In Depth

Why is Islamic State targeting Sufi Muslims?

Last week's bombing of a mosque in Egypt was the latest in a series of attacks against the mystical Sufis

The death toll in last week’s terrorist attack on a mosque frequented by Sufi worshippers in Egypt’s northern Sinai region has risen to more than 300.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for Friday’s massacre, the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history, but the state news agency said the coordinated assault bore the hallmarks of an Islamic State attack. Egyptian officials later confirmed that militants were seen waving the black flag of IS.

This isn’t the first time the Sufi community has been targeted by Islamist extremists; a renowned Sufi cleric was kidnapped and beheaded by IS militants in the Sinai Peninsula last year.

After every attack of this nature, “observers are perplexed at how a group claiming to be Islamic could kill members of its own faith,” Rukmini Callimachi writes for The New York Times.

“But the voluminous writings published by IS and Qaeda media branches make clear that these fundamentalists do not consider Sufis to be Muslims at all,” she says.

Who are the Sufis?

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that advocates peace, love and tolerance, and eschews materialism. The vast majority of its followers are Sunni Muslims, though it has some support among Shiites.

The movement “stands almost diametrically opposed to Salafism, the harsh - some would say puritanical - Sunni ideology that’s espoused by IS and Al Qaeda,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, argues that Sufism is not a sect of Islam, as is often reported, but rather a tradition within the faith.

“It is an extra-curricular way to seek more spirituality within Islam by focusing on the oneness of God and glorifying the prophet Mohammed,” Awad told USA Today.

Why are they being targeted?

Sufi Muslims have their own unique approach to worship which involves praying to saints and worshiping at their tombs. Singing and dancing also feature heavily in their religious rituals.

“Intolerant Islamist groups such as the Taliban and IS reject shrine worship as well as dancing and singing as un-Islamic,” Peter Gottschalk, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, writes for The Conversation. “In their view, prayers to Sufis are idolatrous.”

Some analysts also argue that Sufism is targeted by Islamic State because it is seen as a non-military threat to the group, Sky News reports.

The Sufis “are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organisation in a way the military hasn’t been able to do,” says Mohannad Sabry, a journalist and analyst who has worked extensively in the Sinai region.

“And I believe that the most important point, for Isis, is to eliminate their ideological rival rather than a military rival,” he added.

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