Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

Mourning a Man of Peace

I paid a condolence visit yesterday to a friend whose father passed away a couple of weeks ago. It is most unusual, as you will know, in this part of the world for funerals not to occur immediately after death but my friend’s father passed away in the United States and  arrangements had to be made to bring his body back here for his burial near his home on the Mount of Olives.

mount of olives

It was different from other shiva calls I have had the sad duty to make. Women were in one area and men in a completely different part of the property. However, as we were the first visitors of the afternoon, the separation was relaxed until others arrived and we all sat together and spoke about the great man whose presence was no longer amongst us. I felt a great sadness that I had never had the privilege to meet him. Everyone who knew him spoke about his spirituality, the love he exuded and the wisdom he taught. I heard that he did not allow anything at all to shake his feeling of contentment and gratitude for all he had, including the illness that plagued his final months. He accepted what God sent him with humility.

Mahmoud has become a friend recently and the exceptional vision and energy which have so impressed me were inspired by his father. I made this visit with mutual friends who have known him and his family for years. They had a deep bond with Mahmoud’s father – indeed, Baruch told his wife on the morning of his death that he felt an emptiness and believed that this great person had passed on.

Mahmoud’s entire extended family was at the house of mourning. I had not met any of them before and I was so moved by the love between them and impressed by the gentle intelligence of each and every one of them. His sister Aisha had been present at their father’s bedside. She spoke movingly about the impact of spending his last days with him – about how much she had learnt about herself, in addition to learning about the man she had known as “father.”  Mahmoud’s wife told me that she had known her father-in-law since she was a child and that he was like a second father to her.

Their  father was Sidi Shaykh Muhammad Said al-Jamal ar-Rifa’I, a truly great spiritual leader and teacher. He was born in Tulkum in 1935. He was the spiritual heir of Shaykh Abdu-r-Rahman Abu-r-Risah of Halab of Syria, who kept Sufism alive in the region.

Sidi Shaykh Muhammad Said al-Jamal ar-Rifa'I
Sidi Shaykh Muhammad Said al-Jamal ar-Rifa’I

The Shaykh moved to the Mount of Olives in 1959 and his house still stands there. There, he received visitors and students who came for inspiration or just to be in his loving presence. In 1997 he restored the 1000 year old Sufi Council of the Holy Land. He was the Head of this Council in Jerusalem and the Holy Land and was a teacher and central figure at the Masjid al-Aqsa (the Dome of the Rock) for many years. Although he worked mainly with Muslim students in Jerusalem, he also had a small group of Jewish followers who were attracted to his gentle personality.

In 1993, Shaykh Muhammad Said al-Jamal felt that it was time to travel to teach in other parts of the world. In 1994 he made his first visit to America and continued to be invited there each year to give seminars and teachings at schools and centers across the United States. Some of his followers from the States accompanied his body on its final journey back to Jerusalem.

Shaykh Muhammad Said al-Jamal was a leader who urged his followers to keep peace no matter what the cost and who served humanity without prejudice. His children want to ensure that his legacy is continuity of his teachings and peace in the Holy Land he loved so much.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.