Shared Spaces

Dear Andrew

Growing up as a child, I can remember my mother telling me the amazing story of the ‘Al-Isra wal Miraj’ – the story of the night journey that the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was taken on. The two parts of the journey referred to the journey from Mecca to what is described in the Quran as the farthest mosque of Al Aqsa, where he led past Prophets in prayer; from here, he was taken on the winged beast al Buraq to the highest heavens, where he was greeted by past Prophets and received instructions from God to be relayed to his people. I’m not going to go into a theological conversation here as to whether this was a physical or spiritual journey – that’s a different conversation. But from a very early age Jerusalem and the Masjid al Aqsa has always been seen as an important part of my faith. When I went on the Hajj in 2008, one of the mosques that I visited during my 2 week stay was the Masjid al-Qiblatain – the mosque of two qiblas. It was in this mosque that as the congregation prayed, the Prophet was instructed to change direction from Jerusalem to Mecca. Until recent renovations, the mosque maintained both prayer niches.

I’m telling you this as way of an introduction to how I feel about Jerusalem and Al Aqsa. The image of the Golden Dome, built over the rock from where the Prophet is believed to have been taken up to heaven brings out very strong emotions in Muslims. I cannot describe how I felt to be standing on the ground, on the rock which has such religious and historical significance. The peaceful surrounds, the greenery, everything about the land is holy. And I believe this has to do with not just its significance for Muslims but Jews and Christians too. I write this with some caution now, but I say it with hand on my heart. When I went on the Hajj, I spent 2 weeks in the land of the Prophet, his holy sanctuary and his beloved Medina. But everywhere I looked I saw concrete blocks, high rise skyscrapers, hotels, shopping mall and western style fast food takeaways. The hajj was a religious obligation which I had an obligation to perform and pray it was accepted. However I got a deeper sense of God, of spirituality from being at Al Aqsa and Jerusalem. And I believe that has to do with the three Abrahamic faiths having such important links to this part of the world. God is in Jerusalem – He is at Al Aqsa, at the Western Wall, at the Holy Sepulchre. If we, as Muslims, Christians and Jews cannot stand and pray together in Jerusalem there is no hope for that happening anywhere else in the world. Our faiths are being tested in Jerusalem and I’m sad to say in my opinion we are failing abysmally. Whilst I was at Al Aqsa, non- Muslims were able to come into the grounds between 7.30-10.00am. However, they were not allowed to wear any overtly religious symbols nor were they allowed to pray. Something I failed to understand. Jews praying on Temple Mount would in no way be offensive to me – nothing would be more beautiful than to see Muslims Jews and Christians sharing this space and worshipping together.  But of paramount importance in this would be that it would have to be explicit that no harm would come to Muslim prayer rights on the Mount, or to the Islamic holy spaces there.


2 thoughts on “Shared Spaces

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  1. Hifsa

    Your thoughts are stunning. Absolutely beautiful.

    In Hebrew, there is a phrase – the Upper Jerusalem and the Lower Jerusalem – the Godly, holy city that charges our spiritual lives, and the earthly city with a quality that defies description.

    I think often about what it means to “love” a city – to draw solace and inner strength from this place (part of the Hebrew word Yerushalayim is drawn from the word shalom, peace). To connect deeply with the idea of Jerusalem, but also with the physical space that is the modern-day city. It is to celebrate the city’s triumphs, and to feel the depths of sadness and pain when thinking about her failures. The first time I visited the Western Wall was one of the definitive moments of my life – I will never forget the solitude and inner peace of the city of that Friday night. I am sad to say that my experience on the Temple Mount last week was one of fear and anger.

    Like you, I connect deeply to our traditions regarding Jerusalem. I think often about Abraham viewing Mount Moriah from afar, and his near-sacrifice of Isaac (you would say the near-sacrifice was Ismail) on the very stone that you believe was the springboard for the Prophet PBUH. I have dreamt about Jerusalem in the time of the Temple – thousands of people crowding the city to bring the Passover offering, or to celebrate the Succot holiday in the autumn. The Talmud speaks of Jerusalem in magical, mystical terms: One legend says that the smoke from the incense offerings always rose to heaven in a column, and was never dissipated by wind. Another says the Temple itself expanded to accommodate all visitors, to make room for everybody to bow in prayer, no matter how many people came to celebrate the holidays in the Holy City.

    Those stories of Jerusalem, and the dream of returning there, have sustained the Jewish people throughout history. When the 11th century Spanish poet Judah Halevi wrote “I cry for your anguish, and when I dream of the return of your captives, I am a harp for your songs/ My heart is to Bethel and yearns excessively for Peniel and for Mahanayim and al the places where your pure ones pray,” he wrote for me. I cannot read the first chapter of the Book of Lamentations without choking up.

    I say all this to illustrate one point: I very strongly identify with your deep connection with Jerusalem. Like you, I celebrate the spiritual power here, and especially of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. I feel the city would be infinitely poorer without the Islamic tradition here and have no sympathy for those who would rebuild the Temple today (incidentally, I also think that rebuilding the Temple today would be an unmitigated disaster, first and foremost for the Jewish people, but that is another discussion…).

    But I cannot accept the position of some Muslims that the Temple Mount, and Jerusalem in general, is an Islamic holy space ONLY. In this context I very much appreciate your words that “If we, as Muslims, Christians and Jews cannot stand and pray together in Jerusalem there is no hope for that happening anywhere else in the world, and I share your view that our faiths are being tested in Jerusalem, and that we are failing that challenge. Would that we represented the majority of Muslims and Jews…

    Thanks again for writing this. Your love for Jerusalem is meaningful to me because it does not feel a need to reject the legitimacy of my love for the same space.



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