The Fes Festival of Sufi Culture demonstrated that Sufism can show the world how to peacefully combat Islamist extremism whilst simultaneously challenging negative perceptions of Islam. The renaissance of Sufism in both Sunni and Shia-majority countries is a hopeful and promising trend. And nowhere is this revival as strong as it is in Morocco, a country in which Sufism has deep roots.
Thousands traveled from all over Morocco to attend the Fes Festival of Sufi Culture, a week-long series of concerts, panels, and roundtable discussions from October 19 to 26, both to learn about what Sufism has to offer and to connect with a Moroccan cultural tradition that goes back centuries.
“The aim of the Festival is to make Moroccans discover, or rediscover, a culture that is theirs and offer them access to this artistic, intellectual, and spiritual wealth,” says the festival’s website. In keeping with this, there was a welcoming energy at all of the festival’s magnificent venues, from Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Fes was a perfect setting for the festival: the city is the spiritual capital of Morocco and has a long-established Sufi tradition.
Fes was a perfect setting for the festival: the city is the spiritual capital of Morocco and has a long-established Sufi tradition. This influence is plain to see in the beautiful architecture, painting, and gardens of the medina, and in the frenzied yet calming pace of life. Weather permitting, events were held in the courtyard of the magnificent Bou Inania Madrassa, in the heart of the Medina. When necessary, proceedings were moved indoors to the almost as marvelous atrium of the Dar Batha building, currently occupied by L’Institut Francais.
Each night, festival goers were treated to enchanting recitals from Sufi master musicians, free of charge. A concerted effort was made to show how Sufism can be applied to the modern world in a host of ways. Topics under discussion at the panel and round-table events included women’s rights, Sufi art, the links between spirituality and human rights, and the application of Sufism to modern life.
Sufis often face violence and intimidation from within Muslim communities, where they are sometimes seen as blasphemous. In 2017, an attack on a Sufi mosque in Sinai killed 311 people. The same year, ISIS attacked a Sufi shrine in southern Pakistan, killing 83. It is against this troubling background that Sufism is using peaceful means to assert its true place at the heart of Islamic cultures. It is hoped that events such as the Festival of Sufi Culture can increase understanding and ultimately promote peace among groups.
Sufism can be the antidote to fundamentalism, given its emphasis on inner contemplation over outward activism.
Many at the festival, including organizer, Faouzi Skali, believe that Sufism can be the antidote to fundamentalism, given its emphasis on inner contemplation over outward activism. Sufism has often drawn upon existing cultural traditions, rather than imposing itself as an external ideological force, a fact that may arguably reveal an inherent tolerance in the belief system that is often lacking in other religious traditions.
In their work, Skali and his colleagues hope that promoting Sufism can not only act as a counterbalance to rising fundamentalism in the Islamic world, but also challenge some of the negative perceptions around Islam in other parts of the globe. The festival program states the intention: “To make known internationally a positive image of Islam, thanks to the universal language of openness and peace that advocates the spiritual voice that inhabits it: Sufism.”
In this spirit, the festival program was replete with panel events that centered around open discussion, involving both panelists and audience members, with all present being given the opportunity to speak and be heard. On one occasion, an audience member stood up during an event and began loudly advocating the compulsory veiling of women, saying that women who did not wear any form of veil are further from God than those who do. An earnest and civilized discussion followed, with tensions having subsided by the end of the meeting. This was arguably an example of the spirit of Sufism acting as an antidote to fundamentalism in real time.
It is perhaps in the arts that Sufism has had the biggest impact on world culture.
Perhaps the most prominent narrative across the week-long event was the focus on Sufism’s artistic wealth. It is perhaps in the arts that Sufism has had the biggest impact on world culture. Many people may be aware of Sufi artistic achievements, such as the world-famous poet Rumi and the entrancing dance of the Whirling Dervishes, without knowing of their connection to Sufism.
The Fes Festival of Sufi Culture celebrated the contribution of Sufism to myriad artforms, from painting to calligraphy to music to films to literature, with exhibitions, talks, and shows from major figures in all these fields. Up and coming contemporary artists were also introduced, in an effort to extend the message of Sufism not only across cultures but across generations.
The festival also underlined the inherent link between the political and the artistic within Sufism. One of the goals of the festival is to “offer a platform of expression to artists, Moroccans and internationals, who have engaged in a spiritual process in order to enrich their artistic and intellectual creativity, to explore new arts and cultural and social projects that work for intercultural dialogue, human and civilizational development.” The goal is to bring people together since art can bridge cultural divides and spark ideas that might solve human problems.
“The Fes Festival of Sufi Culture has chosen this year to combine notions of humanism and spirituality,” says Faouzi Skali, building on the notion of linking Sufism’s aesthetic value with its political potential. The message here is to champion the progressive, human-rights values of humanism, indeed even to celebrate its veneration of science, but at the same time to challenge the notion that has been central to humanism since the enlightenment, namely that in order for humanity to flourish, it must overcome the need for faith. Skali, along with many who spoke during the festival, believes that Sufism can be the glue that unites faith and humanism. “It is the conjunction between these two dimensions that we would like to address here through the culture of Sufism,” he says.
The 2019 Fes Festival of Sufi Culture was a superb demonstration of a religious tradition that elegantly ties together so many aspects of human nature in a way that promotes peace, contemplation, and understanding. Most who witnessed it first-hand left Fes with the belief that the MENA region, and the world at large, could do with a lot more events of this caliber.
- To find out more about the festival, visit: https://www.festivalculturesoufie.com/.