Renewal of Sufi rituals in war-torn Libya

The Sufi institute was closed for six years following the 2012 attack by militants who broke into the site, detonating part of its shrine and burning books.

Bullets marks the minaret of the Sufi Mosque of Zliten in Libya, but followers of the Islamic spiritual tradition are striving to renovate and preserve their heritage.

A handful of students sit cross-legged on the floor of the Asmariya zawiya mosque, transcribing onto wooden tablets as their teacher sings Quranic verses.

Elsewhere in the complex, named in honor of its 16th-century founder Abdessalam al-Asmar, scholars ponder old manuscripts on Islamic theology and law.

Zawiya, an Arabic term for a Sufi institute providing space for religious gatherings, Koranic education and free accommodation for travelers, also includes a boarding school and a university.

Historian Fathi al-Zirkhani claims the site is the Libyan equivalent of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, a world authority on Sunni Islam.

But despite Sufism’s long history across North Africa, Libya’s plunge into chaos after longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a 2011 uprising gave the militias carte blanche.

They understood hard-line Orthodox views, which are deeply hostile to Sufi “heretics” and their nocturnal ceremonies aimed at drawing closer to the divine.

“(Previously) dormant ideological currents, with support from abroad, took advantage of the security vacuum to attack the zawiyas,” Zirkhani said.

The Sufi Mosque in the coastal town of Zliten in Tripoli, 150 kilometers east of the Libyan capital, which is alwo a zawiya, an Arabic term for a Sufi institute offering religious education and free accommodation to travelers, also includes boarding school and university, August 11, 2021 (AFP)

In August 2012, dozens of anti-Sufism activists broke into the site, blowing up part of the shrine, stealing or burning books and damaging Asmar’s tomb.

But today, artisans are restoring terracotta tiles and repairing damage caused by extremists.

The tomb is surrounded by scaffolding but still wears its green silk cover, delicately embroidered with gold.

The zawiya welcomes several hundred students, many of them foreigners, who benefit from free accommodation and accommodation.

“I came to Libya to learn the Quran here,” Thai student Abderrahim bin Ismail said, in faltering Arabic.

Coverin Abdellah Aoch, a 17-year-old Chadian in a long blue tunic, said he worked hard to memorize verses.

“I hope to memorize the whole Quran, then go home and become a religious teacher,” he said.

Fear, mistrust and hope

When the call to prayer rings out, everyone gets up and walks through an arcaded courtyard to the mosque for midday prayers.

It is a scene that has been repeated daily for hundreds of years, but the zawiya has had a few turbulent decades.

Gaddafi, who ruled Libya with an iron fist for four decades after seizing power in a coup in 1969, was wary of the Sufis.

“He infiltrated the zawiya with his secret services, creating a climate of fear and mistrust,” said one employee, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Gaddafi chose to divide the Sufis in order to better control them.”

Muslim students study the Koran at the Sufi Mosque in the coastal town of Zliten, Tripoli, 150 kilometers east of the Libyan capital, which is also a Sufi institute offering religious education and free accommodation.

Muslim students study the Koran at the Sufi Mosque in the coastal town of Zliten, Tripoli, 150 kilometers east of the Libyan capital, which is also a Sufi institute offering religious education and free accommodation. (AFP)

But Gaddafi’s authorities “loosened the grip in the mid-1990s, which allowed the zawiyas to regain their autonomy,” he added.

After the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, another danger arose. The attack on Zliten, on the Mediterranean coast east of Tripoli, found an echo throughout the country.

Die-hard activists have used excavators and jackhammers to destroy numerous Sufi sites across Libya, with attacks echoing in Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Zirkhani says that the people who attacked the Zliten compound were “extremists known to the state”.

But in the chaos of post-revolt Libya, they were never held accountable.

The zawiya has also suffered from a lack of funds as it seeks to rebuild and restore its treasures. Zirkhani takes care of the ancient manuscripts he wishes to keep for posterity.

“We do not have the means or the know-how to restore them,” Zirkhani said. “We need the help of (the United Nations cultural agency) of UNESCO and of the European institutions.”

But there are some signs of hope for the Sufis in Libya.

The zawiya was closed for six years after the 2012 bombing. But in 2018 it quietly reopened and the Sufis were able to practice their customs more publicly.

Last October in Tripoli, they took to the streets of the old city to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, a celebration frowned upon by the more austere currents of Islam.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies

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