Sufism in Jerusalem


The façade of Al-Zawiya Al-Afghaniyya, the building that houses a Sufi order in the Old City of Jerusalem, is plain. One enters through the zawiya’s pointed arch portal which is three steps above street level and flanked by stone benches on both sides. Above the entrance is an inscription showing the zawiya’s name, order, founder, and the date in which it was built. 

Once inside a short passage leads to a rectangular, though irregular, open-air courtyard. The sense of spiritual serenity is all pervasive. The use of space and the architectural design evoke Sufi symbols and concepts as one's eyes travel horizontally and vertically to encompass the five-hundred-year-old zawiya. A handsome water fountain spouts water in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by beds of fragrant roses, olive trees and other flowering shrubs. The courtyard is surrounded from the south and west by eleven small cells where Sufi pilgrims once lodged.  The ablution room and related facilities are discreetly tucked to the corner on the northern side. An immense space extends to the far southern side of the courtyard with an elevated platform providing a casual gathering area. The old meeting hall stands to the east of the courtyard and comprises two levels: a lower, original level from the early fifteenth century and an upper level which was added later. The latter is used as a residence for the sheikh. The mosque, a two floor structure, stands on the south eastern side.  It's handsomely chiseled stones stand in marked distinction to the other roughly hewn masonry. The round domes and a simple metal minaret dominate the space. One's attention is arrested by the symbolic green - a promise of paradise and a symbol of the family of the prophet.  Sufi rituals are held within this sacred edifice.

Abu Naser Al-Afghany the care-taker of Al-Zawiya Al-Afghaniyya and younger brother of the Sheikh Abd al-Kareem, leader of the Al- Shadhiliya Sufi order in Jerusalem gesticulates to the garden and explains how on ‘Monday and Thursday evenings the followers begin to congregate for the sun-set prayers (salat al maghreb) to pray, meditate and study here.’ My Sufi host wears modern clothes and dons a simple round, white head cap; a sign of religious piety. An affable middle aged gentleman, he peers attentively at me as he expounds on Sufism, Jerusalem and the Al-Shadhili order.

Through the centuries Sufi thought has shaped the Muslim faith, Muslim identity and the geography of the sacred in Jerusalem. The mere Arabic name of Jerusalem, Al-Quds, triggers an emotional, affectional upsurge in every Muslim heart and mind, wherein nostalgia, piety, and the love of God and his Prophet Mohammed meet. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad is a spiritual journey leading to a process of religious transformation. It is a mystical rite of passage that promotes one’s personal connection with God.

Throughout the Umayyad, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods, Jerusalem witnessed a flourishing of Sufi orders and corresponding madares (plural of madrasa,  theological colleges), khanqawat (plural of khanqah, which were monastic Sufi institutions of learning), zawaya (plural of zawiya where Sufis of particular orders convened, lodged and prayed communally to invoke God's presence along ritually prescribed ways - tariqa),  arbitah (plural of ribat which were lodgings built to house pilgrims from all over the world) mausoleums, hammams, covered markets, and caravanserais. These were built with endowments from sultans, emirs and wealthy dowagers as acts of faith to ensure their righteous place in the Day of Judgment -  believed to take place in Al-Quds al Sharif, Jerusalem.

The early Ottoman period witnessed an additional influx of non-Arab pilgrims from the Muslim world: Indians, Afghanis, Central Asians, Indonesians and Turks who would extend their sojourn in Jerusalem to pray and meditate and whose offspring remain custodians of these zawaya.

In their respective zawiya each ethnic community could find spiritual guidance under the sheikh who was also the head of the dominant Sufi tariqa in their country of origin. Pilgrims from all over the Muslim world would be accommodated by their respective spiritual cum ethnic community. In the zawiya each Muslim ethnic group would find boarding and spiritual leaders. Whereas formal prayers would be performed in the Noble Sanctuary (al Haram al Sherif) the ceremonial meditations and the inner religious aspects of Islam - the Sufi rituals, would be practiced in the zawiya itself.

Sheikh abd el-Kareem, leader of the Shadhily Sufi order in Jerusalem spends most of his time in prayers and reclusive meditation in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In his absence his brother, Abu Nasir is my interlocutor. First established as part of the Qadiriya order, he explains the zawiya has recently shifted to the al-Shadhily order. This shift has been accompanied by a change in the ritual.

Each Sheikh and each sariqa have their own mystery and their own symbolism,’ explains my erudite Sufi friend cum Heideggerian philosopher Yusef from the Khalwaty order in Istanbul, who is quite familiar with Al Zawiya al Afghaniyya in Jerusalem.  As he sets forth the fundamental elements of Sufism, he describes how each founding Sufi leader has sacred poems; invocations; and specific names, known as wird, with which God is invoked and the Prophet Mohammad is blessed by the order.

Abu-Nasir al-Afghany is proud of his community which has expanded from being an all -Afghani zawiya to include local Jerusalemites.  He reports that ‘We have an average of fifty devotees celebrating dhikr on our weekly Friday evenings. Monday celebrations fewer people attend, a maximum of twenty ….

Sufi rituals are an extension of the evening prayers, divided into two distinct parts and punctuated by the two Muslim orthodox evening prayers.

He goes onto describe how ‘the community members begin to arrive shortly before sunset prayers, salat al-maghreb. They congregate in the open courtyard, perform their ablutions, meet and talk in preparation for the celebration.’  In fact zawaya are exciting places where friendships are fostered, where men meet free of everyday constrictions and where spirituality reigns.

The Sufi ritual is a complex mystery and follows a strict sequence, each section with its own symbolism pertaining to the particular school. An outsider may reduce it to a ‘cathartic' experience, but being of a religious order where connecting with God is the goal, the use of psychoanalytic terms is not relevant.

The meeting is referred to as Al Dhikr, the invocation of the presence of God by highlighting his presence. It can also be called a mawlid, or birthday of Prophet Mohammad, who in the ‘Night Journey’ connected with God and as such is perceived as the first Sufi par excellence. These two terms encompass the first section of communion with God.

The sunset prayers take place in the mosque. The faithful align themselves in the traditional rows and are led by the Imam. Once the prayers are over they move to the walls of the mosque, crouch on the floor and then begin the chanting of religious songs specific to the order. These religious recitations, interspersed with religious songs are referred to as wird.

Wird is not only formed of poetry, verses and traditions of the Prophet, each order also has its own wird, particular to that order.  ‘When it is recited with a group of people, it has a melody but is deprived of musical qualities,’ explains my Turkish Sufi friend as he expounds on the subtleties of Sufi ritual. 

The second section is called tasbeeh, praising the name of God.

Yusef cautions that ‘His names are infinite. Although the Prophet says there are 99 names in his famous sayings, the hadith, yet there are different versions of the hadith and some names differ in these versions, but it does not mean they are the only names. Ibn Arabi always emphasizes that God has infinite names. Tasbeeh of Sufi orders differ from each other, but there are common names used in the orders, for example Allah which is Al Ism Al Azam (the most hallowed name). Mostly 7 names are used in Sufi orders, but in some they use 12 names or some other number. They (or some, or only one of them) are given by a master to a darwish in a special number. According to the darwish's spiritual development, the number can increase or decrease, or other names can be recited under the guidance of the master. It is the worst thing for a darwish to recite a name of God periodically without a sheikh's guidance, because one can lose his way in his spiritual journey.’

The names are private and mystical. They are kept as a secret between the devotee and the master. The master, it must be pointed out, has a special close relationship with his devotees and it is in accordance with his discourse that the darwish are accorded their position in the hierarchy.

The second part follows immediately after evening prayers, salat al Isha. The Sheikh performs the prayer in the Al-Aqsa mosque, then joins the Sufi faithful. His entry is quite dramatic and he is accorded a deferential welcome with due respect. Since the believers have just finished the evening prayers they remain seated in their position in the ordered lines.

The sheikh first gives a lesson, explaining a story from the Quran, an event in the life of the Prophet Mohammad or a parable gleaned from everyday life. Once again they form a circle, spread towards the walls of the mosque surrounding the master and the dhikr chant begins. In Al-Zawiya Al-Afghaniyya the dhikr consists of a repetition of the word Allah rising to a full crescendo…soon afterwards the followers disperse.

Al-Zawiya Al-Afghaniyya was built by Muhammad Pasha, governor of Jerusalem (1632 - 33 AD / 1043 H). It stands on Barquq Street parallel to the far western section of Mujahidin Street towards al-Wad Street close to the famous Ecce Homo arch on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Ottoman zawiya has preserved its architectural character and is the last Sufi order that continues to perform dhikr under al-Sheikh Abed al- Karim al-Afghani. In addition to the bi-weekly mawled rituals Abu-Naser points out that they also celebrate all the religious holidays, namely: the ‘Night Journey’ (al 'Isra' wal Mi'raj), the birthday of the Prophet (al Mawlid al Nabawi) and the new hijri year (the New Year according to Muslim faith).

Time changes and rearranges. Most of the religious endowments in the Old City have since become tenements for migrant workers. Of the innumerable medieval zawaya only Al-Zawiya al-Hindiyya (the Indian hospice) and Al-Naqshbandiyya (from central Asia) survive as endowments under the custodianship of the offspring of the original Sufi bukhari or Indian founders. Though the libraries and various memorabilia still exist in these two zawaya, both have ceased to function as Sufi centres of worship. The handsome facades of these Sufi zawaya in the Old City of Jerusalem, over 46 in number, survive as witnesses to the vicissitude of time. They stand as eloquent expressions of Jerusalem's central position in Islam. Against this melancholic background Al-Zawiya Al-Afghaniyya endures as a spiritual haven and continues the centuries old mystic traditions in Jerusalem, Al-Quds al Sherif.