Sufis believe that before entering any city, one must pause outside its walls to honor the local saints, both living and dead. Yet the saints of Tunisia have not been the recipients of such reverent behavior in recent months; their shrines have been under attack by religious extremists who contend that they are heretical.
But many Tunisians consider Sufi shrines a part of their cultural identity. Even today, they are frequently visited as Tunisians embrace rituals inherited from their ancestors.
The shrine of Sidi Mehrez, the patron saint of Tunis, is perhaps the most famous in the country. Located in the southern part of Tunis’ Medina, it dates back to the eighteenth century. A descendant of a senior companion of the prophet, Abu Bakr, Sidi Mehrez played an important role in the spiritual, religious and cultural development of the Medina during the eleventh century. Earning the title “Sultan of the Medina,” he is not only a figure of piety and wisdom, but also symbolizes tolerance, as he offered protection to the Jewish community in Tunis that became a part of his cult.
”I come here whenever I am around. I cannot possibly visit these souks and not stop at Sidi Mehrez and read Al-fatiha on his soul,” explained Marwa, a college student. “This place is believed to be sacred, a place that could bless or curse you depending on your deeds.”
As you duck into the entrance hall, the scent of incense greets you as the clamor of the market fades away. The sounds of commerce and haggling give way to recitals of Koran and Duaaa.
Certain rituals are specific to the shrine, as people believe you should knock on each of the three doors that lead visitors to the tomb as you pass through. Inside, the tomb of the Sultan of the Medina rests among candles.
”When you enter, you have to knock on each door to greet the saint, and those who live in the shrine,” said Kahgija, an old woman who lives in the Medina. “They could be living beings as well spirits of the dead.”
She continued, “he is our protector and this shrine is open for anyone who seeks a refuge, or a place to sleep.”
On a recent afternoon, an exhausted family sat in the outside hall eating a meal together. Across from them, a woman with her child rested after a long day. In the inside room, people stood at the tomb reading Koran and threw candles that encircled it. On their way out, visitors to the shrine accept glasses of water offered to them by the old woman; they believe this water was blessed by Saint Mehrez and it cures illnesses and fulfills prayers.
While extremist religious groups believe that shrines are heretical, most Tunisians consider them part of their cultural identity. Historians have said they believe that recent attacks are fueled by ignorance, as saints are Muslims and scholars. Following the attacks on Tunisian shrines, Tunisian Muftis and religious figures alike condemned the acts.
“I really don’t believe in shrines or the blessings, but it became a ritual for me,” Marwa said. “The place gives me serenity and peace.”