Driving through the hills towards Tel Aviv, we left the highway and turned down roads which became more and more primitive. One last dirt road led us into the village and to a small mosque, which doubles for Abu Saleh’s home that he shares with his children and grandchildren. Abu Saleh welcomed us into a simple concrete room. His smile radiated love and warmth. He and our Israeli friend and host, Eliahu, exchanged about 8 kisses – a sign of deep friendship. We sat on thin mattress cushions and leaned against the concrete walls. The only other objects in the room were framed Arabic calligraphy prints of sayings from the Qur’an, and Abu Saleh’s drums, which hung on hooks in the wall.
After we settled ourselves, he began by telling us that true followers of the Prophets Moses, Jesus and Mohammed were completely connected, with no strife between them, as God is One.
We learned that Abu Saleh is a Sufi Shiekh, one of about half a million Sufis in Israel and Palestine. When we asked him if there were any differences between the ways of Muslims and Sufis, he explained, “the Sunni Muslim learns Islam at the level of primary school. The Sufi takes Islam to the level of University!”
We sipped tea as Abu Saleh explained to us that “the path of God begins with the tongue but does not end there. Right speech is the fundamental basis of right living. There is a language of the tongue and a language of the heart… When we speak the language of the heart, God’s light fills our bodies and flows out into the earth.”
Abu Saleh, his children and grandchildren were living proof of this light, which radiated from all of them in the most peaceful, calm way. One young girl who sat with us the whole time had the most loving and compassionate eyes and the greatest composure I’ve ever witnessed in such a young person. We learned that there are approximately 2,000 Shiekhas (female Shiekhs) in the region! It seems this girl was a budding Shiekha.
During our time together, Abu Saleh’s friends called from as far away as Puerto Rico to inquire about his health and to ask for healings. It became clear that the Shiekh is a revered healer.
After discussing his beliefs and practices, we sang a beautiful chant together in Hebrew. He translated the words into Arabic and copied the words into a large notebook which he kept by his side. After various members of our group asked him for about the 6th time if he’d pray with us, he offered us this story:
“Six years ago I made a pilgrimage to Jericho, to the grave of Nebi Musa (the Prophet Moses) and I sat and prayed. Before long, I saw a tremendous light before me, coming straight down from the heavens. It was wide and clear and strong. I began to shake, and a voice called my name. I asked, ‘Who is speaking to me?’ The voice said, ‘It is Allah, father of Moses, your Prophet.’ I was filled with love and awe. I said ‘What is it that you request of me?’ The voice replied, ‘You will be a teacher of Jews. When they come to you, open your doors to them; pray with them; share your food with them; if they need a place to sleep, give them a bed in your home.’
“I cried and cried…to be in the presence of God was something I could not have imagined. To be honored by God that he would speak to me directly…
“But I asked myself, ‘Where am I going to find these Jews? I don’t know any Jews!’
“The next year, a Jewish man named Micael arrived in my village. He was a worker from Modiin, a moshav (Jewish farm) not far away. He came to work in the village. No other Jews offered to accept this job except Micael. Jews are afraid to enter a Palestinian village! He was a new immigrant to Israel from America, and a learned religious man. Then after some time Micael brought Gabriel, another Israeli Jew, and then Gabriel brought Eliahu, and now Eliahu has brought you, a room full of Jews who are talking with me about spirit!”
During the story, Abu Saleh became full of emotion and could not contain his tears at many points as he recalled the wonder of being in God’s presence and the power of the message which he had received. We listened to his story with quiet amazement. Then, the call to prayer echoed out over the ancient hills. “Do you know the language of spirit?” he asked. “With this language, you talk directly to the angels.”
Abu Saleh asked his son to take a drum off the wall. He invited us to “zikker” with him (the Sufi practice of inviting God’s spirit into ones hearts by chanting – or literally – remembering God with our voice). He began chanting “La illaha ilallah” (There is no God but God) and we joined him. This went on for about 10 minutes or so. It is hard to know because time seemed irrelevant. We became filled with a profound sense of joy and oneness. Suddenly, Abu Saleh held a note for several measures and then began to pray in Arabic. Even though most of us still had our eyes closed, we all understood that he was blessing us. Some members of our group watched as he reached out with his hands, making circular motions, as though he were giving each one of us a direct blessing. Whether or not our eyes were open, we all felt powerful waves of love washing over us. Many of us were crying – unable to contain the strong emotions we felt.
I don’t quite remember what happened next, except that we were hugging Abu Saleh good-bye and speaking with other members of the family who were coming out to see us off. On a physical level, this is one of the poorer homes I’ve been in, yet spiritually one of the richest, without a doubt.
When we walked outside, about 40 children and assorted adults were milling around – undoubtedly attracted by the chanting and singing coming from the Mosque.
Tonight we are staying at Neve Shalom/Wahat asSalaam/Oasis of Peace, an intentional community of Israeli Jews and Palestinians living together and raising their children together in peace. A vision fulfilled! As our group gathered after dinner to share thoughts about the day, one thing was clear. We experienced something beyond language this afternoon. We are filled with joy! What a blessing after the incredible darkness and confusion we have witnessed on this trip – the suffering, pain and deep yearning for peace of all who live here.
I hope this story of Shiekh Abu Saleh and our band of Jewish pilgrims warms your heart and gives you a piece of the joy which we are experiencing. Jews and Palestinians CAN find paths to one another for those who believe it’s possible.
Published in The Compassionate Listening Journal, November 16, 1998, and Fellowship Magazine, December 2000