With state weak, Libyans look to God for help

Reuters reports: Students from all over Libya come to study Islamic law and to memorize the Islamic holy book, the Koran, at the university and school built around the shrine [which houses the tomb of the 15th-century Sufi scholar Abdel Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan, west of Tripoli]. Now, numbers are down.

In the school halls, the voices of young boys and girls echo in unison.

“We usually have 600 girls a day come to memorize Koran, but the parents are now afraid the Salafis will attack so only 100 show up,” said teacher Wafa al-Ati.

Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam, dates back to the faith’s early days. Apart from the standard prayers, Sufi devotions include singing hymns, chanting the names of God or dancing to heighten awareness of the divine.

Sufis also build shrines to revered holy men and scholars and make pilgrimages to them. There are hundreds of the shrines all over Libya. Even Gaddafi, with his ambivalent attitude to religion, did not try to interfere in a practice that is so deep-seated in Libyan culture.

But since the end of Gaddafi’s rule, a new trend has emerged to challenge Sufi traditions.

Under Gaddafi’s rule, many Salafis were jailed for their beliefs and those not imprisoned spent years avoiding any outward manifestation of their beliefs.

Files from Gaddafi’s internal security agency, seen by Reuters after the revolt, show there was a special department set up to track hardline Islamists. Anyone suspected of affiliation was denied the right to travel abroad, enroll in university or take public sector jobs.

Since that system of repression collapsed, Salafis have become emboldened. Some have acquired weapons and used them to enforce their ultra-purist view of Islam.

The Salafis believe Islam should be followed in the simple, ascetic form practiced by the Prophet Mohammed and his disciples. Any later additions to the faith — including tombs or lavish grave markings – are viewed by them as idolatry.

They have alarmed many secularist Libyans by trying to enforce their strict moral code. The Salafis have burned down halls were parties are held and harassed women who do not cover their heads.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, organizers of a rap concert featuring a famous Tunisian artist were forced to cancel the event after being threatened by a Salafi brigade called Libya’s Shield.

Worried that the Salafis would attack their joyful annual parades to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday in February, Sufi mosques sought safety in numbers and held a joint procession in Tripoli’s walled old city. The event, which Salafis also consider idolatrous, went off without incident. [Continue reading…]

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