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RIFA’IYAH. The Sunni Sufi order known as the Rifa’iyah played an important role in the institutionalization of Sufism. In all likelihood, until the fifteenth century it was the most prevalent Sufi order. Thereafter the popularity of the Rifa’iyah continued in the Arab world, where at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth the Rifa-‘i order possessed the greatest number of tekkes. Since then the order experienced a decline until recent years, when Rifa-‘i activity began to increase.

The shaykh most responsible for its early renown was Ahmad ibn `Alt al-Rifa’i (1106-1182), who spent nearly his entire life in southern Iraq’s marshlands. His Sufi lineages include both Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 910) and Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896). In 1145 al-Rifa’i became shaykh of the order when his uncle (who was also his shaykh) appointed him to be his successor. Al-Rifa’i then established his center in Umm `Abidah, a village in the district of Wasit, where he later died. Under his guidance the order flourished. The spreading of the order beyond Iraq was due to disciples who fanned out throughout the Middle East. New Rifa-‘i branches and even distinct orders were formed by these disciples who initially had been affiliated with al-Rifa`i. The most important of these new orders were the Badawiyah, Dasuqiyah, and Alwaniyah. In time, branches of the Rifa-‘i order increased, with the position of shaykh generally becoming hereditary.

Although existing elsewhere, the Rifa`i order is most significant in Turkey, southeastern Europe, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, with a nascent presence in the United States. In late Ottoman Turkey the Rifa’iyah was an important order, with Rifa’is comprising about seven percent of those affiliated with Sfifi orders in Istanbul. At that time one of the most important branches of the Rifa’i order was the Sayyadi branch, which owed its significance to Shaykh Abu al-Huda Muhammad alSayyadi’s (1850-1909) influence on the Ottoman sultan Abdfilhamid II (r. 1876-1909). More recently in Turkey, Kenan Rifai (d. 1950) was a Rif-a’i shaykh whose circle included many highly cultured and educated Turks, among them women and Christians. He taught a Sufism of universal love. This tendency has been modified of late by Samiha Ayverdi-who after Rifa’i’s death has guided those devoted to his teachings-with her publication of a sharply political work, Let Us Be Not Slaves but Masters (Istanbul, 1979).

In the modern period in southeastern Europe, the Rifa’is have been active in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Beginning in 1936 the Albanian Rifa’is joined a coalition of Albanian Sufi orders called Drita Hyjnore (The Divine Light). In the former Yugoslavia, of its nine Sufi orders in 1985, the Rif`i order was third in importance, having centers in Skopje (Macedonia), Kosova, and Sarajevo. The Rifa’is of the Prizren tekke in Kosova became well known through the UNESCO audio recording of their dhikr as well as three documentaries of the ritual. In the early 1990s numerous dervishes of the Rif-a’! order have been killed fighting the Serbs’ “ethnic cleansing.”

In the Arab world, the Rifa’i order has a significant presence in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and its birthplace Iraq. In the early part of the nineteenth century in Egypt, there was no central authority among the Rif`iyah. As of 1970, however, the supreme head of the Rif-a’! order in Egypt was Mahmfid Kamil Ya Sin, although he was also head of the `Amriyah branch of the order. The Egyptian Rifa’is like most Egyptian Sufis, feel that one of the factors that make the Sufis distinct from other Muslims is their devotion to the Prophet and his family. In Palestine, in 1981 the main active Rif-a’! shaykhs were Kamil al-Ja’bari of Hebron and Nazmi `Awkal of Nablus. The Rifa`is of Tripoli, Lebanon, were active as of 1984; at that time there were five well-known zawiyahs where the ritual of the dhikr was still practiced. In Syria the Rifa’i order, after the Nagshbandi, is probably the most widespread and dynamic of the orders. As of the early 1980s the most significant Syrian branch was that of `Abd al-Hakim `Abd al-Basit al-Saqbani; he and those affiliated with him have published numerous writings of Rifa’i shaykhs.

The chief branch of the Rifa’i order in Iraq has been headed by the al-Rawi family. Recently, under the direction of Shaykh Khashi al-Raw! of Baghdad, the Rifa’is of Iraq-like those of Syria-have published a number of older Rifa’i texts.

There are currently at least three Rifa`i branches in the United States. Shaykh Taner Vargonen, based in Northern California, has a Qadiri-Rifa’i lineage deriving from Muhammad Ansari (d. 1978) of Istanbul. Since 1992 another Turkish Rifa`i, Mehmet Catalkaya (Serif Baba), has overseen the establishment of tekkes in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and in Manhattan; Serif Baba’s shaykh was Burhan Efendi of Izmir. The third Rif-a’! branch is located in the state of New York. Dr. Muhyiddin Shakoor, a counseling psychologist, writes about his involvement with them in The Writing on the Water (Dorset, Great Britain, 1987). His shaykh is connected by lineage to Rifa’is of Kosova.

As an example of Ahmad al-RifaTs teaching, Sha’rani (d. 1565) notes that he spoke of traditional Sfifi stations (maqamat) such as piety (wara’), worship (ta’abbud), love (mahabbah), gnosis (ma’rifah), and unification (tawhid). These would give rise, respectively, to abandonment of calamities (afat), constant striving (ijtihdd), melting (dhawaban) and rapture (hayman), passing away (fand’) and effacement (mahw), and the affirmation (ithbat) and presence of the Divine (hudur) (Al-tabaqat alkubra, Cairo, 1954, vol. 1, p. 141).

Among the practices of the Rifa`is their distinctive dhikr is noteworthy. On account of it they were known as the “howling dervishes.” Formerly some Rifa’is were notorious for including in their rites practices such as piercing their skin with swords and eating glass. Such practices traveled with the Rifa’i order as far as the Malay archipelago, but in recent times the Rifa’i order has been known for its rejection of any practices that are alien to Islam. This rejection of bid `ah is what attracted `Abd al-Salam Muhammad `Amriyah (1965), the shaykh of Mahmfid Kamil Yasin, to the Rifa’iyah One soundly Islamic practice found among some Rifa’iyah occurring during the initiation rite, is that the spiritual director may inculcate the dhikr “Ld ilaha ills Allah” (No god but God) in the devotee. This may also take form as a vocal dhikr recited regularly by the Rifa’is in their zawi-yah. In some Rifa’i branches the devotees recite various litanies and invoke names of God such as Allah, Hu (He), Hayy (Living), Haqq (Real), Qayyum (Selfsubsistent), Rahmdn (Compassionate), and Rahim (Merciful). Finally, in certain branches of the Rifa’iyah devo- tees must go into seclusion and undertake a spiritual retreat (khalwah) for a least a week at the beginning of the month of Muharram.

The Rifa’i order exhibits a wide variety of practices and teachings that scholars have not yet adequately studied. Although the presence of the Rifa’iyah is threatened in the Balkans and has only a foothold in the United States, it is indeed significant in Turkey as well as in much of the Arab world.


Bannerth, Ernst. “La Rifa’iyya en Egypte.” Melanges: Institut Dominicain d’Etudes Orientales du Caire to (19’70): 1-35. Limited in scope, but no other Western secondary source covers the Egyptian Rifa’Iyah.

De Jong, Frederick. Turuq and Turuq-Linked Institutions in Nineteenth Century Egypt, Leiden, 1978. References on the organization of the Rifa’iyah are found throughout the work.

Najjar, `Amir. Al-Turuq al-Sufiyah fi Misr. Cairo, 1978. Contains a chapter on the Rifa’iyah and includes discussion of Rifa`i practices. Oztiirk, Yasar Nuri. The Eye of the Heart. Translated by Richard Blakney. Istanbul, 1988. An abridged translation of Tasavvufun Ruhu ve tarikatlar. Istanbul, 1988. Contains a short chapter on the Rifa’iyah

Popovic, Alexandre, and Gilles Veinstein. Les Orders Mystiques Dans L’Islam: Cheminements et situation actuelle. Paris, 1986. This indispensible collection supplements Trimingham and contains articles by a number of scholars on the Sufi orders in the modern world. For the Rifa’iyah see especially the contributions of F. de Jong, Popovic, and Kreiser.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. London, 1971. Despite gaps it is the most comprehensive work on the Sufi orders. It is out of print.

Wasiti, `Abd al-Rahman al-. Tiryaq al-muhibbin. Cairo, 1887-1888. Contains the earliest hagiography of Ahmad al-Rifa`i.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/rifaiyah/

  • writerPosted On: July 18, 2017
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