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Shaikh ‘Abd ul-‘Aziz Bukhari

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THE streets of Old Jerusalem are labyrinthine. Their cobbled lanes hark back to an age when donkey-carts had right of way. Today, Israeli soldiers in olive-green fatigues patrol the Old City’s tangled shadows.

And as quaint and peaceful as they may seem, and as normal as life may appear on the surface, the alleyways do have their seedy side. A Via Dolorosa resident once told me that after praying at Al-Aqsa one dawn he had seen a bloodied bundle lying in the road.

“I saw it move. It was a person crying for help in Hebrew. I still regret my actions today, but you must understand that I had no other choice…I ran to my house and bolted the door,” he said.

“Later I heard that the person died. I know what I did was wrong, but that’s just the way things are here. Stop and police will detain you for hours. They will make your life miserable. As a Palestinian it’s just not worth it. Help a dying Jew, and for your troubles you immediately become a suspect…

He pointed to a security camera above our heads.

“And now we’re all under suspicion.”

The presence of cameras did not surprise me too much. Soldiers patrolled the Old City 24-hours, and policing its alleys must have presented its own set of challenges. However, I must admit that it would have been more reassuring to have seen policemen, rather than armed Israeli conscripts, patrolling the Muslim quarter.

It was in these streets that we met Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Bukhari. He was stepping out of his street door into the Via Dolorosa when we walked past. I saw a small, neatly dressed man with a shining, open face. He greeted us.

“I’m glad to have met you South Africans. I was wondering whether I’d be able to help someone today,” he said with a slight American accent. When he introduced himself, I realised that I knew who he was. I had interviewed him on my radio show, and had been given his business card by someone who had visited Jerusalem. But how did he know who we were?

“Our local grapevine has been busy. Don’t think that we haven’t been talking about you,” he laughed.

Shaikh Bukhari represented everything that was once the charming grace of the Old City. Generous, hospitable and a Shaikh in the Naqshbandi Sufi order, his demeanour was of contained serenity. But I knew that in his chest beat a passionate and sometimes anguished heart.

In Sufi lore the biggest battle of the human soul is the one of the self. Control of one’s anger, and the quality of compassion, are two key pillars of this internal jihad. A Sufi has to honour all Creation.

I can remember Shaikh Bukhari facing this test in the streets when Salih, our concierge at the Hashimi, was collared by a military patrol. He did not have his identity card on him, and he was arguing with the soldiers. A crowd had gathered and the situation was growing tense. Everybody knew Salih, but what would the soldiers do?

A youth standing nearby swore at the soldiers in Arabic, saying that they were the dogs of Satan – a big insult in those parts. He was mercilessly batoned for his troubles and frogmarched away by about a dozen young conscripts. They seemed to forget about Salih, who quickly made his escape.

“Excuse this bad language,” said a by-stander in English as the youth disappeared from view, “but they’re going to beat the shit out of that boy.”

As I turned I saw Shaikh Bukhari’s face creased with sorrow, he was wrestling with himself, trying not to show his feelings. It was quite a battle, and it took some moments before he regained his composure. I pretended not to notice.

On that occasion we were on our way to have tea with him, a ritual he enjoyed with guests from all over the world. It was a tradition that went back to the times of his grandfathers, holy men who used to look after the pilgrims.

We entered his home through the green street door. The Naqshbandi Zawiyyah, a hall of Sufi learning and reflection, was on the ground floor. We ascended a flight of stairs past a series of courtyards to a study furnished with antique Ottoman fixtures.

On the walls were portraits of Shaikh Bukhari’s forefathers. His grandfather, Shaikh Ya’kub, and his late father, Shaikh Musa, stared at us with a kindly, but watchful bearing. Shaikh Bukhari’s family had arrived in Jerusalem in 1616 from Bukhara in Uzbekistan to teach the Sufi way.

His original ancestor, Imam Bukhari, had authored Islam’s most authoritative work next to the Qur’an, the Sahih Bukhari – a collection of Muhammadan sayings validated by chains of transmission going back to the mouth of the Prophet.

Imam Bukhari was a 9th century prodigy who had memorized 300,000 Prophetic sayings by heart. As a wealthy man he had spurned the trappings of luxury, and for decades, had eaten nothing but grass. Traditions had described Imam Bukhari as a thin, small man with an aura of gentleness and humility. When I looked at Shaikh ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Bukhari, I saw his spitting image.

Lining the walls of the study were ancient Naqshbandi tomes and Islamic works. Glass cabinets had dusty displays of artifacts and exquisite china pottery. Colourful Sufi cloaks hung from the wall. As we fingered delicate manuscripts, Shaikh Bukhari explained that he had left Jerusalem for the United States in his youth to make money.

“But after the death of my father, I realised I had to come back to continue the family tradition,” he said, explaining that in Ottoman times his grandfathers had been responsible for the upkeep of Islamic shrines as far as Lebanon.

Shaikh Bukhari also headed the Uzbek community in Palestine, a group of people of about 4,000 scattered in Gaza and the West Bank. It was a challenging task, just one of the many that Shaikh Bukhari had to face, not least of all finding armed Israeli soldiers on his property late at night.

“They always claim they are looking for ‘suspicious characters’. But you know what the real problem is? The tunnel from the Wailing Wall exits near my house,” he commented, adding that he had had to hire dogs to protect his property.

“I was offered 13 million dollars for my house. The authorities wanted to use it as an exit point for that tunnel,” he said.

I asked Shaikh Bukhari on his thoughts about the conflict, a conflict that had literally landed on his doorstep. How did he, a professed peacemaker, see things?

“We Palestinians can’t be beggars forever. People in Jerusalem, or anywhere else in Palestine, don’t see the relief money. Give us dignity rather, come and visit us. One hundred pilgrims praying in Jerusalem is worth more than 1 million dollars in aid,” he said.

“If the Zionists see Al-Aqsa crowded with visitors they won’t be so keen to destroy it. Remember that Al-Aqsa mosque is not a just a Palestinian issue, it’s an international Muslim issue – just as the Holy Sepulchre is a part of the Christian world.”

Shaikh Bukhari had passionate views on Jerusalem, which he reminded me was a Sacred City. The Gates of Heaven were above Jerusalem, and Jerusalemites lived under the gaze of God. For that reason, any politician using Jerusalem as a pawn should be denied entry. Guns, knives and hatred should also be barred, he said.

“Why do Muslims, Jews and Christians fight over the 3% of their beliefs that differ? What about the 97% where they agree?” he asked, adding that any intention by a person to make peace, or to help one’s fellow being, was considered as an act of worship in the face of God.

He added that every living creature had a right to the Mercy of God. No religion exhorted its adherents to hate and kill. As a Muslim he could say that Judaism and Christianity had significance in the Creator’s destiny. Islam was the third and final part of a universal message.

As he answered my questions, Shaikh Bukhari served us tea and cakes, apologising that he could not provide more hospitality. His civility belied the financial burdens that he suffered. Taxes in the Old City were crippling, and Palestinian property owners did not have the Ateret Cohanim to bankroll them. His bill from the municipality in 2001 had been 60,000 Israeli shekels.

South Africa, we learnt, had a special place in Shaikh Bukhari’s heart. Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela were amongst his heroes.

Ghandi had traveled to South Africa in 1893 as a Passenger Indian looking for work. It was in the port city of Durban that he would encounter the racism that would shape his destiny. Mandela’s courtly manners, and his ‘forgive but not forget’ credo, had proved to Shaikh Bukhari the value of reconciliation.

“When you respect someone of a different belief, respect comes back to you,” he said.

I only discovered well after my interview with him in 2002 that, due to his modesty, Shaikh Bukhari had skimped on mentioning the broad extent of his inter-faith work.

Indeed, he had made friends with Eliyahu Maclean, a United States-born Jew, at an interfaith conference in Uzbekistan during the late 1990’s. Maclean, a stocky man with a bushy beard and thick side curls, had initiated the ‘Sulha Way’, a ‘meeting of minds and hearts’ between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine.

After learning in a traditional yeshiva, Maclean had studied Islam in Cairo and worked with Palestinians on construction sites. The death of a friend in a suicide bombing had motivated his desires for social harmony between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Like Shaikh Bukhari, Maclean had felt that religious pluralism was the only way to dampen the flames of the conflict. Palestinian-Israeli politics, he felt, was a tyranny of certitudes where no one had the time to listen any more. Maclean felt that Abraham’s family needed to remind itself of its brotherly roots.

Palestine was the Eretz ha-Shalom, or in Arabic, the Ard us-Salam – the land of healing and peace. The challenge was to define the land, and the human spirit, in a way that would equally meet the consensus of settlers and Hamas followers.

Maclean, an eloquent, optimistic and enterprising spirit, felt that the long-standing customs of Jewish and Muslim togetherness had to be rekindled. Like so many observers, he had noted that the religious aspect of the conflict was, historically, only a recent phenomenon. The repartee between the Muslim Shaikhs and the Jewish Rabbis at an ecclesiastical conference in Eilat was hugely illustrative of this tradition.

For during the conference, the chief Rabbi of Eilat had boasted that his forefathers, the Rabbis of Aleppo, had solved disputes between Jews and Muslims in the Jewish court of law, and that all Muslims in Syria had known Jewish law.

Shaikh Bukhari had responded that this was no big deal: his grandfather, who had studied in Cairo, had learnt the Talmud. The chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan had chuckled that this was nothing: his grandfather, the Chief Rabbi of Libya, had been known as the ‘Jewish Shaikh’ because he had memorised the Qur’an.

“We have to give up our ego-centred, arrogant, nationalistic perspectives, both sides,” Maclean had said in an online interview I sourced at, adding that an experience in strife-torn Hebron had convinced him of the Sulha Way.

After praying jointly with Palestinians at the tomb of Abraham, which reduced an accompanying Israeli soldier to tears, he had met with student factions of Fatah, the PFLP, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“My discussions with the Islamic bloc were most interesting. On a political level I found their views towards Israel to be uncompromising. When I suggested that if peace negotiations were to be based on the spiritual aspect of their faith – and were to honour Islamic and Jewish religious principles – they agreed wholeheartedly.”

“This is a mystical land, the land of the Essenes, the Kabbalists and the Sufis…so many layers upon layers. On the one hand it has been soaked in blood, and all the blood that has been shed needs to be healed. The mystical healing path is the way to do it. That healing path is in Judaism, in Christianity and in Islam; it is the mother of all those paths, the ‘essence’, that needs to be tapped into,” he said.

Another Jewish figure with whom Shaikh Bukhari had shared platforms was Rabbi Menachem Froman, co-founder of the Jerusalem Peacemakers, an inter-faith clerical group dedicated to establishing Jerusalem as the capital of the Abrahamic realm. Rabbi Froman, with his wispy side curls and flowing white beard, looks like a kindly Hogwarts wizard.

But as a peacemaker, Rabbi Froman has an incongruous pedigree. He was a co-founder of Gush Emunim, the right-wing settler movement, from which he resigned after Goldstein’s massacre. He was also a member of the paratrooper brigade that conquered the Western Wall in 1967, and was ordained as a Rabbi by Shlomo Goren, the IDF chaplain.

Currently Rabbi to Tekoa, a small settlement south of Bethlehem, Rabbi Froman has, however, been a pioneer in inter-faith dialogue. He enjoyed a warm relationship with Yasser ‘Arafat, who called him Al-Hakim (the Wise One). He also befriended Hamas’s Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, having the chutzpah to tell the leader that he was going to hell because he had turned Islam into a faith of terror.

Regarded as a maverick, Rabbi Froman is difficult to dismiss because of his conservative background. The most significant of his views is that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot defined by secular politics. Unlike those who interrogate the conflict in political language, he feels that its answer lies in the religious domain.

“Muslims must understand that Western civilisation is not all dark. And the West must learn that Islam is not synonymous with terrorism,” he has said in interviews.

But as a settler, Froman has declared that while being against forced removals in the West Bank, those in Israeli settlements within the Green Line must be prepared to live under Palestinian sovereignty.

“I prefer to live in a future Palestine than a future Israeli state,” he told the Daily Telegraph a few years ago.

The Rabbi was also the co-architect of the Froman-Amayreh Agreement, an accord signed between him and the West Bank journalist, Khalid Amayreh. Calling for an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire in Gaza, the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, and an end to the siege, it was endorsed by Hamas in Damascus, but ignored by the Israeli government.

In October 2010, Rabbi Froman visited the mosque of Beit Fajr near Bethlehem bearing Qur’ans. Settlers had vandalised the mosque and his gesture, whilst being reported by Reuters, did not get the same prominent headlines as the original event.

The interfaith landscape in Palestine, whilst presenting glimmers of optimism, is certainly not without its tensions. Shaikh Ikrima Sabri, the Mufti of Jerusalem, has said that Froman’s activism will remain irrelevant for as long as he lives on Palestinian soil.

Shaikh Sabri has publicly stated that only when Froman moves to Israel, or agrees to become a Palestinian citizen under the authority of an independent Palestinian state, will he be prepared to talk to the Rabbi.

When I met him in 2002, Shaikh Bukhari was already being buffeted by the contrary forces that so characterised the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. To openly proclaim peace, non-violence and interfaith brotherhood as he did was as courageous as standing in front of a tank.

I never saw Shaikh Bukhari again, but I did try to follow his progress. His passion for amity became so great that he resigned from his job with the Spanish embassy in 2004 to become an ambassador for peace. His work was extensive, and he traveled widely.

He was involved with the Israeli Sufi Way, the Sulha Peace Project, the World Conference on Religions and Peace and the Israel Interfaith Co-ordinating Council. In 2007 Shaikh Bukhari initiated the Jerusalem Hug Project where Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners of all faiths formed a human prayer chain around the Old City.

During Operation Cast Lead he led a group to the town of Sderot, a frequent victim of Al-Qassam rocket attacks, to express empathy with the people there, and to share with them the pain of his family members trapped in Gaza.

In 2002 I had already noticed that Shaikh Bukhari suffered inordinate stress, and often came under attack for his views. But little did I know what it was doing to his health. In June 2010 I was greatly saddened to read in the Jerusalem Post that this gentle soul, aged 61, had passed away from a heart attack on 31 May.

The newspaper reported that he had been buried in a small and ancient plot next to his Via Dolorosa house. I started to read the article with a lump in my throat fighting back my tears, but when I ended reading his obituary, it was his warm presence – and not the sadness of his passing – that lingered with me.

“The real hero is the one who can love the other and (who can) change his anger into love and understanding. It is not an easy task; it is a lot of hard work. But this is the true jihad,” he had said, the memory of his soft eyes and his sweet smile as fresh as yesterday.

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