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.
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.