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Unravelling Palestinian feminine mysticism in the Sufi corners of Nablus Open in fullscreen

Aziza Nofal

Unravelling Palestinian feminine mysticism in the Sufi corners of Nablus

Sufism has flourished in Nablus [Aziza Nofal]

Date of publication: 5 July, 2019

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Contrary to many other Arab countries, Sufis in Palestine are able to practice freely, with Sufis in Nablus having corners for women to bathe themselves in the mystic spiritual practice.
For Palestine's Sufis in occupied Nablus, every week, women gather around Iman Abu Mariam, a female cleric, referred to as a Sheikha in Jabal Jarzeen in the occupied city. They take part in a session remembering God and the beloved Prophet Muhammad.

For two hours, the women read and recite the holy Quran and carry out the Abrahimic prayer, along with the 99 names of Allah. They refer to this act as Hadhra.

"The repetition of recitations allows for the individual's spirit to fly as they enter a space in complete focus on God once they are in Hadhra," Sheikha Iman told The New Arab.

Sheikha Iman inherited her religious following from her father in 2013, who gave her and his ten other children their religious education – half of those were males.

Her daughter Sondos, 17, dances and plays the drums and her son Zakariya, 10, takes part in a tradition with the Sheikhs of Nazreth. With her children, Sheikha Iman goes to a number of Sufi events across Palestine, which were officiated by Palestine's Islamic ministry in 2014.

There are many people in Palestine who oppose the Sufi school of thought.

Palestinians, including the ones in Nablus, regard Sufism as a part of their cultural heritage. This is one of the main reasons Sufism has continued to flourish in Palestine, as opposed to other countries where Sufis are considered innovating parts of Islam, or are even condemned for leaving the fold of Islam in their practices.

Sufism has continued to flourish in Palestine, as opposed to other countries where Sufis are considered innovating parts of Islam

'No contradiction with my martyred son'

In Nablus, there are 20 hubs that are traditionally used for locals to socialise. All of them date back to the times of the Ottoman Empire, except one – the Hanbali corner, founded in 2013.

The corner was founded by Abdulrahman al-Hanbali who named it after his son, Mohammed al-Hanbali. He died fighting for the Hamas movement in the occupied West Bank.

Mohammed al-Hanbali was one of the most prominent weapons engineers in the Hamas military wing during the second intifada.

In June 2004, the Israeli army broke into the Al-Muhafa neighbourhood in Nablus and started a ten-hour gun battle in search for him. He was killed after the Israeli army blew up a building he was hiding in.

Although Hamas has fundamental differences with the Sufis, especially when it comes to their position on "jihad", Abdul Raheem Hanbali sees no contradiction in naming a Sufi corner after his martyred son. 

"Religious and political debates have not only failed to convince people to find an answer, but it has failed to fill their thirst for closeness to God," he said.

Female Hadhra sessions

Because Sufism is a way of life for many in Nablus, it's common to see women taking part in Hadhra sessions.

Sheikha Iman is not the only one to have a women's only corner – the nearby Sheikh Muslim corner too offers female-only Hadhra sessions.

The head organiser of female-only Hadhra sessions, Jamila Haroun al-Debai, 55, was a member of the General Union of Palestinian Women and a prominent political activist.

After studying in Sufism 2007, she embarked on a new life journey and gave up political activism to immerse herself in spirituality.

"I began to study Sufism in 2007 when a group opened a special centre to teach the origins and sciences of Sufism," she said.

"My fascination with Sufism became a turning point in my life when I found this way of living."

Al-Daba'i's sessions begin with recitation of the holy Quran and the prayer on the Prophet Muhammad. She finishes off her session with a religious sermon and studying the biographies and teachings of Sufi sheikhs.

However, the head of the Supreme Sufi Council Abdul Karim Najim, says these women's sessions are "self-determination" and unusual because the women do not co-ordinate with the Supreme Council of Sufis.

My fascination with Sufism became a turning point in my life when I found this way of living

Sufi babies

A new trend has emerged within Palestine in which new parents want to celebrate the birth of their newborns under Sufi traditions. The women, upon request, travel to other cities to provide this service.

When giving birth to her second child, Sanaa Khaled, 36, was told by her husband's family that they want a Sufi-style birth, because their traditions entice them, despite the family not being followers of the sect.

"I did not know what I was signing up for," she says.

During the birth celebration, women meet and start organising the birth under the umbrella of an experienced woman. They pray on the Prophet Muhammad and sing songs with them sitting in a circle around the woman giving birth.

For Sanaa, she only agreed due to family pressure: "I agreed because I do not want to oppose my husband's family."

But since the birth she has decided to continue with partaking in Sufi rituals, despite not believing in them.

"He is not completely convinced of the idea of ​​birth, but I noticed acceptance in my surroundings for these rituals, even my sisters would, on some occasions, hold Sufi-style birth celebrations."

Aziza Nofal is a Palestinian journalist living in Ramallah. She is also a member of the The Marie Colvin Journalists' Network

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