Jews do not traditionally destroy texts that 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 in Cairo was opened, and extraordinary things came to light.
The brick room contained works in Arabic and Hebrew by medieval Muslim mystics and pious texts by Jewish writers that 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 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.
Abraham wrote openly in his works of his admiration for the Sufis. He described biblical figures with Sufi characteristics as pious and saw the Sufis as the real heirs to the traditions of Israel. He considered important Sufi rituals as based on the lives of the Jewish prophets, and thought that, through the sufferings of exile, 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 practical changes to synagogue services such as the washing of hands and feet before prayer, which is not a tradition in Judaism; ordering the congregation in rows, as in Muslim practice; facing Jerusalem in prayer, as Muslims face Mecca; and various other gestures, such as standing, kneeling, bowing and stretching out the hands during prayer.
Most noticeable were typical Sufi practices such as hitbodedut, solitary meditation in the dark, and the ritual of dhkir (Arabic for "remembrance of God"). Abraham found sources for all these new practices, which he rediscovered in Islam, within the Jewish Bible.
The family of Abraham Maimonides continued these Sufi-influenced traditions for another 200 years. And this Sufi-Jewish piety was not a local Egyptian phenomenon: there is evidence of Sufi-based Jewish mysticism among the Jews of Andalusia, Damascus, Yemen, Palestine and Persia.
The esoteric teachings of the Spanish Jewish Kabbalists around the time of the 13th century Rabbi Abraham Abulafia exhibit considerable similarities to the rituals of Muslim mystics. They include, for example, complicated songs, controlled breathing techniques and head movements – all practices that did not exist in 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 16th century, when Isaac Luria, considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah, 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 at which mystical verses were sung, as did the dervishes. Spiritual brotherhoods were established around a saint, and here too there was the practice of solitary mediation and the repetition of God’s name.
During his exile to Ottoman Adrianople (current day Edirne in Turkey), the mystic Jewish Messiah Shabbatai Tzvi, who later converted to Islam, took part in dhikr rituals with the Bektashi dervishes, part of a Sufi order that venerates the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Ali, in particular. His followers adopted some Bektashi rituals and spiritual songs in their own ceremonies.
Those who speak of the "Judeo-Christian roots” of Western culture close their eyes to its Judeo-Muslim roots and the common spiritual and philosophical tradition of the two religions. So often, as well as that which divides, there is also much that unites them.
* Nimet Seker is a freelance writer. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Qantara.de.