By Haytham Mouzahem
The past two decades have witnessed a reemergence of Sufism in the Gulf states. The phenomenon may be understood, in part, as a reaction to the extremism of “Salafi jihadism”: Gulf states opposed to the extremist strand have begun to welcome Sufi scholars from other Muslim countries and enabled them to spread Sufism through teaching, publishing, and media. Platforms they have been granted include some moderate Islamic television channels. In essence, Gulf leaderships have sought in Sufism a means to confront fundamentalism and “political Islam.”
Sufi orders present in the Gulf states include the Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Rifa’i, Mirghani, Alawi, and Shazili. The UAE has opened its doors to the movement of Yemeni Sufi cleric Ali al-Jifri, who has in turn founded the “Tabah foundation” in Abu Dhabi.
Meanwhile, some Emirati scholars have begun to explore and spotlight the history of Sufism in their own region. Emirati researcher Rashed Ahmed Al-Jumairi, for example, has published the study “Sufism in Dubai, from Al-Afghani to Abd al-Rahim al-Murid.” It was published in 2011 as part of the Al-Mesbar Center’s book Sufism in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
G.G. Lorimer, an admired twentieth century scholar of the Gulf’s history and geography, stated in his book Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf: Oman and Central Arabia that there were no Sufis in the area. The reasons he formed this erroneous impression may have included the paucity of Sufi content in local manuscripts as well as that of foreigners’ writings in English, Portuguese, and Dutch about the religious composition of the coast of Oman and what is now the UAE.
Al-Jumairi has begun to correct the historical record. He has traced the historical presence of Sufism in the UAE, with specific intention to the practice in the region of “Seer” (now the emirate of Ra’s al-Khaima). He studied the lives of three Sufi figures in the area. The first, Sheikh Abderrahim Al-Marid, who lived in Dubai and died in 2007 at the age of 95; shared memories of the second, his father, Sufi cleric Abdullah Al-Marid; and a third, Sayyed Mohammad Omar Al-Afghani.
In fact, the roots of Sufism in the UAE and Oman’s coast go back 300 years to pre-modern Seer, to which Sufis migrated from the Yemeni region of Hadramout. They hailed from the Sufi Alawite Hadadi order.
An antique indigenous manuscript in the UAE which Jumairi also located traces another source of local Sufism: eighteenth-century southeastern Arabia. The manuscripts Yemeni author, Alawi Bin Ahmad Bin Hassan Al-Hadad, described his memories and the virtues of his late grandfather, who led the order. The text notes the deep-running ties between the order and the Qasemi clan, which now rules Ra’s al-Khaima; as well as the tribe of Al-Zuaabi.
Sufism grew weak, however, with the rise of Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahhab’s hardline ideology alongside the expansion of the first Saudi state. Saudi forces encircled Seer and forced its inhabitants to follow the Wahhabi school and destroy their Sufi shrines. As a result, the Hadadi order disappeared from the area, and only a few descendants of the founder remained — in present-day Bahrain and the UAE.
Sufism reemerged again on the territory of the present-day UAE in the late nineteenth century — brought to the area by an Afghani immigrant, Al-Sayed Mohammad Omar Al-Afghani, who had studied at Al-Azhar in Cairo. He made his way to Abu Dhabi, where he served as a religious teacher and mosque Imam; and later Dubai. In the latter he found an especially welcoming environment: Locals adhered to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam, which, unlike the Hanbali school and its Wahhabi Salafi offshoots, does not reject Sufism or its ritual practices. Though a Hanbali minority in Dubai — and a larger number in neighboring Sharjah — considered Al-Afghani a heretic, the ruler of Dubai at the time, Sheikh Hashr Al-Maktoum, adopted his Sufism and treated him well. Sheikh Said Bin Maktoum Bin Hashr is even remembered to have attending the Sufi ritual of Zikr and celebrated Al-Mawlid al-Nabawi.
After the death of Al-Sayed Al-Afghani in August 1916, he was succeeded in local Sufi leadership by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Marid who grafted elements of the Rifa’i order onto the teachings of the Qadiri order Al-Afghani brought to Dubai. The Rifa’i Order takes its name from Ahmad al-Rifai (1106–82), a Shafi’i legal scholar and mystic from the marshlands of southern Iraq. He was a contemporary of Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166), the eponymous founder of the Qadiri Sufi Order. Sheikh Al-Marid died in the late 1960s, and his son Abd al-Rahim succeeded him.
After the death of Sheikh Abd al-Rahim in 2007, indigenous Emirati Sufism receded due to a schism between his followers as to who should succeed him. Today, some follow Omani Sufi cleric Hamdan Al-Ma’amari, a disciple of Sheikh Abd al-Rahim. Others follow the leadership of Dubai’s Bin Hmaydan family.