Drums pounded hard as a circle of men, their shoulder-length hair whirling through the air, spun their heads in a trance.
In the middle of the circle, other men pierced their heads with knives and drove skewers in their mouths as hundreds of others chanted, “Muhammad the savior will wash off the heart’s stain and show the righteous path.”
They were members of the Sufi branch of Islam, celebrating their return to the Iraqi city of Mosul after the overthrow of Islamic State. They were performing their rituals in Ali Kasnazani Takya — a new convent to hold Sufi ceremonies after most of their places of worship were destroyed during the brutal 6-month-old campaign to oust IS from Mosul.
Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam characterized by an inward search for God and the rejection of materialism. The group is divided into many different orders and has followers around the world.
In Iraq, followers of the Kasnazani order believe they have established a spiritual lineage through their leader and founder, Shaikh Muhammad Abdul Kareem al-Kasnazani al-Qadiri al-Hussaini, to the prophet of Islam.
WATCH: Sufism Returns to Mosul After Islamic State
Sufism often comes under criticism by non-Sufi Muslims and faces heavy government control due to its adherents, locally known as dervishes, inflicting wounds upon themselves. But followers say their rituals and practices help them attain the ecstatic trance to reach God.
“Our method is peaceful and is only to help us come closer to God,” Madullah Farhan, a Sufi member from Mosul, told VOA. “Our remembrance of Allah purifies our hearts.”
Farhan said remembrance and meditation, which included headbanging and the recitation of the 99 names of God in Islam, helped them perform supernatural wonders and establish communion with God.
The sect has been targeted by Islamist militant groups since 2003 due to the claim that they practice a heterodox form of Islam.
When IS controlled Mosul in 2014, it declared the Sufis as legitimate targets, confiscated their convents, known as Takya, and gave them the option to either abandon their practices or face death.
Waled Jabr, head of Mosul’s Takyas, recounted to VOA how IS purged followers of the sect. He said most Sufis fled Mosul, and those who stayed had to hide their beliefs. The Islamist group burned their religious texts, turned their convents into training camps for new recruits and exploded the burial sites of Sufi spiritual leaders.
Jabr was imprisoned by IS and sentenced to death by hanging in 2017. He was later freed on the condition he abandons all Sufi practices.
FILE – An Iraqi Muslim has a spike pierced into his tongue during a Sufi ritual in the Iraqi city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, Jan. 15, 2016.
“IS tried to destroy everything that we considered sacred,” he said. “They started destroying our Takyas as soon as they entered Mosul.”
Of the nearly 100 Sufi convents in Mosul, the majority now lie in ruins. The followers are pained particularly at the destruction of their main places of worship known as Rafai Takya and Naqishbandi Takya in the Old City district.
Rami al-Abadi, a member of the Mosul Sufis Committee, said IS turned the Naqishbandi Takya into a mosque before it was destroyed by airstrikes during the war for Mosul. The famous convent, which once hosted hundreds of Sufi students from across Iraq, is now a hulk of shattered concrete and twisted metal.
“Generations of Sufis were being prepared here to spread the philosophy of modesty, tolerance, love and peace,” al-Abadi said, adding that the convent also attracted other religious minorities such as Christians to settle in the vicinity.
But IS took over the convent in mid-2014 and changed it to a mosque named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab — an Islamic theologian from Saudi Arabia who founded the movement now called Wahhabism. Many radical Islamists are said to have taken inspiration from the movement.
“IS changed the name to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to justify their takifri ideologies and their thirst for killing,” al-Abadi said.
“Takfiri” is an Arabic term used to criticize jihadists who accuse other Muslims of apostasy.
WATCH: Mosul’s Sufi Convents in Ruins After Islamic State
?Sufis say they are trying to provide a parallel pathway against radical Islamist ideology. They say the attacks on their convents, particularly from IS, are to scare away more Muslims around the world from joining their ranks.
A group of about 40 Islamist militants last November attacked the Sufi mosque of al-Rawdah in Egypt’s northern Sinai and killed more than 300 worshipers, including children. The attack triggered world condemnation and resurfaced debates over the need to end decades of targeting and discrimination against the Sufis across the Middle East.
For followers of the Kasnazani order who have resumed their rituals in Mosul, the removal of IS gives birth to a new hope that they can finally practice their beliefs without the fear of persecution.
Abdullah Muhammad, one of the leading Sufis in headbanging meditations at Ali Kasnazani Takya, charged that the defeat of IS has helped many Sufis return to their homes, but militant threats and social shaming are far from over.
“We sacrificed a lot under IS. We hope our sacrifice brings peace and tolerance to Mosul,” he told VOA.