Ramadan beyond fasting: Sufis and Sweets

Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition, has had a relatively quiet presence among Muslims in Israel.

Sufis (370) (photo credit: ILENE PRUSHER  )
Sufis (370)
(photo credit: ILENE PRUSHER )
At sunset, a cannon booms in the Old City and a few shots ring out from adjacent villages, marking the end of the daily fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Muslims are seen rushing to get to an iftar, or breakfast meal, after a long, hot day of refraining from drinking and eating.
For most non-Muslims, the sights and sounds of Ramadan end there. And given the soaring summer temperatures, the idea of fasting from dawn to dusk for a whole month sounds exhausting, to say the least.
But those curious to see, hear and taste a little more have been flocking to a Wednesday night series called “Ramadan Rituals in the Old City,” sponsored by the Center for Jerusalem Studies, an extension of al-Quds University. This Wednesday night’s gathering featured an evening of Sufi religious music, played by a seven-man group called Anwar al-Quds (the Luminous of Jerusalem). Sufism is Islam’s mystical tradition, and while its adherents are well-known in countries like Turkey, it has had a much quieter presence among Muslims here.
One of the key aspects of Sufi religious dedication is zhiker, which involves a trance-like repetition of God’s name. The men – including a grandfather, son and grandson from the Sabagh family – sang “Nushkur-Allah” (Thank God) in rhythmic, mesmerizing repetition, accompanied by different forms of drums and the occasional cymbal.
Songs with more elaborate lyrics are about the mawlid – the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday – and are based on Iraqi music scales that date back to the Abbasid era. “In this tradition, the prophet is the connection with God, and you need to sing to him in order to reach God,” explained Dr. Ali Qleibo, a professor of cultural anthropology at al-Quds University and the emcee for the evening.
The international visitors sat rapt, some swaying to the spiritual cadences alongside words they couldn’t understand, some tucking into the sweet, warm namura, a dessert pastry filled with goat’s cheese, which waiters generously passed around the packed courtyard. Local people passing through the Muslim Quarter’s Souk il-Qattanin, some of them on their way from evening prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque and others shopping for gifts in the passageway decked with festive lights and lanterns, popped in to listen and to take photographs.
“I come from an old, urban family with Sufi roots. At Ramadan, after the iftar meal we sang songs and then we moved to the radio,” Qleibo explained in a discussion after the performance. Organizing performances of Sufi music at iftar is something that in the past happened in the private homes of the wealthy, he said, and now is more accessible as professional religious musicians such as Anwar al-Quds are performing in the public realm. It’s an opportunity to emphasize the rich spiritual practices of Ramadan beyond fasting, which even many Muslims are unaware of. “Even Arabs don’t about know about these traditions,” he said.
A young British couple and their baby, on a two-month visit from London while they participate in an arts fellowship in Ramallah, came because it was an opportunity to enjoy a cultural evening connected to Ramadan. “The educational aspect – the professional attempt to contextualize it – is really helpful,” said Jeremy Hutchinson, a visual artist, sitting with his filmmaker wife, Vanessa, and their ten-month-old son.
Next week’s event will include a tour of local Sufi shrines as well as visits to several places that in the past served as a zawiya, a kind of hostel where religious pilgrims would stay. Formal prayers would be performed in the Noble Sanctuary [the Temple Mount], but Sufi rituals were practiced in the zawiya, says Huda al-Imam, the center’s director. “Today, many families sit down to watch television dramas, released especially for Ramadan, instead.”