CAIRO: “Madad ya Sheikh El-Arab (Give us strength, O’Sheikh El-Arab). “Shi-allah ya sidi ya Badawi (Give us charity, O’ Sayed El-Badawi,). These words echoed in my mind as we set off from Cairo to Tanta a night before Moulid Sayed El-Badawi, a festival celebrating the birthday of a revered Sufi figure from the 13th century.
Held for an entire week in Tanta, the capital city of the Delta, tents are set around the mosque and along the surrounding roads. Droves of people, who share a love and respect for Ahl Al-Bayt (members of Prophet Mohamed’s extended family), head to Tanta to join in the celebrations.
Most visitors, who come from rural Egypt and some urban areas, try to participate in the festivities without performing bidaa (innovations in religion, which are viewed unfavorably), even though some exaggerate in expressing their love.
Sayed El-Badawi mosque turns into a makeshift hotel as men and women camp out on the floors, which leaves little praying room and takes away from the sense of spirituality. At times it feels as if you’re in a market as vendors peddling religious books roam around looking for buyers. A modest buffet is set up next to one of the gates serving tea for a small fee.
I had a strong feeling that the acts of bidaa commonly seen in moulids like this would have a negative impression on me, but one coincidence made the whole experience worthwhile.
Our accommodation was a modest hotel in Tanta, which was, incidentally, where the Sheikh of the Sufi Heikaliya order was staying. The Sufi Heikaliya order is one of the largest and most prominent of Sufi orders, and so we promptly asked the hotel staff to arrange for an interview with the sheikh.
One of the followers of the order first verified our identity, and soon informed us that his master will meet us after noon prayers. The sheikh of an order is commonly referred to as sidi (master) and followers of that order greet him by kissing his hand.
He spoke profusely about the karamat (extraordinary events performed by a pious person) of the sheikh and his predecessors, stressing that this Sufi order was careful not to perform bidaa.
Somewhat randomly, he began defending the order against popular stereotypes that are commonly held about Sufism, highlighting their frustration with the way they are seen by the outside world.
A discontent with Wahhabi Salafist groups became obvious from the things he said, and it was also apparent in our interview with the sheikh.
We did not kiss the sheikh s hand when we entered his room, and we were received with a warm greeting. He told us not to address him as sayidna (our master), saying that he is not a master over anybody and that he is proud to be an agricultural engineer so we should call him bash mohandes (Mr Engineer).
The 45-year-old sheihk is Osman Salah Eddin Al-Ahmadi Abu Heikal, who graduated from the faculty of agriculture in 1989. The father of three works as a food inspector in Al-Azhar district and lives with his family in Abu Huraiz village in Sharqiya.
Heikal became the Sheikh of Al-Heikaliya Al-Ahmadiya order in 1998. “Regardless of the name, it is a way to God Almighty, he said, “For your information, we are not participants in the Sufi Order Council.
The order was founded more than 170 years ago by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Sharkawi, a revered member of Al-Azhar, who was succeeded by Heikal’s grandfather, Sheikh Mansour.
Later, the succession moved to Sheikhs Othman Tharwat Salah, his father, and then to Heikal himself.
“I testify that all those sheikhs were awliya’ [pious people] and qutbs [a Sufi title denoting a ‘perfect master’]. As for me, I’m just a message carrier and I am responsible for maintaining the moderation of the order, keeping it away from bidaa and preserving the basics of Sufism, he said.
When asked about the basics of Sufism, Heikal said, “I believe the basis of Sufism is the purification of the self and keeping it beyond the trivialities of worldly life. In our dhikr circles (remembrance of Allah gatherings), we do not use drums, flutes or the like. We are also opposed to the interjection ‘madad O so and so.’
“The madad (strength) is only requested from the owner of strength, Allah, who is the ever-supplier. The basis is that there is no god but Allah.
“We also reject all bidaas, such as sleeping, eating and drinking in the mosque as well as smoking and singing in tents. This is why the Salafis attack us. Mosques are designated for prayer and dhikr rings only.
Some, however, say that Sufis perform hajj (pilgrimage) by traveling to the Tanta mosque on Sayed El-Badawi’s birthday. Is this not a bidaa?
“The word hajj is only used with the pilgrimage [to Mecca] rituals; and traveling to El-Badawi mosque is not to sanctify him but to celebrate the anniversary of his birth or death because of his status with God. . We love him because he was closer to God.
“The Sufis always bear in mind that there is no god but Allah and that the sheikh cannot cure anybody. We visit the awliya’ to give salutation . the problem is that Sufis touch and circumambulate his shrine.
Still, much of the misconceptions against Sufism come from a lack of understanding of their terminology. Words like hadrah, qutb and tabqah are heard often, but many do not know what they mean.
“Hadrah means presence, with God. Qutb means someone chosen by God for his worship – a qutb reaches a high degree of sublimity. I emphasize here an important thing, which is the social aspect of daawa [call to Islam].
Sublimity does not mean that a Sufi disappears and lives secluded from people; this is an old concept that does not fit the present day [reality]. For example, I am a civil servant in Al-Azhar and I go to work everyday, attend reconciliation sessions, engage with people, work manually in my own farm and raise my cattle.
“Tabaqah means a five- to ten-minute remembrance of God with slight movements of the body. The name Allah takes three tabaqahs and ‘la illaha illa allah’ (there is no god but Allah) takes two.
Heikal’s father dedicated 20 acres of land as an endowment to feed the followers of the order, while other sources of funding come from charitable donations, he said.
“I’m just a link, taking alms from the wealthy to give them to the needy. We also have good relations with influential people as well as physicians who help us treat people who [need medical attention]. We send them to these doctors with a card signed from me and a note saying, ‘Please, do what is required.’ This means do not ask for fees.
Speaking of the followers of the order, Heikal said, “We never seek to recruit followers. Whoever wants to come to us is welcome. Most of those who join us come by chance. For example, someone can come to our village and see our accomplishments and then express a willingness to join us.
“Come visit us during Sayed El-Badawi and you will see that we are the largest in number, thanks to Allah’s favor and our moderate approach.