Tunis: When a bulldozer razed the domed, century-old zawiya to the ground, turning the oldest Sufi place of study and worship in the Libyan coastal city of Sirte into a pile of rubble, Oussama Ali Bin Hamel was not shocked.
The sheikh has documented the destruction of more than 530 Sufi cultural sites across Libya over the past decade.
“This seems like a big number, but it is the reality,” said Bin Hamel, who has been documenting destroyed Sufi sites, like the one in Sirte in February, for the Al Mostagir Billah Centre, which studies and promotes the mystical Islamic belief.
“Shrines, zawiyas, a library with 4,000 titles - including manuscripts that date back 500 years - have been burned (or) completely destroyed,” he said.
Since Nato-backed rebels ousted longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, chaos and a lack of security in Libya, combined with the rise of extremist Islamist groups, has led to an uptick in attacks on Sufi sites, say scholars and heritage groups.
Cultural sites have become targets in conflicts across the Sahara region and the Middle East.
Daesh militants have torn down ancient sites in Syria and Iraq with bulldozers and explosives.
More recently, in January, in the wake of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani’s death in a US drone strike, President Donald Trump tweeted that the country would obliterate 52 sites that are “important to Iran and the Iranian culture”.
In Libya, Sufi sites are being destroyed by Islamist groups who “dismiss Sufism and everything that has happened over 1,500 years because they are restoring the ‘pure Islam (from the time) of the Prophet’,” said Islamic studies scholar Zahra’ Langhi.
Both sides of the current civil war between the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libya National Army (LNA) under commander Khalifa Haftar are allied with groups that view Sufi practice as superstitious, she noted.
“This is not only a mosque or a religious minority, this is a war on memory and on our history,” said Langhi, who is also co-founder of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace movement.
Sufism, a mystical strain among both Sunnis and Shiites, dates back to Islam’s early days. Besides the standard prayers, Sufi devotions include singing hymns, chanting the names of God or dancing to heighten awareness of the divine.
Today, “while there are few Libyans who are still formally participating in Sufi orders, traditional Libyan cultural practices and folk customs embrace certain Sufi traditions,” said Jason Pack of the DC-based Middle East Institute.
The mystical belief has become a part of the national culture, creating a resonance with “the majority of people, even if they are not Sufis”, said Bin Hamel, the Sufi sheikh.
One Sufi tradition that has taken root in wider Libyan culture is the celebration of Mawlid, the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) birthday.
Since 2012, Libyans for the most part stopped marking the occasion, which is viewed as idolatrous by extremist groups, including the ultra-conservative Madkhali-Salafists.
The group has been increasingly active in the country since fighting began in 2014, forming a strategic alliance with commander Haftar, explained Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst with the International Crisis Group think-tank.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the demolition of the zawiya in Sirte.
But several analysts and residents told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they attribute the destruction to the local Madkhali-Salafists, who may have been empowered by Haftar’s takeover of the city in January.
Gazzini noted that Sufi sites have also been destroyed by other Islamist factions, especially those affiliated with Al Qaida.
Despite the fatwas and continued demolitions, in November 2018, for the first time in years, big Mawlid celebrations took place in multiple cities, including Tripoli and Sirte, before it was taken over by the LNA.
Ali, a 30-year-old medical technician who joined the festivities in Sirte, said he believes the demolition of the zawiya was a retaliation to the city’s celebrations in late 2019.
“(The zawiya) is an important place because it is an ancient place - Sufism is more about tradition than worship,” said Ali - whose name has been changed to protect his identity - on WhatsApp, adding that he is “not Sufi and not against Sufis”.
When a series of Sufi sites were targeted by unknown armed groups in August 2012 - including ancient shrines in Zliten and the port city of Misrata, and a mosque containing the tomb of a Sufi saint in Tripoli - the Libyan government condemned the acts.
Successive interim governments, however, have mainly remained silent on the systematic attacks, said Hanan Salah, a senior researcher on Libya with advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
The targeting of Sufi heritage in Libya predates the current conflict, said Pack, whose research focuses on Sanusi sufism.
When Gaddafi took power in 1969, he “wanted to root out Sufism” because the regime of his predecessor, King Idris, leader of the Sanusi Sufi brotherhood, was underpinned by Sufi structures, said Pack.
Mohamed Faraj Mohammad, chairman of the GNA Department of Antiquities, said that Sufi heritage is an important aspect of Libyan heritage and authorities are in the process of documenting national historical monuments, including Sufi sites.
However, “it is very difficult for the department to deal with these violations since we are a scientific authority (and) we do not have the iron hand to setback the attacks on the mosques and Sufi sites,” he said in emailed comments.
Starting to rebuild
In November 2019, volunteers in Zliten began to rebuild the Sidi Abdul-Salam Al Asmar Al Fituri shrine, which had been destroyed in 2012.
With initial funding of 1 million Libyan dinars ($720,000) donated by the public, the volunteers have started rebuilding, said Mukhtar Bin Ashour, head of a civil committee made up of descendants of the buried saint, which is leading the reconstruction project.
They know the project is threatened by future attacks, but they are carrying on because “if (this) zawiya stops its activities, all Libyan zawiyas will stop,” he said, adding that, as far as he knows, this is the first time a destroyed Sufi site has been rebuilt.
But even if more sites are restored, Sufi communities cannot resume their traditional activities until “the law is enforced” and Sufi cultural sites are protected, said sheikh Bin Hamel.
The reconstruction of the shrine in Zliten “will have a positive effect on the Sufi scene,” he said.
“But there are hundreds of other (zawiyas) that will remain dormant for the foreseeable future.”