The Sufi Influence on Spanish Jews

American Culture/Popular Culture conference, Boston, MA, April 5, 2007

Perhaps my first and most important task this morning is to explain how something that happened more than 1000 years ago, six time zones across the Big Pond and between two peoples that are small minorities of our contemporary American citizenry, is germane to 21st century American popular culture.

The relationship between Jews and Muslims has a checkered and time-honored history, roiling out of the 8th century Arabian desert with Arab conquest and finally touching all four corners of the world, from Asia to Africa, Europe to the New World. New chapters in this complicated association are today being written in Europe, the Middle East and, of course, here in the United States.

The reason that this long-lived interrelationship is relevant here and now is quite simple: currently, no ongoing conflict so focuses the world's attention as does that between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. As the world's sole superpower, we Americans have an obligation to understand the nuances of this conflict, and help to offer a healing energy, instead of one that simply exacerbates the problem. And while the last six years or so of our shared cultural history will not be known as a time of reflection on historical nuances or a deep commitment to the true values of peace, we can only hope that this will appear from the future as an aberration, and not an inflection point in the history of our country.

By reintroducing true stories of positive interactions between Muslims and Jews, we can begin to change the contemporary dialogue away from the schoolyard "you're either with us or against us" attitude of this young millennia, towards a more Gandhian approach, where a just peace for everyone involved is the only true option — and one that will help soothe tensions not only on that small plot of land rife with history in the Middle East, but also from Benshonhurst, Brooklyn to Marseille, France.

A millennia ago, Jews in al-Andalus — or present day southern Spain — enjoyed a period where boundaries between themselves and their Muslim neighbors were, at times, virtually non-existent. Defined by astounding advances for Jews in virtually all societal endeavors, from politics and economics to the arts and letters and even religious education, this Golden Age offered a renaissance of Jewish culture unseen since the fall of the Second Temple, a millennia before.

Positive relations between Jews and Muslims in Spain began immediately, with the entrance of Muslim invaders heading across the Straight of Gibralter to unseat the pernicious Visigoths in the early 8th century. The invaders trusted the thankful Jews so immediately that during the Muslim conquest of Spain beginning in 711, the Jews in newly conquered territories were used as garrison forces to secure and guard conquered cities, as the Arab armies pushed north.[i]

Perhaps one of the most fascinating, and least told stories of this intermingling between the Sephardi and their Muslim hosts was the direct, profound and religion-changing relationship that these Iberian Jews developed with their Islamic mystical brethren, the Sufis. Ultimately, from about the 9th century through the 15th century, Jewish mystics from the Maimonides clan to Judah Halevi, Moses de Leon, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and hundreds of others became so enamored of the Sufi way that they completely remade Jewish mysticism, leading to the Kabbalah, Hasidism and even specific, contemporary Jewish prayer methods, all of which hearken back to Sufi and Jewish/Sufi antecedents.

Sufism, the spiritual soul of Islam, was an open-minded belief system positing that all the great religions and mystical traditions share the same essential truths. Following an ecstatic path that often used the language of lovers and poets instead of ascetics, Sufi masters attempted to find spiritual union with God — and then "return" to the everyday world to enlighten and help others.

Sephardi Jews grew captivated by this gentle mystical path as soon as they began to read in Arabic, by the end of the 8th century. As Jews rose in prominence within Muslim society, they turned to the Sufis for inspiration, and then threaded the novel ideas back into Jewish worship practices, creating a medieval Jewish/Sufi stew, which has nourished Jewish worship ever since.

Bahya Ibn Pakuda (1040-1080 C.E.), a dayyan, or judge at the rabbinical court in Saragossa, Spain, was one of the earliest, and most influential Jewish thinkers to become deeply influenced by the Sufis. Ultimately, through his study of Islamic works, he penned the Guide to the Duties of the Heart, a Sufi manual recast as Jewish theology, which became one of the most important Jewish pietistic works produced in the last 1000 years — and was among the first books ever printed in Hebrew (Naples, 1489).

While it is impossible to know exactly how he initially became influenced by Islamic mysticism, Ibn Pakuda was intimately aware of virtually all major Sufi writers up to the time that he lived, quoting them (anonymously) often and using their works as the basis for his own seminal Jewish work.

Duties of the Heart was completely riffled through with Islamic illusions — from direct quotes from hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), to passages lifted from the Koran, Sufi anecdotes and other Muslim source material. The structure, as well, was borrowed from Islamic precursors, with the book being divided into ten chapters, each representing a "gate," or a specific Sufi virtue that Ibn Pakuda explicated.[ii] Ultimately, these stations, when correctly followed, would lead to the Sufi prayer ideal: a divine union with God. Taken over from the Sufis, these "gates" presaged the ten Sephirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. He based his representation of these 10 levels of closeness to God on the Sufi al Makki's (d. 996) Qut al-Qulub, the first comprehensive manual of Sufism. The similarities are so striking that Ibn Pakuda's work has sometimes been mistaken for a translation of his Sufi mentor's![iii]

Judah Halevi (1075-1141), one of the pre-eminent Sephardic poets and thinkers of the 12th century, looked directly to the Sufis for spiritual guidance, as well. Though not considered specifically a mystical thinker — he was also a poet, physician and merchant — Halevi affected the direction of Jewish spirituality through his masterpiece, Sefer ha-Kuzari. This book was a fictionalized account of the true story of how the Khazars of the Black Sea region had become converted to Judaism in the 8th century.

Halevi, working about 150 years after the first historical contact between the Spanish Jew, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, and Joseph, the King of Khazaria, wove new, Sufi-inspired spirituality in with his fantasy of the dialogue between the Khazar King and a Jewish leader, the Haber. His stated purpose was to provide an "apologia" for the primacy of the Jewish religion over that of Christianity and Islam. Threaded in with his claims of primacy for the Jewish religion, however, was much material borrowed from the Sufis!

Halevi based important aspects of the mystical philosophy in this defense of Judaism on the teachings of the Sufi master al-Ghazali. In fact, the Jew Halevi is said to be one of the first of any religion to accept the teachings of this Islamic mystic, echoing al-Ghazali's thesis that the teachings of philosophy in general and Aristotle in particular were basically "incoherent," and posed a great danger for "revealed" religions based on faith over understanding, such as Judaism (and Islam). Not wanting to misrepresent the great Sufi thinker, Halevi quoted directly from his texts, using an early story which al-Ghazali had included in his Ihya'ulum al-Din, summarizing the doctrinal bases of the dogma he taught.[iv] Ultimately, "Halevi's discussion of prophetic experiences followed so closely (Sufi) patterns that his Hebrew translator occasionally found only vague equivalents for his terminology and is sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory."[v]

Halevi's influence long outlasted his era, however — even the 20th century Jewish mystic Abraham Isaac Kook (d. 1935) saw in Halevi's works "the most faithful description of the particular qualities of the Jewish religion."[vi] Oy, if he only knew!

Moses de Leon worked in northern Spain in the latter-half of the 13th century, and penned the most important Kabbalistic tract of his era, the Zohar. For several hundred years in medieval times, this work was a canonical Jewish text, ranking with the Pentateuch and Talmud in importance. What many of his readers didn't know, however, was how important was Sufism to the ideas therein, and how they really were reading more of a Jewish/Sufi treatise than the ancient, Talmudic lore that it purported to be.

Although the author hid his Sufic inspiration behind the guise of a spurious second century Jewish author, thereby lending legitimacy for his fellow Jews to his novel ideas, at times de Leon went so far as to work directly from earlier Sufi texts. He couched specific terms and concepts borrowed from the Muslim mystics in Aramaic, the language of the second century Talmudic sages who allegedly penned the treatise.

For instance, his work shared much with the great Sufi teacher Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, down to the minutiae concerning the Perfect or Primordial man. These ideas of the human being as being a microcosm of the macrocosmic God went back in Islamic literature a few hundred years, but this idea was in the process of being ingested and elaborated on by the Jewish mystics.

De Leon also borrowed his ideas of the winding path of the mystic — as he metaphorically trundled the dangerous road towards a divine union with God — from the Sufis. In the Zohar, the author described the different stages that a mystic must pass on his way to mystical union with God — and linked these stages to the seven lower Sephirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. In point of fact, this representation was inspired wholesale by the Sufis. First represented by the ninth century Sufi writer Abu-l-Hasan al-Nuri, in his treatise Dwellings of the Hearts, the seven-stacked castles became a well-known image in subsequent Sufi writing — and were inserted into Jewish mysticism via Moses Maimonides and the Zohar.[vii] Ultimately, the "palaces" of spiritual insight would appear in the writings of the Baal Shem Tov and subsequent Hasidic masters.[viii]

Many other Sufi ideas were expressed in the uncomfortable Aramaic lilt of the second century Talmudic "scholars" — some borrowed directly from the Sufis, and others from Sufi-influenced Sephardic Jews such as Bahya Ibn Pakuda, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Moses Maimonides and others.

A final fascinating character from the Jewish/Sufi coterie was Abraham Abulafia (d. 1291). If Sufism was the infecting agent of Jewish mysticism, then Abraham Abulafia was a major vector, flitting to and fro around the Mediterranean Basin, from Spain to Italy, from Sicily to the Holy Land to Greece and back again to Sicily, leaving Sufi-inspired Jews in his wake.

Abulafia's path to mystical ecstasy was based in the Sufi Way. The system that Abulafia proposed included specific pronunciations of the Divine Names, complex theories of breathing and bodily movements, singing, bobbing of the head and other techniques that had absolutely nothing to do with traditional Jewish prayer methods[ix] — but much in common with Sufi dhikr ceremonies. When Abulafia described this novel "Jewish" prayer practice, he even used the Muslim word "sheikh"![x] Sufi manuals describing the practice of this Sufi prayer technique, including the role of the sheikh, and the Sufi Way in general have been found written out in the hand of Abulafia's precursors and followers, translated into Hebrew.[xi] His works even circulated among the European Hasidim, influencing the prayer methods of the Baal Shem Tov and his followers.

Abulafia also imported the emotional, ecstatic aspects of Sufism into Kabbalistic practice — highly charged features that the Islamic mystical practice was bringing to medieval Jewish prayer. For instance, he highlighted the strongly erotic imagery of Sufi mystical union. Instead of God representing a far-off, highly masculine figure, the Divine Power became an object of longing and desire, compounded by years of fruitless preparation (the time of study and prayer) and culminating in kissing, sexual intercourse and, even, the ejaculation of God's powers into the (now feminine) mystic.[xii] Ultimately, Abulafia's novel Jewish language, so familiar to Muslim mystics, became common currency for the later Kabbalah and Hasidism, due to his influence.

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of Sephardi Jewish thinkers and writers that were influenced by the Sufis in this pre-Kabbalistic period of medieval Jewish mysticism. Most Spanish Jews read, thought and conversed in Arabic and, as such, the Sufi tracts were readily available to them. The Sufi master al-Ghazali, who played as seminal a role to Sufism and the Muslims as did Moses Maimonides for the Jews and Jewish spirituality, was frequently quoted in Jewish mystical texts as Abu Hamid — and Jews eagerly studied his views. For those few Spanish Jews who didn't read in Arabic, several of al-Ghazali's works were translated into Hebrew.[xiii]

Ultimately, these Spanish Jews, so comfortable with the Islamic culture, language and mystics, played a seminal role in turning later Jewish mysticism towards their Sufi mentors. Their openness to the new ideas paved the way for subsequent Jewish mystics and, in particular, the Kabbalists to ingest the Sufi Way, quite often without fully realizing just how much of these medieval Sephardim were influenced by "foreign" thought. Ultimately, their Sufi innovations can be found scattered throughout Hasidic prayer methods and even influencing specific tales told about those 18th and 19th century masters.

[i] Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, Roth, pg. 73

[ii] Sufism and Philosophy in Muslim Spain and the Medieval Mediterranean World, Lobel, pg. 20

[iii] The Jewish Mystics of Medieval Spain, McGaha, pg. 73

[iv] Dialogues between Religions in Andalusia, Zafrani, pg. 3

[v] Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 11, Efros, pg. 36

[vi] Encyclopedia Judaica, Schweid

[vii] All information about the seven castles comes from YCGL 45/46, McGaha, pg. 42

[viii] Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic, Idel, pg. 163

[ix] The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, Idel, pg. 8-9

[x] Priere, Mystique et Judaisme (in French), Fenton, pg. 139

[xi] Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, Idel, pg. 106-107 A long selection from al-Ghazali's description of the Sufi path was copied out by Rabbi Abraham Ibn Hasdai. Ibn Hasdai, who worked in the early 13th century, is also noted to be one of Moses Maimonides staunches adherents.

[xii] Jewish Quarterly Review 82, Ginsburg, pg. 210-211

[xiii] American Oriental Society Journal 49, Hirschfeld, pg. 169


Efros, Israel, "Some Aspects of Yehudah Halevi's Mysticism," Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 11, 1941

Fenton, Paul, "La 'Hitbodedut' Chez les Premiers Qabbalists en Orient et Chez les Soufis," (in French), Priere, Mystique et Judaisme (Goetschel), Strasbourg, France, 1984

Ginsburg, Elliot, "Idel's 'Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia,'" (book review), Jewish Quarterly Review 82, 1991

Hirschfeld, Albert, "An Hebraeo-Sufic Poem," Journal of the American Oriental Society 49, 1929

Idel, Moshe, Hasidism: Between Ecstasy and Magic, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 1995

-- The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia, SUNY New York Press, Albany, NY, 1988

-- Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, SUNY New York Press, Albany, NY, 1988

Lobel, Diana, Sufism and Philosophy in Muslim Spain and the Medieval Mediterranean World, Manuscript, 2001

McGaha, Michael, "Naming the Nameless, Numbering the Infinite," YCGL 45/46, 1997/1998

-- The Jewish Mystics of Medieval Spain, unpublished manuscript, 2001

Roth, Cecil & Wigoder, Geoffrey (eds.), Encyclopaedia Judaica, MacMillan and Company, New York, 1972

Roth, Norman, Jews, Visigoths and Muslims in Medieval Spain, E.J. Brill, New York, NY, 1994

Zafrani, Haim, The Routes of al-Andalus," Unesco website, 2000