Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Sufis of Nablus


By PM collaborators - November 27, 2016
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Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [Nablus]

In the corkscrew lanes of Nablus’ medieval centre, just a few steps from the austere beauty of the grand mosque, there is a low room with some plastic chairs and rich carpet. At first glance, it looks the same as any other Muslim holy place. But this room is actually a tekyeh, home to the Naqshbandi sect of Sufism.
 
The Naqshbandi have been in Palestine since the 1600s, but are not native to the region. As Hassanayn Maulana, an expert on Nablusi culture explains, the word tekyeh hints at the Naqshbandi’s origins. “The word is of Persian or Kurdish origin,” Maulana says. Indeed, Naqshbandi culture was introduced to Palestine by a Persian from Bukhara, in central Asia.  
 
But if the sect was founded elsewhere, a small group of Palestinians have keenly taken on its distinctive practices. Indeed, Naqshbandi customs are wildly different from those of a typical Muslim congregation.
 
This became clear as soon as the sermon started. In a normal mosque, the imam discusses an issue, with the audience listening in silence. But during his sermon, Naqshbandi Sheikh al-Masri encouraged the men seated around the edge of the tekyeh to contribute to the debate. When one quoted a Koranic verse, the others would nod and mutter prayers approvingly.
 
After the sermon, the Naqshbandi distinguished themselves even further from mainstream Islam. Two of the worshipers began to play a pair of battered green drums in the middle of the room, while another couple joined in on the cymbals.
 
The playing got louder and louder until the cacophony shook the entire body. This is the point. As Sheikh al-Masri explained, “we use rhythm as a way of getting close to God.” This practice is known as dhikr, whereby devout Sufis repeat short phrases to focus the mind and glorify God.
 
This was made even clearer when, led by a young man with a beautiful voice, the men started chanting, for several minutes, the word 'Allahu’ – God. The final 'u’ vowel was extended to approximate song. When combined with special breathing, this custom aims to mimic the beating of the human heart. “Using the Arabic language is very important to us, explained the sheikh. “It is a way of getting God into our hearts.”
 
The result of all this is incredibly intense. Many of the men rocked backwards and forwards in time with the prayer. When one man got up to leave, another jovially (but firmly) plopped him back down. The sheikh himself, by no means a young man, hopped up and danced around the tekyeh at one point.
 
His passion is unsurprising. Naqshbandi sheikhs are trained by masters stretching all the way back to the Muhammad himself, unlike most Sufis who trace their heritage to his son-in-law, Ali.
 
Eventually, the trace was broken as the lights came back on, and the Naqshbandi shared out chicken and pita bread on plastic plates.
 
But despite their emphasis on individual spirituality and charity, the future of the Naqshbandi in Palestine has been put at risk by the political reality. Over the past thirty years, Wahhabism has galloped across the Arab world. From Saudi Arabia to the killing fields of Syria, this fundamentalist strain of Islam now dominates large parts of the Middle East. This conservatism has even affected liberal Palestine. In 2012, Sufis in Nazareth reported that they were harassed by their more hardline co-religionists.
 
In the West Bank, explains Maulana, “many Muslims do not think the Naqshbandi are true believers.” The Naqshbandi repay the compliment: Sheikh al-Masri claimed that there is “a big gap between us and other Muslims. They are not able to open themselves to God.”
 
Meanwhile, the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic movement with some practices similar to the Naqshbandi – “they all pour from the same well” as Maulana put it – have faced discrimination from mainstream Muslims in Nablus.
 
But despite these tensions, the Naqshbandi persist, perhaps because of the apolitical nature of their doctrine. Even as Nablus’ old town is wracked by political violence, the Naqshbandi endure. This is especially important given attempts by rival Palestinian factions to take control of mosques for political gain. But Sheikh al-Masri is adamant: “we just want to get close to God,” he says. “We want to be isolated from the world.” 
 
 
 
Photo: Sufi lodge in the old city of Nablus, Palestine.
Credit : Amer Sweidan Photography

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