Jewish Mystics on the Sufi Path
The Middle East conflict has dug deep trenches of enmity between Jews and Muslims. That makes it easy to forget that, for centuries, the two religions contributed much to each other’s philosophy and spirituality. Nimet Seker looks at the influence of Muslim Sufism on Jewish mysticism
Jews do not traditionally destroy texts which include the name of God – even when they are no longer needed. Such texts are kept in the synagogue in a special room called the geniza, „hiding place“ in Hebrew. Over 100 years ago, the geniza of the Ben Ezra synagogue was opened, and extraordinary things came to light.
The bricked-up room contained works in Arabic and Hebrew by mediaeval Muslim mystics and pietistic texts by Jewish writers which were clearly inspired by Sufism.
Many of the texts date from the lifetime of Rabbi Abraham Maimonides (1186–1237), the son of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Rabbi Abraham he-Chassid („the pious“) was the religious and political leader of the Jewish community at the time, and was a significant proponent of a Sufi form of Jewish piety which the Jewish texts call chassidut. The title he-Chassid indicates someone pious who follows a spiritual path, similar to that of the Muslim Sufis.
Sufism as a prophetic tradition
Rabbi Abraham wrote openly in his works of his admiration for the Sufis. He describes biblical figures as pietists with Sufi characteristics and sees the Sufis as the real heirs to the traditions of Israel. He considers that important Sufi rituals are based on the Jewish prophets; through the sufferings of exile, the Jews had forgotten this spiritual tradition and now had to rediscover it.
Abraham did not just see the matter theoretically; he introduced a number of changes in the synagogue services, such as the washing of hands and feet before prayer, which is not traditional in Judaism; the ordering of the congregation into rows, as in Muslim practice; facing Jerusalem in prayer, as Muslims face Mecca; and various gestures, such as standing, kneeling, bowing and stretching out the hands during petitionary prayers.
Most noticeable were typical practices of the Sufis such as hitbodedut, solitary meditation in the dark, and the ritual of dhkir (Arabic for „thinking of God“). Abraham found sources for all these new practices, which he rediscovered in Islam, in the Jewish Bible.
The family of Abraham Maimonides continued these Sufi-influenced tradition for another 200 years. And this Sufi-Jewish pietism was not a local Egyptian phenomenon: there is evidence of Sufi-based Jewish mysticism among the Jews of Andalusia, of Damascus, Yemen, Palestine and Persia.
The cabbalists of Spain and Palestine
The esoteric teachings of the Spanish cabbalists around Rabbi Abraham Abulafia (1240–1291) exhibit considerable similarities to the rituals of Muslim mystics: they include, for example, complicated songs, controlled breathing techniques and typical head movements. These were all practices which did not exist in the Kabbalah before the Middle Ages. Abulafia introduced into Judaism the ecstatic aspects of the Sufi dhikr rituals, in which the name of God is repeated so often that one reaches a trance-like state.
The famous Kabbalistic school of Safed in Galilee also seems to have been influenced by Sufism. During the sixteenth century, when the Kabbalist Isaac Luria was active, Safed was also a flourishing centre of Muslim mysticism. It boasted a Sufi convent, as reported by the Turkish traveller Evliya Chelebi.
There are striking parallels: the Kabbalists held spiritual concerts (baqashot) at which mystical verses were sung, as did the Mevlevi dervishes. Spiritual brotherhoods were established around a saint, and here too there was the practice of hitbodedut (in Arabic khalwa) and dhikr (in Hebrew hazkarah).
The Sabbateans and the Chassidim
During his exile to Ottoman Adrianople (today Edirne in Turkey), the mystic Jewish Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi, or Sabbatai Zevi, who later converted to Islam, took part in dhikr rituals with the Bektashi dervishes. His followers adopted some Bektashi rituals and spiritual songs in their own ceremonies.
Even the Eastern European Chassidic movement in the eighteenth century may have been influenced by Islam. The Southern Polish province of Podolia, once under Ottoman rule, was the cradle of Chassidism. It was also a centre for the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi, who maintained contact with Ottoman Saloniki, which was a stronghold of Sabbateanism.
Cabbalistic and Chassidic rites are still an important part of Jewish tradition, especially in the USA and Israel.
Those who speak of the „Judeo-Christian roots of Western culture“ thus close their eyes to its Judeo-Muslim roots and the common spiritual and philosophical tradition of the two religions. As so often, as well as that which divides, there is also much that unites them.
Literature: Paul B. Fenton: „Judaism and Sufism“ in: „Encyclopaedia of Islamic Philosophy“, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, published by Suhail Academy, Lahore, 2002, pp. 755-768.