June 9, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1319

ISIS Sinai And Its Relations With The Local Population – Part III: Spreading ISIS Ideology And The Fight Against Sufism

June 9, 2017 | By R. Green*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1319

The following report is now a complimentary offering from MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM). For JTTM subscription information, click here.

In all areas under its control, the Islamic State (ISIS) has focused on proselytizing and on spreading its ideology among the local residents. Such efforts are being carried out by ISIS's “Sinai Province” as well, although they are less publicized than similar efforts in other areas. In any event, ISIS Sinai's ideological activity focuses primarily on uprooting Sufism, which has been widespread in the Sinai for centuries. The recently released ISIS Sinai video "The Light of Shari'a" presented examples of proselytization to the locals and dealt at length with the group's fight against the Sufis.

The following is a review of these efforts:

Preaching ISIS Ideology To The Locals

In a December 2016 interview with the ISIS weekly Al-Naba, the director of the ISIS Sinai hisba department outlined the group's activities in this area: "The Islamic State soldiers conduct religious lessons in order to preach to people and teach them about their religion in concert with the various da'wa and hisba centers, and we pray to Allah to make these lessons successful. Furthermore, we print and distribute da'wa leaflets and flyers on matters of faith, conduct preaching tours throughout the land that focus on establishing tawhid [Islamic monotheism] among the Muslim public, and warn [this public] against idolatry and the various forms of heresy."[1]

The Sinai Province video "The Light of Shari'a" provided glimpses of preaching, showing activists speaking to a crowd in a village or delivering a lesson on theology to locals at a mosque. A noticeable point in these images is that the preachers are accompanied by armed men, or are covering their faces.

The War Against Sufism

The Salafi-jihadi stream aims to purge Islam of what it considers polytheistic elements, and therefore vigorously targets the Sufi stream. Salafi-jihadis, including ISIS, see Sufis as heretics, particularly because of their veneration of saints, which is considered worship of others beside Allah. In all the regions under their control, ISIS has systematically destroyed the tombs of Sufi saints as well as ritual sites and buildings belonging to Sufi tariqas, or orders. ISIS Sinai's approach is no exception.

On November 18, 2016, Sinai Province released photos of the beheading of Sufi elder in Sinai Sulaiman Abu Haraz, who had been kidnapped a month earlier.[2] The photos, which sparked outrage in Sinai, Egypt, and the Arab world, constituted another milestone in the ongoing war waged by jihadis against Sufis, which includes destroying buildings, threatening members of Sufi orders, kidnapping and killing sheikhs, and more.

A mausoleum blown up by ISIS in Sinai as part of its war against what it deems un-Islamic worship

The interview with the director of the ISIS Sinai hisba department, which was published several weeks after the beheading, was largely dedicated to the fight against the Sufis.

Asked how the mujahideen in Sinai deal with the Sufis, the head of the hisba department said: "After the mujahideen fought a jihad war to make Allah's word supreme, they fought the leaders of unbelief, including the tyrants who rule other than by the laws of Allah and have risen to power in parts of Sinai and become influential there. They strove to establish Allah's religion there, to remove the symbols of idolatry and jahiliyya [the pre-Islamic period], and were sincerely determined to leave no Sufi orders in the land where the banner of jihad was flying. The mujahideen began preaching to these Sufis, whether they were members of the Ahmadi order or the Jariri order. Some responded to the preaching and repented immediately after the mujahideen explained the evils of polytheism. But some chose to distance themselves from Allah's religion and from the commandment to preach monotheism.

"At this point, ISIS soldiers deployed, established checkpoints on roads, captured all their leaders, and imprisoned them for three days to force them to repent. If they repented, [they would be released,] and if not, they would be executed.

"Praise Allah, they repented on the first day, and along with them, their followers atoned for their errors and heresy. This was after the mujahideen explained about the idolatry that afflicts them, and explained its evil to them, praise Allah.

"There are some large pagan Sufi centers outside the rule of the caliphate in Sinai and Egypt, and, with Allah's permission, they will become targets for the soldiers of the caliphate when they take over those territories, [and will be subject] to hisba and jihad operations in order to bring the people from darkness to light."

ISIS hisba operative Abu Mus'ab Al-Masri reading the verdict of two Sufi sheikhs accused of "sorcery," before their beheading

According to a member of a Sufi order in the town of Sheikh Zuweid, ISIS Sinai's conflict with the Sufis peaked in early October 2016, when "a group belonging to the Islamic State raided Sufi centers in southern Sheikh Zuweid and prevented them from performing dhikr ceremonies, as well as all activities and rituals unique to them. This reached the point of a scuffle and an exchange of blows, and the following day, ISIS activists kidnapped seven officials from one of the Sufi centers." They demanded that the officials "do what was demanded of them," that is, to refrain from all Sufi activity, and threatened them "and anyone else who refuses these demands" with "shari'a punishments." He added that the seven were released after meeting the demands, but that Sheikh Abu Haraz was nevertheless kidnapped a few days later.[3]

A Sheikh Zuweid resident said that Abu Haraz's kidnappers were two of his sons who had joined ISIS, and that they did this after urging him to refrain from performing Sufi rituals. Others said that his body had not been handed over to his family after the beheading for fear that a tomb would be erected for him.[4]

The targeting of Sinai's Sufis, especially in the town of Sheikh Zuweid and nearly villages, took several forms. Local residents have told how masked armed men kidnap people participating in rituals, how explosives are placed outside Sufi mosques, and how tombs of saints are blown up. Similar incidents also took place in the Bir Al-'Abd region, far to the west of the northeastern corner of Sinai, which is ISIS Sinai's usual area of operations. Local resident Abu Marwan said that gunmen in El Arish had fired RBGs at a Sufi mosque, adding that they "often warn people not to conduct any Sufi rituals in the mosques."[5]

A Sinai resident said that "Salafi extremists" had attacked a group of Sufis during a ritual in a mosque in Sheikh Zuweid, threatened to kill the worshipers if they continue to conduct Sufi rituals, and accused them of heresy and corrupt beliefs. He added: "We had to submit to them. What else could we do at gunpoint?"[6]

Forcing Sufis To Renounce Their Beliefs

The incidents described above by the members of the Sufi tariqas, and other incidents like them, are featured in the video "The Light of Shari'a," in which ISIS Sinai boasts about the violent means employed by its members against the Sufis. In the video, ISIS Sinai member Abu Mus'ab Al-Masr, from the hisba department, declares: "The phenomenon of Sufism is among the phenomena of polytheism and is bida', against which the soldiers of the caliphate in Sinai have come out... The first thing we did about these Sufis was to call on them [to adhere] to monotheism and to conduct themselves according to the Prophet's Sunna and to abandon polytheism. Some of them heeded this call, but others continued in their polytheism and their bida'. The soldiers of the Islamic State immediately went to stop them. We caught them and called upon them to repent."

The video shows one of the senior commanders of ISIS Sinai[7] briefing a group of armed men before they head out for an operation to kidnap Sufis and force them to renounce their beliefs. He tells them: "With the grace of Allah, we in the Sinai Province are implementing Allah's laws. We are going, with Allah's permission, to those Sufis who claim that Allah has partners, who pray to other [entities] besides Allah, who seek assistance from other [entities] besides Allah, and who communicate with those whom they call the righteous. We have approached them in the past, and explained to them that this is polytheism. This time we are going to them in force, since they have returned to their [errant] ways even though we repeatedly clarified to them that this is polytheism. We will go to them in force, take them, and call upon them to repent, and then wait a few days. If they repent – [fine], if not – they will be killed."

Following that, the video features the nighttime abduction at gunpoint of a group of Sufis engaged in a religious ceremony. They were taken to a building where they were lectured by an ISIS operative; he preached to them, explaining that they were accused of apostasy and demanding that they repent. The segment ends with the Sufis signing a document repenting of their sins and undertaking to abandon the Sufi customs and beliefs, and embracing the ISIS operatives.

The kidnapping of Sufis

ISIS operative lecturing to the Sufis who were kidnapped


[1] Al-Naba issue 58, December 8, 2016; p. 8-9.

[2] See MEMRI JTTM report ISIS Sinai Beheads An Elderly Sufi Sheikh, November 19, 2016.

[3], December 8, 2016.

[4], December 8, 2016.

[5], December 8, 2016.

[6] Al-Arab (London), October 25, 2016.

[7] The man's senior position is indicated by the fact that he was filmed in the dark and that his voice was altered.

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