Friday Sermon: The Acreage of Fire

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By Babatunde Jose

It is the most disputed piece of land in the world; it is only 35 acres in size but the holiest plot of land to the twin faiths of ‘father Abraham’; Judaism and Islam. The Jews call it the Temple Mount and the Moslems refer to it as the Dome of the Rock. It is a flash point in the Middle East conflict.

Jewish tradition holds that it was here that God first mixed the dust and clay with which he created Adam, our progenitor; it was on this land too that Abraham’s faith was tested when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac according to Jewish mythology or Isma’il, according to Moslem folklore; it was also here that Solomon, the son of David, in circa 1000 BC, according to the Bible, built the first Temple to God, a temple that was demolished 400 years later by the Babylonian army led by their king Nebuchadnezzar, and from where the Jews were led into  captivity and exile; a second temple was rebuilt by returned exiles on this very land after their banishment; we also read in the Bible, John 2:14-16 and in Mathew 12:12 that it was here, in this Temple that Jesus lashed out at the ‘money changers, overturning their tables and driving them out of ‘his father’s house; an act that ultimately led to his crucifixion, a few yards away from this ‘sacred acreage; in AD 70, the Roman General Titus would sack and burn down the Temple in retaliation for Jewish revolt against Rome. It is also believed by Jews that on this spot a new Temple would be built before the end of days. But most importantly, here stands The Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest site in Judaism: Jews face the Mount in prayer.

To the Moslems, the same piece of land is held in reverence as it is believed that it was here that the Prophet ascended to the 7 Heavens during the ‘Miraculous Night Journey’, espoused in the holy Quran, known as Al Isra‘ wal Miraj:

Glory to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing! (Quran 17:1);

Here too sits the Dome of the Rock, housing one of the holiest shrines of Islam; hence Moslems refer to the Temple Mount as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary); Umayyad Caliphs commissioned the construction of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock on the site. The Dome was completed in 692 CE, making it one of the oldest extant Islamic structures in the world. The Al Aqsa Mosque rests on the far southern side of the Mount, facing Mecca. Muslims view the site as being one of the earliest and most noteworthy places of worship of God. For a few years in the early stages of Islam, Muhammad instructed his followers to face the Mount during prayer.

This ‘Acreage of Fire’ has seen more disputes than any land on earth: A territorial prize occupied or conquered by a long succession of peoples—including Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans and of course the ubiquitous British whose duplicity, treachery, betrayal and deceit, caused the Palestinian crisis in the first place; an intractable crisis of monumental religious and political proportion.

To be sure, the Mount is a flash point in the Middle East conflict. Israel seized East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in 1967. While Israelis saw this as the reunification of their ancient capital, Palestinians still deem East Jerusalem to be occupied Arab land (a position also held by the United Nations).The Temple Mount is precariously balanced between these opposing views. Although Israel claims political sovereignty over the compound, custodianship remains with the Waqf; an Islamic Council. As such, Israelis and Palestinians cautiously eye each other for any tilt in the status quo. At its core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents rival claims to the same territory—and both sides rely on history to make the case for whose roots in the land run deepest.

For the Israelis, that history begins 3,000 years ago, when the Temple Mount—believed by many biblical scholars to be the mountain in the region of Moriah mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Several passages in the Hebrew Bible indicate that during the time when they were written, the Temple Mount was identified as Mount Zion mentioned in the later parts of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 60:14), in the Book of Psalms, and the First Book of Maccabees.

Though some Christians believe that the Temple will be reconstructed before, or concurrent with, the Second Coming of Jesus. The New Testament recounts a story of a Samaritan woman asking Jesus about the appropriate place to worship, Jerusalem or the Samaritan holy place at Mount Gerizim, to which Jesus replies:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”(John 4:21-24) This has been construed to mean that Jesus dispensed with physical location for worship, which was a matter rather of spirit and truth. The above is corroborated by Allah Himself in Sura Baqara:

To Allah belongs the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is the Presence of Allah. For Allah is All-Pervading, All-Knowing.(Quran 2:115)

If both the Jews and the Moslems fighting over this 35-acre piece of historical land can follow the above, there would be less acrimony over worship at the site. But faith mixed with politics is a dangerous and explosive cocktail.  Everything in this part of the world is infused with a political agenda. “Sneezing in Jerusalem is an intensely political activity. You can do it to the right, to the left, on the face of an Arab or a Jew. Whatever you do, or don’t do, is political,” intoned a concerned observer.

The long term solution to the problem is to find an accommodation between Palestinians and Israel to live in peace with each other. This however seems to be a ‘very’ tall order considering the atmosphere of mistrust, injustice, inequitability and unfairness surrounding their relationship. But until then the clash of faiths will continue ad infinitum. Unfortunately, both sides have historical claims to Jerusalem. May God bring peace to the land He promised father Abraham; Amen.

Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend.

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