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    Tunisia’s National Memory of Sufism: From its Origins to the Present Destruction of Ancient Shrines

    By Op-ed Contributor | Mar 21 2013 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

    Tags: Islam ,main-culture-featured ,mysticism ,Shadhili ,shrine ,

    Leaf of prayer book from Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, founder of Tunisia’s Sufi order (Wikimedia Commons)

    History is experienced in the present through our collective memories, and our feelings about the past are part of its truth. The legacy of Sufism is as integral to Tunisian history as it is to its contemporary reality. Yet, that legacy is in danger of being lost.

    As an American married to a Tunisian, it has been my observation that the history of Sufism in Tunisia has already largely been forgotten, even though related practices seem to have shaped much of Tunisian ideology. The generous, forgiving, and accepting attributes of Sufis are demonstrated time and again by modern Tunisians. Because many Sufi sites have recently been destroyed, it is imperative that Tunisians revisit Sufi history, the Shadhiliyyah Order, and the current plight of these sacred places.

    Ruwaym, one of Sufism’s earliest practitioners, is credited with saying, When someone sits with the Sufis and contradicts them in anything they have realized, then God will tear away the light of faith from his heart,” according to Annemarie Schimmel in Mystical Dimensions of Islam.

    The definition of Sufism is intertwined within the definitions of Islam and Mysticism. Islam is centered on the oneness of God and humanity's submission to God. Mysticism, from the Greek word meaning to conceal, is defined by the spiritual seekers, who found hidden meaning in God or religious life. Sufism, then, is defined as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. Belonging to different orders, congregations form around Sufi masters. Generally speaking, they believe they are practicing a perfection of worship as revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad, and they consider themselves as the true followers of a pure and original form of Islam. In order to turn their hearts to God, they devote themselves to rituals “ by repeating the names of God and reciting the Qur'an through music, meditation, fasting, and retreats.

    The Tunisian Sufi order was created by Moroccan-born Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, who began his Sufi journey in present-day Tunis. It was inside a cave at the outskirts of the city that he had his supreme vision of God, and although he was apparently by no means an intellectual, he had an extraordinary insight into the souls of men and a deep mystical fire, which he transmitted to the members of the fraternity, according to Schimmel. He taught his followers to apply the teachings of Islam in their own contexts to transform lives. He admonished them to conform to the law, earn a living, and fully participate in society “ all the while being inwardly detached from the world. Among the orders established in North Africa, the Shadhiliyyah is perhaps the most important and influential.

    Sidi Belhassen Mausoleum is located where al-Shadhili had his vision of the Prophet (Wikimedia Commons)

    While there is considerable debate about the amount of time al-Shadhili spent in Tunisia, one very interesting story emerges from that time. Al-Shadhili used a cave located in the Jellaz cemetery, Sidi Belhassen, as his place for spiritual retreat. It consists of a lower mosque built over that cave and an upper mosque built on the location of his vision of the Prophet Muhammad. In this vision, the Prophet promised he would return one Thursday each summer in the second half of the night. Therefore, the area is open each of the fourteen Thursdays of the summer.

    While there are very few Tunisians who remain in Shadhiliyyah order, there are a significant number of people who regularly visit Sufi shrines. People seem to be seeking a blessing or advice from the saint to help or guide in times of crisis “ such as help for employment, help to find a spouse, or even healing.

    According to Sufism, our whole occupation and only practice should be to consider God's kindness toward us, and to think that our might and power is nothing, and to attach ourselves to God in a feeling of intense need for Him, asking Him to grant us gratitude.

    Since the beginning, Sufism has provoked suspicion. The embrace of mysticism and building of shrines to Sufi saints has motivated some to perceive it as idolatrous. Under former Tunisian presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ultra-conservative Islamists were either non-existent or underground, so their sudden appearance has come as a surprise.

    Sufi shrines and mausoleums in Tunisia have been officially supported through government funding and historically kept in high esteem among the people. Carefully planned acts of destruction began shortly after the revolution and have focused on the tombs of patron saints “ leaving Sufi architectural heritage under threat. To date, more than thirty Sufi shrines have been torched. While the perception of these places and their sacredness is largely considered legend, the Sufi heritage of Tunisia represents an integral part of Tunisian identity and collective memory.

    Any damage to this heritage will harm the identity of a community and inflict irreparable loss to local spiritual and social values. The consequences can be disastrous both in terms of social cohesion and for the conservation of an important component of the immovable cultural heritage of the country,” according to Planned Destruction of Sufi Architectural Heritage in Tunisia, by the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

    Collective memory determines and is determined by the societies in which it takes shape “ as it preserves cultural identity and reassures a societal unity. Even people who do not believe in the sacredness of these sites or any power they may hold are rightfully speaking out against these attacks because they believe in Tunisian history, community, and the dignity of those who do believe.

    The legacy of Sufism is in danger all over the Islamic world, and there are those who would hope to wipe it from the collective memories of future Muslim communities. Contemporary Tunisians must not allow their contributions to religion and culture to be silenced.

    This article was written by Kendra Fredrickson-Laouini, a PhD candidate in interreligious education at Claremont Lincoln University. This post reflects the opinions of the author and not those of Tunisia Live as a publication.

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      A valuable comment. Sufisim is the heart of Islam and only mindless literalists who have no heart would like to wipe it out. Between the pathetic “liberal secularists” and the Salafi elements there is a real danger of forgetting that most Tunisians and indeed most muslims are flawed individuals trying to live spiritual lives wishing to draw closer to God and sympathetic to a more esoteric interpretation f life.

      Salaams and peace to all!

      • I’m amazed how you do not see how stupid your comment is, because you said something so stupid, I’m going to write a very logical so you don’t get confused.

        1.We can agree You don’t agree with Salafists

        2. We can agree you believe Quran is written by God

        3. We can agree that you believe God is not a moron who is able to express himself

        4. We can agree that when laws are written down they are meant to be taken literally. For example, state laws are meant to be taken literally, rules at work and school are meant to be taken literally. If you break the rule you are not going to say, oh I thought the rule was too strict so I taken it metaphorically.

        5. “mindless” literalists are taking verses in the Quran literally.

        6. Because Allah is assumed not to be a moron when he writes his laws he expects them to be taken literally.

        7. Mindless literalists are following the Quran exactly what it says in the Quran.

        8, Hypocrites take what they want from the Quran and say the things that is now barbaric, stupid, senseless, or outdated as not to be taken literally.

        9. Quran is very clear that followers are not allowed to follow what they like and ignore what they don’t like.

        10. Therefore Salafists or “mindless literalists” are the true followers of the Quran and those who try to “interpret” the Quran to a version more comfortable for them are hypcorites.

        11. Due to you not wanting to follow the Quran literally, you are a hypocrite and follow a contradiction. You are a contradiction as all your thoughts.

        12. Because Quran is full of retarded stupid things that moderates ignore or “reinterpret” I believe that it is not written by God but by a human. Therefore there is no contradiction and I can answer why Quran has so many things God won’t say. (such as Earth was spread like a carpet, or stars are missiles to shoot Jinn) Muslism can’t answer these questions and give retarded answers such as it’s not meant to be taken literally (so what is meant to be taken literally?) Or you must already be a believer to understand (Same thing lying fortune tellers say). Or some extreme reinterpretation. (He spread it out like a carpet means it’s big not flat (I wonder if they even believe their own BS)

        13. Instead of admitting that these things are stupid you pretend that it is not meant to be taken literally because you are a coward who is afraid of death and don’t have the guts to learn truth or anything that goes against your childhood brainwashing. Because you let your emotions get infront of your logical thinking you come up with contradictory statements such as follwing the Quran literally is wrong despite the fact you believe God the smartest being that can ever exist created it.

        • I am firmly of the opinion that the narrow minded salafists are very similar to narrow minded secularists like skander. Neither are able to comprehend anything that doesn’t fit their narrow understanding. To such people the quran tells us to say ” to you your religion and to to me mine” that means to not engage in any heated argument. I wish you peace my dear fellow. Perhaps you might like to consider the verse where God mentions those who have a heart but cannot understand or have eyes but cannot see and consider if that might apply to you.

    1. Kudos to Ms Kendra Fredrickson-Laouini for a nicely written fun and informative essay. The writings of sufis, both in prose and poetry, are the highlight of many who delight in the sweet fruits of human creative thoughts when they attempt to grasp truths, presumed out of reach, using metaphores and fables and jokes and images that dispense with the sophism of pseudo-intellectuals who sink to the level of spurious ad homonim attacks resorting to sterile syllogism The sufi path or “tarika” traversing a course flanked by roses, gardenias and jasmine is the Way of Love. “The roads to the mountain-top are many…but the view is the same…” is how sufis greet other humans regardless of their religions or traditions. From Ibn Arabi, Hallaj, Abdelkader Jilani, Jalaluddine Rumi, Ste Teresa of Avila, St Francis of Assissi, Thomas Merton….all followed the longest journey one can take the path of love from the head to the heart.
      If more people try it there will be less hatred, acid & misery. Here are the Ways of the Sufis
      Their Religion is the cry of the heart;
      Their Ideal is spiritual consciousness;
      Their Goal is self-realization;
      Their God is the Divine Presence within;
      Their Path is brotherhood and sisterhood;
      Their Manner is inner nobility;
      Their Art is personality;
      Their Charm is humility;
      Their Moral is beneficence;
      Their Attitude is forgiveness;
      Their Beloved is love itself.

    2. how does one take —-alif lam meem ……literally?(AL BAQARA aya1)

      Is this not a call to ponder and use the mind ?

    3. Skander is mean-spirited and his/her vitriol weakens the message. People who rant like that are easy to discredit.

      Skander’s point applies equality to Judeo-Christianity.

    4. dear MR skander

      I am really surprised that you critisize a PHD kendra like you did .
      islam has a saoul and it’s saoul is suffism you like it or not and there is a hadith for that in bukhari حديث عمر بن الخطاب related to ما الاسلام يا رسول الله ما الايمان ما الاحسان الخ…if you don’t know this hadith then you should not write anything.اعبد الله كانك تراه is the pillar of suffism .if you or any salafiste want to worship allah by mouvement and gesture ,going up and down and we do on with the regular prayer then souffi pray allah also with their deep heart and that is what make thoses scholar ” awliaa” and have miracle ” karamet from allah ” and that is why people constructed mausolé after their death .if you as a muslim don’t know that and an american women does then it is a shame for you ,for us muslim and for the whole tunisian patrimoine. what a shame what really a shame .when we say salafist we automatically thing wahabist ….( barbe, long kamis,terrorisme bomb killing and so on ) tel me have you seen any of such thing with suffi people ? SUFFISM IS THE HEART THE SAOUL OF ISLAM by worshiping allah with all your being until you reach the point were you see everything beautiful and everything going on… is done by allah no other ….then you leave things to him and do not interfere with his rules on earth.and if you say ” then what do we do with chariaa and amr bil maarouf and nah ala monker ” then i answer we do something about it nicelly ;gentlly but not by killing ,destroying,or pinpointing to thoses who are not on the right path that they are kouffar.and remember our prophete was even giving sadaka to non beliver at some point in time in medina even tought they did not have any merit for that . read this versus of coran plz .{ إنما الصدقات للفقراء والمساكين والعاملين عليها والمؤلفة قلوبهم وفي الرقاب والغارمين وفي سبيل الله وابن السبيل)
      سورة التوبة الآية 60 ” almoualafati kouloubohom were the non beliver in medina and they were given money by the prophete do you understand my dear . plz before writing any thing educate yourself in islam and notice that there is not salafi right now but rather wahabiste and educate yourself on these type of ” moukafirine ” sect who are going to destroy islam very shortly . good luck to you .

      • I thank you all , I am learning so much from this discussion, the www allows us so much joy in discovery of the wonder of the other, including the other who sees it way a differant way from me.