlili (2000) has shown that the vast majority of the rural population do not know about religious rules, but say prayers. Some of them do not even know the number and times of prayers.
Diverse historical facts firmly confirm that the spread of the Sufi phenomenon among people in southern Tunisia during the colonial period was basically due to the spread of ignorance and illiteracy.
The peaceful aspect of Islamic Sufism
In Tunisia, al-zāwiya( sufi center) have represented in the first period of the spread of mysticism in Tunisia a coherent spiritual family, known by a lot of social activities and its leading role was the dissemination of morals and ethical values and collective methods of education generally. Which affirmed by Monther Kilani’s thought(1992), when he says that The traditional notables, trained in the Koranic schools …engaged in an educational action around the mosques, which enrola both the boys and the girls … considered as coming from the ignorance. It also aimed to constantly disseminate the moral values among the people, and to reconciliate individual and collective behavior Sufism places considerable value on God’s attribute of displaying “love” and “kindness” as opposed to meting out punishment.
Moreover, Sufis also participated in “call[ing] for equality and democracy” Which argued with the idea of Carolia Ab(2011) when he states that the principles of Sufism are established from the tenets of Islam and hence the possibility of the beauty and excellence (ihsān) that is explained as part of Sufi doctrines is also shared by normative Islam.
Sufis are seen as ‘moderate’ Muslims, non-violent, harmless mystics more interested in spiritual than political matters. Therefore, shrines in North Africa (especially in Tunisia ) have played a key role in spreading peace and solving conflicts between the central authority and the tribal areas , that were marginalized and often considered as rebels against this authority. Because Sufis are usually portrayed as quietest and non-political forces.
Furthermore, after 2011 Sufi representatives in Tunisia are invited to discuss initiatives for social peace at conferences with politicians, and a number of dynamic Sufi sheikhs have used the new post-authoritarian liberties to assume a public and political voice and to organise in an umbrella organisation, ( Union nationale des confréries soufies en Tunisie).
The re-emergence of Wahhābism in Tunisia after the uprising 2011
Wahhābism was founded in the eighteenth century in the province of Najd, a broad desert expanse located in central Arabia. For eighteenth-century reformers, one of the major signs of the deterioration of Islam was the adoption of rituals and beliefs from other religions, like praying to saints and believing that saints could grant blessings or perform miracles. In some cases, people had adopted superstitious practices, like spitting in a particular way or wearing charms to ward off evil spirits. Reformers were puzzled and perturbed by these practices, particularly when they wereaccompanied by a failure to respect Muslim rituals and prayers.
The Najdi society had Bedouins and city dwellers, with Bedouins making up the majority of the inhabitants. And economically the area was very poor in comparison with many other parts of the Muslim world at that time.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhāb was born in 1702–3 in the town of al-Uyaynah in the Arabian province of Najd. He was descended from a prestigious family of Hanbali jurists and theologians. Thus, Muhammad was born into a family well-known for its devotion to knowledge and learning. In addition, the sources also state that he was very intelligent and had a strong memory. They describe him as not liking to waste his time in the games that the other children played. He memorized the Quran by the age of ten.
At Medina, he met especially a Ḥanbalī theologian who was to have a decisive influence on him: shaykhʿAbd Allāh b. Ibrāhīm al-Nadjdī, who had become a supporter of the neo-Ḥanbalism of Ibn Taymiyya. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb met also, among other ʿulamāʾ , Muḥammad b. Hayāt al-Sindī (d. 1165/1751), a Ḥanafī, who does not seem to have had a great influence on him.
The followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahāb never used the term “Wahhābis” or “Wahhābism” in referring to themselves or their beliefs. In general, they would use terms like “the Muslims”, the muwahhidῑn . His Companions, the followers and some of the great scholars who came later, such as Imam Ahmad, ibn Taimiyyah, ibn al-Qayyim, ibn Kathῑr and others. However, to give ibn Abd al-Wahāb a name that would correctly represent his approach such as salafi (meaning one who follows the ways of the pious predecessors).
In North Africa, the most noted and famous of the salafi scholars of Algeria was Abd al-Hamῑd ibn Bādῑs (1305-1359 A.H/1889-1940 C.E). In 1908, he went to complete his studies at the Zaitūnah University in Tunis, wherein he was greatly influenced by two salafi scholars, Muhammad al-Nakhli(d. 1924 C.E.) and Muhammad al-Tāhir ibn ͑Ashūr.
Wahhābism is considered intolerant by the other Mulsim since it preaches and practices violence and jihad against fellow Muslims or kuffār (bad Muslims) and governments who don’t follow the path of Quran or Sunnāh.
Main factors which further contributed to the growth of extremism in Tunisia such as the divisions between secular and religious communities, socio-economic factors that include slow economic growth. In addition, the growing Islamic radicalization, which is encouraged by poor economic conditions in the country. Furthermore, after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime the new government released many Islamists which were imprisoned back then (many of them are heavily influenced by the Saudi Wahhābism).
In the wake of the revolution, these two camps emerged in the debate over Tunisian identity. Islamists emphasized the Arab and Islamic nature of Tunisian society, while traditional secular urban elites remained loyal to the narrative of a modern and liberal Tunisia. Malῑka Zghal (2013) argues that this question of identity was the most important and divisive issue of the transition.
As Marks writes, Islamists saw this revolution not only as the end of Ben ‘Ali’s corrupt single-party state, but also as a “revolution for religious freedom.”
After the initial uprising two major Salafists groups have emerged, Ansār al-Sharῑ͑a (AST) and ͑Okba ibn Nāfaa Brigade. Ansār al-Sharῑ͑a represents the most organized and largest Salafists group in Tunisia which focuses on preaching and spreading the Jihādi ideology, while ͑Okba ibn Nāfaa Brigade represents a group of underground fighters who emerge periodically to attack public institutions, government officials and security forces.
The line between a Salafi and a conservative non- Salafi Islamist is not always clear, but the prevalence of these groups should not be overstated. They are vocal and sometimes violent, and therefore garner significant media attention, but they are not a very large demographic. Varying estimates place the total number of Salafis in Tunisia anywhere from 7,000 to 50,000.
The Canadian report about political stability and security in West and North Africa (2013) affirms that Wahhābism had emerged in Tunisia evident in the presence due to many interrelated factors, including the political and economic marginalization of young Tunisians. Almost three years after the revolution, university students have the highest unemployment rate in the country. At the moment, around 34% of university graduates are without a job. In such a context, young Tunisians become particularly susceptible to criminal activities, as well as to radical Islam.
In the same way, the Algerian anthropologist Dounia Bouzār (2006) argues that some terrorists were young engineers, economically fully inserted in the social environment in which they evolved. So, young people sensitive to radical speeches are attached to many territories.This radical speeches, reduces Islam to a set of codes and standards, which isolate those who are “inside” from those “outside.” The leaders of these groups prove to young people that their anger is justified and reinforce the idea that the whole system plans to exclude them because they are “Muslim.”
The uprisings in January 2011 turned to sadness and pain for Tunisians generally and especially for Sufis, when some terrorist organizationsrevealed their involvement in the destruction shrines, the burning of forests and political assassinations. They also deliberately destroyed and looted more than a hundred shrines, among them the Sidi Bou Saῑd al-Bāji shrine (Tunis) and the site of Assayda Al-Mannūbiya (Manouba).
Furthermore, many Tunisian regions have witnessed attacks on the shrines like the shrine of Sidi Sahbi in Kairouan and Sidi Abd al-kāder in Menzel Buzelfa. Also, the Tunisian Sufi shrines in the south had recognized the same attacks by extremists. The field study that I have conducted (2013), reveals that the tomb of Sidi Nāji in Gafsa had been desecrated by a Salafi group, and two leaders of this site affirmed that this was the first such attack on the shrines of saints in the region of Gafsa.
The same field work affirms that; the Shrines of Sidi al-Jilāni and Sidi al-Zwāri situated in the Douwāra ‘s district ( belong to Om El-͑Arāyis in Gafsa ) had been exposed to an attack by a salafi group in November 2013. And the last thing we can refer to extremist practices against Sufi shrines is to deprive these institutions from doing their own rituals as what has happened in Sidi ͑Omar bin Abd al-Jawād in Elgsar Gafsa, where 76% of visitors affirmed that they deprived from doing Al-Hadra. So, “Fundamentalists” view Sufism as completely opposite to their position of Islam.
Sufim as an antidote to eradicate terrorism in Southern Tunisia
The main goal of this research is to understand the debate between Sufis and radical groups in Southern Tunisia, Particularly after the Tunisian upheaval in 2011. The conclusions and analysis presented in this paper have been informed by 20 interviews with zawāyā’s followers, particularly the sufi centers that have been attacked by islamist movements from across Gafsa.Which are the Sufi centers of Sidi Amor, Sidi Nāji, Sidi Belgāssim Belkhāyri, Sidi al-Jilāni and Sidi al-Zwāri.
In the following section of this paper (“Sufism as an antidote to eradicate terrorism in Southern Tunisia”), I will discuss the challenges that sufi orders have faced after the uprising. Drawing on conversations with zawāyā’s disciples about their opinions on these issues, I argue that most disciples refuse the ideology supported by radical groups in Tunisia.
I compare my findings with other academic studies. To represent the society of the study, the sample of my interviewees had included men, and women from various ages, with varying levels of connection to mystical orders. Related to this, it should be explained the meaning of some terms in relation with religious sphere, such as extremism and salafism.
Extremism in a colloquial term usually signifies a behavior that is excessive, intolerable, hardly tenable, something unusual and rarely seen. Last two decades of the twentieth century marked a significant rise of Islamist extremism which began with the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan.
About the term Salafism, it represents a strict religious methodology aspiring to practice Islam in accordance with Prophet Muhammad and the first three generations of Muslims through dawa (missionary work), hisba (practices to enforce religious ethics, often through assaults) and jihad (‘struggle’, which to Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) and other jihadist groups includes the use of warfare).
As its goal, the Tunisian branch of Ansār al Sharῑ͑a proclaimed to establish an Islamic caliphate and introduce Sharῑ͑a law in Tunisia’s nascent democracy. Despite sharing the name Ansār al-Sharῑ͑a with counterparts in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, AST says it acts independently. By 2014, the group claimed it had attracted around 70,000 members – a considerable number in a country of 11 million inhabitants.
Strong economic disparities between developed coastal regions and underdeveloped interior regions, in Tunisia as well as in Libya sharp differences in the economy and regional development in the country are creating small towns which act as a support hubs for recruitment, training and indoctrination of various kinds of fundamentalists, extremists and future terrorists. The victory of a Tunisian Islamist party in the elections of October 2011 seems a paradox for a country long considered the most secular in the Arab world and promotes the emergence of jihadi-salafism.
The Arab Spring created a new image of North Africa, old conflicts were replaced by new ones. The best example of these changes was the renewal of the Sufi-Salafi clash. The earlier war of words, both written and spoken, was transformed into a real one, during which many Sufi zawāyā were destroyed.
From the early beginning, the Sufi-Salafi conflict had two levels: namely religious and political. The first one is rooted in the very strict interpretation of the shari͑a by Salafists. It condemns the Sufi practices such as recitations (remembrance of God al–dhikr), celebration of the birthdays of Sufi saints (considered as bid ͑ah- innovation by Salafis), the poetry in praise of Prophet of Islam (anāshῑd), intercession (tawassul) the act of supplicating to Allah through a prophet, the intercessionary powers of the Prophet Muhammad (wasῑlah) considered as a polytheism (shirk) by some of the Salafi scholars, and lastly the intercessionary powers of the Sufi saints (ziyārah). On the political ground Salafi scholars Empire argued that Sufism was responsible for keeping Islam in a backward state through the support of the disintegrating Ottoman order.
After the Arab Spring the Sufi-Salafi conflict became more violent. And the activity of the organization Ansār al-Shari͑a and many other smaller groups that share the same ideology led to an unprecedented number of acts against Sufi places of worship. At least 38 such places have been vandalized since Ben Ali was ousted. Among them are: Sidi al-Kāssi, Sidi al-Mouhāreb in Monastir, and Sidi Yāacoub in Tataouine, al-Jilāni in Menzel Bouzelfa, Saida ʻAicha Manoubia in Manouba.
Hence, the extremist movement in Tunisia used its power not only to root out jihadi-salafism, but more broadly to suppress any religious ideas that did not conform to its positions, including Sufism.
Furthermore, the data of this field study confirmed that the sufi centers in Gafsa have represented spaces for consolidation of human relations. Similarly to the pointview of the anthropologist Mondher Kilani when he says that “The friends of al-͑Akārma‘s group do not belong only to the tribe al-Hamāmmah, but rather descended from nomadic tribes in the far from destinations such as Gafsa , Kef, Beja, al-Frashῑsh and Ouled Sidi Ali Ben ͑Aoun.”
Which are the same principles that we witnessed inside the Qāssimiyah shrine, where we did not find among the conditions that must be displayed by the follower belongs to this shrine. What urges to violence or hatred of others (90% of the followers that I had met refused the practice of violence against other persons even the speech concerned jihadi salafism). But we found instead honesty in speech and avoid anger and Prohibition of contempt against others. Thus, sufi thought jumped on the opportunity, and used the individuals’frailty to rebuilt its peaceful culture and spread it among a great number of Tunisians regardless of their former relationships to religion (66% of the Zawaya’s visitors who I had met convinced by the idea which affirmed the important role of sufism to halt terrorism in their regions).
The data of this study reveals that 50% of the arrivals who visited Al-Zāwiya Al-Qāssimiya in Rdeyef had confirmed that this religious place represents to them an opportunity to link a new social relationships with new people, especially that most of those people with good intentions and come to a saintly space , also many of them expressed their strong love for this “popular meeting”. Members of study had affirmed that the religious sites in the Gafsa region represents also space for the exercise of social life such as: the visit of the bride to her grandfather before the wedding, as well as the child comes with his family during the circumcision ceremony of blessing the place.
But this positive regard to the sufi thought from some people can’t hide their contradiction to the same phenomenon, when they refuse the heresies have always been practised by sufis (42% of the visitors of the religious sites had studied believe that sufi rituals holded a perversion of the essence of Islam, specifically the practices occurred during al –Hadhra .
The peaceful nature that characterizes the mystic life and sufis as well, represents a character which permit those people to be close to the general public and from that gain their trust, even if they are not convinced of their spiritual thoughts and rituals (which is what we saw during our visit from some shrines in southern Tunisia, but the peaceful image of these religious groups that drove them to these spaces).
This study embodies an anthropological perspective in understanding the conflit between Sufism and jihadi salafism in southern Tunisia throughout the last years. So, this fieldwork finds that Tunisian individuals have become more close to the sufi cirle after the uprising through the comparison of this group to the jihadi salafi group, because many of them consider sufi thinking as an alternative to salafi violence.
At the end of this work, I would like to shed light on some essential ideas, such as the importance of the peaceful aspect among sufis in Tunisia, and its role in disseminating tolerance within groups and individuals. However, just as one cannot place all Sufi groups in one category, because this aspect can be shifted from one sufi order to another.
In the same way, the Tunisian government can promote sufism by supporting various sufi music events in different regions (such as the ceremony of Al-hadhra or Annūba), also this government should organize many sufi conferences in order to disseminate the sufi knowledge in different regions of Tunisia.
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