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Sabbatai Zevi and Sufism


Professor Avraham Elqayam

Bar Ilan University, Israel
  1. Shat'hiyat -- Words of Ecstasy
  2. Dhikr and Sama`-- Recollection of Allah's Name
  3. Khidr and Sabbatai Sevi
  4. Seclusion as a meditative practice in Sufism and Sabbateanism

Bismi 'llahi 'l-Rahmani l'Rahimi!

The more I study Sabbatai Sevi's mystical profile, the more the Sufi elements in his personality stand out.  Gershom Scholem, in his book Sabbatai Sevi - The Mystical Messiah, has orientalistically ignored these elements. Hebrew readers can find some outline of the Sufi elements in my article "Sabbatai Sevi's Holy Zohar", Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, vol. III, 1998, pp. 345-387.

I. Shat'hiyat -- Words of Ecstasy ========================

One of the element explicated there was the Shat'hiyat (or shatahat -- literally "escapades", in Arabic) -- ecstatic exclamations  made by Sufis in the course of their "fana" (lit. "annihilation", in Arabic) -- annihilation of being, passing away in mystical union with the deity.  Such exclamations were extreme, and sounded heretic to most listeners.  For instance, Al-Halaj's (d. 922) famous saying "Ana 'l-Haqq" -- i.e., "I am the Truth", meaning, "I am God". [For more about Shattahiyyat, see: C.W. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism, Albany 1985, pp. 3-36.]

Sabbatai Sevi, like the Sufi mystics, used to exclaim words of extasy. One of the more well-cited instances is his "There is no God but Me". This exclamation, the late Prof. Lazaros-Yaffe has indicated, is strongly reminiscant of Al-Halllaj's "Ana 'l-Haqq". Sabbatai Sevi's utterances of the Ineffable Name of God should also be understood on this background, i.e., expressing his "fana", mystical union with God.

As I have written, Sabbatai Sevi's "Beside me there is no God" should also be analysed in comparison with another "Shat'ha", by the prominent Sufi mystic Al-Bistami (d. 875): "There is no God but Me, therefore serve Me, how great am I". (Farid A-Ddin `Attar, Tathkirat al-awliya.) Both Al-Bistami and Sabbatai Sevi use for their excalamtion a verse of the holy scriptures, and both use parts of verses whose referent is their Godhead.

Sabbatai Sevi's exclamation draws on Isaiah 44:6: "Thus says the Lord the King of Yisra'el, and his redeemer the Lord of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God."

Al-Bistami's excalmation draws on Quran, 20:14 and 21:25: 1. Sura (=chapter) Ta Ha, 20:14: "I am God. There is no God but Me. Serve Me, and recite your prayers in My remembrance." 2. Sura Al-Anbiya (=The Prophets) 21:25: "We inspired all the apostles We sent before you, saying: 'There is no God but Me. Therefore serve Me.'"

To sum up, Sabbatai Sevi's uterances of the Ineffable Name, as well as his exclamation "Beside me there is no God", mark him as a Sufi mystic, producing typical Shat'hiyyat, exclaimed out of  "fana", a state of mystical unity with the Divine. Such utterances put him in on a level with the greatest Sufi mystics, such as Al-Bistami and Al-Halaj.

II. Dhikr and Sama`-- Recollection of Allah's Name =====================================

Dhikr (Lit. -- mentioning, remembering, thinking of-, in Arabic), is a meditative remembrance, in which certain key Qur`anic phrases or divine epithets are continually invoked, aloud or silently. Also called Sama` -- lit. hearing -- a term I would elaborate upon some other time.

The Dhikr is usually celebrated on Fridays, hollidays, and on birthdays and memorial days of prophets and saints. The participants repeat Allah's name in various forms, repeat Holy Qur'an verses and religious poetry, and try to achieve, with the help of music and dances, uninterrupted communion with God and religious ecstasy

Dhikr has many sources in the Holy Qur'an, and in most verses, what was meant by the word dhikr is tasba , glorifying; takbar, exalting; ta mad, praising; and praising and praying upon the Prophet (s). Allah said in Surat al-Baqara, 152: "Remember Me and I will remember you." [2:152] He said in Surat ali `Imran, 41, "...and remember your Lord much and glorify Him in the evening and in the early morning." And again, 191, "Those who remember Allah while standing, sitting, and lying on their sides..." [3:41, 191] He said in Surat al-Ra`d, 28, "Those who believe, and whose hearts find their rest in the remembrance of Allah--for, verily, in the remembrance of Allah hearts do find their rest." [13:28] And He said in Surat al-A zab, 35, "...and men who remember Allah much and women who remember Him..." And again, 41,42, "O you who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance; and glorify Him morning and evening." [33: 35, 41-42]

Here are some examples of typical Dhikr phrases. For instance, the following verse from Surat al-Ikhlas or Tawhid:  "Say: 'God is One, the Eternal God. He begot onoe, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him." [112]. Another typical such "mantra" is:


Sama` (lit. "hearing, audition", in Arabic), is the inducing of the ecstatic state during the Dhikr by means of music, singing, and dancing.  The connection of music and ecstasy is as old as the seas, and can be found in many cultural traditions. The maenads, for instance, induced their state of holy madness not only by intoxicating substances, but also by music: Euripides refers to the oboe as a major instriment in their revels. However, I feel that in this respect Sufism derives mainly from the Jewish tradition. Sources for the relation between music and prophetic ecstasy can be found in the Holy Bible, e.g., Samuel I, 10:5-6: "Thou shalt meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a lute, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a lyre, before them; and they shall prophesy. And the spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prphesy with them, and thou shalt be turned into another man." Kings II 3:15: "And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him." [A detailed description of Sama` rites in Islamic Sufism can be found at: E.W. Lane, "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians" (1833-1835).]

This is the background on which we should interpret Sabbatai Sevi's musical personality, as well as his habit of uttering the Ineffable Name, and his habits of singing and dancing. We have no explicite evidence to the effect that Sabbatai Sevi participated in any Dhikr rites prior to his conversion to Islam. However, we have new evidence that, after his conversion, Sabbatai Sevi used to participate in the Dhikr ritual celebrated in the Beqtashi Tekke, located on the Hizirlik, a hill overlooking Adrianopolis. This Tekke was closed by the authorities between 1641-1642, on the allegation it harboured "doubtful elements". The Sultan Mehmet the IVth reopened it later as a zawiya.

To sum up, Sabbatai Sevi was submerged in Dhikr ceremonies, and this is the key to understanding some of his habits, such as singing, dancing, and pronouncing the Ineffable name. After his conversion he even took active part in the Bektashi Dhikr rites in the Tekke near Adrianopolis.

III. Khidr and Sabbatai Sevi =======================

In Sabbateansim, Khidr is equivalent to Elijah, and this is the way they were conceptualized in AMIRA"H's thought. Just as Khidr is, in the Holy Qur'an, Moses' mysterious companion (as you can see from my post on this matter) -- so is Elijah/Khidr Sabbatai Sevi's companion and spiritual guide.

Elijah/Khidr was AMIRA"H's mystical mentor, and it was he who has annoited him, in a mystical rite, to be messiah. Part of the rite was a gift, from Elija/Khidr, of the Book of Zohar. This reminds us of the way a Sufi initiate -- a murid -- receives his garmant -- khirqah -- in the Sufi initiation rite.

What's more, Khidr is a customay initiation guide in the Sufi tradition. Sufi mystics would meet him in their journies, and he would inspire them, answer their questions, save them from dangers, and in special cases even bestow on them the khirqah. Such bestowing is thought valid initiation in the Sufi tradition, and those who pass it are considered connected to the greatest source of mystic inspiration.

The great Sufi mystic Ibn al-`Arabi is one who claimed to have received his khirqah from Khidr. In a way, Sabbatai Sevi is comparable to Ibn al-`Arabi, since he too claimed to have received spiritual guidance and to have passed inititation by Elijah/Khidr.

Khidr, or Hizir in Turkish, was greatly venerated by the Bektashi order, and many miracles are connected to his person. One of the miracle recounted is how Sari Saltik fought the seven-headed dragon at Kigra in the Dobruja; Hizir arrived in time to remind him of his sword, seizing which Sari Saltik cut off all the dragon's heads.

Sabbatai Sevi used to take part in the Betashi rites conducted at the Bektashi Tekke in Adrianopolis. This Tekke was located at Hizirlik, a name dervied from Hizir, because it was connected with his person. Almost every town in Turky has a place called Khuddur Ellez, i.e., Khidr Elijah.

A folk's festive day, the Hidrellez, very popular in Turky, is connected with both Hizir and Ellez (Elijah in Turkish), who are thought in the Turkish tradition to be brothers (or, according to another tradition, lovers; in this legend Elijah is the girl). This festive day is celebrated in the spring, May 5th and 6th, to mark the summer's beginning, and incorporates many magical rites, among which the most prominent one is a future-revelation rite. Since Khidr means "green", he is conceptualized as connceted with resumption of growth in the spring, and as a bringer of affluence, fertility and happiness. In the Sabbatean Calendar, Sivan 21st is selebrated as Elijah's revelation, the day Elija annoited AMIRA"H as messiah. This festive day was celebrated by Tukish Sabbateans for many generations.

Sabbatai Sevi is the spring of the Jewish nation; he is the source of affluence and regrowth. Like Khidr, in his wake the greenary swells and flora is renewed. He is the messianic "Green man". How much green meant to Sabbatai Sevi can be learned from his antinomies in Jerusalem after his revelation as messiah. He appeared in public, riding his horse, and wearing a green mantle, saying that this was his wish according to his mysteries. The mystery of green, for AMIRA"H, is the mystery of Khidr, the Green Man, the mystery of Elijah is mentor. AMIRA"H's anoitment by Elijah, the Green Man, the saviour of scattered ones, marks the mythical transition of the whole Jewish nation from the barren cold of winter to spring's regrowth.

IV. Seclusion as a meditative practice in Sufism and Sabbateanism ========================================================

Khalwa (Arbic) or Hitbodedut (Hebrew) -- lit. seclusion; may signify either the outer seclusion -- spiritual retreat to a secluded place, most often a cave or a cell, or, by extension, the inner seclusion -- the meditational technique practiced during such a retreat, or the psychological state resulting from it, i.e., oblivion to the world of senses. [For a comparative study of seclusion, see: P.B. Fenton, "Solitary Meditation in Jewish and Islamic Mysticism in the Light of a Recent Archeological Discovery", Medieval Encounters 1(2), pp. 271-296.]

Prototypes of seclusion include, in the Jewish tradition, Moses' and Elijah's seclusion in the desert, and in the Moslem -- Muhammad's sojourn in the cave of Hira. In ancient Judaism meditative seclusion has been practiced at least since the Essenians and Therapeuts. Researchers surmise that the ritualistic notion of Khalwa came into Sufi usage from the Christian monastic tradition: the Syriac cognate Hulla designates a monk's cell.

Seclusion was a widespread practice among Kabbalists, in particular Safed Kabbalists in the 16th century. Safed was also a center of Rifa`i Sufi activity, and archeological recent discoveries have unearthed a cavity in a mountain opposite the city, which, according to an inscription found inside it, had been used as a Sufi cell -- Zawiyya -- at least from the time of the Mamelukes. This discovery provides evidence of the surmise that Safed was a major spiritual center not only for Jewish mystics but for Moslem ones as well. The archeological findings give us a remarkable example of a parallel devotional ritual shared by the two great mystical traditions at the same time in the Land of Israel.

AMIRA"H used both means of seclusion -- the inner and the outer one.  AMIRA"H started this practice early on, in his youth in Smyrna, where, R. Avrahm Cuenque tells us, he used to "retreat to the mountains and caves and neither his brothers nor his father's house knew whither he went." This withdrawal to the caves and mountains is strongly reminiscent of the Sufi practice, and strengthens our characterization of AMIRA"H as a Sufi mystic.

Sabbatai Sevi used to retreat to seclusion while he was in Jerusalem too, before his fisrt public revelation; his places of retreat were a seclusion room in his home, and sometimes the caves and deserts in the Judea mountains. This seclusion practice may reflect both Sufi Khalwa practice and a pratice of desert monasticism which developed in the Eastern Church. Also, it should be mentioned in this context that in multi-religious Smyrna and Jerusalem both, AMIRA"H had the chance to contact Eastern Orthodox monks as well as Sufi mystics.

In Sufism, we have detailed descriptions of the inner sort of seclusion.  For instance, the imminent Sufi theologian al-Ghazali, in his "'Ihya' `Ulum ad-Din" (=The Revival of the Science of Religion), describes the meditational practice needed for illumination:

"The path to illumination consisits initially of detaching one's self from wordly fetters and emptying the heart of such things (...) to such an extent that the worshipper's mind becomes indifferent to the existence and non-existence of things. Then he will isolate himself in a Zawiyya in order to meditate (...) He will endeavour to fix his thought on nought else but the word Allah. Then, after having settled in his retreat, he will continuously repeat the word Allah, concentrating to such a degree that he ceases to pronounce the word which will henseforth flow upon his tongue (...) Then the word's form, its letters and its writing will be absorbed into his mind, only the meaning remaining (...)  If his will and intention be pure and he continue to presrve, without allowing himself to be disturbed by physical desires and material thoughts, the Divine light will eventually illuminate his heart."

We have no evidence pertaining to Sabbatai Sevi's techniques of inner seclusion; however, al-Ghazali's description is a possible guide to his practices. It seems a probable surmise that AMIRA"H subsituted God's ineffable name for al-Ghazali's Allah. According to one eye-witness, R. Isreal Hazan, while in this mystical state of seclusion, AMIRA"H tried to unify all the worlds -- the upper as well as the lower echelons of creation -- in one pantheistic all-embracing unity.

al-`abd al-mamnun, Ibrahim Al-Qa`im (Avi Elqayam)

posted on the Donmeh forum

Sabbatai Zevi and the Bektashi Sufi

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page uploaded 29 June 1999, last modified 7 September 2004