A Journey Begins
Glory be to Him Who made His servant to go on a night from the Sacred Mosque to the remote mosque of which We have blessed the precincts, so that We may show to him some of Our signs; surely He is the Hearing, the Seeing.” (Quran Surah 17:1 Al-Is’ra)
Speaking to a dear friend in the North Staffordshire Hebrew community last year, I happened to mention that, having completed my compulsory pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia (Hajj) I now had a desire to visit the place regarded by Muslims as the third holiest place for the religion – Jerusalem. They asked me to accompany them on a visit (and promised to keep me safe). To which I replied “inshAllah”. Anyone reading this who attended the Sharing Perspectives course will by now be smiling as the true meaning of my response was analysed extensively during our time together! As usual the very best of schemers had his own plans. Towards the end of last year, I received an invitation from the office of The Rt Rev Dr Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston. A course was being run at St George’s College in Jerusalem entitled Sharing Perspectives: Christians and Muslims in the Holy Lands” -and people were being asked to express their interest if they wanted to go. Nearly four months later, after a five hour flight, I was sitting in St George’s College with eighteen others, some old friends and many who very quickly became become new ones. Whilst I had promised myself that I would religious (no pun intended) write a daily diary of events and thoughts, sadly this was something I completely failed in. For no other reason than I had underestimated the extent of the journey I was about to undertake – both physically but more so emotionally. So now I will attempt to give a run down of the rollercoaster I’ve been on for the last nine days. Enjoy!
“He gave us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell, How great is God Almighty who made them all things well”
After a five hour flight, I had a relatively smooth ride through passport control. The standard questions were asked and in all fairness the staff were polite and courteous. Not in reality what I was expecting having been warned of long waits and strip searches. I wish the same could have been said for my Muslim colleagues who were detained for ten hours, faced many questions throughout the evening and didn’t arrive at the college until 4.00am the next morning. (You can read more about their experiences in the link at the end). Those of us who had made it clear through controls made it to the college by early evening and were greeted by staff as if we were old friends. The hugs and warmth was just what we needed as we were all very concerned at what the possible outcome for our colleagues back at the airport might be. Following a drinks reception, welcome and dinner the long wait began. Along with the waiting came the speculating – the worst possible outcomes dominated the conversation along with the conspiracy theories. Finally at 3.00am, following phone calls and texts and much to everyone’s delight, the message was received to say “on our way”. So at 4.00am there were more hugs and welcome and a very late (or very early) breakfast for those who had up until now been surviving on cheese sandwiches. Emotionally drained and very very tired, we finally retired at 4.30am to begin our journey together.
The first day started with an introductory lecture by Rev Rodney Aist PhD on ‘Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land: An Historical Christian Perspective’ before we headed off to the Mount of Olives where we were giving a fascinating insight into the Muslim Christian and Jewish Jerusalem by Dr. Mustapha Abu Sway. Looking over Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock shining in the morning sun was breathtaking to say the least. The third holiest place for Muslims is certainly a sight to behold over the Jerusalem landscape – a landscape unchanged by modern buildings and high rise towers. The place looks holy and blessed like no other place on earth. From here we walked down to Al-Aqsa – it was Friday so I was looking forward to offering the Friday prayers within the sanctuary of the Holy Mosque mentioned in the Quran. At this point our group split as non- Muslims are not permitted to enter the grounds other than the allotted times (7.30am-10.00am). Our Christian friends heading for the Garden Tomb at Gethsemane (where Jesus is believed to have betrayed by Judas Iscariot) and we headed to the Haram Sharif.
On approach it became clear that entry wasn’t going to be quite so straight forward. Barriers were in place and soldiers appeared to be allowing some but not others to go through. It quickly became evident that young males were being prevented from entering. As our group was not made up of any young men (apologies gentlemen) we entered unrestricted but did witness scuffles between those refused and the soldiers. This was my first (but not last) glimpse of life under occupation – not being able to move around freely and unhindered. Not being able to worship when and where one chose to do so. Our freedoms in this country became apparent very quickly. Stepping through into the Haram was breathtaking. The beautiful trees – the greenery – the sound of Quranic recitation – the whole serenity of the place makes it hard to believe that just outside the sanctuary such turmoil and heartbreak was the daily occurance for many people. Yet what struck me was the smiles and patience exhibited by the young and the old as they sat and worshipped, some in the mosques and some in the open places. I prayed in the gardens under the shade of a tree – and prayed for all my loved ones, those who were no longer with us and for those living in poverty and oppression around the world. I thanked God for all the blessings He has bestowed on me and my family and prayed that he gave me the courage and the strength to help those in need. After lunch at the College and conversation with colleagues we all headed to Rasel Amoud Mosque where, as Muslims and Christians, we were able to discuss various aspects of our faiths, both the commonalities and the differences.
(Steps taken: 14442)
When I was younger I remember hearing about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and how the Church was under the joint care of two Muslim families who locked and unlocked the Church on a daily basis. The site at Golgotha is believed to be the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial and I was always fascinated at how a site so holy to Christians was in effect protected by Muslims. The space is shared between the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Protestant traditions.
Again, entry was heavily controlled by soldiers who appeared to be waiting for a procession to exit the building so the vast crowd waiting to enter were kept waiting. Eventually we were allowed to enter. The air was filled with the smells on burning candles and incense and I wasn’t expecting the vastness of the building. Everything was ornate golds reds and silvers – people worshipping quietly in their own way. The slab depicting where Jesus was placed after his death, the rock marking the spot where he was crucified – many different sites of commemoration all under one roof. This was quite simply a site of pilgrimage for Christians of all denominations. Whilst as a Muslim I do not believe in the Crucifixion I could understand why this site was of such significance to our Christian friends yet was interested in how many of those with us found the opulence of the place a little bit uncomfortable.
On leaving, we were led through a small metal gate just yards from the Holy Sepulchre into the Mosque of Omar. A few years ago a local church where I live and work, refused to allow a talk on ‘The Children of Abraham’ to take place in the church as they had been informed that if Muslims prayed in a building they could claim it as their own. At the time, I was fascinated as to where this believe had come from, one which I was totally unfamiliar with. My question was about to be answered, four years later and hundreds of miles away in Jerusalem! The story goes that in February 638CE Muslims peacefully took control of the city from the Byzantines. When the Caliph Umar was shown around the church the time for prayer arrived and Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem at the time offered him space to pray in the church but Caliph Umar refused. Tradition dictates that instead Caliph Umar threw a stone and prayed at the spot where it landed. The current Mosque of Umar which stands next to the Holy Sepulchre was built on this spot in 1193CE by Salah-Uddin Ayyubi’s son Afshal Ali. The reason for refusing to pray in the church was to prevent future generations of Muslims from taking possession of it simply because he had prayed in it.
From here we headed back through the walled city, walls that were built by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, the cobbled streets, the crowded souks, the aroma of spices, people desperate to make a living and the heat of the sun. The saying goes that ‘all roads lead to Damascus’ – In the old city all roads lead to the Damascus Gate from where you can find your way back to base!
(Steps taken 18,911)
The next morning was a very early start as it was the first time I would be attending dawn prayers at the Mosque of Al Aqsa. By 4.00am I was up and ready to leave. The walk to the mosque took about 20 minutes but as we approached the Haram we noticed more an more people taking the road which reminded me of the walk to the Holy sanctuary in Mecca in 2008. However, here the roads were narrow, cobbled and in many places very dark. There was some concern as we had learnt the previous night that the soldiers hadn’t let anyone into the Haram at Fajr for the four previous mornings so we were prepared for the possibility that we may be turned back. But by the grace of God we were allowed in – after being asked ‘are you Muslim’? I’m not going to say any more on that matter………!
If you’ve never been into the Mosque of Al Aqsa – its stunning. Many people mistake the green dome for Al Aqsa mosque, which it isn’t – the green dome is the site of the rock where Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended into heaven on His night journey. The mosque is on the other side of the forecourt and has two black domes one larger than the other. As I entered the prayers had just started and as I joined the line of women, your sparrows came and sat in front of me – reminding me immediately of my wonderful parents who are no longer with us. My mother in particular, as she had a love of birds and fed her beloved pigeons and sparrow as regularly and as religiously as she fed her family! Despite only having four hours sleep, I was in no rush to leave this wonderfully peaceful place and sat and prayed and absorbed in the atmosphere from such a blessed abode. As dawn broke and the night turned into day, something quite interesting began to happen. From one side of the courtyard, soldiers started to appear. It transpired that between 7.30am, and 10.00am non – Muslims were allowed to enter the Haram but were not permitted to pray or worship in any way, shape or form. The soldiers were there, allegedly, to ensure the rules were kept. It was clear that their presence was causing some upset and agitation with the sound of ‘Allah-hu-Akbar’ resonating through the morning air. A treat was in store. Underneath the Al Aqsa mosque is a large area which up until 15 years ago, had been shut for hundreds of years. The space know as Marwani area was previously used as stables but has been cleaned, renovated and carpeted and can hold upto 15,000 worshippers. It really was a sight to behold.
Returning for breakfast, we then went to observe the Sunday morning worship at St Georges Cathedral. The service was the first one I had attended that was conducted in English and Arabic and what struck me was the words I kept hearing that made me think had I not know, I could have been listening to a Quranic recitation. Whilst in Arabic and English, the majority of the congregation appeared to be English speaking or South Asian.
There are many buildings and give away signs in the Old city that show the presence of the Mamluks who ruled in Jerusalem. The word Mamluk means ‘owned’ and the Mamluks were slave soldiers who overthrew their masters, defeated the Mongols and the Crusaders and established a dynasty that lasted three hundred years. During their reign they built, schools, madrassas, hospitals, soup kitchens, canteens and guesthouses for travellers. Walking around the old city and looking up at the buildings and the architecture, their presence is very evident in the designs of the buildings.
I was pleased that that evening we had an unscheduled talk from a Jewish academic who addressed the Jewish perspective and where current thinking about Israel stems from within the jewish community. He explained the narrative in accordance with Torah believes and in particular referred to Genesis 15:18
On this day the ETERNAL made a covenant with Abram, saying,“To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river of Euphrates.”
He spoke about the significance of the Dome of the Rock for Jews – the place where life began and the place of the second temple. The speaker made it clear from the onset that he was speaking from an academic perspective and the views were not his own. I felt for him – he was talking about something that is the root cause of conflict in the region and was challenged on a number of occasions. Sitting and listening to the discussions made it abundantly clear to me that in our world of interfaith dialogue we are still very scared to have this open dialogue about the issues that will make or break relationships – but it is a conversation that we must have. Oppression of any people is wrong and must be discussed openly and in an environment where people feel safe. My hats off to the speaker – he handled a very difficult conversation professionally and with dignity. Whatever the outcome – we can plan but God is the best of planners!
“O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie Beneath”
On the day we visited Hebron and Bethlehem was the only day I made a blog entry of sorts on my Facebook page. I share that with you here now:
“Have just returned from Hebron where we visited the Mosque of Abraham where Prophet Abraham and members of his family are believed to be buried. And today I cried. This is the one place on earth where we – Muslims Jews and Christians should be united – at the tomb of the Father of all our nations. On one side of the tomb is the Mosque and on the other side is a synagogue with a big heavy metal door dividing the sacred spaces with the tomb visible from both sides. And never the twain shall meet. Muslims can’t enter the synagogue and Jews can’t enter the mosque. Our Christian colleagues were able to enter both places. The Tomb of the founder of the three great Abrahamic faiths is being used as the dividing line. I have come back feeling totally demoralised and sad at how this is being allowed to continue. The sound of children laughing and shouting and praying echoes in the street outside – I can go to a synagogue anywhere in the UK and will be welcomed with open arms. I can share the food, laugh, joke and cry with my Jewish brothers and sisters. But here, we are physically and mentally divided – a division that appears to be instilled in the psyche from childhood. Perhaps that’s where our energies need to be focussed – the children. In 2014, the Jew is not your enemy and the Muslim is not your enemy. Drum that into the minds of children instead of the rhetoric of hate and division and perhaps – just perhaps – we’ll see the wall and all the artificial barriers keeping us apart in this beautiful land finally come down in our lifetime. Attitudes need to change on all sides about many things. Focus on the important not the banal and let’s at least try to leave a world that’s worth living in for everyone. I don’t want a history lesson just in case someone decides I need educating! Those who forget the past may be doomed to repeat it but those who live in the past will never find peace”.
(STILL TO COME IN PART II: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Church of Anunciation, Sea of Galilee, Lunch at Pilgerhaus, Capernaum, Church of Beatitudes, Church of Multiplication/Tabgha Mensa Christi, a trip to Haram Sharif with Christian friends, St George’s School to discuss life in Jerusalem with young Muslim and Christian boys, another trip to the Mount of Olives and Place of the Ascension, Princess Basma Hospital for Disabled Children and my final thoughts and reflections on the trip overall)