CAIRO // A coalition of Sufi organisations is preparing to launch Egypt's first Sufi-themed satellite television station before the end of the year. The channel's principal organisers, the Al Azmiyah tariqah, or "path", said the station would be the fourth in the Middle East to identify specifically with Sufi Islamic thought.
Ala' Abu al Azayim, the sheikh of the Al Azmiyah tariqah, said he hoped the station, which he plans to name Al Sufiya Wa Atasawaf (Sufis and Sufism), will help propagate Sufism's moderate conception of Islam. But he also envisions it as an ideological foil to the dozens of conservative Salafi satellite channels that compete for viewers across the region - stations that Mr al Azayim said routinely attack Sufi thought, pollute the practice of Islam with an ultra-conservative ideology and defame the religion's reputation throughout the world.
"There are a lot of satellite stations. All of them attack Sufism and some of them, or many of them - are [run by] ignorant people" said Mr al Azayim, who said he saw the proposed channel as part of a broader "jihad", or spiritual struggle, to defend Islam from Salafi thought. "They have no idea about Islam except the niqab for the ladies and the gallabeya and the long beard for the men." Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that seeks to enable followers to embrace, or experience, God during life on Earth. Although many scholars consider Sufism to be a distinct school of thought within Islam, its ideology often overlaps with other beliefs, allowing its practitioners a more fluid religious identity.
Egyptian Muslims have long held a unique affinity for Sufism, Mr al Azayim, whose grandfather founded the Al Azmiyah tariqah, said. He estimates that only about 25 per cent of Egyptian Muslims adhere to a specific Sufi tariqah, but about 70 per cent of the population identify with a more general practice of Sufi beliefs and customs. But as Middle Eastern societies have grown more conservative in recent years - thanks in part to the popularity of Saudi-funded Salafi religious satellite television programming - Sufism has come under attack, said some of the proposed station's founders.
In more conservative circles, Sufism is seen as a religious innovation that deviates from the teachings of the Prophet. Many Sufis celebrate historical saints and past spiritual leaders, a practice some Muslims say is tantamount to polytheism. Sufi worship also includes religious singing and dancing, which are sharply at odds with the more austere conventions of Salafi worship. For viewers, the presentation styles of the region's satellite stations draw clear lines between such ideological differences, said Sami al Sharief, the dean of the faculty of mass media at the Modern University for Technology and Information in Cairo. Mr al Sharief is researching religious media in the Middle East.
Sufi stations often present religious music and lively sound effects. Some even employ female presenters and present discussions of topical issues, Mr al Sharief said. The Salafi stations, meanwhile, tend to be more sober. "They present very strict Islamic thoughts and some of them teach Quran, but others give strict fatwas", Mr al Sharief said. "They never use music. Women are not allowed to appear on screen either as presenters or guests. All men who appear on screen should wear a beard. Only senior ulema who are well known to be respected are allowed to give fatwas on screen. They refrain from dealing with political issues and they avoid clashes with political authorities."
While conflicts with regional governments are a potential pitfall for Salafi stations - whose programming tends to run counter to secular-minded regimes such as Egypt's - Mr al Azayim is confident he can avoid problems with Cairo's political authorities. Religiously themed television stations are illegal in Egypt, but they are frequently broadcast from abroad and the government is likely to favour a channel that promotes a more moderate view of Islam, he said.
Mohammed Habib, a spokesman for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed but tolerated Islamist political organisation, said he opposed the channel's ideological agenda, adding that it would "serve the ruling regime by letting them use Sufi thought against political Islam". "We have a comprehensive concept of Islam as a holistic thing, not a partial thing. And any other concept which is less holistic will not promote the development of the Islamic nation," he said.
"If this satellite station is going to confront the attacks against Islam, it's welcome. But with regards to its reviewing of Islam, I think it will be on the wrong side of our concept of Islam." After several years of planning, the project has nearly entered its fund-raising stage, said Mr al Azayim, who expects to be able to raise the required three million Egyptian pounds (Dh2m) this year with help from charitable investors.
Mr al Azayim said he had already had positive discussions with NileSat, an Egyptian government-owned satellite operator and one of the largest satellite services in the Middle East. Like other religious satellite stations, Al Sufiya Wa Atasawaf will feature Sufi music and poetry, talk shows, theological discussions and lectures, as well as spiritually themed films and serials, Mr al Azayim said.
But unlike other stations, Al Sufiya Wa Atasawaf will treat its viewers to a principled defence of a religious ideology that some of the station's sponsors feel is under attack. "It is defensive. It is to stand by the truth, to clear all the misconceptions about Islam," said Sheikh Sayf al Azmy, the leader of the Sudanese branch of the Al Azmiyah tariqah and one of the new station's organisers. "People have diverted from the righteous path, and the satellite would help people understand the right message of Islam and take people back to it."