Day 7 – Holy space misery

Dome of Rock

Ajmal Masroor’s Diary of Jerusalem

My day begun with my own internal conflict, I could not reconcile the most obvious questions – who should have the right to rule this place and why should anyone have the right to exclusively possess this land?

The entire demography of this land has been forcibly changed. As I walk through the Old city of Jerusalem I noticed the obvious signs of forcible alteration of the ethnic and religious make up of this Holy Land. It was not that long ago that the city had a very vibrant and well established Christian and Muslim population. But looking at the faces of these two communities in todays Jerusalem, I often had tears in my eyes. They both look defeated, deflated and tired of the daily struggles just to live. Is this all worth the miserable existence?

I met one Jerusalem house owner who had applied for permission to renovate his house and add an extension to his generation owned property but has been refused every time. Subsequently the local municipality prosecuted him for living in a house that did not comply with health and safety laws. They issued orders to demolish his house and confiscate his land. He is living on his own land waiting for it to be stolen by the state of Israel any day. I could only empathise with is plight but I know what I would do to protect my property if someone attempted to steal it from me.

Another prominent Muslim leader in Jerusalem waited for twelve years to gain permission to build his house so he could provide adequate space to his family and growing children. Over the last sixty years the Zionist state of Israel has systematically decanted the city of the Muslims and Christians population by stealing their land and confiscated their properties. The idea is to have Jewish majority in the city as soon as possible in the same way as they have achieved in the rest State of Israel. Palestinians have less that 10% of the land and before 1967 they had approximately 50%.

The signs of ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Christians from the holy city of Jerusalem was clearly visible at every turn you took. New illegal settlement was sprawling every days. When I looked at the Jewish people in Jerusalem, they did not look happy. They too were tired of living in constant fear. Despite the naked display of machines guns, military presence, check points, regular and arbitrary arrest of Palestinians, Jewish population were watching over their backs every minute. I saw a group of Jewish young man walking through the old city’s Muslim quarter. They were literally running. I caught up with one of them and asked him why was he running and looking so fearful. What he said had cold shiver run down my back. He said, “The Arabs are looking for any opportunity to kill us but this is our city, God gave it to us and we will stay here”.

Contrast that with what a Palestinian young man told me. I was equally shocked to hear his words and even more concerned by his resolve. He said, “The Jews are extremely afraid to die but they want to fight with us, we are very happy to die while fighting for our home, how many can they kill”. The attitudes summed it up for me. I realized the profound reality – this land and its inhabitants are not ready for peace and it will remain like this for as long as the occupiers remain.

“This is the holy Land and is clearly designated as such in the Torah, Bible and the Quran”, don’t all parties make that claim? However, I ask can someone please tell me where does it is say that it cannot be shared? I have been pulling my hair out for the last seven days looking through various scriptures and speaking to experts and scholars, no one has been able to show me a single shred evidence that corroborate the exclusivist view.

Probably it is also one of the most conflicted parts of the world. Over a small rock so much death and destruction has been inflicted on the local inhabitants throughout time. Does God truly want us to wage wars, squabble and cause so much misery over a piece of land? I think not, yet all parties Jews, Christian and Muslims, have fought each other over who should have the superior right to dominate this land. In my view they fought using flimsy excuses, certainly disastrous for the humanity and unacceptable to God!

My Christian colleagues from this programme wanted to visit Haram Al-Sharif. They have been watching us go in and out for prayers and have been longing for an opportunity to see it with their own eyes. The Haram is open to the non-Muslims at designated time especially in the mornings. The Jordanian Awqqaf (Islamic Endowment), who has been the custodians of the Haram, invited our group for the special visit. This precinct is steeped with history and every inch of it has marks from prophets of thousands of years.

Al-Aqsa Mosque looks humble from the outside but inside it is truly magnificent. It was built around year 15AH (After Hijra, the Muslim calendar indicating the number years after the migration of the blessed prophet from Makkah to Madinah). The Romans exiled the Jews from the city when they were ruling Jerusalem but Omar, the second Caliph of Islam, invited as many as seventy families back into the city. Muslims restored the rights of return for the Jewish refugees but sadly the Jewish people of Israel today have forgotten the generosity of the Muslims. They have refused the right of return of the Palestinian people that they expelled and who have been refugees for the last 65 years. Under the Islamic rule the entire region and the Holy Land has seen peace, prosperity, safety and security for all its inhabitants but Israel only protects its Jewish citizens!

Our guide told us the story of Al Aqsa Mosque but he also reminded me to give him some “baksheesh” – backhanders. Unfortunately the culture of bribery is rampant in many parts of the developing world. I was upset with him for seeking bribe and I told him discreetly that while he was receiving a reasonable salary for his job he should not demand bribes. If people want to give him a tip because of his service that is a different matter. He did not look pleased.

The people who defeated the mighty Persian and Roman empires sent its Caliph Omar to receive the keys of the city from the Christian Patriarch Saint Sophronius. Omar’s humble appearance and disheveled clothes struck the Christians of the city as odd and embarrassing. They were dressed in exquisite cloaks made of silk, gold and silver. They adorned hats that had fine ornaments and embroideries and carried their holy staff made of even more expensive metal. Omar was wearing a dirty rag that had become even more stained by his long and arduous journey.

Historians have noted the fact that Omar was not just humble but he was free from material greed. When the patriarch offered Omar majestic clothes he refused saying, “It is not right for a man to take from another what God has not decreed for him, for God has given to each and every one of humanity from His Divine knowledge, and he who desires to receive something from his companion exceeding that, does so against God.”

The local Christians were extremely embarrassed and Omar noted their feeling of humiliation due to his attire so he reluctantly agreed to borrow the clothes they were offering. Omar said, “Because you request it of me, and have shown me such great honour, please lend me these clothes and I will wear them while you wash mine. When mine are returned, I will return these clothes to you.”

The 12th Century Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Michael, says about Omar, “He was certainly just and removed from greed, to the degree that from all the empire that the Arabs ruled, that is, from all the wealth and treasures of the Romans and Persians, he took nothing for himself. He did not change the simplicity of his habits, not even the piece of hide that was placed under him when he rode by camel and that he used for sitting on the ground or sleeping on.”

The site of the current Al-Aqsa mosque was a rubbish tip under the reign of the Romans. They kept the space dirty and derelict almost deliberately to deride the Jews and prevent them from returning. After liberating the city Omar himself got his hands dirty, clearing the land of dirt and debris; along with his companions they lay down the foundation of the Al-Aqsa mosque at the Southern part of the precinct. Some of the companions wanted the mosque to be build closer to the rock but Omar insisted on the southernmost part of the mount. It was a simple structure made of wooden trusses and designed to accommodate 3000 worshippers.

I stood at the site of the Mosque that was founded by Omar and my mind raced through hundreds of years back in the days of the great companions. I could imagine how their bare hands must have torn through the rubbles, how the rotten garbage of the Romans must have soiled their clothes and how the stench of the decomposing waste would have suffocated them. They were determined to ensure that the future of this Holy precinct had a permanent Islamic landmark. If it was not of the great insight of Omar, the first Qibla of the Muslims and the 3rd holiest site in Islam could have been permanently lost. I was grateful to Omar and his companions and thanked God for such a brilliant leadership.

The Dome of the Rock is the most visible landmark from every part of Jerusalem. The story of this rock is equally fascinating. The Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik Marwan ordered the construction of the golden dome on the highest spot in the precinct around Al-Aqsa Mosque. He assigned the task to two prominent and trusted confidants and ordered the construction on the years between 71-72 AH. It was reported that Abdul Malik Marwan felt that the Land of Shaam – Syria, as it was known at that time consisted of current Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon and had Christian and Jewish buildings of magnificent splendour and grandeur. He felt Islam’s presence in the Holy Land must be more striking than its competing religions.

He certainly achieved that.

As we walked around the Dome of the Rock enjoying the breathtaking architecture and the serene peacefulness of the space one of the priests asked me, “Is number eight a significant number in Islam?” I was rather surprised by his question. I asked him why he was interested in number eight. He told me that the number eight is significant in Christianity as it represents the entrance into the Covenant of God. This understanding comes from God Himself who commanded Circumcision – the Sign of the Covenant – to be performed on the Eighth Day. He wanted to know if the Dome of the Rock had any Christian influence. He was not totally wrong with his premonition. A quick look at the books of history revealed some amazing examples of coexistence and shared perspective of the Holy Land under the Muslim rule. Abdul Malik appointed two engineers as in charge of the project. They were Raja Ibn Haywah, a theologist from Baysan and Yazid Ibn Salam, a Christian slave of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan and a native of Jerusalem. The octagonal shape must have originated from and influenced by the shared perspective to most things in the Holy Land.

The magnificent Dome of the Rock was built and presented to the Muslim world as a wonder and unique space but the adjacent Al Alqsa mosque was too simple for Abdul Malik. He ordered the building of another stunning space that would include the Mosque Omar had built. Unfortunately Abdul Malik died but his son Walid took up the challenge to complete his father life’s mission. The existing mosque was replaced and enlarged to accommodate over 50,000 worshippers. The subterranean part of the mosque also known as the Marwani mosque alone could accommodate 15,000 worshippers. Various Muslim rulers throughout the years have added their own hallmark on the buildings and made it even more impressive. Every time I went there to pray I was awestruck by the breathtaking beauty of this place and the peace it gave me in my heart. I felt happy on the Holy precinct.

I have a very raw nerve that is easily pulled when I witness or hear about injustices. I have a deep level of anger and hatred against the Crusaders. When they captured Jerusalem in year 492 AH or 1099 CE the Dome of the Rock was given to the Augustinians, who turned it into a church while the Al-Aqsa Mosque became a royal palace. The basement was converted into a stable. They killed more than 70,000 men, women and children in the vicinity of Al-Aqsa all in the name of Jesus. I could not imagine Jesus would ever condone these rivers of blood in the Holy Land.

As I walked over the stones I could picture the warm blood of those slain by the brutal crusading army gushing out and rolling over the land and staining it. I could hear the cries of the innocent women who were raped and left to die or simply beheaded. I could hear the screams of those children who were executed for being born in Muslim families. I am not sure if I would ever be able to forgive or forget the crusaders. They perpetrated evil in the name of religion.

One old man took me by my arm in the Haram and said, “Come with me”. I followed him and he took me to a place that made me feel horrified and sick to the core. He said, “This is the base of the biggest cross the crusaders had erected in this exact spot and they crucified hundreds of Muslims right here”. They watched these Muslims bleed to death in agony and pain; the crusaders celebrated and demonstrated their satisfaction that they have rid the Holy Land of the infidels. They felt they had won their holy war.

I stood there, numb and tears streaming down my cheeks. I contemplated God’s justice will prevailed one day and certainly on the Day of Judgment those who are responsible for the murder and mayhem will be brought to face the ultimate justice.

The famous Muslim leader Salahaddin liberated this land from the Crusaders and delivered a free Holy Land for Muslims, Jews and Christians to share, worship and enjoy. He could have cut down every Christian in the city but he didn’t. He was a true leader and was able to heal the communities through forgiveness and encouraging the shared perspectives.

British historian Karen Armstrong describes the second Islamic capture of Jerusalem in these words:

“On 2 October 1187 Saladin and his army entered Jerusalem as conquerors and for the next 800 years Jerusalem would remain a Muslim city… Saladin kept his word, and conquered the city according to the highest Islamic ideals. He did not take revenge for the 1099 massacre, as the Koran advised (16:127), and now that hostilities had ceased he ended the killing (2:193-194). Not a single Christian was killed and there was no plunder. The ransoms were deliberately very low…

Saladin was moved to tears by the plight of families who were rent asunder and he released many of them freely, as the Koran urged, though to the despair of his long-suffering treasurers. His brother al-Adil was so distressed by the plight of the prisoners that he asked Saladin for a thousand of them for his own use and then released them on the spot…

When Imad ad-Din saw the Patriarch Heraclius leaving the city with chariots crammed with treasure, he urged Saladin to confiscate it. But Saladin refused. The Koran said that oaths and treaties must be kept to the letter and it was essential that the Muslims should observe the legalities… Heraclius paid his ten-dinar ransom like everybody else and was even provided with a special escort to keep his treasure safe during the journey to Tyre.”

At the order of Salahuddin the entire Al Aqsa Mosque as well the Dome of the Rock and all its adjacent buildings were comprehensively renovated and restored. Salahuddin bought stability in the region and provided great governance. He brought the warring nations together.

I asked one of my colleagues, “What price do we pay for the loss of thousands of innocent lives at the hands of the crusaders? Can revenge ever be a befitting tribute to those whose lives have been abruptly brought to an end? Can people ever extend their love even to their enemies?”

I was told my a local Palestinian that in the 1967 war a Jewish soldier desecrated the Dome of the Rock by climbing up to the top of the dome and placing an Israeli flag, which was taken down swiftly. The political leadership of Israel realized the grave consequence of his action and the potential global reprisal. While Israel took Jerusalem from the Muslims hands, the Al-Aqsa precinct was handed over to the Jordanian government for custodianship. It still remains with the Jordanian Awqaf (religious endowment). When the Israeli security forces control everything in the area, a tokenistic Jordanian custodianship of the Haram is a crumb not worth having!

In 1969 A Jewish extremist set fire to the mosque pulpit burning down not just the wooden pulpit placed there by Nooruddin Zenghi but it burned down the entire mosque. The fire spread very quickly and the entire building was destroyed. However Muslim countries from all over the world woke up to the ashes of Al-Aqsa and pulled together funds to help rebuild the mosque. The Hashimite King of Jordan sold his own assets to fund the restoration project.

My daydream was shuttered. I was brought to this world from the memory lanes I was exploring by one of the worshippers. He smiled and greeted me asking me where I was from. I told him, “I am Palestinian”. He Smiled and said, “you are welcome” and hugged me. The people who suffer so much misery at the hands of the Israeli army still had enough warmth to hug even a stranger. I was very moved by his action.

The current mosque is very beautiful and was designed in a way that would standout. The vertical columns formed a unified yet symmetrically aligned space from every angle. The height with several layers of arches provided the perfect illusion of space and reverberated the sound from one end of the building to the other. The dome, mihrab and the pulpit all fit perfectly in the grand and yet humble design. They remind the worshippers of the infinite beauty of God. For God who created the brain of those craftsmen to produce this wonder must be more beautiful. There were Arabic inscriptions everywhere, some were Quranic verses and some were names of prominent companions of the Prophet.

The space was illustrious and breathtaking. Every time I walked inside my entire body directed me to do one thing – prostrate. My mind could not fathom his sublime beauty and power, my heart longed for a moment of heavenly inspiration and when I placed my head on the ground to prostrate my entire being was in total submission. No wonder the Arabic word for mosque is Masjid, which literally means place of prostration. I find great pleasure in prostration and felt humbled that I was able to place my head on the ground where many prophets have prostrated.

As I entered Al-Aqsa mosque I noticed one striking difference between the cultures here in Palestine and the cultures in many Muslim countries. Here men and women pray in the same space. Women are not banished in a broom cupboard somewhere. They are not isolated from the main part of the mosque. They prayed at the back of the main hall and could feel and experience the togetherness in prayer. Compare that with the UK where gender segregation has become a major issue in some Muslim communities. There are mosques that do not have space for women to pray. There are mosques that do not allow the women to attend even a public function. There are mosques where men go mental if they see a woman inside. I was extremely pleased at witnessing the gender equality and balance brilliantly maintained in the collective space of prostration – Masjid and in the 3rd holiest site in Islam.

I pointed it to the Christian and Muslim members of our group that Palestinians have understood the true meaning of gender harmony and interactions. I prayed to God for the UK Muslims to wake up and realize the backwardness of some of them who so strictly adhere to these alien ideas and often confuse them with cultural preferences. A mosque must have space for women and must provide the space in the main hall of the mosque. Muslim women should stand for their right and demands a fair and adequate space or stop giving the mosques their donations. In my view it is simple – those who insist on denying women the right to access and space in the mosques must come to Al Aqsa mosque and see it with their own eyes how the Prophetic model of gender segregation works. It is about shared perspective, if Muslim men and women cannot share their sacred space, how could I expect others to share?

The entire precinct felt peaceful until I heard loud shouts from a group of women. They were chanting “Allahu Akbar” repeatedly and in chorus. At first I didn’t understand what was happening. But very soon I realized the reason behind the angry outburst. A group of Jewish visitors, mainly young man, wearing their skullcap, were walking around the Haram. As a means of protest mainly the Muslim women take a vocal stance. Usually for such low-key protest the Israeli security would not harass the women but men would normally get taken away and locked up. They are held without charge for weeks.

I stood there watching the coming and going of many visitors. Those who did not wear any clear mark of their religious identity such a cross or Jewish attire did not attract any attention. In fact I had eight Christian priests around me and no body bat an eyelid. One person took me aside and whispered to me in Arabic, “visitors are welcome to visit the Haram, take pictures and interact with us but we don’t want any Jewish people to come here. They bring trouble to our mosques.”

By the time we finished our tour the place was heaving with visitors who were respectfully and happily taking pictures and listening to many tour guides. I was looking for an old man who I have heard in my previous visits reading the Quran loudly and with a beautiful melodious voice but I did not hear him nor find him this time. I was very sad and disappointed; I really liked his recitation and was looking forward to hearing him again. I asked a few people about him but no body had any clear information. He may have been ill but I feared the worse may have happened to him, dead of detained! The inhabitants of the Holy Land live with this possibility more than any other people on this earth. I prayed for his success wherever he was.

We walked around the courtyard to the South Eastern part and found small vents cut out in the massive stones that were used to build the perimeter walls of the Mosque. If you carefully looked though the small gap what you see is mark of clear discrimination and desperation. I showed one of my Christian colleagues the dilapidated houses of the Palestinians dotted around the Eastern side of the valley. Their houses were not renovated by the state of Israel unlike the illegal settlers homes. Their houses were crumbling but Israel would refuse to give permission for renovation and if it did give such permission it would have been exorbitantly expensive process that would include architect’s fees, lawyers’ fees, court fees and even trail fees. Most Palestinians would face financial ruin in the process. Some simply didn’t bother as they were struggling to make ends meet in the first place.

I was told that there are Zionist charity organisations in America that supported Israeli illegal settlement building programme and gave grants to Jewish people renovating or buying Palestinian properties. They operate openly and even advertise their generous grants in the Western countries. Imagine setting up a charity in the UK or the USA that supported Palestinians reclaiming the illegal settlements, renovating homes or buying land from the Jewish neighbours. There would be outcry and newspapers like the Daily Mail and Telegraph would run headlines stating “UK Muslims fund terrorism in Israel!”

There are many militant Zionist lobby groups that operate ruthless intimidation and character assignation strategies in the West. They would be quick to impress upon the government and the media to label these charities as funding terrorism. Even mastermind the closure or asset freeze of these charities. We know of a few that had their accounts frozen simply because they were supporting Palestinians families.

I left the Haram Al-Sharif to walk around the western parts of Jerusalem. This is also known as the Jewish quarter. I went through the security gates – metal fences with scanners and detectors, when making my way to the Waling Wall. I came here a couple of days back but didn’t have the time to explore the place. This time I had a lot of time to walk around and feel the area and watch with my own eyes the Jewish communities homes and places of worship.

The Waling Wall is in the western outer wall of Haram Al-Sharif and according to the Jewish traditions this is the closest to the holiest of the holy spot to the Solomon’s Temple. It has been a bone of contention between Jews and Muslims for years and many people have lost their lives and properties. Jewish scholars have claimed that Solomon, son of prophet David, built the temple to house the Arch of Covenant some 2000 years ago. In 1967’s Arab Israeli war Jerusalem was annexed by the Zionist state of Israel. They bulldozed the 700 years old Moroccan quarter in the area immediately to create the courtyard, which would accommodate the Jewish people when they come to worship at the wall.

Many historians oppose the Jewish claim sighting archeological and historic evidence to show that Solomon never built the second temple at this site. Whatever is the claim, why would God ask to subjugate other people in order to simply expose a piece rock? Is a piece of Rock more important than the honour of another human being? How many lives and how much blood needs to be spilled for a rock?

In the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem what immediately strikes you are the following factors: the streets are incredibly clean, developed and well maintained and the entire area is extremely organised. There were street lamps, dustbins, leveled pavements and even Mediterranean style cafes and restaurants. The Arabs of Jerusalem pay their taxes too but why are there obvious anomalies? The Arab quarters have been left to wrought.

There is no peace without true justice, these are Gods words and the words of thousands of great people who have come and gone. Palestine needs justice and this will pave the way to peace.

Day 8 will be published  … tbc

© Ajmal Masroor March 30, 2014

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