SOURCE: Juan Cole at Informed Comment (blog) (5-29-07)
Shaikh Abdul Qadir al-Gilani (d. 1166 A.D.) was a great mystic who founded the vast Qadiriya Sufi order.
An Ottoman mystic, Shaikh Muzaffer Ozak Efendi, later wrote of him,
' "The venerable 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani passed on to the Realm of Divine Beauty in A.H. 561/ 1166 C.E., and his blessed mausoleum in Baghdaad is still a place of pious visitation. He is noted for his extraordinary spiritual experiences and exploits, as well as his memorable sayings and wise teachings. It is rightly said of him that 'he was born in love, grew in perfection, and met his Lord in the perfection of love.' May the All-Glorious Lord bring us in contact with his lofty spiritual influence!" '
The Qadiri Sufi order is very important in Iraq, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan and India, among other places.
The shrine was likely attacked by radical Sunni Salafis, with several objects in mind. First, Salafis hate Sufi shrines (see below). Second, the Salafi Jihadis in Iraq are trying to mobilize all Iraqi Sunnis behind them, and do not want rivals from among the Sufi orders and tribal shaikhs. Third, the Salafi Jihadis want to throw Iraq into ever greater chaos, such that they strike at all national symbols. Fourth, they are probably hoping that at least some Sunni Arabs will blame Shiite militiamen for the attack, or will blame the Shiite government for not preventing it, so that the bombing has the effect of heightening sectarian tensions further. The guerrilla attack on the Shiite Askariya Shrine in Samarra in February, 2006, set off an orgy of sectarian violence, and was the most successful single act of terrorism the guerrillas have ever carried out.
One saving grace is that Sufis are oriented toward symbolic meaning, and physical places are therefore not central to their worship. One famous medieval Sufi, al-Hallaj, famously thought that it was better to visit God in your heart truly than to undertake a perfunctory pilgrimage to Mecca. (The orthodox were outraged.) It is a little unlikely, therefore, that there will be a backlash from this bombing in Nigeria or Senegal or India. For Iraqi Sunnis, likewise, it seems a little unlikely to produce further violence, since the imam himself blamed the radical Salafis (takfiris), themselves Sunni.
Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Muhammad al-Isawi, the prayer leader and preacher at the mosque attached to the shrine, said, "I send condolences not only to myself but to all Iraqis for what befell this mosque for everyone, for Sunni and Shiite, for Turkmen and Kurd. Who venefits from blowing it up? We must be patient and resigned and deny any opportunity to the enemies, the Takfiri terrorists." [Takfiris are radical Salafis who declare Sufis and other non-Salafis to be non-Muslims and deserving of death.] He added, "They have idled the charitable works in the mosque, which provides food to widows, orphans and the needy; it also contains a library, to which seekers after knowledge resort. It was, truly, a cowardly act."
There are lots of strands of Sunni Islam. Many of them are better thought of as tendencies than as sects in their own right. If we make an analogy to Christianity, so there are scriptural literalists (fundamentalists), and there are mystics seeking union with God, and there is everything in between.
The mystics organized into orders or brotherhoods (tariqa) are called Sufis. (The etymology of 'Sufi' is disputed. Some say it refers to the early mystics' preference for woollen (suf) cloaks. Others say it is derived from the Greek Sophia or wisdom.) The mystics typically get together on a Thursday night (or other occasion) at the mosque and sit in a circle and chant spiritual verses and listen to the teachings of their spiritual master or shaikh (in Persian, pir). Some Sufi meetings, with their chanting and rhythmic dancing, resemble Pentacostal services in Christianity. When the shaikh died, often a shrine grew up around his tomb, which was thought a center of blessings and people would come there to touch it and be cured of infertility and other woes.
Sufism was so successful as an organized movement from about the 1100s that it took over Islam, and there were very few Muslims who were not in some sense Sufis in the period 1200 through about 1850. From the mid-1700s, Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab in Arabia began attacking Sufism. The attacks were taken up and refined by the Salafis (revivalists) of the late 19th and early 20th century. It began being argued, under Wahhabi and Salafi influence, that it was wrong to attend at shrines, wrong to seek the intercession of saints, wrong to chant and to dance for God. Modern Wahhabism (mostly a Saudi Arabian phenomenon) and Salafism (much more widespread) have a "Protestant" character to them, emphasizing puritanism and the casting down of all images (iconoclasm) and saints' shrines.
Sufism has rapidly declined in much of the Muslim world. The Sufi orders still have a central place in society and even politics in Senegal. The Sufis of Morocco are not inconsiderable. But they no longer are in the mainstream in Egypt and are minor affairs in Palestine, Syria and Jordan. The Sufis of the Hijaz in western Arabia are said to be having a bit of a revival, but Wahhabism has reduced them to a shadow of their former selves. Aside from Morocco, Iraq may have been the Arab country with the biggest Sufi presence, both among Sunni Arabs and among Kurds (a lot of Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey are Sufis and some are Qadiris).
Some of the Sufi orders, including branches of the Qadiriya, have at one time or another joined the Sunni Arab insurgency (a major guerrilla leader at Falluja was a Qadiri shaikh). Other branches of the Qadiriya have, however, been quietists and avoided politics (the shrine keeper is in that category, another reason that the shrine may have been hit).
There is a whole web site on al-Gilani and his order by an adherent.