Sufism in Jerusalem: Institutional Disruptions and Subversive Transformations

By Kenny Schmitt
Submitted to Session P5010 (Invoking Religion in and against Imperialism, Occupation, and War, 2017 Annual Meeting
Israel; Palestine; West Bank;
Arab-Israeli Conflict; Comparative; Ethnography; Islamic Studies; Israel Studies; Middle East/Near East Studies; Mysticism/Sufi Studies; Nationalism;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Sufis have strong spiritual connections to Jerusalem. Within Islam, Muhammad’s night journey - al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj - is a baseline typology for mystical encounters with the divine. As such, Jerusalem has had long historical links to Muslim mystics and their religious institutions. But what about Sufism in Jerusalem today? Since 1967, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the city has experienced massive upheavals and transformations. Tragically, all Sufi institutions in Jerusalem have perished except for two. How have the Zawiya al-Naqshbandi and the Zawiya al-Afghaniyya managed to survive the occupation? In this paper, I argue that the have survived by reframing their religious practices and taking distinct approaches to the Israeli State. Beyond adapting to the challenges of global anti-Sufism, both institutions have allowed traditional Sufi practices around minor Islamic holidays (al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj, Mawlid n-Nabiyyi, and Hijra) to be reinterpreted and repurposed to fit within the Palestinian national framework. Both institutions, however, have diverged in their approach to the Israeli State, divergences which have determined their fate. The Zawiya al-Naqshbandi has survived by forging alliances with Jewish individuals and groups, intentionally cultivating interfaith relationships to promote peace-building and reconciliation. While this path has kept the Israeli State at bay, it has undermined the Naqshbandi’s standing with Palestinians who view these efforts as tools to foster servile attitudes toward the occupation. Normalization is disruption. The Zawiya al-Afghaniyya has taken a different approach. They have combined political-quietism with deliberate religious practice which cultivates personal, ethical formation. Although members of the institution deal with the daily frustrations of life under occupation, they are equipped to transcend the everyday disruptions of life under occupation. Consequently, Israel perceives no threat and doesn’t interfere. The study is based on ethnographic material - participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and additional sources - collected in Jerusalem between 2013 and 2016.