JAFFA, Israel – In a family’s living room in this seaside town, seven people spin in circles to the beat of a drum and the strumming of a guitar. As the music gets faster, so does their turning, with their arms stretched out, swaying above their heads.
These are Jewish Israelis. They are practicing the dancing of whirling dervishes, a meditative exercise from the mystical Sufi branch of Islam.
“When I turn, I really feel an excitement,” said Ayelet Lugassi, 50, who drives about an hour each week from her home in Jerusalem to whirl with this group. “It is a practice that makes me feel more in touch with my heart. Yes, I am a Jew, and this practice comes from Islam. But that doesn’t matter because Sufism has a very important understanding of the universal feeling of believing of God.”
This whirling dervish group offers an intimate window into the growing interest in Sufism among Israeli Jews, and into the interfaith encounters that often accompany it. Recent years have seen not only the development of this whirling dervish circle in Jaffa, but also 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,” said Chen Bram, an anthropologist and research fellow at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, who has published papers on the topic.ADVERTISEMENT
Sufism, which promotes a personal connection with God, emerged as an ascetic movement in the early years of Islam, then later developed its own writings and rituals and led to the creation of several different Sufi orders throughout the Muslim world. The practice of whirling as a way to connect with God was developed by the Mevlevi order in Konya, Turkey, started by the followers of the famed Persian poet and religious philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi after his death in 1273. It is that order that inspires this group in Jaffa. Many of them have made pilgrimages to Rumi’s tomb in Turkey.
On a recent Wednesday night, organizer Ora Balha cued the musician to stop playing. Gradually, the group followed the slowing sounds of the instruments to a standstill. Balha then read a verse from Rumi: “What causes sorrow?” she read, in Hebrew. “When the source is within, and this whole universe is arising from it.”
The evening’s theme was the importance of finding internal joy. The exercise of whirling, the participants said, can help.
“Happiness is a choice,” Balha gently told the group while they sat on cushions on the floor of her living room, drinking water in between sessions of whirling.
Balha, an Israeli Jew, started this group several years ago with her husband, Ihab, an Arab Muslim who was born in Jaffa, one of a few mixed cities in Israel. The two, who have three young children, are a rare case of marriage between a Jew and a Muslim in Israel.
They say that the Sufi emphasis on universalism has allowed them to connect on a spiritual level, and that Sufi music, whirling and writings can bring together people of different backgrounds.
“Sufism is the heart of Islam,” said Ihab Balha. “It unites between cultures. It calls for union.”
The Balhas also run a nonprofit organization, Orchard of Abraham’s Children, which operates a multicultural preschool for Jews, Muslims and Christians and sponsors other activities promoting cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the midst of the ongoing conflict. A few times a year, they help organize public gatherings, where Sufi sheiks lead ceremonies involving prayer, music and whirling for hundreds of attendees, most of them Jewish.
“When we started out, few people had heard of Sufism, but today it has become much more common,” said Ora Balha, who is a trained dancer and began practicing Sufi whirling about 15 years ago. She emphasizes that whirling “is a prayer, a meditation. It’s not a dance for the aesthetic of it.”
After about an hour of whirling, the group settled onto cushions arranged around an Oriental carpet to drink tea and eat sweets. The bookshelves in the sparsely decorated apartment contain Islamic texts as well as Jewish ones.
Like many Israelis interested in Sufism, participant Asaf Shaish found his way to it after dabbling in Buddhism and several types of meditation. He said he was surprised to hear about ideas of universalism in Islam.
“It really opened my head that Islam is not all about violence and religious fanatics,” said Shaish, 31, of Tel Aviv, who attends the weekly whirling sessions. “Now I have a positive feeling about the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Islam.’ That wasn’t why I came here, but it has just happened.”
There’s actually a long history of encounters between Judaism and Sufism, going back to the 13th century when Abraham Maimonides, son of the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, sought out Sufism, then influential in North Africa, for ideas to infuse into a Judaism that he saw as overly intellectual. In recent years, Israeli academics have shown an increased interest in the history of Sufi-Jewish relations and in translating Sufi works into Hebrew.
“Translations of Rumi and others have definitely opened the door in terms of popular Israeli interest,” said Ya’qub Ibn Yusuf, a religiously observant Jew who also studies Sufi texts and engages in Islamic prayer, and owns the Olam Qatan spiritual book and music shop in Jerusalem.
Those who 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.
“Nobody has to give up his identity as a Jew,” Lugassi said. “But we are all commanded to love, and this practice helps make you whole and open and get connected to the God and the love inside of you.”