Sufi Trail reveals secrets of Islamic mysticism


Perched high on a hilltop, this Sufi shrine was erected in the 16th century to honor the Sufi mystics.

And today a group of tourists are gathered to learn more about Sufi mysticism in the Palestinian village of Birzeit, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Raed Saadeh is briefing visitors before the start of the Sufi Trail.

Saadeh is one of the creators of the Sufi Trail and Chairman of “Rozana”, a Birzeit-based association dedicated to the promotion of agro-tourism as well as architectural and cultural preservation in the Palestinian Territories.

Sufi Trail participants are a group of a dozen foreigner and local people interested in discovering the Holy Land through a walk off the beaten track.

The first stop is at the al-Qatrawani shrine, a 16th-century sanctuary built on top of a previous Byzantine monastery, its history shrouded in mystery: according to “Rozana”, a local tradition says that it was built in honor of a Muslim holy man, Sheikh Ahmad al-Qatrawani, a mystic from the Islamic Sufi order from the village of Qatra near Gaza; a parallel Christian tradition attributes the name al-Qatrawani to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

The two folk legends are intertwined, as it happens in places with millennia-old history: “Catherine, Qatrawani, so another connection to the name, ok?, Qatrawani, Catherine. And it's also connected to the same myth, that Catherine actually (was) descended into Mount Sinai and this guy (was) descended to this location, so there might be also similarities,” Saadeh explains to the group.

Sanctuaries like this were erected upon the death of Sufi mystics who since the first centuries of Islam lived here an ascetic life, wandering, fasting and praying in solitude; their existence was influenced both by the example of Christian hermits and by the Hindu religion, says Professor Muhsin Yusuf, who teaches Muslim History at Birzeit University.

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century Sufism spread throughout the Muslim world, including the Holy Land: Sufi mystics here inspired devotion and the pilgrimage of devotees to the shrines where in most cases their bodies were buried.

People attributed special powers to Sufi mystics and considered them capable of interceding with God; faithful flocked to the shrines and prayed for miracles, whether it is healing from a disease, becoming pregnant or reaping a big harvest.

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the influence of European culture in these areas, Sufism in the Holy Land was pushed to the side and fewer Sufi groups remain here today, says Professor Yusuf.

The very idea of the Sufi Trail, explains Saadeh, is to explore this long history and rediscover the Sufi past through the shrines that are still standing today.

“Some of the things that we found that still exist on top of the ground are shrines and memorial places that are connected with religious practices such as Sufism. Our interest is not to revive Sufism, our interest is to expose a certain area, a certain period of history that was rich in Palestine,” he says.

There are three different Sufi Trails or paths that tourist can choose from: through hikes among tree forests as well as a bus ride each of the three tours is designed to explore a number of sanctuaries scattered along the hills of the central West Bank.

The shrines are kept in relatively good conditions, although the Sufi saint bodies have been smuggled away by looters.

The once famous sanctuaries are almost unknown to locals today.

“I chose to do the Sufi trail today because I believe it's really important to know our history, our villages' history and heritage,” explains Farraj, who lives in Ramallah and came here with a friend.
The three Sufi trails are between 5 and 8 kilometers (3 and 5 miles) long and last about 5 hours; each costs between 100 and 150 Israeli shekels ($26-40) depending on the number of participants, says Saadeh. Every year, he says, between 500 and 700 people between locals and foreigners subscribe to one of the Sufi tours.

Among others, the Sufi Trail paths include a stop at the al-Khawass shrine, 540 meters above sea level, reached after an hour-long ride and built for an Iraqi Sufi saint, Ibrahim al-Khawass al-Samarraim, who died here in 904 A.D.

Another steep hike is required to arrive to the blue-domed Nabi Ghaith sanctuary that lies on top of a pine forest and is dedicated to Sufi mystic Sheikh Ghaith; the shrine of Nabi Saleh.

Located along one of the Sufi Trail paths is the site of al-Assirah; which is not a Sufi shrine but a place that hosts the ruins of an old mosque mysteriously hidden by oak tree brunches.

Sufi Trail organizers worked in tandem with the Palestinian Tourism Ministry when researching the shrine’s history, mapping the areas and putting up signs, explains Saadeh.

The project is also designed to involve local municipalities and organizations in an effort to promote the local economy. The food served to Sufi Trail participants, for instance, is prepared by the Deir Ghassaneh Village Women's Association.

Foreigners are taking note and welcome the idea of an alternative to the usual visits of Jerusalem or Bethlehem.

Sandra Willett is from Ireland, but works in Ramallah. She joined the Sufi Trail with a group of friends, and says it's important to learn about the heritage of a place, she says.

“Cultural tourism is a huge passion of mine and, working, getting engaged in local communities where, you know? It’s authentic, that’s what people are interested in. You know, there’s been a real shift away from ostentation and everything being flashy. They want to actually really get engaged, get out and mix with local people, learn about history and culture. There's so many people around the world where this place is part of their history and culture, whether they know it or not.”

Sufis today are a smaller, quieter presence in the Palestinian Territories and have an uneasy relationship with other Muslims, says Itzchak Weismann, who teaches Islam at Haifa University's Middle East department and is the Head of its Jewish-Arab Centre.

“Sufis practice Islam like all Muslims but in, much more. It's the same practice, but (in) many times. Let’s say that Muslims say “Allah HuAkbar”; then Sufis maybe will say this sentence – ‘Allah HuAkbar’ - maybe in one day they will say it one thousand times, if it’s not more”, Professor Yusuf explains.

With the advent of modernity, people began to consider Sufi practices as backwards and strange, with some even accusing Sufis of not being “real” Muslims.

Hence in the West Bank they are often close-knit groups, their rituals practiced away from public eyes.

Sufi religious music, though, continues to be popular and in Jerusalem several groups, such as al-Anasheed al-Maqdissiyah play it on special occasions like Ramadan or to celebrate the birth of a child.

During Sufi prayers and songs, worshipers repeat “There’s no God but Allah”, “Mohammed is Allah’s prophet, may he be blessed by the prayers of God” until they reach a state of trance. Sufis believe that repeating these phrases helps to bring them closer to God.