TRIPOLI - Libyan Sufi Muslims staged a joyous parade through the heart of the capital Tripoli on Saturday, February 4, to mark the birth of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
"We fought the tyrant (Gaddafi) because he was a dictator and we don't want anyone like him to govern us again," biology teacher Mohammad Aref told Reuters.
"We are the majority."
Choking the narrow alleys of the walled old town, the Sufi marchers chanted hymns to the beat of drums and cymbals.
The celebration, the first since Gaddafi's ouster in August, was held despite concerns of attacks by some Libyans who see Sufis as heretics.
Sheikh Emhemed Elashhab said that there were fewer radical Libyans in the country.
"All normal people are against their ideas," he said.
Sufism, a mystical strain among Muslims, dates back to Islam's early days.
Apart from the standard prayers, Sufi devotions include singing hymns, chanting the names of God or dancing to heighten awareness of the divine. They also build shrines to some revered scholars.
But some Muslims consider these practices grave sins that must be stopped.
One night last month, extremists bulldozed through a wall of an old cemetery in the eastern city of Benghazi, destroyed its tombs and carried off 29 bodies of respected sages and scholars. They also demolished a nearby Sufi school.
"The extremists have taken advantage of the lack of order," said Jamel Abdul Muhi, a Sufi in Tripoli.
"Those who work in the dark are either bats or thieves. They are cowards."
In Benghazi, hundreds of Sufis marched to a main square flanked by 30 armed militiamen for security.
Jumaa Mohammad Al-Sharif, an Islamic school teacher, said the procession was also a protest against last month's grave desecrations.
"We caught some people who destroyed the zawiya (Islamic school) and disrespected the graves and handed them over to the authorities, but we were surprised when we later learned they had been released," he said.
Hisham Krekshi, deputy chairman of the Tripoli Local Council, expressed satisfaction the march took place peacefully despite concerns about reprisals from some Libyans, who spread pamphlets in recent days urging people to shun the event.
"This has been around for 14 centuries, you can't stop it," he said in one of the main souks, where the gold traders and cloth merchants had shut their shops for the day.
Festivities in Tripoli began with Sufi devotions in traditional Islamic schools in the old town.
At Zawiya Kabira, the largest one, men chanted rounds of rousing hymns in an incense-filled room while other distributed almond milk and biscuits to those outside.
Boys lit firecrackers as lines of men danced out of the school and down the alleys, with women watching from balconies and doorways as the procession passed.
"Beloved Prophet of God, be the enemy of all His enemies," was one of the slogans they chanted in Sufi-style repetition.
At one point, marchers spilled out onto Martyrs Square, the old Green Square where Gaddafi used to address his supporters.
Najat Al-Mughrabi, waiting with other women at a corner to watch their sons march by, said she was not afraid of the extremists."They couldn't do anything before (under Gaddafi), how can they do anything now?" she asked.