A Visit to Israel and Palestine … The Good, the Bad and the Horrible - 2
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
The exterior tile work displays Surah Ya Sin inscribed in beautiful calligraphy. The building has gone through several renovations over the centuries, by the Abbasids, the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, the Ottomans, and the last one by King Hussein of Jordan in 1956-61. It is currently undergoing renovation by the Islamic Waqf Trust using artisans brought in from Italy. But no amount of extrinsic description can do justice to the feelings that the location evokes.
When you pray next to the rock, you feel the vibrations of the presence of the Prophets and the touch of Archangel Jibrael (Gabriel). The transcendence of Me’raj, and of the Prophet’s ascent to Divine Presence overwhelms you. It is something that can be felt but cannot be described.
I observed that the Dome of the Rock, unlike Masjid al Aqsa, is open to non-Muslims at certain hours of the day. Several Christian tourists were to be seen inside the Masjid. But any non-Muslim prayers are strictly forbidden.
We move on to Masjid al Aqsa. While the Dome of the Rock occupies a central location in the Haram, and dominates the plateau, Masjid al Aqsa, sanctified by Divine Word (The Qur’an 17,1), is located at its southern boundary. According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Ibrahim built a house of worship on the site. According to some other traditions, it was Prophet Yaqub (Jacob) who initiated the construction. The Qur’an and authentic Ahadith confirm that while the first house of God was built in Mecca, other ahadith confirm that the second house of worship dedicated to the worship of the One God was built in Jerusalem. The mosque defines the first Qibla of Islam until the second year of Hijra and stands on the hallowed ground where the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) led the prayer of the assembly of Prophets on his ascension to Divine Presence. In much of the Islamic world the al Aqsa mosque is known as Baitul Muqaddas (the Sanctified House) and all of the old city of Jerusalem is known simply as al Quds.
The structure of the Masjid reflects the turbulent history of Jerusalem. The Masjid of Prophet Sulaiman, known to Jews and Christians as the Second Temple, stood on the precincts of Haram es Sharieff. The Masjid of Sulaiman (the Second Temple) was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. A small church was built on the site by the emperor Justinian in 530 CE which was destroyed during the Persian-Byzantine wars of the early seventh century. When the Caliph Omar (R) entered Jerusalem in 638 CE, the site was in ruin and had become a dumping ground for trash. Omar (R) took off his cloak and started to remove the debris, using his cloak to haul the dirt. Following his example all of his companions did the same. Omar built a small Masjid facing south towards Mecca and departed.
It was during the reign of the Omayyad Caliph Abdel Malik that the magnificent structures that dominate the Jerusalem landscape were first built. Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah (the Dome of the Rock) that defines Jerusalem was his gift to the world. The Al Aqsa structure built by Abdel Malik has gone through multiple renovations and reconstructions, partly because of the earthquakes that have rocked the area over the centuries. Major renovations took place under Abbasid Caliph Mansur (753 CE), the Fatimid Caliph az-Zahir (1033 CE), Salahuddin Ayyubi (1087 CE) and under the Ottomans (1517-1917 CE), the British (1924) and the Jordanians (1948-67).
Emotions swelled up in my heart as I entered the al Aqsa Masjid. Here was the place where the Prophets Ibrahim, Yaqub, Sulaiman, Issa and Muhammed (peace be upon them) prayed. The Prophet said that a prayer at Masjid al Aqsa was the equal of 10,000 prayers. You tread lightly wondering whether you are praying exactly where any of these great Messengers of God stood. You walk with humility and gratitude for the privilege of praying here.
The mosque is a rectangular structure, approximately 180 feet by 270 feet with rows of marble and stone columns, divided into three broad aisles. Stained glass windows dating back more than a thousand years, from the Abbasid and Fatimid periods, filter the light in, giving the sanctified space a light, ethereal ambience. The mimbar, a recent gift from the government of Jordan is a replacement for the magnificent ivory and wood mimbar that had been a gift from Salahuddin Ayyubi (1187 CE) but was destroyed in a fire set deliberately by a deranged Australian terrorist in 1969 who believed that the destruction of the al Aqsa mosque would hasten the second coming of Jesus. Inscriptions from the Qur’an embellish the beautiful mehrab and invite the worshiper to contemplate the possibility of heaven.
That day, the juma’a qutba at Masjid al Aqsa was a narration of the story of Prophet Musa (pbuh). The tyranny of the Pharaoh was brought down by a Prophet who grew up in the very house of the Pharaoh. The story was a not too subtle an allusion to the condition of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Just as divine mercy brought deliverance from the very household of a tyrant Pharaoh, so will one day a deliverer emerge from within Israel.
After juma’a, I mill around the courtyard. Sensing that I am a foreigner, some Palestinians are only too eager to talk to me. I ask one of them why the courtyard was not overflowing with worshippers as I would have expected. “The Israelis blocked the buses coming in from the West Bank. Last week there was an intifada here because a Jewish man was caught saying his prayers inside the Masjid and was expelled. Things have been tense ever since”. As it turned out, we were fortunate to visit Jerusalem during a hiatus between two intifadas.
A young man invites us to tour the site with him. Next to the main Masjid, there is an underground Masjid wherein the women pray. We walk down the steps into a small hall wherein several women are still praying. Right in the middle of the prayer area is a manhole with a grill-lid, the kind that you see on side streets to let storm water flow into drains. I look down the grill-lid and see a large tunnel running right under the Masjid. “This was done by the Yahud”, the young man says. “They dig tunnels running north and south, east and west. It will destroy the Masjid”.
Indeed, the excavations at Haram es Sharieff have been a major source of tension between the Israelis and the Organization of Islamic States. The Israelis are determined to excavate and map out the extent of Solomon’s Temple and other ancient Jewish structures. The Muslims are aghast at the violation of the sanctity of the Masjid and of the site. But it is like David and Goliath. Political and military power is all with the Israelis. All that the Palestinians can do is to protest.
We stroll through the old city, a maze of narrow alleys and ancient souks crowded with tourists of all kinds from different parts of the world. Israeli soldiers with machine guns stand at every corner except along Via de la Rosa, the street that Jesus took, according to Christian beliefs, on his way to the Crucifixion. If you are a Christian pilgrim walking up Via de la Rosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, you think Jerusalem is a peaceful city. If you are a Muslim pilgrim, you see an entirely different picture.
“You see this little house”, my guide points out, “The Israelis offered 10 million American dollars to buy it, but the Palestinian man refused”. The attempt to rid Jerusalem of non-Jews takes many forms. It includes intimidation, coercion, legal strangulation and monetary incentives. It is like a violent sea battering a small island from all sides. Whether the island will hold or not, only the future can tell.
We run into the Catholic nun who had greeted us on arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. I notice that she is not wearing the chain with a prominent cross around her neck. I venture to ask her why. “The Israelis spit on my cross if I wear it in the old city. Many of them are descendants of East European Jews who blame the Christians for what happened under Hitler.”
The following day we are driven to Safed, a spiritual center in Northern Galilee. Safed was a thriving Arab center in the Ottoman years. When Granada fell to Christian armies in 1492, the Jews and the Muslims were either expelled or tortured through the Inquisition to convert to Christianity. The expelled Jews first moved to North Africa, and then, as the Ottoman Empire consolidated its hold on Eastern Europe and North Africa, they moved further east to Bosnia, Egypt and Palestine. The migrating Spanish Jews brought with them Sufi traditions which they had learned from the Muslims. A few of them settled in Safed and it became a center of Jewish spirituality called Kabala. During our visit we were welcomed at a Kabala center. Jewish-Muslim spiritual songs were sung; Sufi-Kabala techniques were demonstrated. Overtures were made to establish contact between the Kabala center and the Sufi centers in Europe and North America. For a moment, it was possible to forget about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately, I observed that Kabala has now been co-opted by the Israeli tourist industry, and as has happened with Sufism in India and Pakistan, money has displaced spirituality. What would have been a great opportunity for Muslim-Jewish spiritual dialogue is being sacrificed on the altar of dollars and Euros.
One of the most moving trips we had during our stay in Israel-Palestine, certainly the most informative, was a visit to a Palestinian high school near the border, located a few miles from Bethlehem. The school is run by a Christian order. The children were orderly, the school staff eager to show off their school. During the question and answer period, the students were divided into small groups and we had an opportunity to hold in-depth conversions.
When asked to identify themselves, most students identified themselves as Christian. But two of the students in my group said their parents were Muslim and their families had become Christian to send their children to good schools. This is a telling indictment of Palestinian leadership. While the Palestinians are being decimated, the Muslim Palestinians are being decimated at a much faster pace.
Here are some notes from the conversations with the students:
Q: Do you have any Israeli friends?
Q: Do you have any Jewish friends?
Q: Have you reached out to Jewish kids through the internet?
A: Yes, I did, and a high school student from New York responded. He wanted to know where I lived. When I told him I was Palestinian he wrote back saying I was a terrorist and the people in Palestine were terrorists, and that was the end of that correspondence.
Q: Do you interact with the Israelis?
A: The only time I see them is when they are riding their tanks or their trucks and they curse us as they go by. At night they come into our village and shoot at our goats.
Q: Don’t you have Palestinian police to stop them?
A: Yes, they hide when they see the Israelis.
Q: Don’t your leaders help you?
A: What leaders? They are all corrupt. They ride in fancy cars and make money. They don’t care about us.
Q: Have you traveled outside of Israel?
A: We cannot even go from our village to the next one. This year we wanted to go to Bethlehem for a big festival. More than 500 of us applied for permits. After two weeks, the Israelis gave only 50 permits.
Q: Do you hate the Israelis?
A: No. They are human. We are human.
At this point, an Israeli Rabbi, one who had airs of being a moderate throughout the conference interjected, and asked the Palestinian kids: “Why don’t you move out?”
The Palestinian kids responded, almost in unison: Never!
This conversation captures in a nutshell the Palestinian-Israeli dialectic. They are two peoples, separated by an iron wall of oppression, corruption and hypocrisy. The politicians may talk about a two-state solution, but that solution is no longer feasible with the Israeli settlements that dot the West Bank unless you mean by a Palestinian state the present state of Jordan on the East Bank. Gaza is an open air prison. The Palestinians in Israel live under suspicion. The Palestinian leadership is corrupt and has little legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian youth. The Israelis have no incentive to come to the negotiating table except on their own terms, as they know they have the mightiest army in the Middle East, and they are arrogant. They will continue to nibble at what remains of Palestine until they have digested it all.
But the Israelis and the Palestinians must one day come to terms with each other, forgive, heal the wounds of the past and build a peaceful future for their children. The one sane solution that would guarantee a measure of justice to all parties, namely, a single secular state west of the Jordan River, with equal rights for the Israelis and the Palestinians is anathema to both sides and is not even contemplated, and if you suggest it, it invites a hail of stones from every quarter. Meanwhile, the wheels of fortune turn, the clock ticks and Palestine weeps.