(Libyan Sufi Muslims chant and beat drums during a procession to celebrate the birth of Prophet Mohammad, called Mawlid, along the main street in the old city in Tripoli, February 4, 2012. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny)

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.

(Men dance and play tambourines as they leave Zawiya Kabira at the start of one procession. Women watch from the balconies/Tom Heneghan)

“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.