By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem – This article first appeared on the Mesbar Studies and Research Centre —
A few years ago, Al-Mesbar Center published a book entitled “Sufism in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” I found the publication remarkable in its context, in light of Saudi Arabia’s adoptions of a Salafi doctrine that opposes Sufism, charging it with deviation from monotheism in its purist form.
One study that stood out, by Saudi researcher Mansour Alnogaidan, presents the latter’s personal testimony about the “Brotherhood of Buraidah,” a community of hardline scholars and students in the north-central Saudi city of Buraidah who somehow blended Sufism and Salafism. (The group was led by heterodox cleric Fahd bin Obaid Al-Mohsen.) Alnogaidan writes of his experience as a 17-year-old at a mosque in Buraidah, now 32 years ago. He spent most of his day in the mosque and its library, with other austere students of religion. They used to shed tears in their prayers and devotion, he recalls; they had isolated themselves from all worldly things and the people who adopt them. An elderly cleric named Abdallah Aba ‘l-Khail refused to eat canned food or drink soft drinks, and ate only what that had been cultivated on his own land.
Alnogaidan’s testimony also includes some remarkable observations about devout students of Islam who spent their days and nights praying, kneeling, and weeping in the Sacred Mosque in Mecca or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Among them, Sheikh Ibrahim ibn ‘Uthman al-Qara’awi had been remembered for often crying during prayer in a Buraidah mosque and trembling during his prostration, out of love for God.
“I was impressed with how such people could live,” Alnogaidan writes. “It was not [tears of] sorrow, but joy and peace. It was a purifying of their hearts and a cold breeze to comfort their souls.”
Women too were a part of this Sufi trend. In one instance, a man complained to a sheikh that his wife had neglected one of his guests out of devotion to her morning prayer. When the sheikh raised the issue with the woman, she replied that when she begins the prayer she sees a ray of light opening up to her from heaven — and so how can she hear her husband’s call?
The pious people Alnogaidan describes read many books of Sufism and biographies of Sufi saints. Whatever time they did not spend earning a living was devoted to religious study or worship, and they avoided books and sermons that mixed religion and politics.
Alnogaidan also addresses the question of disputes between Salafism and Sufism in Saudi Arabia. He notes that Salafistried to bar Muhammad Alawi Maleki, leader of the Council of Sufism of the Hijaz, from the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1991. Alnogaidan believes that the incident reflected regional biases stemming from the feeling of socio-political and religious superiority of the people of Najd, whence the Salafis came, over the Hijaz, which by contrast had preserved cultural, sectarian, and ethnic diversity for centuries. This feeling of superiority arose with the first Saudi state; grew following the occupation of the Hijaz, especially Mecca and Medina; and has continued to this day.
Alnogaidan writes that he came of age in a Salafi environment fueled by the teachings of Sheikh Muhammad Bin Abdul Wahhab. Yet Sufism, its followers, and the miracles they worked were always a hot topic of discussion, he recalls, for two reasons: First, he explains, the great Hanbali Ulama who were among the progenitors of Salafism — Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, and others — wrote books about Sufism. Second, the “Brotherhood of Buraidah” adopted an attitude of devotion to Salafism which, in its zeal and hyper-austerity, had a Sufi-like character. To be sure, the Brotherhood rejected the traditional Sufi orders, never called out to spirits or Jinn, and rejected any measures of leniency in observance which Sufism sometimes allows for. But they did indulge Sufi stories and reports of miracles as they appeared in the seminal Hanbalite texts of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah and letters of Ibn Taymiyyah.
It is ironic that however much the Hanbalis of Saudi Arabia may denounce Sufism, their belief in asceticism, fanatical devotion, and self-accountability echoes some of Sufism’s core teachings.
Alnogaidan concludes that the Brotherhood of Buraidah manifested a kind of Sufism with respect to their interpersonal behavior; their relationship with food, drink, “Zikr,” and prayer; abhorrence of the material world; and contentment with little. They found a way to maintain these principles without compromising their loyalty to the teachings of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab.