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Abraham: A Dynasty of Prophets Saints, Shrines, and Sufism in the Mountains of Hebron

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.04.2008:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Despite sparse rainfall, the spring has covered the mountains of Hebron with all shades of lush green. Gone already is the almond’s glorious delicate blossom. In contrast the budding deep-purple flowers of the peaches and plums look sinister. The few anemones and thin cyclamen are already wilting. The fields are overgrown with lush green barley and wheat that by the end of April will be harvested. Very soon the land will be parched again, and the dust carried by the gentle afternoon summer breeze will sweep everything under a thin veneer of ochre.

I parked my car on a mountain plateau next to the site of imusakhateen, the damned. A cluster of fantastic-looking rocks stood in the middle of a wheat field atop a mountain plateau symbolising the local myth of the “damned people.”

Mohammad Hantash and his son-in-law Ibrahim had been talking about the supernatural origin of these striking rock formations during lunch in Abu Ali’s home in Dura, ten kilometres south-west of Hebron. They love their homeland and eagerly looked forward to sharing with me the various local sites associated with the mythology of the land; narratives illustrating the sacred ontology of their landscape.

“A wedding ceremony was in process,” Ibrahim explained, “when a child soiled himself. The mother was at a loss how to clean him … God then sent silk handkerchiefs to help her out. She touched the soft silk, admired the colours, and thought it a waste to ruin them. Instead she cleaned him with a loaf of bread. God cursed them for the blasphemy and transformed them into these fantastic rocks … al imusakhateen.

“It is difficult to identify the crouching figures, the dancers, or the camel at first sight.” Ibrahim saw that I found difficulty in identifying the figures. “But they become clear in the photograph.”

“The rocks bear no relationship to the landscape. They stand alone, unconnected to the geological structures around them,” Mohammad affirmed.

Regardless of the narrative, the rocks – huge boulders of various shapes and forms in the midst of a wheat field – evoke a spiritual presence. The cluster forms a dynamic grouping of great charisma.

Driving in the mountains of Hebron I could not help but notice the plethora of shrines of saints. These sanctuaries – small square rooms with domes – mark the burial places of holy men known in Arabic as awliya allah (singular: walli) which translates as “God’s functionary.” These holy men are in grace with God and are endowed with supernatural magnetism and mystical healing power. Invariably the shrines of the awliya’ allah, if close to the town centre, become the focal point for the local cemetery. More substantial sanctuaries that provide ample space for collective Moslem prayers dot the mountains south of Hebron. These sanctuaries, housed within modern mosques, are believed to enshrine biblical prophets such as Jonah in Halhul, Noah in Dura, Lot in Beni Naim, and Esau in al-Sa’eer.

The landscape of the mountains of Hebron stirs up a feeling of spirituality, a sense of religious feeling that has no parallel in the rest of Palestine…

We drove past al-Arqubi sanctuary.

“He was a Sufi dervish,” Mohammad told me. His descendants keep the tradition alive. “Sufism flourished here in previous eras. Hassan, a descendant of al-Arqubi, whose shrine stands in Dura, still performs the zikr ceremony.”

I come from a Sufi family. My ancestors were Sufi masters of the Qadirieh Tariqah. Even my name, “Qleibo,” is a nickname that we got in the mid-19th century because our grandfather was in love with God, had God in his heart. “Ya Qleibo ya ‘asheq…” it was said about him. “His heart is overtaken by God,” is a fragment of a verse in a poem written about him. Qleibo comes from the root qalb, which means heart. In the 18th century the name was still al-Khalily. Our renowned grandfather, al-Sheikh Mohammad al-Khalily, the erudite scholar of the period, in recognition for his grace with God is buried in al-Aqsa Mosque in the library he had established near Chain Gate. He had occupied the position of mufti of al-Shafi’i school in Jerusalem and was the master sheikh of Alqadirieh Sufi Tariqah circa 1710-1775. My research indicates the Quraishy genealogy of the Khalily family name – not at all related to Hebron. Its members exist in Iran and other parts of the Muslim world. The family pedigree leads to in-law descendants of our prophet Mohammad.

As I researched Arab Sufism it became evident that the masters of the school of orthodox Sufism had invariably similar noble genealogical roots. The pedigree would necessarily overlap in the five generations that followed Prophet Mohammad.

I was overcome with compassion as I visited Ibrahim al-Arqubi, a descendant of the Sufi dervish family of Dura. I identified with him. Al-Arqubi acquired the nickname after the liberation of Ashqelon from the Romans.

“The defence walls withstood the Moslem armies for a long time. Their ancestor who was armed with the neck of a camel, al ‘arqubeh, swung the bone against the wall which, through the grace of God, immediately tumbled,” the Arabic language schoolteacher told me. “During our zikr (prayers that conjure God’s presence) we beat the drums in enactment of the war drums that accompanied Prophet Mohammad’s armies in battle.”

To validate his status he produced a family tree that showed his genealogical descent from the daughter of Prophet Mohammad. The names were familiar. When the genealogical tree approaches the Prophet, the names overlap with the names in my family tree. In fact, most Palestinian holy men, the heads of the Tariqah, invariably trace their pedigree to the prophet Mohammad.

It is believed that God blessed Abraham and his descendants. Prophecy and grace have stayed within his offspring. In fact, Abraham founded the dynasty of Judaeo-Christian-Moslem prophets.

Any holy man or saint with healing powers, in order to gain recognition by orthodox Islam, would have had to have the genealogical family tree proving his descent from the line of Abraham. Our prophet himself is a direct descendant of Abraham through the line of Ishmael.

The belief that everyone who has grace and healing powers is descendant from the prophet Mohammad or one of his offspring is controversial. These family trees may be evaluated as mere fictitious reconstructions that seek to establish kinship with the prophet to validate the grace of God within the context of orthodox Sunni Islam, to gain credibility.

Abraham is the archetypal friend of God; he is the Founder of Grace, the man who earned God’s blessing for himself and for his offspring forever. Abraham is considered Khalil Allah, the friend par excellence of God, hence the name of Hebron in Arabic: al-Khalil.

Seen from Dura, al-Haram al-Khalily – Abraham’s sanctuary – assumes a different perspective than that of Jerusalem-centred Sunni orthodoxy. It is Abraham’s grace and charisma that hierarchically empower and endow with divine grace the biblical and extant holy sanctuaries and shrines in the mountains of Hebron. Their symbolic efficacy emanates from his centrifugal status. Inversely local saints are validated – gain their legitimacy – as Muslim holy men through family trees that validate their descent from the prophet Mohammad.

The geographic distribution of these saints corresponds to the classical geographic spread of the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob, in the Old Testament. The sanctuary of Esau is in al-Sa’eer, the ancient capital of Idumaea. Though the territory of Dura expands traditionally to Beer Sheva in the south and reaches south-west to the borders of Gaza and westward to Ashqelon, contemporary Dura does not include al-Sa’eer, the original Edomite capital.

Dura stands distinctly apart from other Palestinian villages. Unlike other Palestinian villages, which are autonomous “city-states” – unlike them, I repeat, in the sense that it is a “town” that expands territorially to the edges of Beer Sheba, Gaza, and Ashqelon, Dura’s territory is quite extensive. It expands to 240,704 square dunums with a population of 65,773 and includes 99 hamlets known in Arabic alternately as khirab, deir, or kufor.

“The ninety nine villages are also Dura,” Mohammad explained.

The horizontal spread of Dura prompted me to inquire whether they are Bedouin – a label that was quickly rejected.

“We are peasants,” affirmed Mohammad.

Ninety-nine villages being one village in a huge territory stands unique in a country where rules of kinship prescribe inter-village marriages. Palestinian villages are strictly endogamous. Marriage transactions with other villages are studied carefully. In Dura all the villages intermarry freely. Marriage among the 99 villages is not exogamous it is endogamous … among them there is no insider or outsider.

The town designated as Dura may be best understood as a nodal point of intersection. Dura is rather like a bottleneck that allows free movement but does not assume a hierarchical fixity in relation to the khirab, deir, kufor – the nomenclature of the hamlets that spread all around.

History books mention, very briefly, that Dura was the capital of the province of Idumaea throughout the Roman period. They also note that the Edomites replaced the Hurrites, the ancient Semitic people who inhabited the caves of the Hebron Mountains. Canaanite remains abound in the area and date to 5,000 years ago. Nabateans also overlapped with both Hurrites and Edomeans. Apart from urban centres of power, it is impossible to imagine total population displacements; syncretism occurred. Little is known of Hurrite religion, of Edomite religion, or of Nabatean religion. These are not the People of the Book.

One of the great classics – Roberston Smith’s book Religion of the Ancient Semites – analyses early Semitic religions. As I delve deeper into Palestinian culture I realise the special stature of his work. Under the veneer of Islam the last vestiges of ancient civilisations survive in fossil form…

As I travel and gather my observations I realise the urgency of my work. The Israelis sabotage our history. Through forcible confiscation of land and the expanding of settlements, they forcibly displace our peasants. In the process, the peasant’s relationship with the land is altered. The mythology that binds the Palestinian peasant to the land fades. Its symbols dissolve into oblivion.

In his living room in Billy, a kufor of Dura, al-Sheikh Hassan, the 80-year-old dervish, began the zikr by reciting the fatihah – the first chapter of the Quran. He has inherited the banners and the iddeh – the musical instruments, namely the drums and cymbals. He invoked God as his grandchildren beat the drums and cymbals to accompany the zikr, the Sufi incantations set to music.

He was transformed. For him zikr was an invocation of God. For his grandchildren the zikr was a show. They have become performers. They perform zikr music at weddings and funerals as entertainment. The religious sense is lost.

The old man’s eyes and mine met for an instant in a moment of compassionate understanding. Both of us are silent witnesses to the tribulations of modernism. We had seen our fathers who were imbued with the religious feeling … that intuitive religious feeling has faded away.

Palestinian Muslim orthodox thought has imbued Hebron, the burial place of God’s friend Abraham, with a special symbolic status next to Jerusalem in sanctity. For centuries sheikhs and jurisprudents were interchangeable between the two holy Palestinian cities. Abraham’s mosque is always linked in the discursive body of Palestinian Moslem literature as an integral part of al-Aqsa and has assumed a highly symbolic religious value in Moslem orthodoxy. Fadael al Quds wil Khalil is the literary discourse in praise of the two holy Palestinian cities. Theologians, travellers, and philosophers from the 9th century have correlated in their works the two mosques and the two cities. Even my great grandfather in 1740 had written such a book.

We know Hebron from the perspective of Jerusalem.

Warm childhood memories veiled Hebron with a unique mystique. Annual family pilgrimages that included picnics, vows, and visits to the holy shrines along the Jerusalem-Hebron road culminating with festive meals in Hebron’s orchards stand out in my mind. A long family caravan would trek its way along the old winding Jerusalem-Bethlehem road.

Our first stop for prayers would be at Sitna Rahel (Rachel’s tomb), which was a Moslem sanctuary built in a Moslem cemetery. At al-Khader oil was offered to Sidna al Khader in St. George’s Church, and we would have our breakfast picnic under the cypress trees near Solomon’s pool. Sara’s water fountain was our last stop before entering Hebron. Candles were lit and prayers were murmured in the cave underneath al-Haram al-Ibrahimi, Abraham’s noble sanctuary. The visit, ziyarat, to Sidna Ibrahim ended in formal prayers in the mosque above the cave. Lambs would be sacrificed in an adjacent public kitchen, a zawieh. (Hebron was a great Sufi centre with many Sufi zawiyeh and related public kitchens.) The rest of the afternoon we would be hosted by al-Ju’beh family in their kaser, country house, in the orchards outside the ancient city centre.

All this is gone. Rarely do I run into people who remember the Muslim itinerary or topography of the ziyarat to Abraham’s mosque. Modernism in the form of local crass materialism and the Israeli occupation has long ago undermined these holy sites.

The water fountain of Sara on the distant outskirts of Hebron has long disappeared under the foundations of a shapeless building. The olive, fig, almond, and grape orchards of Hebron have given way to an immense suburb that joins Halhul, Hebron, and Dura into one huge sprawling suburb. Gaining entrance into the mosque, partitioned disproportionately in favour of the Jews over the Muslims, presents an ordeal that very few are ready to undertake. Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi is almost deserted.

Inside the mosque, Mohammad’s 19-year-old son, Hammam, exclaimed, “This is my first visit to the mosque!”

“We are afraid to come!” said Fares, his friend.

Walking down the once-festive, crowded, now-deserted alley is painful. The residents fled their homes in fear of Israeli settlers’ raids. Despite the metal mesh hanging overhead to protect the pedestrians from settlers’ stones, the alley, Khuzok ‘il Far (literally “the Hole of the Mouse”) is deserted. Only a solitary blind sheikh, unaware of the changes, felt his way in the empty street. A few shops, sparsely stocked, keep watch over the abandoned homes and closed shops.

I found myself overcome with tears.

Lush green meadows of wheat and barley flank both sides of the winding country road traversing Dura’s hamlets. Archaeological vestiges of various peoples, who throughout history have lived, loved, and died here dot the landscape. Towers, old walls, fragments of Roman pillars, huge stones once part of olive presses, and archaeological foundations of homes decorate the landscape. Everywhere holy sanctuaries stand out; solitary reminders of God’s grace.

We stopped in al-Burj (the Tower), where Mohammad’s newlywed daughter Haya lives.

The image of al-Burj haunts my memory.

Burj is a small hamlet. Cave dwellers, a few old biblical houses, and two or three modern small cement buildings cluster together within sight of the patron saint, walli, Abu al-Tuq. In the local dialect, tuq is the plural of taqah, that is, window.

“Do you see all the windows in the walls of the sanctuary?” Mohammad explained the sanctuary’s special nomenclature. “They are pigeons’ nests.”

The air still breathes Palestinian … It is drenched with the sweet aroma of taboon. The late afternoon humid breeze brushes gently the green undulating fields of wheat that dissolve under the now-orange light of sunset into a haze of timelessness.

In Dura people still bake their own taboon bread and still use sheep dung as its fuel.

“The taboon fire never dies, hence the special aroma of the air,” Mohammad explained. “It is the soul (roh) of the village; its life.”

Throughout our country ride amidst the wheat fields, Mohammad was animated in anticipation of the harvest of the wheat. In addition to his own wheat he will buy commercial white flour.

“Mixed proportionately together it makes the best bread,” he explained.

Bread, khubiz taboon, and the fuss accompanying its various stages from the first seedlings through the harvest, winnowing, grinding, and final storage charges the daily staple with great symbolic value.

One of the great poems of Mahmoud Darwish begins with the verse: Ahinnu ila khubza ummi… I feel nostalgic for my mother’s bread…

We strolled amidst the ruins of the tower.

Two domed single rooms stood in symmetrical solitude on the archaeological mound. Abu al-Tuq, my first flat-roofed sanctuary, stood guard in the cemetery on the outskirts of the hamlet.

The setting sun coloured the green fields deep orange.

It was time to leave.

Haya rushed to the car bearing a big plastic bag.

I could not leave without being given a gift from the land of wheat and grace: a stack of freshly baked whole wheat taboon bread.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

April 2008

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