Mogadishu, Somalia – As the last rays of the afternoon sun bounced off the coloured tin roofs of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a group of Sufis came out of a gated house, singing hymns while holding hands, black prayer beads dangling from their hands and necks.
They were making a short but a symbolic slow walk to a nearby mosque in the Bakara area of the seaside city to continue their afternoon prayer programme.
Crowds stopped to look and take photos with their phones; the odd person opened a window to see what was happening. These scenes – Sufis walking down the streets and chanting – are rarely seen in Somalia these days.
The country was once majority Sufi but all that changed in the past two and a half decades. Sufis were almost wiped out from Somalia: in the early 1990s, by warlords and their marauding militias, and, in the last decade, by the hardline al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab, which sees them as non-believers and legitimate targets for attacks.
Sheikh Adan Sheikh Ahmed Gure led the group forth. In his late 30s, he is a man on a mission. Gure is from a well-known Sufi family: both his father and grandfather were Sufi leaders. He has seen it all – from the time of their near extinction to their currently slow precarious revival.
“The last 25 years have been really bad for us. We suffered immensely like everyone else in Somalia during the civil war. We were targeted by every group,” Gure told Al Jazeera, taking a quick break from leading the prayers. The rest of his congregation continued with their prayer chants.
Several prominent Sufi leaders were either killed or died in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries following Somalia’s brutal civil war which started in 1991 after the government of Siad Barre was overthrown by rebels.
“We have been here before any group. We are part of this soil. We are going nowhere, no matter what some people may want,” Gure said defiantly.
Sufi shrines and graves of prominent leaders were not spared from destruction during the country’s brutal war. Historic tombs which were pilgrimage destinations for thousands of Sufi worshippers were ransacked by the warlords and then completely desecrated by fighters wielding axes when al-Shabab took control of large swaths of the country. The group has desecrated more than a thousand Sufi graves in southern Somalia since 2006.
Sufism, a mystical practice of Islam, arrived in the east African country in the 18th century and was embraced widely.
Thirty minutes’ drive from the Bakara area to the other side of the city in Hodan district, a group of about 30 mainly young men gathered in a semi-circle inside a Mosque. They represent the next generation of Sufi preachers.
The 29-year-old imam reminded his mainly young congregation of their religious duties. The atmosphere in the mosque was upbeat and tea flowed freely.
“Let us follow the path of our forefathers. The correct path, the peaceful pathway. Let us double our efforts to spread the word of God,” Imam Abshir Abdi Siyad told them.
“We do this every Friday night,” the imam told Al Jazeera. “It is our religious obligation to teach everyone, especially the next generation, about our prophet’s teachings and the way he lived his life. If we don’t teach them, other people will teach them wrong things,” Siyad added.
With the armed group losing control of most major towns and cities to Somalia’s Western-backed government, Sufis are slowly making a comeback.
But they have lost many followers and the recovery is slow. A further complication is that younger Somalis are increasingly self-identifying as Sunni because of the many religious schools established in the country by young, Saudi-educated Somali teachers.
Before the start of the civil war most religious schools in the country were run by Sufi teachers but the civil war changed it all. Like all other sectors, the education system was left destroyed, too.
As the war raged on, young Somalis who could afford to do so, left the country to pursue their education outside Somalia, including in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries. Those who were financially limited often received scholarships to attend religious schools in the Middle East funded by these governments.
The young, educated Somalis have returned to the country as the conflict has died down. They have invested in the recovery of their country and some have opened Sunni religious schools.
The country’s powerful business leaders – also often foreign-educated – who invest in education and orphanages across the country are mainly Sunni as well. Sufis suspect that these events and the increased Sunni influences have further hindered the recovery of their own community.
“We do not have the money or guns that many new groups in the country have,” Siyad, the imam, said, referring to the Sunnis and their financial muscle.
“But we have been here longer than them. Sufism is part of our heritage, our peaceful heritage and it is here to stay for ever,” he added.
The Sufis are engaging in efforts to reclaim their lost glory, starting with schools. About 30 students between five and 16 years of age were cramped into a one-room religious school in Hamarweyne using wooden tablets and ink made of charcoal instead of books and pens for study.
The school, run by a traditional Sufi teacher, is one of a few in the city to be run by the mystic group and stands in stark contrast to others in its neighbourhood.
“I was taught this way. I was taught under a tree. My teachers were not educated in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else but Somalia. I want to revive our way of teaching Islam,” Ma’alim Mohamed Ibrahim Mohamed, a teacher at the Sufi religious school, told Al Jazeera.
“The parents appreciate this style of teaching our religion and the students enjoy it very much. I have been teaching this way for the past five years,” Mohamed said.
Standing outside the school waiting to pick up his seven-year-old daughter, Ahmed Noor agreed.
“I think many schools of this kind need to open in our city. This is how it was before the war and before teachers who came from abroad started teaching our children. Sufis are very peaceful,” Noor said, although he is not Sufi himself.
With relative normality returning to Somalia, Sufi leaders now admit they may have to do more than just preach in the few mosques they have in the Somali capital.
“We are peaceful people and we do our best to stay away from politics and violence, but we need to do more, like offer free education to those who cannot afford it,” said Gure, the Sufi leader. “We need to open more [religious schools] and offer financial help to the poor.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa