Sufism in UAE: A Short History

The question today is: Can the Sufism survive in UAE with all these socio-economic and cultural transformations and political and religious challenges, especially with the dominance of Wahhabism in the Gulf states and the rise of Salafi jihadis and political Islam, who all refuse the Sufi rituals. – Dr Haytham Mouzahem



There are few sources that talk about the history of mysticism in the Arab Gulf states and particularly in the United Arab Emirates. G.G. Lorimer, who is considered one of the best historians and geographers that described the Arabian Gulf at the beginning of the Twentieth century said in his book “The Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf : Oman and Central Arabia”: There is no Sufis in the (Arab) Gulf”.

That can be explained by two reasons: First reason is the absence of the stories of Sufism in the local manuscripts or the foreign historical documents in English, Portuguese and Dutch that talked on Oman’s coast, UAE today.

The second reason is the lack of historical local of books on the country in general and on its religious history in particular. The Emirati researcher, Rashed Ahmed Al-Jumairi, has written a study entitled “Sufism in Dubai from Al-Afghani to Abderahhim al-Mareed” has been published in a book on “Sufism in Saudi Arabia and The Gulf” in 2011 by Al- Misbar center for studies in Dubai.

Al-Jumairi has introduced a historical track of Sufisim roots in the UAE and its relation to “Seer” Sufism (Seer is Ras Al – Khaimah now). He studied three Sufi figures that represented the Sufi experience in UAE, relying on narratives of the last Sufi figure, Sheikh Abderrahim Al-Marid(1902- 2007), who lived in Dubai and died in 2007. Al-Marid reported from his father Sheikh Abdullah Al-Marid the story of the Sayyed Mohammad Omar Al-Afghani, the first figure of those tree Sufi figures mentioned above, while Abdallah Al-Marid and his son Abderrahim are the two other figures.

The roots of Sufism in UAE or Oman’s coast go back to 300 years ago in the seventeen century in Seer, Ras Al-Khaima today, when some Sufis came up from Hadramout, Yemen, with the Alawite Hadadi Sufisim order.

There is a local manuscript that talks about the Sufism’s history in the Eastern South of Arabia in the eighteen century. It reported the fact of the Alawite Hadadi order in Seer area as a part of the Sufi Yemeni experience. The Yemeni writer of the manuscript, Alawi Bin Ahmad Bin Hassan Al-hadad, had talked about his grandfather’s virtues and his memoires in UAE during the late of the eighteen century. This text shows that the Sufism had strong foothold in Ras Al-Khaima and  in particular in the ruler family al-Qassemi and Al-Zuaabi tribe. Also, the Sufi rituals including the consecration and the visits of the saints or Sufi sheikhs graves.

However this Sufi experience has been ended by the rise of Sheikh Mohammad Bin Abdul Wahab’s call and the expansion of Al-Saud State. The Saudi forces have encircled Seer and forced its inhabitants to follow the Wahhabi school and to destroy the Sufi shrines.

The Hadadi order has disappeared in Oman’s coast and few grandsons of its founder remained in UAE and Bahrain.

Sufism emitted again in the UAE in the late nineteenth century by an Afghani immigrant , Al-Sayed Mohammad Omar Al-Afghani. There is no accurate information about Al-Afghani and where he came from. Some say he came from Mecca with people from Dubai and some say he came from Bahrain with people from Bani Yass while others reported that he came from Afghanistan through Egypt heading to AbdelKader Al-Jilani shrine in Baghdad. So, he studied in Al-Azhar institute in Cairo then he came to Abu Dhabi and later to Dubai.

Al-Afghani became an Imam of mosque in Abu Dhabi teaching the religious studies to his followers and spreading his Sufi order. He moved later to Dubai, that was ready to welcome a Sufi Sheikh due to its historical experience with Sufi orders and its Maliki school that does not reject the Sufi rituals as the Wahhabi Salafism and Hanbalism.

Despite the objection of some Hanbalis in Sharjah and Dubai on Al-Afghani rituals as heresy, the rulers of Dubai have adopted his Sufism and treated him very well during the rule of Sheikh Hashr Al-Maktoum . Even, Sheikh Saeed Bin Maktoum Bin Hashr has received Al-Afghani support for his claim of rule following the death of Sheikh Butti Bin Suhail Al Maktoum in 1912.

Even, Sheikh Saeed was attending the Sufi rituals of Al-Zikr and Al-mawlid and he was practicing them.

There are narratives that Al-sayed Al-Afghani, who had a social and political recognition in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, was involved in smuggling arms into Afghanistan to the revolutionaries against the British colonialism.

In 1915, Al-Afghani bought 100 guns and sent them to Afghanistan. Then, he left Dubai to Makran(Balochistan Province, Pakistan) but the British authorities found out his role in sending arms to the Afghani rebels, and there are reports that they sent two spies to kill him in Makran in August 1916.

After his death, his successor was Sheikh Abdullah Al-Marid who added the Rifai order to the Qaderi order which has been brought by Al-Afghani.

The Rifai Sufi Order takes its name from Ahmad al-Rifai (1106–82), a Shafii legal scholar and mystic from the marshlands of southern Iraq. He was a contemporary of Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166), the eponymous founder of the Qadiri Sufi Order.

Sheikh Al-Marid died in the late 1960s and his son Abdurrahim succeeded him.

The Sufi order of Dubai has been known of piercing the body with skewers.

In 1958, the National Geographic has published photos of Ronald Codrai who has shot the Sufi rituals in Dubai in the 1950s, including the piercing the body with skewers.

However the rituals that persevered by Sufis in Dubai such as Al-maled or Al-mawlid which means celebrating the birth of the prophet Muhammad, by chanting the Dhikr, the remembrance of Allah.

It is worth noting that the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum has banned piercing the body with skewers and Sheikh Al-Marid ordered his followers to stop this ritual, as an obey of the ruler.

After the death of Sheikh Abdulrahim Al-Marid in 2007, Sufism was taken into recession due to the divisions between his followers regarding his successor. Some are following now the Omani Hamdan Al-Ma’amari who was Al-Marid’s pupil and he is reviving Sufism’s rituals, while others are following the family of Bin Hmaydan in Dubai.

The question today is: Can the Sufism survive in UAE with all these socio-economic and cultural transformations and political and religious challenges, especially with the dominance of Wahhabism in the Gulf states and the rise of Salafi jihadis and political Islam, who all refuse the Sufi rituals.




This post first appeared in The Levant

*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is the head of the Beirut center for Middle East Studies 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflects the views of The Kootneeti Team

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