What are Sufis? This was a question many were asking after at least 305 Egyptians were massacred on Friday in the Sinai. They were killed in an assault by Islamist militants (likely from the local Islamic State affiliate, although the group has not yet made a claim of responsibility) on Al Rawdah mosque, which is commonly described as a “Sufi mosque.” The implication is that its congregants observed a more “mystical” version of Islam, one that, for example, venerates saints. While such a description is not necessarily inaccurate—it is common to refer to mosques by their apparent ideological or spiritual orientation—like most things related to Islam, it’s a bit more complicated. Many Sufis do not self-define as Sufis, since for them, this is just how Muslims practice—and have always practiced—Islam.
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.