Sufism in Palestine/Israel

By Miri -

 The whirling dervish, with his right arm directed to the sky, ready to receive God's beneficence, and his left hand turned toward the earth is but one of the many and diverse manifestations of Sufi rituals. While commonly defined as as “the inner, mystical dimension of Islam”, Sufis themselves define it as "a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God". Dedicating themselves solely to achieving this goal Sufis commonly live very ascetic lives.

Although the Qur’an, and therefore Islam in general, enjoins mutual respect and valuation of the human being regardless of sex or social situation, it is probably within Sufism, where this Qur’anic attitude manifested itself the strongest. While this general openness of Sufism has made it more appealing to some, it is also one reason for the persecution of adherents by more conservative streams of Islam. 

During the heyday of Sufism, which lasted well over a thousand years, its followers spanned across several continents and cultures, including, of course, Palestine.   

Origins and Development of Sufism in Palestine

The origins of Sufism in Palestine are usually traced back to the Middle Ages when large numbers of Muslim pilgrims, mainly from the eastern provinces of the Islamic world, flocked to the holy cities, specifically Jerusalem. While at the time, those mystics still constituted peripheral figures, whose ascetic and isolated lives very much resembled those of Christian monks and hermits, they gradually started to attract more and more followers. The teachings of those early Sufis were eventually passed down and transformed into prayers and rituals and developed into the establishment of different tariqas, meaning "way" or "path" in Arabic, and signifying the schools or orders of Sufism.
With the time, members of those tariqas would start reaching out more and more to the communities they lived amongst, feeding the poor, welcoming guests, teaching the young and thereby steadily increasing the numbers of their followers. From the twelfth century onwards, Sufi influence allegedly came to include the entire population, including the ruling elites, which in turn established Sufism as an integral part of Islamic culture.
The medieval shrine of al-Majdhoub, Deir Ghassane, West Bank 
Until today the landscapes of Israel and Palestine are marked by several dozens of shrines where Sufi saints were laid to rest, with those graves becoming the focus for pilgrimages. The local Palestinian population would seek out the shrines in times of trouble; women would pray for fertility, farmers would pray for rain. Sometimes those shrines were reportedly even used to settle disputes or criminal allegations, when the accused had to swear that they were speaking the truth, believing that a lie in the presence of a saint would ensue acts of divine retribution. Up until the 20th century, seasonal collective pilgrimages to the shrines continued to constitute major events across the country.
During the final years of the Ottoman Empire however, more secular views among the Palestinian population slowly replaced the old beliefs, including Sufism. Finally in the aftermath of the war of 1948 and the displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians through Zionist forces, the ancestral traditions were further severed. In addition, the strengthening of more conservative streams within Islam during the last century, which consider Sufism as a form of heresy, gradually pushed the mystical traditions back to its former marginal position. 

Sufism in Palestine/Israel Today 

After 1967, with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, communication between Muslims living in Israel and their families in the Occupied Territories were finally resumed and also led to a renewed interest in old traditions, including Sufi ones.

Today there are reportedly still a few hundred Sufi disciples and thousands of supporters in Palestinian towns and cities, primarily in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Umm al-Fahm and most notably in Baqa al-Gharbiyye, the site of the al-Qasemi Academy, which is devoted to the Sufi teaching of Islam and is even recognised and subsidised by Israel's Ministry of Education.

Sadly, like in many other places, also in Palestine, Sufis are frequently attacked by more extremist Islamic movements, such as the Salafists, whose members charge them with heresy. Yet, unsurprisingly, in the Palestinian case, those attacks take on a different dimension; due to some Sufis frequently associating with Israeli Jews, Sufi followers are also increasingly accused of being “collaborators”. These interfaith encounters are not a novelty, but form part of a long Sufi tradition of openness and mutual learning. “[T]he prophet Muhammed received delegations of Jewish tribes”, tells Sheikh Ghassan Menasra, leader of the Qadiri Sufi Order to Haaretz “I say there should be dialogue with Israelis and Jews.” Contending that “politics alone cannot build trust," the Sheikh hopes that Muslims could also teach Jews the cultural codes of peacemaking in Islam.

Jewish Israelis on the other hand seem to be very drawn to the mysticism of Sufism and hundreds are flocking to the by now institutaionalised annual Sufi Festival in the south of the country, which offers its participants workshops, seminars, and dance sessions "intended to enlighten and explain." Whether
the participants actually learn anything about peacemaking (or Sufism for that matter), as suggested by Sheikh Ghassan, or rather find yet another form of escapism that will lead them even further away from acknowledging the everyday injustice perpetrated in their very name remains to be seen. Or not.


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