Hundreds of people have been killed inside Sufi mosques in the past year by militants. To members of the militant Islamic State group and some other Islamic sects, Sufis are not considered Muslims.

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The suicide bomber who stepped inside the gold-domed shrine in southern Pakistan in February was wearing a vest packed with ball bearings, bolts and screws. When he hit the detonator, he killed more than 80 people.

To the world, they were Muslims.

But to the Islamic State group (ISIS), which quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, they were something else: Mushrikin, an Arabic word meaning polytheists.

Because the worshippers who died at the shrine of the Sufi philosopher Lal Shahbaz Qalandar had come bearing offerings of rose petals and had prayed at the tomb of the revered saint, hard-liners saw their faith as an affront to Islam, which holds that there is a single, indivisible God.

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam, a school of practice that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. It has produced some of the world’s most beloved literature, like the love poems of the 13th-century Iranian jurist Rumi. Its modern-day adherents cherish tolerance and pluralism, qualities that in many religions unsettle extremists.

But Sufism, often known as Islamic mysticism, has come under violent attack in recent years.

Attacks during prayer

Since at least 2016, ISIS militants have targeted Sufis, whose devotions include the veneration of saints, often at their tombs. The extremist group has systematically razed the tombs of Sufi saints and blown up their shrines. About a year ago, ISIS began carrying out mass executions of Sufi worshippers during prayer.

While no group has claimed responsibility for the killings of more than 300 people Friday in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, that attack also took place inside a Sufi mosque. Egyptian officials on Saturday said the militants involved in the attack were carrying the black flag of ISIS, though ISIS remained mum on whether its fighters were behind the violence.

After every attack of this nature, observers are perplexed at how a group claiming to be Islamic could kill members of its own faith. But the voluminous writings published by ISIS and al-Qaida media branches, as well as the writings of hard-liners from the Salafi sect and the Wahhabi school, make clear that these fundamentalists do not consider Sufis to be Muslims at all.

Their particular animus toward the Sufi practice involves the tradition of visiting the graves of holy figures. The act of praying to saints and worshipping at their tombs is an example of what extremists refer to as “shirk,” or polytheism, according to Brill’s Encyclopedia of Islam.

“Shirk literally means association. It is the act of associating God with other entities,” said Jacob Olidort, a scholar of Islam, a foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the author of several reports for the Brookings Institution on these and other concepts. “What they take the Sufis to task principally for is the intercession, the use of other media, to access God, rather than going directly.”

Alexander Knysh, the author of two studies of Sufism and a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, agreed.

“They believe Sufi shrines are the most egregious expression of that shirk,” he said. “You are turning to a mediator, who is inserting himself between the believer and God, and in this way it becomes a kind of idol.”

Ancient debate

Sufis venerate mystics, who in their lifetime were seen as close to the divine. They bring votive gifts to their graves, like rose water or rose petals. Merchants heading on long voyages will come and make an offering, promising to make another if their venture is successful, Knysh said.

Sufis, he said, are monotheistic and, to them, the practice does not supplant or create an equal to God. But hard-liners don’t see it this way, and instead see Sufis as “grave worshippers.”

The debate over what constitutes idolatry in the Muslim faith is centuries old. In the early 1800s, fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia went so far as to try to blow up the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, Knysh said.

ISIS’ own publication made clear as far back as 11 months ago that it considered Sufism to be one of the main “diseases” it aimed to treat in Egypt. Rawda, the district where Friday’s attack occurred, was mentioned as one of the areas where the group planned to “eradicate” Sufi beliefs.

In a question-and-answer with ISIS magazine Rumiyah, the emir of the group’s religious police in the area, said: “Our main focus, however, is to wage war against the manifestations of shirk and bid’ah, including Sufism.”

The article includes images of a Sufi prayer hall in Sinai, and a photo of an old man kneeling as an Islamic State militant lowers a blade over his neck. He is identified in the photograph as Abu Hiraz, a Sufi cleric, who according to news reports was abducted in front of his home in late 2016.

In the article, the Islamic State acknowledged abducting the elderly man, who they say was sentenced to death because of his embrace of polytheism.

They also issued a warning to other Sufis living in Egypt, saying they were “mushrikin” and that their “blood is filthy and permissible to shed.”