For most of Islamic history, Sufism wasn’t considered as something apart. That it is today has much to do with the rise of Islamism, which is generally perceived as anti-Sufi. (Indeed, many contemporary Islamists, particularly ultra-conservative Salafis, are precisely that.) Yet, none other than Hassan al-Banna, perhaps the most preeminent Islamist of the twentieth century, was initiated into the Sufi Hasafiyya order in 1923, just five years before he founded the Muslim Brotherhood. (Banna, for a time, would regularly visit the tomb of Sheikh Hasanayn al-Hasafi, the order’s namesake.) Similarly, Abdessalam Yassine, the late founder and leader of Adl Wal Ihsane, Morocco’s largest Islamist movement, was a member of the Boutchichiyya order.
The idea that Sufis are inherently non-violent or pacifist is similarly ahistorical. Some of the most famous Islamic rebellions were led by Sufis like Sudan’s Mohamed Ahmed, who declared himself Mahdi, or “the redeemer,” and Abdelkader in Algeria. As Abdelbasit Kassim and Jacob Zenn have noted, “During the jihadist campaigns of the 1800s in the Sahel-Sahara region, the Muslim scholars who led the armed movements identified themselves with the Sufi brotherhoods.” Some of this may have to do with the fact that someone had to lead rebellions against foreign invasions; Sufi orders were popular and enjoyed considerable legitimacy. If they didn’t take charge, who would? Still, this would only mean that the fundamental “peacefulness” of Sufis is mostly circumstantial and has little to do with opposing jihad, as such, or rejecting violence more generally. Today, in countries like Syria, some prominent Sufi sheikhs have been vocal defenders of state violence, with Ahmed Kuftaro, the grand mufti until his death in 2004, supporting the Baath regime. (Without doing so, he wouldn’t have remained grand mufti).
These are far from mere semantic discussions. They inevitably shape the subtext of so many conversations around Islam and politics. Western governments are susceptible to exoticizing Sufis and elevating them as the better, peaceful Muslims. But to see one group of Muslims as better means seeing other Muslims as problems to be solved. Westerners, most of whom have heard of Rumi’s poetry, but have little idea who the Mahdi is, will, naturally, prefer this idea of pacifist, apparently apolitical Muslims, only to find out that most Muslims are just, well, Muslims.
In this respect, the mosque that Islamist militants so brutally attacked in Egypt was something more than a Sufi mosque; it was, simply, a mosque.