Libyan Sufis celebrate Prophet's birthday despite security fears

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Hundreds of Libyan Sufis packed the narrow streets of Tripoli’s walled old city to celebrate the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday on Tuesday, chanting hymns to the beat of drums and cymbals.

Libyan Sufi Muslims chant and beat drums during a procession to commemorate Prophet Mohammad's birthday, also known as Mawlid, in the old city of the Libyan capital Tripoli, Libya November 20, 2018. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

Participants dressed in traditional robes said it was the biggest turnout for the celebration of Mawlid in the Libyan capital for several years, after poor security and pressure from hardliners prevented previous large processions.

In Benghazi, Libya’s second city, men, women and children also celebrated the holiday in greater numbers than in recent years, holding processions in the morning and evening in four neighborhoods.

Mawlid is an important event for Sufis, whose spirituality is an integral part of North African Islam.

Sufism, a mystical strain among both Sunnis and Shi’ites, 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.

“Many more people have joined this year. In the past two years few came after attacks from extremists,” said Siddiq Abuhadena, an engineer attending the Tripoli procession.

Sufi worshippers said they were wary of Salafists and others in Libya opposed to their traditions.

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Tensions have grown in recent years between Sufis and Salafists, a group influenced by Saudi Wahhabis and other ultra-conservative foreign Islamists.

Salafists following a Saudi preacher, Rabi al-Madkhali, have gained ground in Libya since the 1990s.

Since an uprising toppled former ruler Muammar Gaddafi seven years ago, Libya has seen intermittent armed conflict.

A Salafist-led armed group is one of Tripoli’s strongest, and has arrested cultural figures, citing moral reasons. Salafist fighters have played a role in supporting prominent eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, and in military campaigns in other parts of the country.

Dozens of Sufi sites including mosques, shrines, tombs and libraries have been destroyed or damaged by hardliners since 2011 across Libya, Human Rights Watch said in a report a year ago.

“For those who say this celebration is heresy, we are not doing anything harmful to Islam,” said Akram al-Feitouri, one of the participants of the celebrations in Benghazi.

“On the contrary, we prove to the world that Islam is a religion of love and passion.”

Two months ago Tripoli was shaken by 10 days of heavy clashes, though the situation has since stabilized.

After processing through the capital’s old city, marchers spilled out onto Martyrs Square, known under Gaddafi as Green Square, where the former leader used to address his supporters.

“There are some who want to ban the celebration of Prophet Mohammad. They say the Prophet Mohammad did not celebrate his birth. They are lying,” said Abdullah Abubanun, head of a Zawiya, or Islamic school.

Additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; editing by Andrew Roche