Sheikh Hussein, head of the Sufi fraternity al-Bayyumiyya, invited me to participate to a convention in Busayliyya, a village in Upper Egypt, near Edfu. In the past Edfu was known for a temple dedicated to the god Horus, today it is known for the arson that burnt the Coptic church on September 30, 2001, and sparked the protests in Cairo the following week. The meeting was organized to remember Sheikh al-Bayyumi who founded the tariqa (fraternity) at the beginning of the last century and died in 1938.
These festivals are frequent around Sufi sanctuaries where the holy men of Islam are laid to rest. Sunni officials do not like these occasions, especially those Sunni closer to political activism like the Wahhabits, the Muslim Brothers and the Salafits. These are tied up by a fundamentalist reading of the Koran and other holy texts of Islam. These are also the groups who are now emerging in Egypt after the Revolution of January 2011.
Why was I invited? I believe in many Islamic groups I am considered a researcher of Sufism. I did spend year in learning about Islamic mysticism and published various studies on the subject. The anthology of Islamic spiritual texts, edited by Ahmed Hasan Anwar and I, continues to be requested. Ahmed was my first student and he is now a colleague. Thanks to him, many doors opened and I had the opportunity to meet Islamic scholars who I would not being able to contact.
Ahmed and I went to the festival in Busayliyya. We witnessed the great popular participation, with many guests from other Sufi fraternities of Upper Egypt. One of the nights, there were at least two thousand people in the public square. A local singer chanted away until four in the morning. People danced following the typical Sufi style: turning around ever faster until reaching a state of trance, which is interpreted as ‘meeting with God’.
We were asked to talk to the people. Sheikh Hussein pointed out that we should explain the real meaning of this Islamic spirituality. The purpose was clear: most people live this spirituality at emotional level, we were to help them realize the depth of Sufism and, at the same time, counter the accusations coming from those who interpret Islam from a legalistic point of view.
In my talk I underlined two important aspects of Sufism. The first is the priority spirituality has over rituality. To perform ceremonies is useless unless there is a deep and serious conversion of the heart. This is foundational column of Sufism, as it is of any spirituality worthy the name. There are plenty of Sufi texts that explain this reality. The second aspect is the theme of God’s love for us and our answer of love, a love that must be open to all humanity, actually to the whole creation. I expanded on this point quoting many ancient texts, and showing how the greatest mystics understood this love the apex of spiritual life. The way people reacted to my talk, and the very enthusiasm of Sheikh Hussein, convinced me that the two themes and the way I presented them touched the hearts of the audience.
Ahmed Hasan Anwar spoke on the origin of Sufism, the real meaning of the word Sufi, and the role Sufism had and still has within Islam. His final point was very clear: “Contrary to what we hear from some Muslim and non Islamic quarters, Sufism is not a marginal movement in the history of Islam. On the contrary, it is an integral part of this religion”.
He could not have said differently. To wipe out Sufism from Islamic history would mean expunging from history some of the highest achievements of Islamic literature, art and poetry. The Sufi master have been a constant source of inspiration in all the fields of thought and their fraternities have worked relentlessly to educate the community at all levels everywhere within the Islamic world. Among the Sufi we encounter some of the greatest educator and thinker both on religious and social grounds. One name over all: Ibn ‘Arabi (Andalucía 1165 – Damascus 1240). He is a great master, still among the most read author at world level.
The meeting in Busayliyya offered a nice surprise to Ahmed and I. While we strolled in the market behind the Catholic church, a man carrying a child and holding a second one by his hand stopped us. At first be believed he was asking for alms. Then he introduced himself. He was the local imam; he wanted to thank us for our speeches and invited us to visit him the following day. We went, and for a few hours we spoke about Sufism, of spiritual life and of love.
I am not so naive to believe that one speech will change the heart and behaviour of thousands of people. Yet, I value the fact that these Sufi accepted that a Catholic priest would talk to them about their spirituality. At the end, we all had a desire to know each other more, and we left with the commitment to meet again in similar occasions.
Spirituality, more than religion, is an important point of dialogue between different faiths. ‘The Spirit blows where he wants …”. I believe in that, and it is good to let him flow freely. We are to be the instruments of his action and pray that he may enter in everyone and make them grow according to the logic of the Kingdom of God. A life founded on the most important commandment: love God and love your neighbour. In sha’Allah.