Sufism runs deep into the Egyptian psyche, and not just in the countryside. Look around the mosques of al-Husein, al-Sayyeda Zeinab, and al-Sayyeda Nafisa and you’ll see people flocking to pay homage to their favourite saints. And on mouleds, or the nights marking the birthday of the saints, religious singing and other forms of festivities transform the mosques and their vicinity into festival grounds.
We have about 74 Sufi orders or turuq (sing. tariqa, literally method but used in the sense of society or order) in Egypt. Of these, 41 have branches in Cairo and 4 in Alexandria. The best known of the Cairo turuq are the al-Rifa’ya and the al-Hamdiya al-Shazliya and the most popular in Alexandria is the al-Naqshabandiya.
Sufism in Egypt can trace its origins to third or fourth Hegira centuries (ninth and tenth in the Gregorian calendar), says Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Khaleq al-Shabrawi of the al-Shabrawia order. Each order has its own sheikh, who is the supreme guide, its own rites or initiation, and its own code of conduct. Every tariqa has a path of evolution drawn for its disciples to follow, and every path is made up of and maqamat (stations) and ahwal (conditions).
The maqamat are the stations of spiritual advancement the disciples are encouraged to take. They involve work on certain mental conditions involving acceptance and awareness of the world. Repentance, patience, satisfaction, certainty, faith, and love are among the best-known maqamat.
One of the first and greatest Sufi figures in Egypt is Abul Noun al-Masri, (d. 245 hegira/ 859). He is the one credited with delineating the first maqamat and ahwal.
It wasn’t, however, until the second half of the sixth century (twelfth century), that Sufism spread in Egypt like wildfire, owing in great part to the sponsorship of Sultan Salaheddin al-Ayyubi (aka Saladin) who founded and funded the first Sufi monasteries, called tekiyat (sing. tekiya).
According to Sufi researcher Abul al-Fadl al-Isnawi, the al-Malatiya, al-Qosariya, al-Khoraziya, al-Hallagiya, al-Nouriya orders all appeared in the third and fourth centuries of the hegira.
In the fifth century of the hegira (eleventh century in the Gregorian calendar) the al-Ghazaliya order was formed by followers of the teachings of the great medieval scholar Mohammad al-Ghazali.
As the Sufi orders multiplied in the sixth and seventh hegira centuries (twelfth and thirteenth centuries), the al-Qadriya, al-Akbariya, al-Rifa’iya, al-Shazliya, al-Ahmadiya, and al-Badawiya came into being. Outside Egypt, the Sufi orders of al-Shashtiya, al-Khalwatiya, and al-Biktashiya formed at around the same time.
In its purest form, Sufism involved one way or another of communal living, often sponsored by the state or the upper classes. Sufis lived in establishments of monastic composition called zawaya (sing. zawya), Rawabet (sing. rebat), and khaniqawat (sing. khaniqat). They performed religious rituals involving group singing and chanting, even dancing and observed an austere style of living, one which glorified poverty and dispensed with the trappings of the material world.