I regretted that we were not able to hear the lecture from the Muslim scholar. Because he had to rush his mother to the emergency room shortly before his Tantur Ecumenical Institute presentation, he was not able to talk to us about contemporary Muslim life in the Mideast. Yet I have three impressions of Muslims that will stay with me.
An important impression was created by our visit to Al-Haram al–Sharif for Muslims or the Temple Mount for Jews. This site contains the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. This area is about 1/6th of Jerusalem’s old city and contains 100 structures. Because of Tantur’s respected status and its deep relationships built over decades with Jerusalem’s’ Jews and Muslims, our Tantur group was privileged that Dr. Mustafa, the Secretary General of Antiquities, acting as our guide. His first words were: “Welcome to this special place of sacrifice for Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad. No matter what you read or hear in media about extremists, they are not a true reflection of Islam.” As he proudly discussed Al-Haram al-Sharif, he mingled past history with recent history. For example, he explained that in 1967, Israel took the key to the main gate so that Israel controls access to the sanctuary. I glanced around and noticed that there were, in fact, probably a dozen armed Israeli soldiers on this important piece of ground.
He continued describing Al-Haram al-Sharif: “For Muslims this is not simply a building. It is a site and enclosed space. If a scholar, it is a place of retreat. If an architect, a place of masterful architecture. If young, then a playground [that explained the soccer and volleyball matches that I saw]. If a woman, a place of peace. So, not just a religious site.” He wanted to make clear that this important piece of ground has many purposes.
The most iconic of buildings on this site is, of course, the Dome of the Rock. With construction starting in 691CE and completed in 695 CE, the Dome of the Rock has over 1000 square meters of decorations. Dr. Mustafa explained the Muslim stories behind the Dome of the Rock. “Muslims believe that Abraham offered not Isaac, but Ishmael at this site.” Furthermore, Dr.Mustafa explained: “The Dome of the Rock celebrates Mohammad’s night journey to heaven where he met and conversed with the previous prophets.” “We believe the Day of Judgment and resurrection will occur here with the prophet Jesus.” Needless to say, Dr. Mustafa conveyed the sense of a sacred space for Muslims. I was awed even more this time as compared to my December 1970 visit.
Yet he also voiced his concerns. Because some Jews discuss building the Third Temple, he asked a Chief Rabbi: “Will the Third Temple be rebuilt?” The reply was “When we build the temple in the hearts and minds of people first.” Although I interpreted that remark as implying “Don’t worry. Jews will never come around to living lives as they should,” I was later corrected by others at Tantur. Whether rightly or wrongly, Muslims interpret the rabbi’s statement as an alarmist, fearful statement. Rather than denying any Third Temple, the Rabbi simply postponed such a building. Dr. Mustafa recounted another incident in 1969 when an Australian came into the Al-Aqsa mosque and set fire to it. “It was well-planned and well-executed. This man was rational even though the Israelis say that he was deranged.” For Dr. Mustafa, there is considerable anxiety connected with the Dome of the Rock.
I will remember Dr. Mustafa. I left Al-Haram al-Sharif grateful for the privilege of having visited the exterior and interior of the Dome of the Rock and the mosque. I felt first-hand his pride, Muslim pride, toward these buildings and this space as he told stories related to them. I heard first-hand his fear, Muslims’ fear, toward some Jewish Israelis, and maybe even some Zionist Christians, who have future designs for the place. I hope nobody is crazy enough to try to move toward building a Third Temple. World War III would start if they did!
My second lasting impression was meeting and talking with a Muslim on Easter Sunday right off the Via Dolorosa. That morning, I had been to the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As I was walking to take a bus from the Jerusalem’s Old City to Tantur, I said “Hello” to a Muslim who was looking at me. I slowed down when he said “hello” to see if there was any additional conversation. He quickly asked: “Where are you from?” After responding, he rather quickly asked “Are you Christian?” Surprised that a stranger would ask me that so directly, I said “Yes.” I was even more surprised when he asked “Do you know what Muslims believe about Jesus?” When I said that he is viewed as a prophet, although Mohammad is the “seal of the prophets,” he said: “You know more than most; let me tell you about Muslims’ view of Jesus.” He then proceeded to say “We deeply respect Jesus. He is mentioned twenty-five times in the Quran, more than any other prophet, even Mohammad!” My conversation partner continued: “He will even be the one who announces the Day of Resurrection.” I could tell that he was experienced at talking about Jesus to Christians, much like Jehovah’s Witnesses eager to talk with others. After a few moments of being intrigued, I had that same feeling of wanting to end a conversation where one person had all the answers. Interrupting him by saying I had to catch three buses that afternoon, I said good-bye. I had met my first Muslim evangelist!
My last impression may sound strange. Since January 1st, I had not fallen during my many walks through city streets and rocky paths. I finally fell on the curb outside the Bethlehem checkpoint where the bus waits for its Palestinian passengers emerging from the checkpoint. As I was counting the coins in my hand to see if I had enough change, I tripped. Down I went with my coin money flying everywhere. Within seconds, several pairs of hands reached down to help me to my feet. As they looked at me with eyes inquiring if I was okay, another Palestinian man picked up my coins. He proceeded to point to an uneven place on the sidewalk next to the curb which might have caused my fall. Although I’m not sure how many of the Palestinians were Muslim or Palestinian Christians, I’m struck by how quick their natural empathetic reaction to help somebody, me, in need occurred.
My meetings with other known Muslims have been limited. I’ve met our tour guide for Jericho; I’ve briefly met Muslim merchants in Hebron; I’ve listened to the Tantur talk by the Sufi Sheik Ghassan Klanasra. Yet I’ll remember most these three very different experiences: Dr. Mustafa, the highly esteemed Secretary General of Antiquities of Al Aqsa, full of Muslim pride, the enthusiastic Muslim evangelist, and the unnamed compassionate men of the Bethlehem checkpoint who wanted to make sure that I was okay.