The legacy of Channel 4’s Adhan broadcast?

May 20th, 2014

A Guest Blog from Nabila Pathan

Muslim orphan praying during Ramadan, Thailand

A boy prays during Ramadan in Thailand. Channel 4 said it encountered Islamophobia with its UK 4Ramadan season. Photograph: Abdullah Wangni/EPA

The legacy of the of the first British TV channel to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer last Ramadan has become “top in viewer complaints” of 2013.   The figures grabbed the spotlight irrespective of the fact that Channel 4 responded that it was ‘Islamophobia’ that whipped up a frenzy of complaints.

With Channel 4′s deployment of the ‘Islamophobia’ label,  you get a fair sense of the mindset that allows itself to get offended.  Opinion writers like Nesrine Malik have gone a little way to place it into context of the fear of a Muslim takeover even though she herself was not convinced initially by channel 4′s decision to showcase the call to prayer in Ramadan.

The  three-minute call to prayer (Adhan) was beamed live each morning on Channel 4 television and marked the start of the day’s fast for Muslims.  As it was a pre-dawn broadcast, one wonders how many of the viewers who complained actually woke up early to view the actual call to prayer and thus make an informed objection?

The showcase of the Adhan was a unique focus on an aspect of Muslim ritual which is not part of a mainstream consciousness.  And that’s what Channel 4 are about, placing a spotlight on something different.  The specially-shot call to prayer was delivered by Hassen Rasool, who is considered one of the best muezzins in the UK. It was filmed to a backdrop of London, Birmingham and Bradford.  If anything it was a creative way of presenting the call for prayer for many Muslims and introducing it to a wider audience.

We can look cynically at Channel 4 for pandering to a community for ratings or we can retreat from supporting future output based on fear of inviting criticism underpinned with intolerance.  Neither are promising nor inspiring for future innovative output.

The media and its cultural productions are a way of reinforcing the emergence and belonging of communities within mainstream societies.   At a time when  Muslims are becoming a more visible and vocal part of British society, sometimes as a reaction to negative narratives, there is a real need for culturally diverse output to represent the community.  Otherwise we are left with the usual spate of tabloid headlines of creeping shariah.  There are some sincere attempts but the only ones that come to mind are  Citizen Khan that fail in comedic stakes and the Eastenders Muslim family that look like they belong less in Walford and more out in space.

With Ramadan round the corner, it remains to be seen whether these complaints speak louder than ratings for future editorial decisions?  After all, it was the number of complaints that made the headlines, not the fact that it was Islamophobia “from communities that were either very polarised or very undiverse”.

Nabila Pathan

@NabilaMPathan
The Full Picture Club Director. Editor @wordplayblog. Writer for Al Arabiya English and Huffington Post.

“Hidden Heart”

May 14th, 2014

“Hidden Heart” is a ground-breaking documentary by Zara Afzal and Christopher Hird, which I am the Executive Producer of.  It offers a nuanced and sensitive portrayal of the backlash that heritage Muslim women often face when marrying outside their ethnic communities.  Will he convert or won’t he?  Even if he does convert, to what extent is it a real conversion?  Won’t someone think of the children?  Family politics starts to show some of its uglier incarnations (Asma Barlas acknowledges in Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qu’ran, that marriage in Islam is “located at the juncture of the private [individual] and the public [communal], the religious and the social”).

Of course, the taboo attached to inter-racial marriage within British Muslim communities is nowhere near as severe as that attached to inter-religious marriage or gay marriage.  However, intersectional discrimination is often an issue, particularly when it comes to male partners of heritage Muslim women (both those who convert to Islam and those who do not).

It is clear that the stigma of marrying outside one’s heritage community applies to Muslim women more acutely than their male counterparts.  Civil society responses to this problem have partially grappled with this distinction.  In November 2012, the Christian Muslim Forum launched its Interfaith Marriage Guidelines at Westminster Abbey, in co-operation with the Inter-Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group.  They featured case studies of Muslim women who are married to men from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.  They also reproduced statistics from the 2001 census, which recorded 17,163 Christian women married to Muslim men and 4,233 Christian men married to Muslim women.

The Forum’s guidelines ‘When Two Faiths Meet’ can be seen here . You can also view this excerpt of Heather al-Yousuf (Inter Faith Marriage Network and Christian Muslim Forum) and Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra commenting on pastoral support and the mainstream Islamic position on inter faith marriage here.

While the guidelines provide a strong framework for the pastoral care of men and women in inter-faith and, to a lesser extent, inter-racial marriages, they could do more in my view to specifically address the Islamic jurisprudence which generally states that Muslim women should not marry non-Muslim men.  Jerome Taylor, Religious Affairs Correspondent at the Independent, quotes (from ‘When Two  Faiths Meet’) the case study of a Muslim woman marrying a Catholic man while writing about these guidelines in November 2012: “While we came from different faiths, we approached them in similar ways. Although I was in my 30s and well educated, I was treated as though I was a silly little girl who had got herself into an irresponsible situation which could only be solved by my fiancé converting.

It was also assumed that although my fiancé was Catholic, his religion was less important and that he likely did not believe in it to the same degree Muslims believed in their religion. We were not asked what drew us together, how we met, how we managed differences. Instead we were judged harshly and told off. We had discussed the option of one of us converting but decided this was not for us.[1]

Eventually, however, this was resolved:

‘Ultimately, we found a Muslim cleric who saw things the way we did. The counsel he gave us was excellent, focusing as we did on what made us similar. He eventually conducted our Islamic marriage with a basic marriage contract that was very flexible in its content. In it we agreed to talk about any obstacles that came up, rather than making agreements about how things would be done. From the Catholic side, we were blessed with supportive priests who focused on our strengths as a couple and did not make us make promises about our children. It has … been helpful that from both the Muslim and Catholic sides we were given permission to engage with each other’s beliefs and practices that did not compromise our own.  Over five years on, ours is a happy marriage with plenty of space in it for two faiths.’

At times, this opprobrium can turn into outright violence and intimidation against couples and / or family members.  One of the most frequently reported cases of a British Muslim woman marrying outside her community was that of Zena Briggs, who set up the Zena Foundation to help forced marriage victims after she escaped one herself, having eloped with white Englishman Jack Briggs.  They were chased by a private investigator and ended up with a £9,000 bounty on their heads.  After 16 years on the run, the couple split up.  However, their book Runaways was read out by Ann Cryer MP in the House of Commons, eventually leading to the creation of the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit in 2005.[2]

As Boston-based imam Suhaib Webb says, “Marriage is the easiest chapter in the books of fiqh, but the hardest chapter in our society today.”  Fortunately, there are imams and theologians who take a more empathetic and pragmatic approach to inter-faith marriage.  Dr Usama Hasan, a former imam at the Tawhid Mosque in Leyton who now works for the Quilliam Foundation, is one of these.  He is one of the theologians featured in the “Hidden Heart” film, and actively officiates Islamic wedding ceremonies between Muslim women and non-Muslim men.  A fatwa on Dr Hasan’s website outlines the thorny issue of Muslim women who convert, yet are already married to non-Muslim men.  It provides a refutation of certain opinions – most notably of the European Council for Fatwa and Research – that such marriages should be annulled after a three-month waiting period if the husband refuses to convert.  One of the examples Dr Hasan cites is that of the Prophet’s daughter Zaynab who remained married to Abul-‘As for six years after she converted to Islam and before he did so.[3]

In terms of theological support for inter-racial marriage specifically, the Quranic verse that is often cited is Surah Ah-Rum (30:22): And of His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Indeed there are Signs in this for the wise.”  The other one is Surah Al Hujurut (49:13): “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”

On top of this, the Prophet (prayers & peace be upon him and his family) also encouraged interracial marriages among the Sahabah (companions), including the marriage of Bilal the muezzin (may Allah be pleased with him) to an Arab lady from Bani Bukayr.  The biological benefits of interfaith marriage were recognised, alongside the Islamic ethic of diversity in general.  “It is narrated that Omer Ibn Al-Khatab, the second khalifa, noticed that the progeny of the tribe of Bani Assayib had become weak and unhealthy because of intermarriage of cousins. He advised the tribe to avoid close-cousin intermarriage and to seek wives and husbands from tribes further afield, saying: “Marry from far away tribes, otherwise you will be weak and unhealthy.”  This explicit theological support for inter-racial marriage has not fully filtered down to the grassroots.

It is safe to say that the multitude of religious interpretations on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men has not filtered down to the grassroots either.  Even if one were to follow the mainstream opinion on this, it must be recognised that attraction and compatibility cannot be number-crunched via some precise formula, and that the Human Rights Act expressly promotes the right of choice in marriage.  While some Muslim bloggers – Tariq Nelson being one of them – supported inter-racial marriage as one of the conduits towards a singular American Muslim identity, I would go a step further than that.  Muslim women should be able to marry outside their faith communities as well, and feel confident in doing so, without that neurotic voice in the background telling them they are necessarily doing something wrong.  This is particularly the case if they have exhausted other options within their own faith communities.  It is time to make a distinction between actual wrongdoing – based on the fitra or the innate predisposition of human beings to do good – and guilt that has been induced by trying to do the hula with different community-based “rings of expectation” all at once.  One by one, the rings will eventually fall down.

Dr Khaleel Mohammed, associate professor of Religion at San Diego State University, addresses the patriarchal “ring of expectation” in his fatwa on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men on the Project Ijtihad website: “In our day, since Qur’anic Islam (as opposed to the Islam of the male jurists) must acknowledge the radical notion that women are equals of men, that women have legal rights, and that those rights include placing conditions on the marriage (what you and I would term a ‘pre‐nuptial agreement’), then an inter‐faith marriage can take place on condition that neither spouse will be forcibly converted to the other’s religion. As long as that condition is respected, you and she have my blessing.

 

On the question of children, certainly there will be some religious confusion. But as a Muslim scholar, I can tell you that the Qur’an advocates the use of the heart and mind in forming opinions. If both parents are faithful to their interpretations of the Creator’s will, then the children will make informed decisions when they come of age.”[4]

 

Finally, there is an acute demographic issue within diaspora Muslim communities where men have more freedom – in practice – to either marry women from outside their heritage communities or those from their countries of origin.  It is neither just nor compassionate to allow this state of affairs to continue unabated, while at the same time increasing the social restrictions on women to the point where they are unable to find partners at all.  Since I am such a strong believer in Islam as an enabler of human dignity and perfector of human character, I don’t think it was ever the intended state of affairs to prevent Muslim women from marrying people who possess strong character traits, yet lack Muslim names.  As Cambridge University’s “Contextualising Islam in Britain II” report states: “Many hadith attest to the fact that the Prophet refrained from applying legislative or penal codes in resolving personal matters of morality, preferring to leave private relationships to be worked out between the parties concerned on the basis of broad ethical advice and practical common sense. He also showed compassionate awareness of human limitations and loving concern that people should not oppress themselves with unsustainable spiritual burdens and disproportionate self-criticism.”[5]

 

This is why I am proud to announce the crowd-funding launch of “Hidden Heart” this week.  It is a film which humanises these challenges, and will hopefully make them more relatable to people who might otherwise be inclined to oppose the marriage of their female relatives on religious or racial grounds.

Tehmina Kazi

Director

British Muslims for Secular Democracy

 

 



Pedalling Pilgrim 2

April 25th, 2014

Following on from 2012′s sponsored ride which raised £1130 for our women’s projects I am riding again, in London this time, on a ‘Boris bike’. Read the blog from last time here.

I will be riding 42 miles around the Barclays hire zone (roughly Zone 2) on Thursday 29 May. I will begin at Euston station, then via Camden Town, Hackney and Bethnal Green to Mile End, then Isle of Dogs, Southwark, Imperial War Museum and out to the West. Then on the Westway, round Regents Park and back to Euston. At roughly 5 miles per half hour (factoring in London traffic lights) my target time is around 4 hours. I hope to start at around 7 am.

I will be docking the bike within each 30 min free hire period then walking/jogging to another docking station (5 min access reset period). This will give me time to log my location on Twitter with a photo, hopefully including places of worship along the route. Do let me know if you think I will be anywhere near your church or mosque (or synagogue, temple or gurdwara).

I am aiming (ambitiously) to raise £4200 – £100 per mile. The amount raised will go towards our dialogues programme around London, dialogue locations so far have included Finsbury Park, Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Old Kent Road, Streatham, Brent. We aim to do more in Feltham, Southwark and other places.

Donations via Virgin Giving Pedalling Pilgrim 2 page or our website’s Donation page.

Julian Bond
Director (and biker)
Christian Muslim Forum
#PedallingPilgrim2 @julianbond12 @chrismusforum

Some of our dialogues:

In my home town of Leighton Buzzard on 28 April ‘Forgiveness’

Lunchtime Dialogue in Whitechapel, 13 May

‘Jesus and Muhammad’ – Reflections or Distortions, 16 June, Westminster, part of our ‘Near Neighbours 2′ programme

‘Multiculturalism – Problem or Solution?’, 26 June, Whitechapel

Pedalling Pilgrim 2012

April 23rd, 2014

I set off at around 06.00 on Tuesday morning (8 May 2012) in light rain. I arrived at Aylesbury just before 07.00 having unexpectedly met one of my former colleagues from Customs and Excise who I hadn’t seen for around 15 years. Aylesbury Mosque was closed (as was St Mary’s Church) so prayers (I was marking stages of the journey with prayer) were outside, there’s a good picture of the front door of St Mary’s on my own Facebook page.

St_Mary_Aylesbury
By the time I got to Stoke Mandeville it was raining again, then off to Oxford.

There was a very long queue of traffic at the roundabout on the outskirts of Thame which I was able to overtake, one of the advantages of a bicycle. Ran out of steam (I am an analogue cyclist) at Wheatley, so here is an advert for ‘Kendal’s Mint Cake’! Very good cycle track alongside the A40 on the Oxford ring road, as wide as a road and of road quality. I was beeped by the inevitable motorist later when I was back on the A40 who probably thought I should be on the cycle track. The weather had dried up on reaching Oxford. I was very surprised to find that by the time I met up with Heather Al-Yousuf in rural Oxfordshire I had already done 47 miles and was over half way to Cheltenham. I felt much refreshed after buns and a stroll in the bluebell wood and a visit to the parish church.

I continued along quiet country roads near the A40, taking a few pictures of churches. I took the wrong turning at Windrush and ended up back on the A40 instead of continuing along the minor roads. About 10 miles out of Cheltenham one of my spokes snapped and my back wheel buckled, about the same time as my Achilles tendon did something similar. This began to slow things down a little. At Charlton Kings on the outskirts of Cheltenham another spoke snapped (I had my bike serviced last week) the back wheel buckled some more and was now totally useless. I walked through the High Street until I got to the bike shop, which by some coincidence (?) was next door to Madina al-Masjid. They agreed to fix my bike for the next morning.

I attended Asr prayers at the Masjid and had a chat with a couple of the members afterwards. I told them about the work of the Christian Muslim Forum and that, although for them it seemed natural that Christians and Muslims should get on, it wasn’t always the case and there was a great deal of negativity towards Muslims in wider society. I immediately hurried along to the Alpha course starting at Trinity Cheltenham (Evangelical Anglican), I was soon telling one of the members that I had just been to prayers at the mosque round the corner. It was interesting that this Alpha didn’t use the videos featuring Nicky Gumbel. I was also joined by a friend from Gloucestershire University who had never been to Alpha before, we both shared that we had been to college together 25 years previously. I also shared with the group the Pedalling Pilgrim mission and mentioned visiting mosques and churches. The presentation was quite long and there were a lot of people in our group so the discussion was quite short. I had an interesting conversation with one of the members who had previously had a Muslim girlfriend.

Day Two of ‘Pedalling Pilgrim’ (9 May 2012)

The bike shop were very good with their service and my bike was repaired in the morning. The weather was good too, in Cheltenham at least, Oxford however was a different matter, very wet again. I missed the Bath Road masjid as I cycled up Cowley Road but dropped into Manzil Way masjid instead, it was before zuhr prayers when I arrived and I didn’t feel like hanging around for another 30 mins waiting for the prayers. I didn’t attempt to visit a church as I was keen to get back. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos on day two as Facebook on my phone had exhausted my battery, very disappointing, if I do anything like this again, even though I like travelling light I will take my charger. Also padded underwear as a friend strongly recommended afterwards.

From Oxford it was about 35 miles of soggy cycling, though even on a rainy day it doesn’t rain all the time. I had a pleasant route through the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire countryside and took a recommended route on the outskirts of Oxford that I had decided against on the way there, the gradient was very good and cycling was smooth, unlike the A40 and A418.

The last part of the route is a long downhill run from Wing to Leighton Buzzard, an encouraging end to the journey. It was good to be home after two days of cycling. I don’t think I’ll be doing anything like this for a while but am seriously considering better equipment and even a better bike.

Many thanks to all those who supported me with sponsorship and in other ways too. The total raised was £1130. I am publishing this now (originally posted on Facebook in 2012) as I prepare for Pedalling Pilgrim 2 – Boris Biking round London – in May 2014. Join me and help raise more?

The money raised was used for our Women’s Programme ‘Come to the Edge’ which was mostly funded by Near Neighbours, we were able to allocate additional amounts for consultancy and publicity, including video and website improvements.

If you like our work, or our articles and blogs, you can make a donation here

Julian Bond
Director (and biker)
Christian Muslim Forum

Gift for Religious Co-Existence in Iran Makes Waves

April 15th, 2014

caligraphy

Interfaith understanding is often a work in progress or long-term objective. There are times, however, that we see breakthroughs that we can sense chart a turning point. One such example comes from an outstanding gesture of goodwill from a senior Iranian Shi’a cleric, news of which is making international waves.

Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s gesture to the Baha’is of the world has already been welcomed by Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, The Bishop of Coventry – Dr Christopher Cocksworth, and the Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide – Mr Mervyn Thomas.

Although Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani is no stranger to calling for religious co-existence in Iran, his most recent gesture in relation to the Bahá’ís in Iran is notable in its symbolic power and sincerity.

In a statement released on 7 April 2014, he recalls that Iran’s history shows periods when “different religions and denominations, with manifold beliefs and practices, enjoyed social interaction and tolerant coexistence.” Many have charted this back to the Cyrus Cylinder, drawing from it a respect for humanity and religious tolerance.

Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani bemoans the loss and regretful devaluing of that tradition, which has undermined ‘the right to be human’, the right to life and human dignity and has perpetuated a ‘religious apartheid’. He critically observes that Iranian society today “suffers from a ruinous depression and anxiety … division and contention, lies and deceit, betrayal and aggression, duplicity and deception, pretension and dishonesty, cruelty and discourtesy, and the destruction of the weak and their exploitation … fruitless talk, and … empty promises”.

This observation leads him to his determination for the preparation of several beautiful pieces of art, illuminated calligraphic works of art by his own hands, gifted to the Bahá’ís. This determination stems from, what he calls a need for a practical and symbolic action to “serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice”.

Ayatollah Masoumi-Tehrani chose both a symbol of the Bahá’í Faith known as the Greatest Name – a calligraphic representation of the conceptual relationship between God, His prophets and the world of creation – and a verse from the Baha’i Holy writings, a quotation from the founder Bahá’u’lláh which epitomizes the spirit of his gift:

“Consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God. Beware lest amidst men the flame of foolish ignorance overpower you. All things proceed from God and unto Him they return. He is the source of all things and in Him all things are ended.”

The most inspirational aspect of his gesture is captured in Ayatollah’s own potent words about why he took this innovative step:

“I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for fellow-feeling and peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. … I present this precious symbol – an expression of sympathy and care from me and on behalf of all my open-minded fellow citizens who respect others for their humanity and not for their religion or way of worship – to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”

In welcoming this ‘sign of support’, The Bishop of Coventry Dr Christopher Cocksworth welcomed this gift and noted that “given the systemic and long standing suffering experienced by the Bahá’í community in Iran, this is an imaginatively courageous step by a senior Iranian Islamic scholar.” Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide also welcomed this meaningful gesture and noted that this is “particularly welcome at a time when the [Bahá’í] community is being actively targeted and vilified by the Iranian regime.” Mr Thomas goes on to call upon President Rouhani “to emulate the Ayatollah’s inclusivity by upholding the rights of the Bahá’í community as equal citizens and to guarantee freedom of religion or belief for all religious communities”. Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and Master of Magdalene College welcomed it, noting that “it represents not only a personally gracious gesture but also a strand within the Islamic world at its best and most creative which is deeply appreciative of all that helps human beings to respond to God’s will for peace and understanding. Along with many others of all faiths, I shall pray that this marks a turning point in Iran’s attitudes to the Bahá’í community, and I give thanks for the courage and generosity which have motivated this gift.”

In that way, this gift – following on from positive words for coexistence with Bahá’ís from the late Ayatollah Montazeri in 2008 and Ayatollah al-Sadr in 2011 – would indeed mark a positive turning point, shifting it from a gesture of goodwill to an act that marked a shift towards a culture of inclusivity and return to the natural state of coexistence and interaction.

 
Dr. Nazila Ghanea is as Associate Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford and is a member of the OSCE Advisory Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief. She offers this piece in her personal capacity.

 

 

My Diary of Jerusalem

April 9th, 2014

Ajmal Masroor

Day 8 – Future is shared, future is young

The highlight of today was a meeting with a group of young People in one of the very best schools in Jerusalem. The pupils in the school were mainly from Muslim and Christian background. They spoke perfect English and appeared extremely confident. After a quick introduction to everyone we got down to business. It was an open session, we could ask any questions to them and they could ask any questions to us. It was an opportunity to have an honest conversation.

In the course of our discussion many areas were explored. One of the colleagues wanted to find out if the Muslim and Christian pupils had any problems in forming friendship with each other and if their differences in religion were ever an issue. Their responses and articulation took everyone by surprise. They said that when they are together they never ask if one of them is a Muslim or Christian, they simply formed friendship based on their common interests and shared space at school. They all lived and loved Jerusalem and that was their unity factor!

However, it was very difficult to form friendship with the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem. Firstly the Jewish kids did not attend the same school and secondly at the neighbourhood level, Jews lived in Jewish neighbourhoods while Christians and Muslims lived in common and mixed neighbourhoods. This physical separation also made it impossible to form friendship. The students looked frustrated in this segregated city and desperately longed for a peaceful resolution. While they were describing the lifestyle imposed on them by the State of Israel and on their city I was thinking about the term “ghetto” so commonly associated with insular living of one ethnic or religious group. We, in the West frown upon ghettoization of any neighbourhood yet a whole country has been set up as modern day Jewish ghetto with the full blessings of the West. I felt angry just thinking about the hypocrisy.

I asked the young students if they felt “Israeli” and not a single student in the group raised their hand. I asked them if they felt “Palestinian” and they all raised their hands. These young articulate and extremely intelligent people had in their blood a deep disdain for the State of Israel and I do not believe the Westerner understand the depth of the feeling. I asked them why they did not feel like an “Israeli citizen” since the reality is that there was no Palestine, no prospect of one either and the State of Israel was here to stay. The looks on their faces told me that they did not like my analysis and certainly felt uncomfortable in my assertion.

“We are not Israeli citizens, we will never be one, we are treated different, we are restricted in our travel and we are limited even in the choice of profession that we can chose for our future. How can we ever be an Israeli citizen?” As I absorbed what was said another young man calmly but firmly continued, “they stole our land, they killed our families, they expelled millions and now they have no right to return, how can we ever feel comfortable with Israel?”

“Do you know that we can not travel freely, we can not attend universities of our choice and certainly not the universities run by Israel. We are allowed to attend universities in the West Bank but even they are not recognized. When the Palestinian university students travel to the West Bank they are often held up at the checkpoints and either delayed or forced to miss lessons. The Al-Quds University here in Jerusalem does not get recognition because of the name Al-Quds but if they change the name and called it anything else it would be recognized.”

I thought about what was being said and felt a strong sense of affinity with the Palestinian young students. I may not be a Palestinian by race; I may not be a Palestinian by birth and certainly not a Palestinian by culture but I felt a Palestinian in my heart. My feeling of oneness with this people was based on their 65 years of occupation, their daily experience of injustice and humiliation. I felt their pain and anguish, I felt their daily horror and I held in the core of my being deep level of abhorrence for the Apartheid state of Israel.

I sat there thinking no nation can survive the global torrent of hatred. I have not met anyone who, upon hearing he plight of the Palestinians and the behaviour of the state of Israel, does not express anger and hatred towards Israel. If the Jewish people were true inheritors of the teachings of Moses they would abandon this racist project and create a state for all people with equality and justice at its core. Moses freed them from the slavery of Pharaoh but today state of Israel does everything to subjugate the Palestinians. They have forgotten God’s favour and grace!

The question I would like to ask the Israeli politicians are – Do you have to be Jewish to be treated like a human being in the Holy Land? Do you have to be Jewish to be recipient of God’s Grace? Do you have to be Jewish to need safety and security? I bet that the answer even in their heart is always “no” but these are people who have become so blinkered that they would deny even the logical truth emanating from their heart.

There was a lot of anger and resentment amongst the different faiths against the Jewish people here in the Holy Land. Christians of all denomination hated the way they were treated. The current Israeli government’s proposal to reclassify the Christians of the holy land as not Palestinians was rejected by the Christians because they felt more united with their fellow Muslim Palestinians than the Jews of Israel. One Christian told me, “they handed Jesus to Romans to be crucified but we Christians believe and follow Jesus. He is from this land and no body can deny us our right to be here.” There was anger in his tone and any suggestion that they did not belong to Palestine was seen as sacrilegious.

The expression of solidarity between Christians and Muslims demonstrates the reality of where the hearts and minds of the people in the region are. No matter how many tanks, missiles, helicopters and fighter planes US, UK and other partners in this criminal enterprise supply to the state of Israel, the locals and indigenous people of this land will never be permanently subjugated by fear and oppression. They will gain their freedom sooner or later. I believe Palestine will be free very soon!

There were a lot of mistrust based on their past experiences. They could not bring themselves to forming any relationship with a people who have destroyed everything they had. I kept on wondering what will happen to the perpetrators when the final resolution is reached and the accounts of all the pains and sufferings made public? I fear that Zionism has given the Jewish people a false sense of security and created a bubble around them. I fear when the bubble bursts the consequences would be grave.

It was the turn for the young pupils from the school to ask us questions and two questions stayed stuck to my mind. One of them asked us the question that must have been pricking at his conscience for long. He asked, “How do you bring your children in the West, how do you make sure they know their religion and culture well, how do you teach them Arabic or the Quran? The questioner was a Muslim and he was keen on knowing how do we keep our Islamic values intact in the West?

I think our answer and our personal stories reassured them but more importantly impressed them. This is not the first time I have faced such a question from Muslims in the Muslim majority countries. There was an assumption in the question that Muslims living in predominantly non-Muslim countries would be totally disloyal to the faith. This assumption was erroneous and based on negative media reporting. The truth is Muslims who practice their faith in the West would have embraced the faith and all its practices based on reason and with conviction; and is more likely to be genuine in their observance. However, Muslims in the predominantly Muslim majority countries, due to family and social pressure, would have no choice but to remain practicing Muslims even if only pretentiously.

I know some would disagree with my analysis but during my travel across the Palestinian areas I have observed that a large number of youth were very far away from Islam. I remember when a group of young people was telling me how they were really not interested in Islam and their struggle was more to do with politics than religion. The divide between Fatah, the secular nationalist Palestinian movement and Hamas, the religious Palestinian movement are good cases to site as an example. This divide was very visible in most aspects of Palestinian life. The future of Palestine cannot be entrusted at the hands of a fractured and deeply divided Palestinian leadership. I felt they were part of the problem and not solution.

The second question those brilliant young people asked opened up another can of worms. They wanted to know if we would allow our children to get married to non-Muslims in the UK. Again the undertone of the question had a context. The assumption in the Muslim majority countries is that Muslims in the West are having rampant sexual relationships with everyone and were not adhering to their religion. In the Holy Land the social connection and friendship between Christians and Muslims takes a different route when it come to marriage. They were aware of where social and cultural interactions between them began and ended. One young man made it clear for us all. He said, “you can be my best friend and Christian but you can not marry a Muslim.” Muslims or Christians will not marry from each other. They are strictly mono-cultural!

The rules of marriage in Islam on these cultural landmines are clear. Ideally a Muslim man should marry a Muslim woman. Where there is an exception, a Muslim man is allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian woman but a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Jewish or Christian man. Why is there an obvious difference in the rule? I can only guess the rationale behind this rule but to be honest I have no idea. I believe in God’s superior wisdom, He has specified this rule and I have willingly submitted to Him. This forms part of me surrendering to God and to be a Muslim I must surrender totally.

One of our colleagues told them that we encourage cross-cultural marriages but vast majority of the Muslims remained loyal to the command of God as found in the Quran. In my observation, from London to Los Angeles majority of the Muslims were not interested in bending the rule of God to suit their personal circumstances but were prepared to mend their ways to find the pleasure of God. This is the universal truth for all conscientious Muslims.

I was extremely impressed to have met these young people. I knew they did not reflect the Palestinian society in general as they were born with silver spoon in their mouth. It was still reassuring to see that a new generation of young people were growing up confident in their faith, true Palestinian in identity and understood how to communicate with the western world in perfect English and depth of understanding. I felt very hopeful that may be when they graduate they would be able to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians with more honesty and integrity.

I have a great friend in Jerusalem. He owns a few businesses. I decided to visit him. He was a man of integrity and strength. For generations he has lived in Jerusalem. Even though officials and bureaucrats have made his life a living he was not willing to give up. He gets regular harassment from the security services, from the taxman and from the local authorities building and planning departments. These are obvious strategies the Israeli government employs to drive out the Palestinians and forcing their successful businesses to fail. He told me that he pays huge amounts of taxes but hardly gets a fair treatment by the government. He told me, “they will not break me, they will have to kill me first”!

Wherever I went the depth of despair was staring at my face. Can you imagine if you were discriminated because of your race or religion? Can you imagine if your businesses were shut down because you were not from the chosen race? What would you do? I know what I would do!

I went to visit a local hospital that the Palestinians have been running for the disabled children. They were totally dependent on international donations but that was difficult, as the Israeli government has placed too many restrictions for them to fundraise and directly receive donation freely. I met children with all types of disabilities. There were children who had difficulty in hearing but due to poverty and lack of access to adequate support these children have grownup not having the ability to speak either. Thanks to a generous donor a few of them had a transplant to help them help hear. The result was amazing. Not only they were hearing things better but also they were beginning to develop language skills. For the parents these were examples of miracles! You could see the happiness in the faces of the children and parents.

There were children who were born with severe disability including Spina Bifida or Multiple Sclerosis MS. Their life was bound in hardship and their parent’s lives were filled with misery. Many parents with disabled children cannot even come to the hospital as the disgraceful dividing wall of Apartheid means long wait at the checkpoints and in most cases whimsical entry refusal at the hands of young kids with machine guns serving their national conscription. Some of these armed guards at the checkpoints keep dual nationalities, remain Israeli but also have US or European citizenship but are here to complete their national military services.

The water therapy that has been running extremely successful programme for many children with sever disability was closed. When I asked why the staff’s response was very sad, “We have run out of money and cannot afford to run this programme anymore”! There was a dry and empty swimming pool right there in front of all of us to see. I stood there grieving over the loss of a swimming pool that could have made a substantial difference in the quality of the lives of disabled children. But that does not bother the Israeli government. The Israeli Jewish people had access to the state of the art centres and their children with disability were cared for by some of the finest support services provided by the state of Israel. When it comes to the Palestinians the equation was simple and the mind is set – this is a Jewish country, no one else should be here apart from the Jews!

Does that sound right to you? I hate the idea of a state being established exclusively for a race or religion. Such a philosophy sounds racist to me! How can we turn a blind eye to this?

As we walked around the site and learned more about its work and how much support it was providing the Palestinian families I was extremely delighted and honoured that I was shown the place and introduced to some of those beautiful children. For me children with disability occupy a special place in my heart. My son is not disabled but he suffers from a genetic condition. I know the pain and anguish we as parents go through thinking about him. I wish I could do more to help these children.

There was a workshop where disabled people were given a chance to work and sell the items of their creativity and hard work. We were delighted to buy as many items as possible from the centre as this would help them continue providing the vital services to the children.

I was speaking to a person while walking around in the hospital. They said something very profound and it has stayed in my mind ever since. “I am a Christian and my friends are Muslims. In my family I have two martyrs who have been killed by the Israeli security services, my father and uncle have both been killed. This is our land and we will continue fighting. How many martyrs do they want? How many of us can they kill? We have no problem with living with Jews but Jews have a problem in sharing this Holy Land. They want it for themselves only!”

I left the hospital in deep thoughts contemplating over the future of the Holy Land. I could not fathom what the future of this land holds. I could not imagine the State of Israel surviving in the way it is today. I could not imagine the state of Palestinians continuing in the same way. I was praying for a miracle but that is in the hands of God. While I am alive I have a duty to do something to change this but I do not know what that is! My quest for a peaceful and just solution for the Holy Land continues.

(Due to extremely busy schedule since my return I have not been able to finish my Jerusalem diary but I intend to finish it by writing my final piece tomorrow.)

© Ajmal Masroor March 5 April, 2014

Day 7 – Holy space misery

April 4th, 2014

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

My Diary of Jerusalem

March 28th, 2014

Ajmal Masroor

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…

Was Abraham Jewish, Christian or a Muslim?

March 26th, 2014

group jerusalem

My Diary of Jerusalem

Day 5

The first grave you encounter is the grave of Sara, prophet Ibrahim’s wife and the mother of Ishaq (Isaac). Inside the Al-Khalil mosque there were few more graves – the graves of Prophets Ishaq, Ya’qub (Jacob) and some claim Yusuf (Joesph). Prophet Ibrahim’s grave is only visible from the opposite side of Sara’s grave. I prayed in the mosque, send my salutations to prophet Ibrahim and was simply walking around to observe various aspects of the mosque decoration that comes from the Ottoman era. It was nearly the time for Dhuhr prayer and the muezzin (caller to prayer) was ready to give the Adhan (call to prayer). But something strange was happening. I will talk about that later.

Let me start from the beginning. Today was set in search for exploring prophet Abraham. Our bus took us to Hebron, also known as Al-Khalil, the place where prophet Abraham was buried. Here was a disputed space and the mark of this dispute was visible everywhere. As I arrived at the Al-Khalil Mosque I immediately sensed tension. The surrounding area had hallmarks of war and attrition. Many houses were destroyed and the rubbles and remains were still standing. There were barbed wires surrounding many places demonstrating occupation. The area was zoned and Palestinian Muslims were fenced off with security turn styles making their entry and exit to the Mosque dependent at the mercy of the Israeli soldiers. The presence of Israeli soldiers struck me as very absurd.

This is a place of worship and yet Israel chooses to place provocation and subjugates the Palestinian Muslims to humiliation and restrictions. It expects to break the will of the Palestinian Muslims and make them submit to the Israeli domination by brutal force. Machineguns, tanks and weapons that create fear dominate the body language of Israel. They wish to terrorise the Palestinian people to give up their home and hand it over to the total control of Israel.

At the security gates manned by the Israeli armed soldier we were asked the usual questions – Where are you from? What are you doing here? Are you Muslims? The answer from me is always straight. I am a Muslim, I am here to pray and visit the grave of prophet Ibrahim. Luckily these soldiers didn’t ask me to recite verses from the Quran to prove that I was a genuine Muslim!

I walked up the sloping path that leads to the gates of the mosque. On my left I noticed a 10 feet tall metal turn style with fence all around. I stood there watching what was happening around the fence area. I noticed a few people were allowed to walk through the turn style away from the Al-Khalil mosque but were not allowed to return. The turn style was made to turn one way. I also noticed a group of soldiers were allowed to walk through the gates towards the Al-Khalil mosque. I stood there taking pictures and one of the soldiers shouted at me saying don’t take my picture.
I responded with a big smile on my face, “I am not taking your picture, I am taking the picture of the donkey behind you!”

He was not amused but he let is pass. I asked him, “What is this gate for?”

He replied, “to stop the Arabs from coming here!”

“Why?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Ask the guy over there”. He pointed to a soldier standing inside a security compound overlooking the gate and the entrance to Al-Khalil mosque.

I knew perfectly well why the fence and the turn style was there. Everyone knew the real purpose behind it. Even the soldier knew but he was not keen on engaging with me, a foreigner. He was also in his early twenties, most likely very junior officer simply following orders.

The Muslim man sat at the gates of the mosque told me in Arabic, “this is our everyday misery, we have to live with it. There is nothing you can do!”

Can you imagine police setting up cordons around a synagogue and Jewish people homes preventing them from entering their place of worship? The Jewish people would be outraged but here the Palestinians are the easy target for Israeli dehumanization and oppression. This project began a long time ago and there was no hope of it ending soon. I walked up the stairs that leads to the main entrance of the mosque. I tried to forget what I saw outside. It was hard but I had a clear objective for coming here and I wanted to achieve that without any unnecessary hindrance.

Now back to the story of the muezzin. He was standing in front of a solid metal door, similar to the solid iron doors that are found in high security prisons or banks security deposit boxes. He was banging on the door with an old and large key and asking the door to be opened. I stood next to him and was watching him intently.

I asked him, “What was going on?”
He said, “I am waiting for the door to be opened so I can go and give the Adhan.”
“Who is going to open the door?” I asked naively.
He looked at me and patiently replied, “The Israeli soldiers”

He banged on the door again but there was no reply. I could hear giggles on the other side. He has been standing there for ten minutes and the door was shut. I soon learned that the Israeli soldiers control the entry to the place of Adhan as well. They regularly delay the call to prayer by deliberately keeping the gate shut. I wanted to know why was there a gate the first place and where did it come from?

It all happened when In 1994, an orthodox Jew, Baruch Goldstein, took a sub machine-gun into the enclosure and killed 29 Palestinian Muslims as well as injuring 125 others, before being killed himself. Bullet holes from the incident can still be seen around the mosque. Israeli government forcibly divided the mosque in two parts. They gave one part to the Muslims to use it as the mosque but established a synagogue for the Jewish community in the second part.

The Oslo 2 Hebron protocol partitioned Hebron/Al-Khalil into two distinct zones, H1 and H2. H1 is administered by the Palestinian Authority and contains 120,000 Palestinians. In H2, which includes the heart of Hebron’s Old City, the Israeli military restricts the movement of more than 30,000 Palestinians while allowing 500 Jewish settlers to move freely. I saw the Jewish settlers walk around the city freely while the Palestinians lives have been made into daily misery. They have to walk all around to cross a twenty-five meter stretch of the road that has been used by generations of Palestinians for decades freely!

The man who sought God in the midst of idol worship, the man who submitted to God in the middle of mighty opposition, the man who left his family and home in the name of God, the man who was prepared to sacrifice his son for God and the man who became the friend of God would never approve the Israeli barbarity. Prophet Abraham’s message was not a message of hatred or subjugation, his life and work was all about ridding humanity of all these evils and usher them to true submission to God.

Three strands have emerged from one family of Ibrahim. The life and work of this great prophet of God stands as the example of total submission. Jews claim that Prophet Ibrahim is their father and a Jew, Christians claim that he was is their father and a Christian and Muslims claim that he is their father and he was a Muslim. The question that has dominated the minds of many people is, who was Ibrahim? I have even heard some scholars claim that Ibrahim never existed!

As I stood there waiting for the door to be opened I recalled the lecture I heard that morning. A prominent Christian priest was invited to present to us Abraham from a Christian perspective. What struck me as rather odd is the simple fact that Abraham was being called a Christian. Even Jesus never called himself a Christian, he was Jewish! I wanted to learn all about the claim that Abraham was a Christian so I sat up and paid full attention to what the speaker had to say.

According to the speaker, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament’s prophecies, he performed miracles, and he was following the teachings of Moses and was a devout Jew. This gave Jesus the legitimacy for the spirituality and made him righteous.

Abrahams faith was paramount, prototypical and participatory. He too was righteous. Abraham was justified by faith and the followers of Jesus were justified by faith. They all believed in God in the form of Christ and they were Christians. Abraham believed in God and in the same way he was a Christian.

This was Paul’s version of the spiritual position of Abraham in Christianity. I was lost at that stage and failed to follow the logic. If Paul was deconstructing Abraham by deconstructing the Jewish Jesus and if Paul was reconstructing Abraham by reconstructing Jewish Jesus as Christian it smacked disingenuous. This sounded like discredited replacement theology.
I wasn’t impressed and did not understand a lot of what was said. In my humble view the speaker already lost Abraham’s Christian identity by delving into this very precarious Paul’s logic. I had switched off.

Abraham is the father of Christians, that I can believe but I cannot accept Abraham was a Christian!

The banging of the door and shouts of the muezzin brought me back to the room. Even I joined in and said loudly and clearly, “open the door please, you’re delaying the prayers”. After another five minutes of banging and now fifteen minutes later than the actual time for Adhan the muezzin was able to get the door opened. The strange thing is that the muezzin even telephoned the Israeli security 10 minutes before to get them to open the door on time.
But they like playing games and they take pleasure in seeing the Palestinians suffer. I was sad to see this.

I noticed how the lives of the Palestinian Muslims in Hebron was made a living hell by the Israeli unfair and unjust policies. I left the city feeling upset and angry but at he same time I knew in my heart this situation was unsustainable. No one can survive like this – neither the Jews nor the Muslims! This oppression will end one day, even the Jewish people know this too well. The problem is when it does end what will be the fate of those who oppressed or silently watched the oppression?

Our next stop was to the city of Bethlehem. According to Christian traditions here Jesus, son Mary was born. This Church of Nativity is a very important spiritual place for the Christians. There was a lot of repair and restoration work going on in the church. So we did not get to see all the parts. However the part where he was reportedly born and where he was placed in the crib was open to all to see. It is the spot that many Christians kissed, touched and showed their reverence. It was extremely heartening for me to see how Christians were so engrossed in their spiritual journey here as opposed to the spiritual vacuum and soullessness we often observe in many countries including the UK. As a Muslims I feel happy to see Christians and Jews become devout in their faith. In my view faithful Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities are good news for the betterment of the world.

I had to go to a shop to buy a camera charger. It was slightly far but as I walked downhill I didn’t realize the distance. Remember Nazareth is a very hilly city. On my way back the steep hill was becoming a challenge. I saw a local bus passing by. I jump on the bus and sat down. I offered the driver money, he said to me in English, “For you my friend it is free”. Someone asked me, “Are you a Muslim?” I said, “yes”. He then announced it in Arabic to the passengers in the bus and they all cheered and clapped. I jumped off the bus when it was my turn and wished them all well. There was a smile of friendship and hospitality on the faces everyone in the bus. What a difference between the peoples of this country, one nation is willing to smile even at the face of extremely adversity and one nation, despite being in possession of all the power and control, have lost smile from their faces!

While I was walking out of the space where Jesus was reportedly born a couple tried to walk in. But this was the wrong way. The entrance and exit was clearly marked. A security guard stopped them but they claimed to be from a consulate. They were pushing me aside to entre through the wrong way.
I said to them to use the entrance as the exit was very narrow and there were too many people coming out. They insisted on being given special privilege because of their consular identity. I simply said to them, “please use the other entrance”.

One police officer barked at me saying that it was not my business to stop people from entering. I didn’t stop them, his own staff did. I asked him why are they being given special privileges? He looked angry and upset with me for challenging his authority. He told me to move on. Someone whispered in my ears, “he has been bribed for a quick entrance, don’t question it, you will get into trouble”. I was experiencing the Fatah controlled West Bank’s police corruption first hand.

There is a mosque directly opposite to this very spiritual and historically significant church. I offered my prayers there and now was ready to return to Jerusalem. Al Aqsa mosque was calling me and I wanted to offer my Maghrib prayer there. It was a short drive but we arrived at the walled city of Jerusalem. I jumped off from the bus at the Jaffa Gate. This was the western side of the walled city of Jerusalem and the Jewish quarter. As I was rushing to the mosque I noticed the obvious unfairness. The contrast between the Muslim quarter and the Jewish quarter was stark. The infrastructure on this side was better, the roads were well built, and the area had visible signs of investment and services. But the Muslim quarter was neglected and services were non-existent even though the local Muslims paid the same taxes.

Maghrib prayer at Al-Aqsa mosque was beautiful. The sun was down but the red glow of the sun was still visible in the sky. The Dome of the Rock was shining and reflecting the soothing glow of the evening sun. The entire space was filled with peace and tranquility. The birds were returning home in the evening, they were announcing their arrival. The olive trees were heaving with activities. In the court yard of the mosque families were sitting and sipping the Arabic coffee while the older man sat around talking about life and politics. There was a group of young boys playing football in the vicinity of the Haram.

Men and women were relaxed in each other company. They did not have segregation obsession that dominates many Muslim countries and even Muslims in Europe especially United Kingdom. Men and women sat with their respective families and relaxed instead of behaving paranoid about who is looking at who. Even inside the Al-Aqsa mosque women congregated at the back right hand side of the main hall without a screen and definitely not banished into a broom cupboard as we have seen in many UK mosques. They prayed freely in the house of God without ultra zealot men telling them where to go. Such a relaxed attitude and the magnificent spiritual space were the key factors in keeping the Palestinian Muslims sane and their resolve alive.

The scholars here laugh at our attitude when they hear how crazy and unnatural our gender relationship and interactions have become. They attribute it to lack of adequate knowledge and cultural stranglehold.

In the evening and after a delicious home cooked dinner I had to attend a gathering listening the Arab Palestinian Christian Bishop. He spoke about the shared experiences and pains of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.
There have been recent attempts by the Israeli parliament to reclassify the Palestinian Christians in Israel. They wanted to call them Christians and strip them of their most beloved title – Palestinian. The Christian community has rejected the proposal. Muslims and Christians have lived here for centuries and cannot be removed so easily. They consider this attempt as another attack on the Palestinians dreams and aspirations. He felt sad that the number of Christians in the Holy Land is reducing everyday. He wanted to keep the community together and keep their hopes for a peaceful solution alive.

My mind wondered as the Bishop spoke. I thought if the spirituality of Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus and Muhammad (Peace be on them all) has been lost in the dirty and manipulative politics of the regions. If greed, hunger of power and control of the worldly materials have made the three branches of the same family lose sight of their true purpose – total submission to God like Abraham and all the other great prophets! Can the spiritual significance of the city of the Prophets be revived so that the communities could enjoy the blessings, tranquility and God’s Grace for this land? I believe Palestine will be free one day.

Day 6 will be published tomorrow.

C Ajmal Masroor March 25, 2014

 

 

Day of Difference

March 26th, 2014

1964493_10153862961220640_1180217770_n

What was different for me, on our final day of work, though a good portion of it was actually rest, being both a Friday and the last part of the national holiday, was going to the masjid. I don’t normally go to masjids on a Friday, though I am interested to hear the Friday sermon, because English masjids are usually full to bursting. The last masjid I visited in England was Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, where Toufik is CEO. The whole building was so full of worshippers that I sat at the top of the first flight of stairs, with many others. It is literally true that the British Muslim community does not have enough worship space, especially where there is heated, but often uninformed, opposition to mosque developments.

We attended Juma (Friday) prayers at a masjid near the seafront, which was also different in that the sermon was preached in English, the majority of sermons preached in England are not. The imam preached on the importance of doing good for the sake of Allah (God), that those who follow God should be prepared to be tested by God (as part of their spiritual and personal development) and the importance of responding to these tests in the right way. I had the opportunity to ask him about his text afterwards, telling him that I tweeted sermon themes and scripture references after attending worship. This was his text:

Surah 3.134, ‘Those who spend [in Allah’s cause – deeds of charity] in prosperity and in adversity, who repress anger, and who pardon men, verily, Allah loves those who do good.’

As there was so much space in the masjid I was able to sit next to Toufik after the prayers. As we sat talking about the sermon one of the mosque leaders addressed the worshippers, telling us that one of the brothers would be taking his shahadah (confession of faith). His car had broken down recently and he was so impressed with the Muslims who helped him that he had embraced Islam. After he had made his confession in one God and Muhammad as the messenger of God a long line of men formed to hug and welcome him. I too, though not a Muslim, welcomed him as someone who had found his way, it was an emotional and joyful moment, and a new experience.

After prayers we were due to visit an exhibition of ancient artefacts and Qur’ans from the region. We were too early for this display at the former American Mission Hospital but noticed as we stood at the gate that an Indian church was holding a worship service on the other side. Of course we had to join them! We both had an experience of otherness and difference, although these were fellow-Christians they were worshipping in another language and I could only relate to the words ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ in the preacher’s sermon. I remarked to Hamad that the words in the masjid were more familiar to me.

The theme of language continued when we visited the exhibition, there were many artefacts from Babylon and we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel, which we have in common. I described the Biblical story of Babel, which led to further dialogue about reading the Gospels, what Christians believe about Jesus and why, prophethood, imperfection and the differences between the Qur’an and the Bible. How perplexing it is that in the ideas where we have many similarities, even a common language and common characters, that there are deep divides around humanity and divinity! Yet this difference is an invitation to dialogue and, knowing that we will never resolve our theological differences, we can resolve together not to let our differences divide us, to keep talking and build relationships. This was a real face to face dialogue as Hamad and I compared beliefs almost as old as the artefacts themselves, not seeing any of them for a while as we shared our scriptural heritage with each other. We could only move on, not having agreed with each other, still friends, enjoying the Qur’an displays together.

Our evening was rounded off with a trip to another masjid on the other side of town, one of the oldest, beautiful and reminiscent of a lighthouse. The imam recited in the most beautiful and gentle way. How else can it be when we are together for prayers, even across our difference?

Julian Bond
Director, Christian Muslim Forum