Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Two Tales of One Minaret

Recent months have led me to think a lot about perspective. As I watch politicians use half-baked truths to justify their agendas, it’s hard not to remember that every tale has two sides, or more. I could go on a rant about US politics in the Middle East, but instead I’d like to offer up a couple of entries about historical perspective.


The first entry is a story about a minaret that sits on the southern edge of the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.



I first heard about this minaret while watching the documentary series Out of Egypt. In that series, a guide [Nimrod Luz] stands in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and points out the minaret as it broadcasts the call to prayer over the neighborhood. He explains to the series host,

            “we’re in the middle of the most important Christian site…you can take a 
             na├»ve approach and say, “he’s just calling to prayer.”…[but] there’s no
             mosque that actually needs this here. This is a challenge. This is saying, 
             “we are here, we are stronger than you, our voice is heard more than 
             your voice.”” … “I’m sure they [people in the church] know what it’s all 
             about and they feel intimidated when he calls to prayer.”
It should be noted that this man was serving as a general guide and commentator, he was not a representative of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


Having grown up in a conservative Muslim neighborhood of Damascus, the vitriol of this interpretation was suspicious to me. In our neighborhood we had at least three mosques in a one-block radius and probably close to a dozen within a kilometer. My Christian mother and I particularly enjoyed the gentle tone of the early morning prayer call.



Generally, for Christians in Damascus, hearing the Muslim call to prayer was not considered a confrontation with Islam, but simply a call to prayer, which Christians were free to answer within the context of their own religion. I think it is possible some Christians in Jerusalem feel the same way.

 
A minaret on the west side of Umayyad Mosque (in Damascus, Syria), where Christians and Muslims shared the facility for roughly 50 years, and which is located in the old city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together for centuries.




By contrast, the Muslim version of the story of the minaret is everything but confrontational. In fact, it’s quite romantic.



I first heard this story in the documentary series East to West, and have since found a couple of other versions. It goes something like this: In 637 C.E.(a.k.a. 637 A.D.), when the Patriarch Sophronius (a.k.a. St. Sophronius), ruler of Jerusalem, surrendered the city to Caliph Omar I, he invited the caliph to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While the caliph was there the time for prayer came. The patriarch invited the caliph to pray inside the church, but Caliph Omar I refused. He feared that future generations of Muslims would venerate the spot where he first prayed within the walls of Jerusalem. He thought there was a risk they might claim the site for Islam and create a monument for Muslim pilgrims. So, he went outside the church, and prayed there instead.



Caliph Omar I was correct. Muslims considered him very important, they still do. He was a companion to the late Prophet Muhammad, he was the second caliph ever to exist, and he was known for being a just man. So, in 1193 C.E.(a.k.a. 1193 A.D.), a Muslim Sultan (Al-Afdal ibn Salah ad-Din – one of Saladin’s sons) built the Omar Mosque on the spot where Caliph Omar I had prayed. The minaret in question is part of the Omar Mosque, which to this day is used for prayer only.



These two views of a single minaret are arguably opposites and each fueled by a specific view of Islam. Your view of Muslims or Arabs would be deeply affected by whichever version you heard, unless you had also heard the opposite version.



A couple of things that sway me in the direction of the Muslim version of the story are:

            a) Under the Muslims, Jews, who had been exiled for centuries by the 
                Christian rulers of Jerusalem, were allowed to return to their holy 
                city, and Christians were allowed to stay, confirming the Muslim 
                commitment to religious tolerance portrayed in the story.

            b) General Allenby’s official proclamation of marshal law upon taking 
               Jerusalem from the Ottomans in 1917 C.E. indicates that the story 
               of Caliph Omar I was known to him. He wrote:

                        “Guardians have been established at Bethlehem and on Rachel’s 
                            Tomb. The tomb at Hebron has been placed under exclusive 
                            Moslem control. The hereditary custodians at the gate of the 
                            Holy Sepulchre have been requested to take up their accustomed 
                            duties in remembrance of the magnanimous act of the Caliph Omar

                            who protected that church.

Allenby’s reference even implies there is more to the story than I have found so far. I’ll have to keep looking. For now, I choose to like the idea of a church and a mosque being so close. Perhaps that is because I am Damascene!


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The second story I want to share is about a famous Syrian general, Yousef al-Azmeh. I will cover that in a separate blog entry, coming soon...