Day 6 – In the footsteps of Jesus
(I did promise to write day 6 diary entry and publish it by yesterday night but when I arrived at my room to write my thoughts, God’s plan prevailed. My body was too tired to take anymore of late night writing so it just simply shut down.)
I was coming back to my room after prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque when I noticed a bunch of armed Israeli soldiers marching through the Haram Al-Sharif. They walked towards me and asked me, “Are you a Muslim?” I replied, “What if I am not, but before I answer, are you a Muslim?” He mocked me by saying, “Thanks God I am not!”
I took a step closer to the soldiers and said, “You should try Islam and you may like it”.
He did not respond but gave me a look that said it all. He was not happy with my response. He probably wanted me to say nothing to him. When I gave him back a small taste of his own medicine he was not happy about it. I walked off and did not want to waste my time with a bunch of people whose sole existence was to humiliate the Palestinian Muslims. I saw an elderly woman being denied access to the Haram because she forgot her ID. There is limit to patience in everyone; this kind of harassment causes a great deal of resentment.
There is also the other side of the story. For the sake of fairness it must also be heard. If the soldiers did not guard the mosque 24 hours a day from all sides many Jewish extremists would walk in and cause trouble for Palestinians. The bullet holes inside the Dome of the Rock are still visible. It took one fanatical Jew to cause death and injury to scores of worshippers in the mosque. Ariel Sharon is held responsible for rousing the rightwing Jews long held desire to barge into the Haram area and offer their prayers.
The Second Intifada started in 28 September 2000, when Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Al-Haram Al-Sharif, a highly provocative and bullying tactic. He was a Likud party candidate for Israeli Prime Minister and he entered the holy precinct accompanied by over 1,000 security guards. The Palestinians were outraged and ignited the simmering anger that has been bubbling under the surface for a long time. They demonstrated but were dispersed by the Israeli army with brutal military force, using lethal ammunition.
Sharon claimed, “The Temple Mount is in our hands and will remain in our hands. It is the holiest site in Judaism and it is the right of every Jew to visit the Temple Mount.
A riot broke out amongst the Palestinians at the site, resulting in clashes between Israeli forces and the protesting crowd. Many Palestinians were killed and injured. It was from this day an Israeli police and military presence was introduced around the holy site. At times it felt like the Israeli security services were winning in their despicable game but when I see the solid resolve of the Palestinians despite subjugation and lack of adequate defense it felt like they were winning.
One of the local shopkeepers took me aside and showed me the house of Ariel Sharon in the middle of the old walled city. He bought the flat to provoke further reactions from the local Palestinians. He is dead and facing his account but his evil legacy lives on. May God protect us all from all sorts of evil.
There is a display cabinet in the Al-Aqsa mosque that exhibits the casings of the lethal bullets and ammunitions fired at the Palestinians around the Haram. These are kept as a reminder and evidence of the violation of the holy sites’ sanctity. One elderly gentleman told me, “we will send these as gifts to the Jewish people when we liberate our land”.
As I was walking back to my room that morning I was wondering how would Jesus have reacted to this violence and humiliation perpetrated by his fellow Jews? I have often wondered what was Jesus truly like? I have an image of Jesus in my mind but I have never spent much time in exploring the true nature and life of this great personality that has come to dominate the world.
This morning, immediately after Fajar prayer (early morning prayer) an opportunity to visit the Sea of Galilee and the surrounding cities and villages was presented to me and I jumped at the opportunity. I took the bus along with the rest of the group. It was over two hours drive along the West Bank and Israeli held territory.
The road passes through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the region – sandy coloured mountains takes your breath away and is the hallmark of the wilderness of this land of the Prophets. It had rained slightly a few days earlier, the land was buzzing with green activities. New plants and life were sprouting in every direction. I could imagine Jesus, Moses, Abraham and many other prophets walking through this desolate yet beautiful landscape.
We passed through a city that is known as the oldest city in the world – Jericho. Archeologists have unearthed several remains including one that is dated back 11,000 years. Throughout time this city has witnessed many people come and go including Jews, Christians and then Muslims. The city has always produced abundant quantities of banana and sugar. It is known as the city of palm trees and exotic fruit. The Muslims named the city “Areeha” and have lived here under various rulers since the time of the second Caliph Omar.
As soon as I arrived here I felt I really like this city with so much history and thousands of years of human heritage dotted all over the land. It felt as if I was walking the same place as people thousands of years ago. Now it is inhabited mainly by the Muslims and appears cut of from the rest of the country. It is located near the Jordan River, once the source of life and water but now dry as a desert. Israel has dried this river through its illegal water appropriation policy. The city is under the Palestinian Authorities control in the West Bank now.
We all know that Jesus was born out of a miracle but how much do we know about his childhood, teenage years and his youth. My mind raced through the Islamic text on the subject and I could recall the Chapter of Mary (19:16-40) in the Quran. In 24 verses the basic story behind Jesus’s miraculous birth is chronicled as follows:
16: AND CALL to mind, through this divine writ, Mary. Lo! She withdrew from her family to an eastern place.
17: And kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being
18: She exclaimed: “Verily, ‘I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious! [Approach me not] if you are conscious of Him!”
19: The angel answered: “I’ am but a messenger of Your Sustainer, [who says,] `I shall bestow upon you the gift of a son endowed with purity.’”
20: Said she: “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me? – For, never have I been a loose woman!”
21: [The angel] answered: “Thus it is; [but] thy Sustainer says, `this is easy for Me; and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from US. And it was a thing decreed [by God]:
22: and in time she conceived him, and then she withdrew with him to a far-off place.
23: And [when] the throes of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree, she exclaimed: “Oh, would that I had died ere this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!”
24: Thereupon [a voice] called out to her from beneath that [palm-tree]: “Grieve not! Thy Sustainer has provided a rivulet [running] beneath thee;
25: and shake the trunk of the palm-tree towards thee: it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon thee.
26: Eat, then, and drink, and let your eye be gladdened! And if you should see any human being, convey this unto him: `Behold, abstinence from speech have I vowed unto the Most Gracious; hence, I may not speak today to any mortal.
27: And in time she returned to her people, carrying the child with her. They said: “O Mary! You have indeed done an amazing thing!
28: O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a wicked man, nor was your mother a loose woman!”
29: Thereupon she pointed to him. They exclaimed: “How can we talk to one who [as yet] is a little boy in the cradle?”
30: [But] he said: “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet,
31: And made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live,
32: And [has endowed me with] piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace.
33: “Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and [will be upon me] on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life [again]!”
34: SUCH WAS, in the words of truth, Jesus the son of Mary, about whose nature they so deeply disagree.
35: It is not conceivable that God should have taken unto Himself a son: limitless is He in His glory! When He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it “Be” -and it is!
36: And [thus it was that Jesus always said]: “Verily, God is my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer; so worship [none but] Him: this (alone] is a straight way.”
37: And yet, the sects [that follow the Bible] are at variance among themselves [about the nature of Jesus Woe, then, unto all who deny the truth when that awesome Day will appear!
38: How well will they hear and see [the truth] on the Day when they come before Us! Today, however, these evildoers are obviously lost in error:
39: hence, warn them of [the coming of] the Day of Regrets, when everything will have been decided-for as yet they are heedless, and they do not believe [in it].
40: Behold, We alone shall remain after the earth and all who live on it have passed away, and (when] unto Us all will have been brought back.”
As I reflected on these verses the bus arrived at Nazareth, the city where Jesus lived. It was a fair distance from Jerusalem. I wonder how Mary could have arrived here from Jerusalem after the birth of Jesus. According to historians her family lived in Nazareth and soon after the miraculous birth of Jesus, she must have returned with baby Jesus in her arms. Jerusalem was not a safe place for her. She was being questioned and harassed by the Jewish leaders and Rabbis.
As I was walking up the steps that led us to the gates of the Church of Annunciation, I noticed a couple of banners hanging from the side of a wall. Both of the banners had a verse each from the Quran calling on the Christians to accept Islam. The banners were hanging from the mosque’s wall. While I understand the importance of Da’wah, invitation for non-Muslims to consider Islam, I found these banners in such a spot very insensitive. How would Muslims react if Christians were to hang banners at the entrance of the Mosque of the Prophet in Madina equally calling for Muslims to consider Christianity?
Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with anyone engaging in reasonable and wisdom led da’wah initiatives. Da’wah is inviting people to Islam using wisdom and best examples, is found in the following verse:
“Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful discourse; and reason with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for Your Lord knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (16:125)
I have always advocated that all religions, especially the faiths of the children of Abraham should have a healthy competition and free market to preach to each other and all. However, this is a scared place for the Christians and the millions of devotees who travel from all over the world would be uncomfortable at the least, seeing these banners announcing that their faith as wrong and Islam as the right way. I believe there is time and place for everything and this was a misplaced da’wah effort. Instead the local Muslims should welcome their guests by offering kindness and hospitality. If they must put out a banner, maybe they should have one that has more positive and inclusive message.
The Church was buzzing with people. It was running an Annunciation service and thousands of people were there taking part in the procession that led up to the service. It was serene hearing the Arabic sermon by the bishops and priests in the church. They were using religious terminologies including “Allah” to refer to God, “Bismillah” to say in the name of Allah, Alhamdulillah to praise God, “Salam” when wishing peace, and “Shari’ah” when referring to the way to God. I was intently listening to the sermon and apart from a few differences; he could have been an Imam giving a sermon in Arabic. Most people, of Christian or Muslim background would have struggled to notice the difference.
I reflected on this and spoke to a few of my Christian colleagues who were there with me. Only a couple of days ago one of the priests were expressing his dislike of the term Shari’ah and what it meant. He was saying that Muslims want to take over a country and impose Shari’ah but was now taken aback when he heard the Christian priest was calling his flock to Shari’ah of Christ!
The Christians in the land where Jesus was born and spent all his missionary life use these common terms seamlessly and do not use these emotively. Unfortunately some of the ignorant media in the West in general but in the UK in particular use these terms to create division, foment hatred and whip up anti Muslim bigotry. Muslims and Christians are set out as cardinal enemies in the West! This was a profound experience for UK Muslim and Christian theologians and activists taking part in the programme. We were witnessing the deconstruction of the Muslim Christian linguistic and theological myths by the Arab Christian priest from the pulpit of the most important church attributed to Jesus. I wish more western media could listen to the message of Christian Muslim shared perspectives from this holy land.
We were received at the beautiful church run guesthouse for lunch. The management and the chef went out of their way to offer us Halal food and provide us a special place to pray. This was very different to the neighbouring town that has been cleansed of Muslim population and designated as a Jewish town. A few Muslims who work in the city and have businesses have been banned from holding collective prayers even for Jum’a! Jesus was Jewish, he would have condemned this behaviour and Moses would have been outraged at the narrow mindedness of the state of Israel. Their messages were messages of hope, peace, love and God. Sadly, some of their followers have forgotten this in today’s world.
I arrived at a very exciting and important city in my journey to discover Jesus – Capernaum. This town is mentioned in Gospel of Luke and John. I was in this city and this is where Jesus conducted a lot of his missionary work in the region of Galilee. I was feeling honoured to be here. There are ruins of two synagogues and the house of one of the disciples of Jesus, it’s called Peter house. The Christian communities have built a church to mark Jesus’s work here. He left Nazareth because the people did not pay any attention to his teachings. He is reported to have cursed the city, saying, “You shall be brought down to Hades,” (Matthew 11:23).
One of our Christian colleagues was telling us the story of Jesus’s power of healing. One Sabbath, Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum and healed a man who had the spirit of an unclean devil. Afterwards, he healed a fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. According to Luke 7:1–10, it is also the place where a Roman Centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant. Capernaum is also mentioned in the Gospel of Mark (2:1), it is the location of the famous healing of the paralytic lowered through the roof to reach Jesus.
Quran confirms Jesus’s God-given power to heal people of their illnesses, especially blindness and leprosy. As a Muslim I have profound faith in the prophet Jesus but I also know that Jesus was unable to do anything without the power of God. The difference between Christian and Muslims on this issue is stark. Christians attribute this God-like power of Jesus to Jesus himself in their Trinitarian attribution. I find that confusing and implausible but I respect my Christian friends’ right to hold that belief and view. The challenge is to explore the spared perspective with these tiny but fundamental differences.
I also visited The Church of Beatitudes located on a small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and built on the traditional site of Jesus’ delivery of the Sermon on the Mount; pilgrims are known to have commemorated this site since at least the 4th century. It has a spectacular garden with a view over the sea. It reminded me of the view around the Lake Genève in Switzerland. I sat there at the top of the hill in the middle of the beautiful garden overlooking the Sea of Galilee reading the Sermon on the Mount. My mind was racing through time, here Jesus sat and delivered his most important speech and I am here to feel the space.
Jesus seeing the crowds went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The sermon then continues with some of the most important principles that a decent human society would need to survive. He announced “Do not murder, do not even remain angry and do not devalue others by considering them fools”.
Jesus went through other social issues including speaking against adultery, theft and debt. He was telling people to honour their oath, not to engage in retaliation and inviting his followers to love their enemies. He asked people to seek God and not become judges.
As I read the great words of Jesus I realized that the message of all the prophets were the same. From Adam, through to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, they all invited people to be good to God and good to each other. Such a simple message and yet their followers have twisted and turned these amazing messages to suit their whims and desires. My legs felt heavy, my heart felt full and my eyes were tired. I laid down on a bench in the middle of the garden and within seconds I drifted away into deep sleep. When I woke up I realized the words of the great prophet Jesus had a profound impact on my soul that I needed to recuperate through sleep. I was pleased to have experienced more about Jesus’s true life and work.
I went to the Church of Multiplication also known as the “bread and fish church” in a place called Tabgha, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. The modern church rests on the site of two earlier churches and contains mural and tiled images of fish and loaves. It is reported that here Jesus fed 5000 people. According to Mark’s account, Jesus and his disciples had gone out in a boat to this remote place for some peace and quiet, but the crowds ran ahead “from all the towns” and met him when he landed. By then it was dinnertime and they were not in a village where food could easily be bought, so Jesus fed them all by miraculously multiplying his disciples’ five loaves and two fishes.
I believe in God who has the power over all things. He sent Jesus through a miraculous birth; surely he could empower his prophet to feed millions of people if He so wished. I find no problem is accepting this miracle, not with the power of Jesus, but by the power of God.
My next station was Mensa Christi church. The phrase is in Latin for “Table of Christ” contains a slab of chalk that, according to tradition, was the rock on which Jesus dined with the disciples after his resurrection. The Franciscans initially built a chapel at this site in the latter half of the 18th century. The current church, a renovation of the earlier chapel, was completed in 1861. It is located in the middle of a beautiful park and adjacent to the Sea of Galilee.
I sat down next to the Sea of Galilee, took my shoes and socks off and dipped my toes in the cold water. It had an instant reaction in my body. There was a sharp coldness that started rising through my veins, tingles through my feet reached my knees and the freshness of the chilled water woke me up fully. As I walked around the Sea of Galilee I realized Jesus’s central message was no different to the message of all other prophets. But why was there such confusion in the followers?
Today my day was a walk through the pages of history. From Jericho to Jerusalem I could smell, feel and experience the richness of this land. As I connect with history I also realize the future of this place remains on a knife-edge. As I look at the current political stalemate I am filled with dismay and despair. I feel no hope and my fear is that the Holy Land is being destroyed by an unholy alliance! I would like to rouse the conscience of the decent and honest people of world to come together and save the land of the prophets – the Holy Land.
Day 7 will be published tomorrow…