Down the narrow alleyways of Cairo’s Sayidda Zeinab neighbourhood, 100 men sway their heads and clap in rhythm as they invoke God’s name. “O how you have spread benevolence,” chant the men, some dressed in ankle-length galabeya robes, to celebrate the birth of Fatima al-Zahraa, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.
The men are followers of the centuries-old Azaimiya Sufi order who seek to come closer to God through mystical rites. Some of the country’s estimated 15 million Sufis say their traditions are now threatened by various groups of Islamists elbowing for influence after the overthrow of Egypt’s veteran leader Hosni Mubarak. Some Islamists, such as the ultra-conservative Salafists, see Sufi practices such as the veneration of shrines as heresy.
So as Sufis seek to defend traditions dating back centuries, what began as a loose religious identity could be gelling, gradually, into a political movement.
Alaa Abul Azaim, sheikh of the Azaimiya Sufi order, says moves by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups to enter formal politics endanger religious tolerance and oblige Sufis to do the same. “If the Salafists or Muslim Brotherhood rise to power, they could well cancel the Sufi sheikhdom, so there has to be a party for Sufis,” he said.