With the Sufis of Israel
by Stephen Schwartz
During my recent and first trip to Israel, I visited Tsfat, the holy city of Kabbalah, a place I have longed to see for decades. Gazing across the valley toward the tomb of the Tanna, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, over the roofs of synagogues dedicated to Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the Ramak, Rabbi Yosef Karo, and the Arizal, I noticed an Arab-style mosque that has been empty, I was told, since 1948. I am involved with the preservation of mosques and Sufi shrines in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere. But for the moment, nothing seems to me more appropriate than the rehabilitation of the Tsfat mosque as an Islamic institution, a center for the study of Sufism and Kabbalah that would welcome experts and adepts in both disciplines, for a fruitful dialogue in green Tsfat. Such a center could help free Sufism and Kabbalah in Tsfat from new age accretions. Sadly, the Tsfat of the Sephardim seems only a memory today, swept aside by Ashkenazi devotion and arty Bohemianism. The glorious Sephardic synagogue of the Ramak seems neglected.
Beyond such visions, I spent a good deal of time with Sufis in Israel. My first contact was with an Orthodox rabbi, the notable Dov Maimon, who is well-informed on the school of Jewish Sufism created in Egypt by the son and other descendants of Moses Maimonides, the Rambam. Since R. Maimon is profoundly dedicated to religious pluralism, and since I plan to include a discussion of the post-Maimonidean Jewish Sufi movement in my new book, Sufism and the Future of Islam, the meeting with R. Maimon was important and inspiring.
R. Maimon is also associated, in the interfaith group known as Jerusalem Peacemakers, with a Muslim Sufi living in East Jerusalem, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Bukhari, who I met in Uzbekistan late in 2004. Shaykh Bukhari is a direct descendant of the great compiler of hadith (oral sayings of the Prophet Muhammad aleyhisalem), Imam al-Bukhari, who died in the eighth century of the common era. A later ancestor of Shaykh Bukhari was sent to Jerusalem from Central Asia in 1616 C.E. to found a han or Sufi lodging house for pilgrims of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Shaykh Bukhari has honored his heritage by teaching the classic form of the Naqshbandi doctrine while also distinguishing himself in interfaith work, and serving as head of the Uzbek Muslim community in Israel and Palestine, which counts some 1,300 members. In addition to his Naqshbandi affiliation he is a member of the Qadiri and Mevlevi Sufi orders, multiple allegiance being a common practice among Sufis.
Shaykh Bukhari has said of his work as a member of the Jerusalem Peacemakers: "At least I tried; I am not just waiting for change." He has been criticized by some Muslims in the Old City of Jerusalem for welcoming non-Muslims to his Sufi zikr or ceremony in remembrance of the Creator, and is accused of being a Baha'i, a Freemason (currently the focus of much paranoia in the Muslim world), and an adherent of a false belief that all religions are one. The latter is a common reproach hurled at Sufis, but Shaykh Bukhari answers serenely, "We are all born with no distinct religion, and it is the decision of the Creator how people will come to religion." But the shaykh cannot yet make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca because he does not hold a Jordanian passport. When I interviewed him only Israeli Muslims who could show pre-1948 residence papers were allowed into the Saudi kingdom for hajj.
He speaks fondly of Avraham Elqayam, a controversial scholar at Bar-Ilan University who has written extensively on Sufism and its relationship to Jewish mysticism, and of the Sufi Center of Nazareth, headed by Shaykh Abd al-Salaam Manasra. But these points of Sufi light are by no means isolated in the Land of Israel. I began one morning by praying Fatiha (the opening of Quran) at the tomb of the Prophet Samuel aleyhisalem in Jerusalem, a site visited by Jewish and Muslim faithful alike. There, following the tradition of Kab al-Ahbar, a Jewish convert to Islam, I removed my shoes and socks, walking barefoot, as Kab had done in the presence of the khalifa Umar ibn al-Khattab, conqueror of Jerusalem for Islam.
I received a blessing in the Mosque of Umar, and throughout my visit to Jerusalem was inspired by the unique manner in which the Jewish and Muslim elements of the city embody universal and intertwined customs. On the way to Umar ibn ul-Khattab Square in the Muslim Quarter, I could hear ululations, typically associated in the West with Muslim women, rise from the nearby Western Wall, where Moroccan and other Jewish women of Arab culture thus express their joy in the holiness of the site. A procession of Bukharan Jews approaches the wall, in commemoration of a bar mitzvah, with the blowing of the same long, brass trumpets one hears throughout Central Asia, among Tibetans and even, in times past, in Beijing.
From the tomb of the Prophet Samuel, I proceeded to Tsfat and, afterward, to Acre (Akko), where I met Shaykh Abu Filistin, of the historic Al-Jazar Mosque, immediately recognizable by its slender minaret as an Ottoman creation. The name of the Shaykh name (Father of Palestine) is derived from his own pre-1948 life in Akko. We prayed aksham, the evening salat, in the Sinan Basha Mosque, another Ottoman landmark, and then left the rest of the party with which I traveled (made up of secular Jews and Muslims) more than a little startled by our lively discussion of shaykh ul-aqbar, Muhyid'din Ibn al-Arabi al-Mursiyyi, the Spanish poet who was the greatest shaykh among the Sufis and whose work influenced many Jewish mystics.
Shaykh Abu Filistin is also a Qadiri Sufi. The Qadiris are well-established in the Balkans, where I have learned a great deal about contemporary Islam. Another Sufi order with a major Balkan, Central Asian and Israeli presence is the Khalwatiyya, who are known for their practice of khalwa or seclusion. Indeed, my book The Two Faces of Islam is dedicated to Shaykh Myhedin Shehu, head of the Helveti (Khalwati) Karabashi Sufi community in Rahovec, Kosovo, who was murdered by Serbs in 1998. My new book will also include a major discussion of Sufism at the Rahovec center as well as the tomb complex in Kazakhstan where the greatest of the early Turkic Sufis, Ahmet Yesevi, went into permanent khalwa in an underground chamber.
A branch of the Khalwatiyya, the Qasemi-Khalwati Sufi order, maintains one of the most remarkable and inspiring establishments in Israel: the al-Qasemi Academy in Baqa al-Garbya, just inside the Green Line. The Academy is a college devoted to the Sufi teaching of Islam, as well as excellence in all areas of contemporary education, ranging from proficiency in English (a pursuit I have long supported as a means for the reform of medresas), to the inculcation of respect for other faiths, and, of course, Sufi practices in spirituality. The al-Qasemi Academy has "one of the most inclusive academic libraries in the Arab sector in Israel. It contains 50,000 entries in Arabic, Hebrew, and English in all subjects: educational, literary, theological, scientific, and others," according to material distributed by the school. Al-Qasemi is linked to Texas A&M University and the University of British Columbia.
The Al-Qasemi Academy, which has numerous women students, represents the most relevant aspect of Sufism at present, its role as the vanguard of an Islamic renaissance in which Muslims will embrace a modern and global identity, with the assistance of Jews and Christians. My organization, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, has pledged to help build up the al-Qasemi school, through donations of books, money, and assistance in grant-writing to expand its technological facilities. Al-Qasemi is supported by the state of Israel, but much more remains to be done.
My first conclusion: with all its problems, including those of Ashkenazi dominance, discrimination against Sephardim and Mizrahim, and alienation between Jews and Arabs, the state of Israel is a place from which a new spirit of religious dialogue may emerge. Its success depends on those of us inside and outside Israel who are sincerely dedicated to this ideal. I count such individuals as R. Maimon, shaykh Bukhari, shaykh Abu Filistin, and the personnel at the al-Qasemi Academy among the leading representative of these positive trends.