Mysteries of Israel | Into the Mystic

Into the Mystic

The mystic Sufi tradition is rooted in Islam, but in today's Israel, a growing Jewish movement is looking to Sufism for enlightenment - and hope for peace. Hadani Ditmars visits them.


Saturday, October 13, 2007 

An article that was published in the Canadian globe and mail


TEL AVIV -- In a warehouse district not far from central Tel Aviv, in an anonymous, quasi-industrial zone, a zikr - an Islamic Sufi prayer ritual - unfolds. A walk upstairs illuminated by white and yellow candles reveals a space full of the children of Abraham.

Some of them, including a Sufi sheik and his family from the Mount of Olives, and the three Iranian musicians on a stage playing and singing the poetry of Jallaludin Rumi, are the offspring of Ishmael. But most are from the tribe of Isaac - they are Israeli Jews.

Between lectures in Hebrew on the connection between Jewish and Muslim mysticisms, they join together in chanting Wa la illaha illallah - "from God we come and to God we return." Then, this mainly Jewish group recites the 99 names of Allah in surprisingly good Arabic: al Rahim, (the Merciful), al Aziz (the Almighty), al Hadi (the Guide) ... A skylight reveals a night sky full of stars and the chants seem to rise up and out of the room.

Perhaps, inshallah, the soothing sounds might carry across the Lebanese border, about 90 kilometres away, not far from my grandmother's village, where last year's Israel/Hezbollah war has reignited old tensions. Maybe they can even penetrate the hard-concrete "security barriers" that entomb so many West Bank towns, or the misery of Gaza.

Sufism is all about crossing borders. It is not a sect so much as a set of schools of thought that emphasize the mystical side of Islam, traditions that can be traced back to the first centuries after Mohammed. Its philosophies, passed down and refined by teachers and students through the centuries, encourage adherents to move beyond the confines of religious observance and head straight for the realm of the hakekat - a kind of transcendent, miraculous union with the divine.

While some orders are stricter about adherence to Islamic norms, others advocate that the forms of meditation and ritual in Sufism - including chant, song and even the famous whirling of the Turkish Sufi Dervishes - can be practised by anyone. As 12th-century Sufi philospher Ibn al Arabi wrote, "My heart has become capable of every form/ It is a pasture for gazelles,/ And a monastery for Christian monks,/ And a temple for idols,/ And the Ka'aba of the pilgrims,/And the tablets of the Torah,/ And the book of the Koran./ I follow the religion of Love:/ Whatever path Love's camel takes,/ That is my religion and my faith."

As hardliners on all sides draw lines in the sand, the burgeoning Israeli Sufi movement called the Way of Abraham is at the very least an encouraging sign. The movement began in 1989 at the height of the first intifada, when Rabbi Menachem Fruman of the Jewish settlement Tekoa knocked on the door of Palestinian Sufi Sheik Abed Salam Manasra in Jerusalem, seeking to begin a dialogue.

Their first talk grew into a series of meetings between Jews and Sufis and eventually into a few hundred members who gather for weekly zikrs and readings of Sufi and Jewish texts. Most of the group is Israeli, but about one-third are Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

At this transcendental warehouse in Tel Aviv, it is the Palestinian Sheik Manasra, from the Mount of Olives, who leads the group in prayer. Within minutes, they are swaying from side to side, sometimes shaking in their spiritual fervour as the rhythm of the sheik's prayers grows faster. After about 20 minutes of zikr, the group exhales a collective allahu and the prayer is over.

Afterward, the Jewish Sufis, who range from middle-aged yuppies to conservative rabbis, take tea with Sheik Manasra, his son, Ghassan, and Ghassan's wife, Leila, who stands nearby dressed modestly in hijab, smiling and chatting with Israeli women in more Western outfits.

I ask Jewish Sufi Eldad Pardo, a professor of Persian studies at the Hebrew University, what his first zikr was like. "Amazing," he replies with mildly evangelical zeal. "I lost all my fear, immediately."

"Fear of what?" I ask.

"Fear of Palestinians," he replies, not missing a beat.

I wonder if these Israelis are trying to find themselves or forget themselves. In this land where some try to lose their religion and others try to save it, it's often hard to tell.

Prof. Pardo points to an Israeli man across the room. "That's Zeev Ben Arieh," he tells me, gesturing toward the man in his early 40s who has just co-written a book in Hebrew on Sufism in Israel with Ghassan Manasra, the sheik's son. A few days later, Mr. Ben Arieh leads a tour of Israeli Sufis to special sites in Jerusalem's Old City.

As we walk through the Old City streets, Mr. Ben Arieh tells us that there is an argument to be made for Judaism and Islam being much closer to each other than Christianity - since they are both Abrahamic traditions with strong prohibitions on idolatry.

"There has been a long history of co-operation between Sufis and Jews" he tells our group of 15 seekers, in the noon heat of Jerusalem.

"In medieval Egypt, for example, a group of Jews, calling themselves Hasidim, wanted to renew Judaism in the spirit of Sufism.

"They claimed that the Sufis learned their practice of dance and song from the Jewish prophets and now the Jews need to learn these ways back from the Sufis, the ways of love, ecstasy, seclusion, devotion."

He tells us of key Jewish figures in the Middle Ages who praised Sufi devotions, of 12th-century Jews in Cairo translating the works of the Muslim Sufi philosopher El Gazalli into Hebrew, and speaks of the strong Jewish-Islamic connection in Andalusia and in certain periods of the Ottoman empire.

We arrive at Salahadin's mosque, an early Sufi centre not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Everyone takes off their shoes and looks suitably solemn, but an angry Palestinian mosque guard shouts at everyone to get out. A Palestinian poet among us steps in to plead our case -"Look, they are believers. They are people of the book, and they have taken off their shoes" - but to no avail.

With Jewish settlements now surrounding Jerusalem and the Wall having prompted many Palestinians to relocate to the Old City, nearly doubling its population, the place is even more tense than usual.

Over lunch, Mr. Ben Arieh reveals matter-of-factly that he was once in my grandparents' village - "during the '82 invasion."

As we drive in his rickety car up the Mount of Olives, he tells me more, almost as if making a confession: "I was a special forces commander during the invasion in '82. I was 20 years old. I was in charge of two dozen men and when we got to Beirut, we occupied the apartment of a professor at the university there."

He shifts into second gear as we drive up the hill, past the tomb of Mary and into the still intense afternoon sun. "It reminded me so much of my parents' apartment. They were professors too, at the Hebrew University, and the place looked just like my home - with some of the same books, furniture, same style of decor even, and right by the sea, like my parents' place in Tel Aviv."

When the mistress of the house came by one day to inspect the rather extensive damage, the task of "tour guide" of the ruined apartment fell to young Mr. Ben Arieh.

When the Lebanese woman began to weep at the sight of her wrecked home, he felt uncomfortable and shouted at her to stop, eventually scaring her into silence by cocking his gun.

"It was at that moment," Mr. Ben Arieh says slowly and softly," that I felt deeply ashamed at how I had abused my power - as a soldier - but also as a human being."

That incident was an epiphany of sorts, one that made him question his assumptions about Zionism, his country and himself. Eventually all his questioning led him to embrace Sufism.

After visiting the tomb of Rabia, a Sufi saint whose shrine is sacred to many faiths, we retire to a nearby garden, where Mr. Ben Arieh tells us more Sufi stories. In the distance, we can see the Dome of the Rock mosque, its sacred golden architecture gleaming in the late afternoon light.

I ask him if he thinks that the Israeli Sufi movement could contribute to the peace process: What did the Sufi sheiks he had interviewed for his book say about the "situation?"

He pauses for a moment and says thoughtfully, "They say that people here on both sides are too attached to the land - they are kind of worshipping it. And as a result, the land is devouring them both."

Although the sheiks he consulted believe that nationality itself is an artificial, human invention, Mr. Ben Arieh contends pragmatically, "We need a political solution to bring peace."

In the meantime, does he think doing zikr together might ease the tension?

"Well," he deadpans, "it's better than shooting each other."


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