By Saif Shahin
Jerusalem or the abode of peace. A city of walls and cracks, peoples and passers by, culture and commerce, loving and losing. Above all, a city of worship, of religion — or so they say!
For more than half a century, Muslims and Jews have been jousting for Jerusalem. Both say it is among the holiest of their cities, and they have an assortment of archaeological and architectural evidence to support their claims. Neither denies the claims of the other; indeed, for Muslims it is partially so holy because of the same claims that the Jews make upon it. Yet, both want exclusive rights over it.
Lost on both sides is the supreme irony that their thoroughly temporal squabble is in direct defiance of spiritual legacy of the city they are struggling for — the significance of sacrifice.
Jews view Jerusalem, specifically the Old City, as the place where they were forged into a nation for the first time by King David in the 10th century BC. David’s son Solomon built the First Temple of the Jews here as the dwelling place of god. Destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC, a Second Temple was built — which stood until 70 AD, until the Romans pulled it down.
The site of the two temples, the Temple Mount, occupies a central place in Jewish religion and culture. That is why Jews around the world pray facing Jerusalem, and they hope to build a Third Temple there some day.
For Muslims, who also consider David and Solomon as prophets, it is holy for all these reasons. And it is rendered holier still because they also believe it was from the Temple Mount, which they call the Noble Sanctuary, that prophet Muhammad ascended on a journey to heaven on a winged steed called Buraq.
Muslim caliphs later built the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary, among the oldest Islamic architectures. Jerusalem is also the original ‘qibla’ — or the direction of prayer — for Muslims, which was later changed to Mecca.
But for both religions, it is holy for another reason dating back to the 18th century BC. It was to Jerusalem that prophet Abraham travelled for offering his son in sacrifice after being asked by god. He tied his son to the altar and was ready to make the sacrifice when an angel intervened, saying he had passed the test and gave him a ram to sacrifice instead.
Muslims believe it was Abraham’s first born Ishmael, from whom Arabs are said to have descended, who was being sacrificed. Even today, the event is marked as Eid Al Adha, one of the biggest festivals on the Islamic calendar. Jews say Abraham was sacrificing his second son Issac, from whom they claim their own lineage.
Both, however, have absolute faith that Abraham was willing to make the supreme sacrifice in Jerusalem. It is this message of sacrifice, reiterated in many other ways in both faiths, that lends Jerusalem its original significance for both communities.
Almost four millennia have passed since. Jerusalem is remembered, as is Abraham, but no one quite remembers why they are remembered. Not the Muslims who throw stones from Al Aqsa Mosque on the Jews praying below the Western Wall, the only remaining portion of the Second Temple. And certainly not Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who effusively declares that he will continue kicking out the sons and daughters of his prophet Abraham — killing them if need be — to build more illegal settlements in the holy land. Holy work indeed!
If Muslims and Jews truly respect Jerusalem, they would respect what it originally stood for both of them — sacrifice. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son for his love of god, so would they be willing to give up their claims on Jerusalem for their love of god and his children. In renouncing their temporal rights, they would have truly claimed the city’s spiritual legacy.
The same spirit of sacrifice would lead them to be willing to concede rather than demand more land, relinquish their own rights rather than appropriate what belongs to others. This was the message their common ancestor once relayed to them — they only need to listen to him to end their conflict and live in peace.
Copyright: Saif Shahin
The writer is a PhD candidate in West Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India