At least 305 dead after attack on Egypt mosque

At least 305 people were killed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula after militants detonated a bomb and shot at worshipers in a mosque on Nov. 24.

On Friday, at least 305 Egyptians were killed by terrorists who detonated a bomb in a crowded mosque, then sprayed frantic worshipers with gunfire as they fled. It was deadliest in the country's modern history.

It "was horrific," local Ibrahim Sheteewi told the New York Times. "The bodies were scattered on the ground outside the mosque."

The assault shocked Egyptians for another reason: Attacks on mosques are unusual in Egypt. "I can't believe they attacked a mosque," a Muslim cleric in Bir al-Abed told the New York Times.

But to understand why this mosque was targeted, it's important to understand how Sunni extremists see Sufism.

Sufism is a strand of Islam that eschews materialism and emphasizes the inward search for God. Sufi adherents are responsible for some of Islam's most famous and beloved literature, including the poems of Rumi. Followers promote values such as tolerance and pluralism.

Sufi believers can be Sunni or Shiite, though the majority are Sunni. They see Sufism less as a sect than as a way of being, a set of beliefs and practices that lead followers closer to God. "It is nothing more than the spiritual dimension," Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf told the New York Times. "It is Islam, but we focus on meditation, on chanting sessions, which enable the Muslim to have his or her heart open. The myths people have about Sufis are analogous to the myths people have about Muslims."

A University of Michigan scholar on Islam, Alexander D. Knysh, summed up the tenets of Sufism as: "love, peace, tolerance."

It's an interpretation of Islam that's radically different from what Sunni extremists believe. Many extremists see Sufism as heretical, followed only by apostates.

Though no group has claimed Friday's assault, the attackers reportedly carried the banner of the Islamic State.

More and more, extremists are willing to target Sufi mosques. "Opponents of Sufism see the shrines and these living saints as idols," Knysh told the New York Times. "Their existence and their worship violates the main principle of Islam, which is the uniqueness of God and the uniqueness of the object of worship."