Sufis: Muslims to the world, heretics to IS

The suicide bomber who stepped inside the gold-domed shrine in southern Pakistan in February was wearing a vest packed with ball bearings, bolts and screws. When he hit the detonator, he killed more than 80 people.

To the world, they were Muslims. But to the Islamic State, which quickly claimed credit for the attack, they were something else: Mushrikin, an Arabic word meaning polytheists.

Because the worshippers who died at the shrine of the Sufi philosopher Lal Shahbaz Qalandar had come bearing offerings of rose petals and had prayed at the tomb of the revered saint, hard-liners saw their faith as an affront to Islam, which holds that there is a single, indivisible God.

Since at least 2016, IS militants have targeted Sufis, who practice a mystical form of Islam that includes the veneration of saints, often at their tombs. The extremist group has systematically razed the tombs of Sufi saints and dynamited their shrines. Just over a year ago, the IS began carrying out mass executions of Sufi worshippers during prayer.

While no group has claimed responsibility for the killings of more than 300 people in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, that attack also took place inside a Sufi mosque, Egyptian officials have said the attackers were carrying the black flag of the IS, though the group has so far remained mum on whether its fighters were behind the savage violence.

After every attack of this nature, observers are perplexed at how a group claiming to be Islamic could kill members of its own faith. But the voluminous writings published by IS and al-Qaeda media branches, as well as the writings of hardliners from the Salafi sect and the Wahhabi school, make clear that these fundamentalists don't consider Sufis to be Muslims at all.

Their particular animus toward the Sufi practice involves the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act of praying to saints and worshipping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as "shirk," or polytheism, according to Brill's Encyclopedia of Islam.

"Shirk literally means association. It is the act of associating God with other entities," said Jacob Olidort, a scholar of Islam and the author of several reports for the Brookings Institution on these and other concepts. "What they take the Sufis to task principally for is the intercession, the use other media, to access God, rather than going directly."

Alexander Knysh, the author of two studies of Sufism and a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, agreed. "They believe Sufi shrines are the most egregious expression of that shirk," he said. "You are turning to a mediator, who is inserting himself between the believer and God, and in this way it becomes a kind of idol."

Sufis venerate mystics, who in their lifetime were seen as close to the divine. They bring votive gifts to their graves, like rose water or rose petals. Merchants heading on long voyages will come and make an offering, promising to make another if their venture is successful, Knysh said. Sufis, he said, are monotheistic and, to them, the practice does not supplant or create an equal to God. But hardliners don't see it this way, and instead see Sufis as "grave worshippers."

The debate over what constitutes idolatry in the Muslim faith is centuries old. In the early 1800s, fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia went so far as to try to blow up the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, Knysh said.

Raging debate

The notion of who is and isn't Muslim has also occupied numerous al-Qaeda theologians, long before the rise of IS. While the older terrorist group also holds Sufis to be heretics, al-Qaeda's official branches have been
more restrained in its violence. When al-Qaeda fighters in nor ­thern Mali destroyed the tombs of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, the group's emir in the region sent them a multipage reprimand, warning that even though they were correct in principle, their actions could inflame Muslim sentiment against them.

One of the ways IS has departed from al-Qaeda and its official affiliates has been its willingness to use unbridled violence against Muslims they accuse of straying, including Shias and Sufis. In addition to the attack on the shrine in Pakistan in February, the IS bombed a Sufi place of worship in Baluchistan in 2016, and has carried out targeted assassinations of Sufi clerics, including in Egypt. IS's own publication made clear as far back as 11 mon ­ths ago that it considered Sufism to be one of the main "diseases" it aimed to treat in Egypt.

In a question-and-answer with the IS magazine Rumiyah, the emir of the group's religious police in the area said: "Our main focus, however, is to wage war against the manifestations of shirk and bid'ah, including Sufism," using the word bid'ah to describe heresy.

The article includes images of a Sufi prayer hall in Sinai, and a photo of an old man kneeling as an IS militant lowers a blade over his neck. He is identified in the photograph as Abu Hiraz, a Sufi cleric, who according to news reports was abducted in front of his home in late 2016.

In the article, the IS acknowledged abducting the elderly man, who they say was senten ­ced to death because of his emb ­race of polytheism. They also issued a warning to other Sufis living in Egypt, saying they were "mushrikin" and that their "blood is filthy and permissible to shed."

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