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October 04, 2002 - Image 106

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2002-10-04

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ate. For Jews, much of the prayer book
and Bible were dependent on these
religious adepts, the men and women
who moved beyond the banal to forge
a direct connection with God.
Islam is no different, and Sufism
operates as the thrumming heart and
soul behind the laws and prayer of
the practicing Muslim.
In the years of its infancy, howev-
er, Sufism drew unabashedly from
Jewish sources, and Jews themselves,
threading a particularly Jewish sensi-
bility into the burgeoning Muslim
mystical force.
Islamic mystics turned to Jews to
answer a variety of mystical needs.
In addition to the Prophet
Muhammad's familiarity with the
Jewish religion, early Jewish converts
to Islam brought with them the sto-
ries from their heritage, known as
Israiliyat, which told of the Banu
Israil, the pious men of ancient
One of the most famous early
Islamic mystics — and the man con-
sidered to be the "patriarch of
Muslim .mysticism" — Hasan al-
Basri (d. 728) introduced numerous
/srairiyat legends into the Muslim
spiritual stream, stories that went on
to become representative of Islamic
mystical ideas of piety.
Even an early biographer of the
Prophet Muhammad included in his
work many legends and stories of
virtuous behavior that he attributed
to the "People of the Torah." It was
an inclusion for which his contem-
poraries roundly criticized him —
because he had explicitly pointed
out the Jewish influences on the
Another Muslim from this era,
Malik ibn Dinar, head of the second
generation of Islamic mystics and an
important force in the formation of
Sufism, quoted liberally from his
well-thumbed Jewish religious
In fact, he borrowed specific ideas
from the "Talmudic Chasidim,"
Jewish mystics who became leg-
endary for their devotion to God.
As the early Sufis had much in
common with the Chasidim of tal-
mudic times, the Islamic spiritualists
could well be seen as the Chasidim's
spiritual progeny, through the
administration of early Islamic mys-
tics like al-Basri and ibn Dinar.
Indeed, al-Basri even credited the
Jewish king David as originating
many of the practices that character-
ized the Sufis, down to the specific
woolen garb that identified them.

This flirtation with Jewish sources
did not fade with the passing of the
first few generations of Sufis.
An 11th-century Islamic practi-
tioner in Toledo, Spain, named ibn
Said, boldly stated that his Jewish
contemporaries had a special under-.
standing of the prophets and the
story of Genesis — and that Muslim
scholars looked to them for guidance
in these areas.
"This people (the Jews)," he stat-
ed, "is the house of prophecy and
the source of the prophetic message
of mankind and the majority of the
prophets — the blessings and peace
of Allah be upon them."
A couple of hundred years later,
Sufis were still turning to Jewish vol-
umes for inspiration. Ibn Arabi, a
13th-century Sufi who was consid-
ered one of the greatest medieval
Islamic mystical thinkers, turned to
Jewish sources in lieu of those from
his own religion.
Specifically, he borrowed mystical
ideas of humanity and its relation to
God directly from Moses Maimonides'
Guide for the Perplexed, perhaps the
most important Jewish theological
tract created during medieval times.
In fact, even before the death of
the great Maimonides, Jewish teach-
ers were explicating his Guide for the
Perplexed in Islamic madrasas, or
schools, to Muslim students.
Perhaps the height of Jewish-Sufi
symbiosis was achieved in the person
of a 13th-century Sufi in Damascus,
Abu ali ibn Hud. Ibn Hud spent his
time teaching Maimonides' Guide for
the Perplexed to students of all reli-
Not only did he purportedly wear
an ill-concealed yarmulke, or skull-
cap, under his turban as a show of
respect for the Jewish religion but
when asked to teach a spiritual seek-
er, he replied, "Upon which road:
the Mosaic or the Muslim?"
My friend David's sense of the
oppressiveness of history in the Holy
Land — a history that seems to
demand the acting out of Hannibal's
code (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a
tooth) — is certainly shared by
many Jews and Muslims. However, if
David and the other denizens of the
Holy Land were to listen a little
closer to those seemingly mute
stones built into the walls around
Jerusalem, they might hear the whis-
pers of another story — one that
bespeaks a time when Muslim- mys-
tics turned to their Jewish cousins
for help in creating the beauty of
Islamic mysticism. ❑

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