The invitation came from the sheikh Hussein, leader of a local Sufi brotherhood (in Arabic tarȋqa), based in a village of Upper Egypt, called Busayliyya, north of Edfu, a famous town of the region famous for its pharaonic temple still almost intact. The occasion was the commemoration of the founder of the tarȋqa, the sheikh al-Bayyumi (m. 1938), after whom it is called al-Bayyumiyya. Such type of festivals are common near the shrines where the relics of ‘Muslims saints’ rest. These are venerated by common people (especially in the countryside), a practice often opposed by many legalistic doctors of Islam and especially by many movements of the so called political Islam, who are attached to a literalistic reading of the basic religious texts.
At the basis of all there was the work I have done for years in the field of Sufism, with studies and publications, especially with the publication of the anthology of Sufi texts, entitled Spiritual Manifestations of Islam. It has been worked out with the help of my student and colleague (now that he has obtained the PhD in Sufism) Ahmed Hasan Anwar. Through it a lot of doors have been open, for meetings, symposium and dialogue with a great number of Muslims.
We were both invited to this meeting or Sufi festival of Busayliyya and took part in their celebration with the presence of a large population, local and not, since all Sufi brotherhoods of Upper Egypt were invited. In the great night, the night of Thursday the 22nd of September, the presence of people was estimated around 2000, more o less, but surely above 1000. The celebration continued from 11pm to 4am, early morning. A famous local Sufi singer, Amin al-Dishnawi, continued singing in full voice for five hours, while people in the square performed dances in ever excited movements till the point of trance, which they call ecstasy, i.e. meeting with God.
They asked us to speak about Sufism at the beginning of the ceremony so as to elucidate to those simple people, who lives it rather at an emotional level, so as to counter the accuses thrown on it by the juristic-legalistic milieus, known for their strict ‘literalistic’ reading of the sacred of Islam.
In my lecture I underlined some important aspects of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. The first is the primacy of spirituality over rituality. It is no enough to perform exterior ceremonies without a deep conversion of the heart. This is a quite common and basic topic in Sufism, as well as in any stern spirituality. On such a topic there are a lot of important Sufi texts one has to know in order to help people in finding their true guidance in the spiritual path. Then, I underlined the topic of love for God and of God; a love open to all humankind, but to the whole universe. I showed, on the ground of many Sufi texts, how for the most outstanding Sufis such a love must be considered the apex of spiritual love. Here too, a good knowledge of Sufi literature is required in order to convince people through their spiritual background. The topic of love in particular must have touched that ‘popular’ audience. In fact, afterwards many of their reactions, started from our host, Sheikh Hussein, underlined that they were moved by the topic of love.
My student-colleague Ahmed elucidated in his lecture some questions concerning the origin of Sufism, the meaning of the name ‘Sufi’, its position in the Islamic tradition, and other points. The conclusion of all this was that, contrary to what is often repeated in many milieus, Islamic and not, Sufism is not a marginal movement in Islamic history, but it is an integrant part of it. Eliminating Sufism means, in the end, depriving Islamic history of a lot of its most important manifestations in the fields of literature, art, poetry, etc. Sufis have always been a source of inspiration in art and thought in all fields. Moreover, Sufi brotherhoods have always had a very important educative role inside the Islamic community at all levels. Among Sufis one can find many important ‘educators’ in humanity and religion, as well as great thinkers, such as Ibn ‘Arabȋ (d. 1240), called the ‘Greatest Sufi Master’, one of the most read authors at global level.
The final surprised of all this came in Aswan. We were walking through the market (sûq) when a man carrying a child and holding another with his hand, approached us. At first, we thought him to be one of the usual beggars. Instead, he started thanking us for the words we said in the Sufi festival he attended. Then, he presented himself as the sheikh of the nearby mosque, not far from our Catholic church. He invited us to visit him in his mosque, and, surely the following evening, we were there. He set me on the chair of preachers and for over two ours we exchanged on the importance of Sufism, of spiritual life and love, and other similar topics.
I think I am not that naïf to think that a lecture is enough to change the heart and behavior of so many people. But, I think that it is positive that participants have accepted such a message from a Christian, and moreover from a priest. They showed interest, but desire for such a topic, as love is, with the wish for other meetings like this one. Spirituality is surely one of the most important aspects of dialogue among religions, and Islam in particular; this is my deep conviction.
The Spirit blows wherever he wants... It is better let him blow…We are just instruments of his action… We have to pray that he can enter in the heart of all, making the life of the Kingdom of God grow in all, especially by living the basic commandment: love God and love your neighbor.
In sha’ Allah