Sheikh Hamed al-Nil was a 19th-century Sufi leader of the Qadiriyah order (tariqa), and his tomb is the weekly focus for dancing and chanting dervishes. Each Friday afternoon at around 16.00, adherents of the tariqa gather to dance and pray, attracting large crowds of observers and participants.
The ceremony starts with a march across the cemetery to the tomb of the sheikh. The dervishes carry the green banner of the tariqa, and wear a patchwork of green and red, often topped off with leopard skin, chunky beads and dreadlocks. As they march, they chant, accompanied by drums and cymbals. Outside the tomb, a large open space is cleared for the dervishes and the banner is raised for the ritual to begin. The pace of the chanting picks up, and the dervishes start to circle the clearing, bobbing and clapping.
The purpose of the frenzy is a ritual called dhikr. The dhikr relies on the recitation of God’s names to help create a state of ecstatic abandon in which the adherent’s heart can communicate directly with God. This personal communication with God is central to Sufi practices. As they march, the dervishes repeatedly chant La illaha illallah, meaning ‘There is no God but Allah’, the first line of the Muslim profession of faith. Around the edge of the circle other adherents clap and join in the chanting, creating a highly charged and hypnotic atmosphere.