Universalist thrust of Sufism appealing to Israelis

There is a growing interest in Sufism among Israeli Jews, often leading to new interfaith encounters that accompany this form of mystical Islam, according to the Washington Post (July 28). Recent years have seen the growth of whirling dervish practices as well as the rise of large-scale Sufi music festivals, Sufi study groups, and tours to Sufi holy places. In September, Jerusalem will host the fifth annual Sacred Music Festival, which will include Sufi-inspired performances. “It is part of the increasing general interest in spiritualism,” says anthropologist Chen Bram of Hebrew University. Sufism, which promotes a personal connection with God in both Islamic and more ecumenical variants, is appealing to non-Muslims because of its emphasis on universalism and unity between cultures. Many Israelis interested in Sufism had tried Buddhism and several types of meditation but value the way Sufism has led them to more positive views of Islam.

There have been historical encounters between Judaism and Sufism, and in recent years Israeli academics have shown an interest in the history of Sufi-Jewish relations and in translating Sufi works into Hebrew. Translations of the Sufi mystic Rumi have particularly fed this popular Israeli interest. Those that participate in the whirling say that it has resulted in spiritual growth that they cannot find in Jewish rituals like eating kosher food or synagogue prayers alone. The way in which Sufism can inspire Israeli-Palestinian cooperation can be seen in the nonprofit organization Orchard of Abraham, which operates a multicultural preschool for Jews, Muslims, and Christians and sponsors other activities bringing together Israelis and Palestinians in the midst of the ongoing conflict. The Muslim Sufi organizers of the group also hold public gatherings, where Sufi sheiks lead ceremonies involving prayer, music, and whirling for hundreds of attendees, most of them Jewish.