Sufism, Israelites, and an anthology of Yahia Lababidi [Times of Israel]

Sufi mysticism painting

Abstract depiction of a Mevlevi dervish performing Sama (“listening”), labelled one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity by the United Nations

Abstract depiction of a Mevlevi dervish performing Sama (“listening”), labelled one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity by the United Nations

On August 18th, towards the end of the last brutal assault on Gaza, Cairene Sufi poet Yahia Lababidi published the poem “An Open Letter to Israel” on Electronic Intifada. Lababidi began his letter with the poignant Nietzschean call for all those fighting monsters to not become monsters. With his message, much as the preluding quote’s source intended, Lababidi meant to implore the Israelis to recognise the humanity in their enemies; to recognise the humanity of extremists within Hamas’, however suppressed it may be, to recognise the humanity in the Palestinian people they persecute and whose desperate circumstances generate desperate reactions.

The letter’s gentle request befit the review of Idries Shah’s magnum opus The Sufis – a text 50 years old as of Autumn 2014 – by UK Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, once listed as the fourth greatest British writer post-1945, who declared Sufis “must be the biggest society of reasonable men on Earth”.

To reiterate Lababidi’s message in the words of hugely popular American educator, historian, and author of New York Times number 1 bestseller The Fault in Our Stars (2012), John Green, who jumped not-so-tentatively (considering the mainstream stance of US legislators) in to the Israel-Palestine issue by stating: “Both parties claim to be responding to the provocations of the other, but much of the conflict reflects a consistent failure on all sides to understand the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. To Palestine, the Palestinian people have been denied a state not just since the formation of Israel, but also for decades before that. Now they live under what amounts to a military occupation. […] To Israel, the Jewish people clearly need a homeland, which the United Nations established.”

Lababidi, attendee at international poetry festivals throughout the USA, Europe, and Near East, and writer of The Artist as Mystic (2012) and Fever Dreams (2011), is merely the latest Sufi poet and intellectual to participate in an ancient dialogue between the people of Israel and the woollen-clothed.

A good place to start one’s wanderings in to the Sufi-Jewish interaction and exchange is the eponymous Maimunist thought of Avraham Maimuni, otherwise known as Abraham Maimonides (d. 1237). Abraham was the son of Moses Maimonides, widely considered to be by far the most influential Jewish philosopher and theologian of the two millennia that’s passed since the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE (and generally among the greatest religious philosophers in history).

Abraham Maimonides was the appointed Nagid (“leader”) of the Jewish population in 12th century Egypt at 19 years old, succeeding Moses Maimonides after his death due to his son’s recognition as the greatest scholar in the community secind to only himself. Historian Shelomo Dov Goitein believes Moses Maimonides’ selection for the post was a result of the skills displayed during negotiations for the release of Jewish prisoners taken by the Crusader king Amalric in his attack on the Egyptian town of Bilbays. Famously, Abraham’s father’s position as Nagid was just one of the many manifestations of his political ascendancy (for instance he served as the court physician of Salahuddin Ayubi, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty).

The most known work of Abraham Maimonides is Milhamoth ha-Shem (“The Book of the Wars for God”), which is an expansion of his father’s Moreh Nevukhim (“The Guide for the Perplexed”) and a reply to its critics (he was spurred on, after an initial hesitancy, when he heard of burnings of his father’s books in Montpellier). Though, somewhat astonishingly if his initial reticence was sincere, Abraham’s principal treatise was three times the length of Moreh Nevukhim. Abraham advocated what would later be described as Maimunism, a fusion of Sufi and Jewish thought which he considered a purer expression of truly monotheistic devotion, or the central concept in Islamic philosophy Tawhid (“the oneness”).

Abraham believed that the development of a Sufistic Judaism was a precursor to the arrival of the messiah and his ideas would later prove seminal in the history of Jewish spirituality/mysticism, ideas which included innovative practices like Jews praying in rows, and the frequent mixing of the Jewish and Islamic mystic terminologies. Abraham also publicly stated his belief in the virtues that paved the Sufi path, as he saw it, such as sincerity, mercy, generosity, gentleness, humility, faith, and contentedness.

Today, the status of Sufis, and of Jews more likely to be inspired by Islamic mysticism (Sephardim, et al), or that of both of these in Israel specifically, is perhaps not as hopeful as Abraham Maimonides envisioned.

The second-class citizenship of non-Ashkenazi Jews in Israel is well documented, even if it is deteriorating along with its more overarching cousin white supremacy, and is being addressed by the generation of intellectuals embodied by the New Mizrahim.

The renowned Qadiri Sheikh Ghassan Menasra of Nazareth, the Arab capital of Israel, told Haaretz of a Sufi Muslim population squeezed on two fronts: on the one hand, shameful levels of neglect by successive Israeli governments of its non-Jewish majority areas, and on the other, increasing (at the very least in part, as Menasra points out, due to their massive foreign funding there and around the world from individuals such as those in the verifiably extreme, hard-right, and offensively wealthy element of the Saudi aristocracy and Arabian Peninsula’s wider elite) pressure from often viciously anti-Jewish ultra-conservative Salafi and Wahhabi elements who have on occasion beaten more liberal or progressive Muslim contemporaries within an inch of their lives simply for having differing views on things as simple as the permissibility of instruments in chant or ḏikr (“remembrance”).

Sheikh Menasra also said that among the beaten were himself, and two of his five children. One of Menasra’s sons was beaten by a group of men while he sheltered his younger brother from the melee, and on a separate occasion gas was thrown in to the Sheikh’s home.

Expressions of solidarity and deeper communication between the Jewish and Islamic mystics have arguably attained an unprecedented importance; Jews and Muslims each live in a time when the religious right in their respective faiths are striving for undisputed dominance of the narrative/political agenda, and, if the tragedy wasn’t compounded enough, often to pit one against the other.

“To shield yourself against the evils of this world, keep your lips wet with the taste of revelation. A free person has no enemies.” – Yahia Lababidi

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