Towards an Understanding of the Jewish/Sufi

Ratner Museum
Speech to the Jewish Community Relations Council, Ratner Museum, May 2, 2007

The narrative of history always represents the specific political and cultural biases of those who have power, and who want the past to fit into their vision of the present. Hardly offering an objective view of the past, history is cobbled together from tales needed to fit the contemporary political situation, either ignoring or remaking the past to fit in with the expediencies of the present.

The narrative surrounding the contemporary situation between Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians is no different. As the current political and even geographic situation is certainly dire, only those past tales that fit in neatly with the negative energy surrounding these two peoples are expounded upon. Suicide bombings and strafing retaliations only fit in with one particular reading of history: The most negative stories afflicting this relationship are told and re-told as justification for the ongoing hostilities.

This reading backward of current enmities into the past relationship between Jews and Muslims, however, only illuminates a small segment of a rich and often positive interrelationship between these two peoples. While there has been, of course, many negative events and even periods between Muslims and Jews, there have been as many, and perhaps even more positive accounts between these two peoples.

Tonight, I am going to introduce just a few of the hundreds of Jewish and Muslim mystical personalities that had respect for each other, studied together and even borrowed from each others’ ideas, helping to remake both Jewish mysticism and Sufism during one of the most ebullient religious periods in Jewish and Muslim history, the middle ages. For nearly a millennia, mystics and thinkers from these two religions crossed party lines to learn from those “on the other side;” only recently, in the 19th century, did this cross-cultural influence come to a halt, though the influence was by that time so widespread, that the Jewish Kabbalah, Hasidism and even contemporary Jewish prayer practices were more of a Jewish/Sufi amalgam than a specifically Jewish response to this sometimes inexplicable world.

The Jewish/Sufi connection reaches all the way into the Genesis narrative of the Pentateuch. For instance, Moses, the Jewish giver of laws and the preeminent prophet in Judaism, played, as well, a central role in Islam. He is the preeminent historical figure in the body of the Koran – his name being cited therein more than 100 times. Stories about Moses, some recognizable to Jewish readers and others seemingly more obscure, pervade the Muslim Holy Book.

After the great Sufi saint Mansur al-Hallaj was crucified for his blasphemy in asserting that “he was He,” that is to say, that al-Hallaj’s mystical understanding led him to believe that man and God were one and the same, his actions were justified by Sufi chronicler Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1220) by the life of the Jewish prophet. He compared al-Hallaj’s experience to the burning bush seen by Moses, which uttered the phrase, “I am I, God;” although the words came from the bush, it was really God who was speaking. Moses appears in many Sufi tales, as well, which often built on Koranic tales, or were completely new.

Speaking of al-Hallaj, this 9th century Sufi mystic had a strong influence on later Jewish thinkers. Mansu al-Hallaj (858-922) was crucified for his blasphemy in asserting that “he was He” – that is to say, that his mystical attainment had led al-Hallaj to the realization that he and God were one and the same. Although he came along a spare few centuries after the life of the Prophet, al-Hallaj witnessed the overbearing power of Islamic officialdom, which was sucking the life out of the living religion, and demanding of its practitioners not joy in the worship of God, but allegiance to a growing list of rules and edicts.

For wild-eyed Jewish mystics, who could find no such inspiration in recent Jewish mysticism, al-Hallaj offered a powerful and seductive example of complete dedication to the spiritual path. His ecstatic utterances, or shaths, affected later Jewish Kabbalists who, like al-Hallaj, worked towards a complete union and even ego-identification with God. The 13th century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia even seemed to quote directly the very same utterance that ultimately got al-Hallaj crucified, when Abulafia asserted: “I am the Truth.” Additionally, medieval Jewish mystics, so often the target of the more legalistic orthodox Jewish community, found in his manner of martyrdom an extreme and poetic tale that provided hope and meaning to their lonely quest. Jewish libraries of the time were replete with poems by al-Hallaj, both in the original Arabic (which any educated Jew could read) and translated into Hebrew.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the most important philosophers in Jewish history, played a seminal role in infiltrating Sufi ideas into the heart and soul of Jewish practice. His well-known works on Jewish life and law – the Guide for the Perplexed, Mishneh Torah, and other writings, all of which are still studied in Yeshivas today – were deeply infused with Sufi philosophy. For instance, his Guide for the Perplexed developed and conveyed to the general Jewish population ideas that had been occupying the Muslim mind for centuries; in addition, it utilized for the first time the Jewish/Sufi device of justifying new, Sufi-inspired ideas by reading them into the far-off Jewish Biblical and Talmudic past, a positive representation of how the past is always viewed through the scrim of present desires and necessities.

Maimonides’ idea of Jewish prophecy became suffused with specific Sufi concepts. Hearkening back to the Prophet Muhammad, Maimonides believed that the prophet had a divinely ordained social role. In general, the mixture of religious awareness and social mission was essential to Islamic thought and, hence, became essential for Maimonides, as well. Maimonides also gently turned ideas of Jewish prayer away from his contemporary Jewish practice and towards the Sufi manner. He raised silence in importance in the pantheon of Jewish prayer methods. “Silence” as a method of approaching God led to solitude as a prayer method, which ran contrary not only to the practice of 12th century Jews, but to the Jewish tradition of the community of prayer rituals – and specifically, the idea of a minyan, or minimum of ten men necessary to perform specific prayers – that had underpinned Jewish worship for the 1000 years prior to Maimonides’ life.

The Sufi saint al Ghazali played a similar role to Islam as did Maimonides to Judaism: aligning mystical and more orthodox streams, allowing these two impulses to coexist within the same religion. Quoted time and again in Jewish tracts, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s (1058-1111) treatises have been found copied out into Hebrew in medieval Jewish libraries, and his ideas are sprinkled throughout medieval Jewish texts.

Al-Ghazali’s influence within the development of Jewish mysticism was far reaching, as well. A wide range of Jewish mystics, including Moses Maimonides (12th century), Abraham he-Hasid (13th century), Obadyah Maimonides (13th century), Judah Halevi (12th century), Abraham Ibn Hasdai (13th century) up to the Kabbalist Abraham Gavison of Tlemcen (17th century) specifically quoted the Sufi master in their own exegesis of Jewish life and law. This final rabbi concluded his Hebrew translation of al-Ghazali’s mystical poetry with these words: “I have translated the poetry of this sage, for even though he be not of the children of Israel, it is accepted that the pious of the gentiles have a share in the world to come and surely heaven will not withhold from him the reward of his faith.”

Perhaps no medieval thinker so completely personified the interweaving of Judaism and Islam, as did the Spanish Jew, Solomon Ibn Gabirol (b.1020). “Central to Ibn Gabirol’s thought was the notion that truth and righteousness are not the exclusive purview of the Jewish people, and that one should acknowledge and embrace words of wisdom regardless of their source.” Ibn Gabirol assimilated ideas from the Islamic mystical tract Ikhwan as-Safa, to such an extent that after the Bible, it was his primary source of inspiration! Additionally, Ibn Gabirol followed the teachings of the great Sufi mystic Muhammad Ibn Masarra (883-931), who had introduced Sufism to Spain.

His personal masterpiece Ani ha’Ish, a sort of spiritual biography, was almost completely based in Sufi themes, from the two central ideas down to the smallest image and concept in it. And the Choice of Pearls, an ethical/philosophical text, shared so much with Sufi philosopher al-Ghazali’s (1058-1111) Ethics that the two authors almost assuredly drew on the same Islamic sources. Ibn Gabirol ingested other Arabic/Sufi writers, so much so that other of his writings were often unrecognizable as necessarily Jewish. Although his contemporaries eschewed his work as bordering on heresy, today he is well-respected by Jewish practitioners, and his works are vital in the rites of the contemporary synagogue. One of the most important of Ibn Gabirol’s liturgical works, Adon Olam, is still chanted the world over during Sabbath services. And his legacy within the greater Jewish community has hardly been compromised by his Sufi leanings – an important downtown Tel Aviv Avenue bears his name!

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), along with Ibn Gabirol, was considered one of the two great followers of Muhammad Ibn Massara, the 9th century Sufi who introduced that mystical practice to al-Andalus. Where al-Ghazali was known as the “Renovator of Islam,” Ibn Arabi was the “Distiller,” taking 500 fertile years of Sufi thought, borrowing liberally from Jewish antecedents and creating a unified vision of Islamic mysticism, influencing virtually all of Islamic spirituality that postdated his fertile life span – and much of Jewish mysticism, as well.

Perhaps due to his open-minded attitude, Ibn Arabi’s mystical theology veered between Jewish and Muslim antecedents, and slipped easily into the stream of Jewish Kabbalistic learning. Such ideas as his theory of the mystical import of language; the concept that man is a complete microcosm of the macrocosmic God and specific interpretations of grammar and prayer – all of which became central to the Kabbalah – were eagerly ingested from Ibn Arabi by Jewish mystics, translated into Hebrew and recast as specifically Jewish ideas, either “long lost” or recently elucidated.

Ibn Arabi’s ideas can be traced to Jewish precursors, as well. In addition to borrowing specific ideas from Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, he also used Jewish history to justify his own Sufi ideas. When he was called before the Islamic judicial authorities to defend himself against the charge of “nonconformity,” he turned to the Jewish scriptures, and specifically Solomon’s “erotic” Song of Songs, to prove that his ecstatic language of mystical love not only had precedent, but also was officially viewed as metaphor (and thereby non-threatening) by the Jewish authorities of ancient Israel.

Moses de Leon (1250-1305) was a Spanish Jew and redactor of the most important Kabbalistic tract of the middle ages, the Zohar. For a period of several medieval centuries, the Zohar ranked with the Bible and the Talmud as one of the canonical Jewish texts. His specific influences – well hidden beneath the double-talk, historical allusions and mystical patina of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’s (c. 150) circle (into whose mouth de Leon had put his novel ideas) – included many Sufi influenced Jews such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Moses Maimonides, Judah Halevi, Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, as well as the Sufis themselves.

Indeed, Sufi scholar, Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) presaged many of the ideas that became central to the Zohar. Additionally, de Leon even went so far as to utilize ideas from some of the most important myths surrounding Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, to expound on the Jewish mystical ideal! Ultimately, the Zohar threaded Sufi inspired ideas into its 2400 pages from a variety of sources, some of them authentically Islamic, and others via Sufi-inspired Jews. By the time of de Leon’s writing, Sufism had become so endemic to Jewish mysticism – and the burgeoning Kabbalistic system – that it would be impossible to continue developing the new Jewish spiritual path without touching on Sufi precursors. Through de Leon’s tract, Sufism filtered even deeper into medieval Jewish mysticism.

Jalal al-Din Rumi (c. 1207-73), who lived around the same time as Moses de Leon, is yet another lodestar around which Sufism turns. A timeless thinker, he wrote the greatest amount of lyric poetry in the Persian language. Like Moses de Leon’s Zohar to medieval Judaism, Rumi’s Mathnavi became known for many as the most important book in Islam, after the Qu’ran. Rumi's poetry has had such universal appeal that he is today the best selling poet in the United States!

Perhaps Rumi’s most important influence on the history of Jewish/Sufism was his open-mindedness to and respect for the belief systems of all religions, as evinced in this quote: “What is to be done, O Muslims? For I myself do not know whether I am a Christian, a Jew, a Jabr or a Muslim?” This attitude helped permeate later medieval Sufism, further opening avenues between Sufis and Jews in Spain, Egypt and the Holy land.

In addition to this general legacy, there was specific influence between Jews and the teachings of Rumi. Shabbateans, 17th century Jewish heretics who both followed the false Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi and had strong ties to Sufism, included certain Sufi poems and tales in their mystical litanies, such as those by Rumi, whose work was translated into Hebrew, helping infiltrate these beautiful Sufi messages into the later medieval Jewish mysticism.

Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) was a fascinating and problematic character who did much to seed Sufi influence into the Baal Shem Tov’s Hasidism. This self proclaimed Messiah for two years in 1665-1666 caused Judaism to experience its most profound ecstatic messianic movement in the past two millennia. For 24 glorious and confusing months, Jewish commerce around the world ground to a virtual halt as all energy was funneled into preparing for the momentous occasion. In 1666, however, the Sultan of Turkey wearied of Zevi’s game and unceremoniously incarcerated the supposed Messiah, forcing the Zevi to adopt Islam. After his incarceration and conversion, the erstwhile Messiah lived the life of a Jewish/Sufi mystic, surrounded by followers.

Shabbetai Zevi’s own utterances, collected after he converted to Islam, mark him as a Sufi mystic. He practiced Sufi prayer ceremonies, living in close proximity to a community of Bektashi Sufis, and enjoyed such Islamic rituals as meditative singing and dancing. Shabbetai Zevi also looked to Moses’ mysterious companion from the Koran, al-Khidr, for guidance and legitimacy as a mystical adept. Later Shabbateans even included Sufi poems in their mystical practice, which often took place to music culled from Sufi dhikr ceremonies.

It was the post-conversion Shabbetai Zevi that was to have a direct influence on the Baal Shem Tov and Hasidism, through the influence of respected Jewish leaders throughout Europe, who were crypto-Shabbateans. Kabbalistic scholar Gershom Scholem noted: “One could easily make a collection of Hasidic epigrams which breathe a spirit not very far removed from that of the Shabbateans.” As the scholar Paul Fenton has put it: “The writings of these Shabbatean sectarians exhibited by far the most radical and enlightened attitudes towards Islam. Shabbetai Zevi himself was said, following his capture by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, to study in his prison cell with the Zohar in one hand and the Koran in the other.”

Bayazid Bistami (804-874) began the Islamic mystical movement away from religious ritual and scholarship as a means to enlightenment, towards a personal relationship with God, an idea which eventually pervaded Jewish prayer worship. Bayazid was quoted as saying: “The thickest veils between man and Allah are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshiper’s worship and the devotion of the devout.”

Bayazid expanded the central Sufi ideal of “equanimity,” or complete self–effacement and rising above personal ego. The practice of equanimity, which held that a mystic should experience praise and disgust by other people as exactly the same, was a necessary precursor to spiritual enlightenment. A story told about Bayazid that captured some of this mystic’s philosophy ended being sucked up into the Jewish mystical stream, and was included in the writings of the 16th century Jewish Kabbalist, Hayyim Vital. Vital’s tale mirrors exactly that told by the 11th century Sufi saint al Ghazali, about Bayazid.

It is important to note that the ideas contained in al Ghazali’s tale, those of complete humility and, more importantly, equanimity, were age-old for Sufis, but new to the Jewish mystical realm. Ultimately, it is hard to overestimate the importance of equanimity to Jewish mystics, as later Jews viewed it as necessary for the achievement of divine union and even prophecy. After Kabbalists like Isaac of Acre (13th century) and Vital wrapped the ideal into Jewish mysticism, Bayazid’s conception began to show up regularly in Jewish mystical teachings – becoming central to the 18th century Jewish mystic and founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov.

These represent just a few of the hundreds of Jewish and Muslim mystics that studied each other’s works, helping to enlighten Islam, and remake Jewish spirituality. Although the contemporary narrative surrounding Jewish and Muslim relations makes it hard to imagine, for nearly a millennia, Jewish and Muslim theologians worked together, leading to the Kabbalah, Hasidism, and even contemporary Jewish meditation, which often have an odd affinity with medieval Sufi dhikr ceremonies.