Jews And Muslims Pray Together At Africa’s Oldest Synagogue

Muslims and Jews came together to pray and break their fast at El Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in Africa on 22 May 2019. This day was the first time since 1987 the Jewish annual pilgrimage and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlapped. The synagogue, which is located on the island of Djerba in Tunisia brought many Muslims and Jewish people together through this celebration. It has provided an opportunity for the two monotheistic faiths to come together in harmony and celebrate their shared history. Tunis being home to many religions, mainly Islam, Judaism and Christianity has allowed people from different religions to socially connect as Tunisia promotes ‘cohabitation’.

According to French historian and expert on Tunisian synagogues, Dominique Jarasse, “For 15 or 20 years, more and more Muslims have been participating in this pilgrimage”. Jarasse went on to tell the AFP that “For a long time, they were spectators. But there is now a form of appropriation, which is linked to the political situation – because people want to show how tolerant Tunisia is – to tourism because it is a place of heritage, and there is undeniably an act of faith on the part of these Muslims”.

Most of the Jewish people from Tunisia live in Djerba. According to the SBS, the Jewish population has dropped dramatically from 100,000 (before independence in 1956) to 1,500 in 2019. Today, it is made up of a Muslim majority; however, this has not interfered with celebrating Judaism and its traditions. In fact, the worship that took place at the festival was based on the “Ghriba”, a girl who was killed by lightning and who is believed to grant the pilgrims happy marriages, health and fertility.

According to Dionigi Albera, the co-organiser of a recent exhibition on ‘shared holy places’, this phenomenon is relatively prevalent around the world. Some Jewish Tunisians worship Sidi Mahrez, a Muslim saint of the 11th century believed to have protected Jewish people. Albera stated that “Now it has become more complicated, less frequent, especially as hundreds of thousands of Jews have left the region…The Ghriba is one of the few visible testimonies”.

This step towards cohabitation is especially positive as Muslims and Jews have struggled to put aside their differences in other places around the world. It is also especially refreshing and respectful to see two religions celebrating each other’s traditions. It is also positive because any believer of Islam, Christianity or Judaism can pray and socialise at the synagogue.

Aisha Parker