A Visit to Israel and Palestine … The Good, the Bad and the Horrible - 1
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
It was an opportunity that I just could not miss, an invitation from a well known international interfaith group to visit Israel and Palestine. Invited were scholars from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Cameroon, India, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and China. We stayed in a kibbutz, had conversations with government officials, rabbis, students, academicians who train Muslim women teachers, Catholic priests and Jewish rabbinical students. We visited a Palestinian high school on the turbulent border, spoke to common people at the Haram-es Sharief in Jerusalem and listened to guided tours as well as impromptu diatribes. We visited Haifa, Safed, the Galilee and of course Jerusalem. This is a visitor’s perspective on a land that is at the center of so much turmoil in the world.
I found the Israelis to be a warm, articulate and rational people except when it comes to the issue of Palestine when most Israelis become most irrational.
It was with some trepidation that I prepared for the trip. I had heard that Muslims were singled out at entry points for harassment. Indeed, I had heard horror stories from some friends. The flight to Ben Gurion International Airport was on time. Upon landing, I took out my passport and stood in line with a group of boisterous Jewish visitors from New York. To my surprise and relief, the immigration officer was extremely courteous; she did not protest one bit when I asked that my passport not be stamped. This is so because several Arab countries will not issue you a visa if your passport has an Israeli stamp. Not a question was asked, no restrictions imposed. On the whole the experience with the entry was more satisfying that what I had experienced at the airports in London, Cairo, Istanbul or even Shanghai.
A Catholic nun from a convent near Tel Aviv greeted us as we came out of the airport and arranged for a taxi. I observed a preponderance of Palestinian taxi drivers at the airport and in Jerusalem, recognizable by their Arabic and their English accents. So were the menial jobs. The road to Jerusalem was a modern, 4 lane highway and the drivers more observant of traffic rules than those in New York, and certainly Bombay or Jakarta.
We had made a reservation with an old hotel in East Jerusalem, Palestinian owned, dating back to Ottoman days. The reservation was confirmed and reconfirmed before arrival. However, upon arrival, the Palestinian man at the register had conveniently shifted our reservations to the following day bumping us off in favor of some visitors from Germany.
There are two societies in Israel and Palestine. One is efficient, organized, business savvy and in many ways works like a machine. That is the Israeli society. The other is inefficient, disorganized and in many ways looks to the past. That is the Palestinian society. I do not know if this is a reflection of their historical experience, the one (the Israelis) a conquering, colonizing people, the other (the Palestinians) a subjugated, exiled people in diaspora. That would be something for a sociologist to figure out.
After long and arduous haggling, we were sent off to a Christian Palestinian owned hotel. The Christians in some ways are like a buffer between the Muslims and the Jews. Most Christian have left Palestine since 1967 but the ones who have stayed have learned to work with the Israelis and have organized themselves around schools, monasteries and church establishments. At least we found a place to stay in a Christian neighborhood.
To a Muslim, Jerusalem means the Haram-es-Sharief. At the earliest opportunity the following morning, we walked through the narrow, winding streets of the ancient walled city towards the sanctuary. A dark, old, deserted alley led to one of the main gates of the Haram. We were stopped by two Israeli guards, carrying automatic rifles, who demanded to see our passports. I must confess it is quite disconcerting to be standing so close to a loaded automatic gun. While one of them thumbed through our passports, the other asked if we were Muslim. When we answered in the affirmative, he asked that I recite something from the Quran. I started with Suratul Fateha. He stopped me half way through the Surah and asked my wife to recite the rest. She completed the recitation and only then were we allowed to proceed.
The experience reminded me of my visit in 1970 to the 8th century Kairouine mosque in the city of Fez in Morocco. There too a tour guide had asked me if I was Muslim and to confirm my faith by a recitation from the Qur’an. Indeed, the Moroccans had asked me to recite two Surahs. The difference was the Israelis carried guns while the Moroccans had not. As far as the Israelis were concerned, I was told that the armed guards were there not so much to prevent the Muslims from entering the compound as it was to protect any radical Jew were he to force his way into the compound and get roughed up by irate Muslims.
Entering the Haram is like approaching heaven. Here it was that God spoke to man and lifted him up close to His Divine Presence, so close that man stood surrounded, at a distance of “two bows or less”. Here it was that the unity of all religion was established when Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) led all the Messengers in prayer. This was the House of Ibrahim, the seat of Solomon and David and the Temple of Jesus. It was the soil touched by the Angel Gabriel and anointed by the spiritual presence of all the Prophets. It is the land, and the lands around it—some commentators say extending as far away as Damascus—that is blessed by the Divine Word. This then is Jerusalem, Al Quds, the Holy, the city of Light!
No believing person, Muslim, Christian or Jew, can visit Jerusalem and not feel its energy. The place exudes spiritual power. Dominating the hill is the Dome of the Rock, a magnificent structure that defines the landscape of this heavenly city and sits as a crown on the site of the Haram es Sharieff. Whether you see it as the rising sun salutes it, or the setting sun bids it goodbye, or the moon cradles it in the stillness of the night, the beauty of this architectural wonder is exceeded only by the emotive peace it evokes, We refer to the Dome of the Rock as Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah. Built by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik in 691 CE over the rock that defines the space where God spoke of man in the person of our Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) and blessed his Ummah with the privilege of five daily prayers. This is where history meets up with religion and the hard realities of geopolitics. Muslims believe that the first house built by Ibrahim was the Ka’aba in Mecca. This belief is sanctified by the Word of the Qur’an. Muslims also believe that Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) built a second House of God at the Haram es Sharieff in Jerusalem. Centuries passed and Prophets Yaqub (pbuh) and Sulaiman (pbuh) and Dawud (pbuh) built a house of worship on the same hill. These Prophets are known as Jacob and Solomon and David in the Old Testament and the New Testament. The successive structures built on the site were destroyed by invaders, the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Centuries passed yet again, and as the Jews were scattered, the religion of Ibrahim expanded to include Christianity and Islam. The City of the Prophets yielded first to the Christians and then to the Muslims. The Qur’an was revealed and the site as well as its surroundings were sanctified by the Word of God. When Jerusalem fell to Arab armies in 638 CE during the Byzantine-Arab wars of 636-639CE, the Caliph Omar (ra) personally traveled to the city to accept the keys to the city from its Patriarch.
Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah is an octagonal structure reflecting elements of both functional and supernal geometry. The architects sought to express the transcendental character of the rock with the structure built on top of it. The rock marks the direction of the First Qibla, the direction in which Muslims prayed until the Qibla was changed by Divine command. The inner circle that surrounds the sacred rock is the basic scale which repeats in its architecture. The diameter of the dome is the same as its height as is the length of each of the eight walls of the octagonal structure. Each is 67 feet. The inscriptions inside are an invitation to Christians:
O people of the Book! Do not exceed the limits in matters of faith and do not ascribe to Allah except the Truth. Indeed, Jesus the Messiah, son of Mary was no more than a Messenger of Allah and His Word. He was infused into Mary and (anointed by) His Spirit. Therefore, believe in Allah and His Messenger and do not claim Trinity. It is better for you if you refrain from it. Indeed, there is no deity but Allah, the One. Glorified is He that He should have a son; to Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and on earth, and sufficient is Allah as counsel (4, 171). (To be continued)