Rizwi S. Faizer Ph.D. McGill
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© 1998 Rizwi Faizer.

The Shape of the Holy: Early Islamic Jerusalem

Oleg Grabar.
New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1996.
ISBN: 0-691-03653-5

After Mecca and Medina, the walled city of Jerusalem is considered to be the most sacred city in Islam because it was the first Qibla, or direction of prayer, of the Prophet Muhammad, and because it is considered to be the site of the masjid al-Aqsa, the farthest mosque, referred to in the Quran: Glory to God who did take his servant for a journey by night from the sacred mosque to the farthest mosque whose precincts We did bless. The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra, in Arabic, and mistakenly represented as the Mosque of `Umar by Europeans) built around a rocky outcrop which was found on the previous platform of the Jewish temple is considered to be the oldest extant Islamic building. On the walls of this building is found an inscription installed as a mosaic frieze, which includes such words as: Bless your envoy and your servant Jesus son of Mary and peace upon him on the day of birth and on the day of death and on the day he is raised up again. It is a word of truth in which they doubt. It is not for God to take a son. Glory be to him when he decrees a thing he only says be and it is. This appears to be the earliest Quran citation that is extant, as well. The inscription includes the date 72 A.H./ 691-692 A. D. Historians view it as indicative of the year the Dome was built. The presence of diacritical markings with the Quranic citation seems to suggest that it is based on a written text [which if correct surely contradicts John Wansbrough's claim that a written Quran was probably established only around the ninth century]. Moreover, though it is generally believed that the inscription was established by the builder of the Dome, the caliph `Abd al-Malik, nevertheless, it is also agreed that it has clearly been tampered with to assert the `Abbasid caliph, al-Ma`mun's name, instead. It should be mentioned that, there was constant repair and construction being conducted on the haram platform in those early years, and the buildings were being continuously "touched up", especially the Dome of the Rock. Indeed, the latter was given a major facelift when its exterior was redecorated by Ottoman Sultan, Sulayman the Magnificent, with the mosaic design that is still visible today.
     Despite the larger purpose of the volume, it is in terms of his analysis and interpretation of the buildings on the haram, that Grabar's contribution impresses one. For him, the existing symmetry that is visible on the platform, inevitably leads one to ask, as does Myriam Rosen-Ayalon (p. 116), whether the Dome of the Rock was an end in itself, or whether there was a master plan established to transform the entire platform into a masjid.
      The original focus of attention on the platform, as far as a locus for a building was concerned was not the rocky outcrop, which must have surely cried out for attention, but rather the southern boundary, where a simple mosque was erected. It was two generations later, probably in 692 that construction around the outcrop began. Veneration for this particular spot was tied, as I have already indicated, to the fact that Jerusalem had been the Prophet's first qibla, which was believed to have been the Jewish center, though, Grabar does find it difficult to explain the situation of the outcrop in terms of the Jewish Temple, with which the platform is also associated. Among the more intriguing traditions concerning this particular spot, however, are the stories narrated on the authority of such as `Abd al-Malik, and Ibn al-Hanafiyya that tell of God's ascension to the heavens once He had completed His creation of the world. At the same time, Shi`ite association of Jerusalem with the end of time is significant, and there is little doubt that the notion of ascension and end of time were also closely associated. Grabar indicates the curious fact that the church of the Ascension built on the Mount of Olives, probably in an attempt to compete visually for attention with the Herrodian temple on Mount Moriah, had been an octagonal structure, the very shape that was given to the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Was there some association between the shape of the building and the sentiment associated with it?
      Grabar also indicates the axial relationship that existed between the minbar of the Masjid al-Aqsa and the rocky outcrop celebrated by the Dome of the Rock, on the one hand and between the latter and the Dome of the Chain, which is placed at the very center of the haram platform, and is regarded as the "real" center of the universe. And yet, for Grabar, what developed on the site had not been pre-planned. To justify his verdict Grabar indicates the haphazard nature of the placement of the door-ways, the steps, and the platform of the Dome of the Rock.
        While for most students of Islamic history a study of Medieval Jerusalem is essentially a study of the haram complex, and primarily the Qubbat al-Sakhara and the Masjid al-Aqsa, however, Grabar's search goes beyond: "In those areas where Jerusalem is different and even unique, the reasons for the differences were laid out in the first period of Muslim rule, between 636 or 638 and 1099. These were the centuries that elaborated the mutation of a Christian town into a Muslim one, and thus created the physical and in many ways, the mental paradigms of the city that have remained until the twentieth century." The objective for Grabar is thus "to elucidate the shape of the city, not according to any faith or any written text or belief, but as a visual perception of a unique urban order." And such a journey into the past is possible, he explains, because of the peculiarity of Jerusalem's topographic history: "That the religious and secular spaces of the whole city has become surrounded, but not replaced by a new city, make it possible to remove successive accretions and retrieve stages currently invisible in the city's development." What Grabar discovers is a city which had been consciously used, first by the Umayyads, and then the Fatimids, to assert their individualistic claims to legitimacy: It is reasonable to call the eleventh century city Fatimid because . . . the character and policies of the Fatimid state were largely responsible for it, just as the Umayyads were responsible for its quality and shape in the eighth century. According to Grabar, "It is less appropriate to call it `Abbasid in the two centuries between the Umayyads and Fatimids because the caliphs in Baghdad played a relatively small part in the transformation of the city..." (p.161). Why then, one wonders, was the `Abbâsid, al-Ma`mûn comemorated on the walls of the Dome of the Rock?
       The method used by Grabar is, if imaginative, also quite logical. First, he comes to grips with the early years of Islam's presence in Jerusalem by investigating all kinds of sources ranging from documentation made available by those Christians who had lived there previous to the advent of Islam, as well as those who had visited it; and documentation provided by the first Muslims who had moved there. Grabar then leaps forward in time, and by examining documentation of the 10th and 11th centuries established by such as the geographer al-Muqaddasi, the Fatimid philosopher, Nasir i-Khusrau, and the Jews of the Geniza, slowly, but surely moves back in time, to arrive at the Umayyad city, he had already come to know. All kinds of literary sources are used to fill in the gaps, as well as the numerous archeological remains, which Grabar is specially qualified to evaluate.It is to the Fatimids that Grabar ascribes the Quranic inscription (regarding Muhammad's night journey) placed on the masjid al-Aqsa, and hence the transferance of the symbols associated by the Umayyads with the Dome of the Rock. It is also the Fatmids that Grabar blames for the closing of the original entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and creation of Northern entrance.
       The city he discovers for us is hardly unexpected. Dominated by the Dome of the Rock and the Masjid al-Aqsa on the haram, it tells of a people governed by Islam, and yet immensely challenged by a significant and lively Christian presence. Grabar thus does not dismiss the theory put forward by some that the building of the Dome of the rock was inspired by the desire to assert Islam's superiority over Christianity. For him the Umayyad city was one which was arranged around two competing poles. The older Christian sanctuaries of the Holy Sepulchre and the Nea facing opposite directions "and proclaiming their truth, against the more recent Muslim complex on Mount Moriah asserting through the masjid al-Aqsa and the Qubbat al-Sakhra their own Arab version of it. (page 122).
        And there were Jews, too, many of them living just outside the walls of the city, but nevertheless as much obsessed by the sanctity of the region, as any of the other communities. Formal meetings of the gaonate and the yeshiva took place on the Mount of Olives where, according to some Talmudic sources, the Divine presence, the shekina, had now been transported from the Temple Mount. Despite the differences, there was a common understanding of the holy spaces that made up the territory, for all three religious groups narrated similar traditions regarding the omphalos [the center of the universe], the end of time, and the ascension to the heavens, with reference to Jerusalem. But there was also sufficient evidence to indicate that the three did not ever come together to celebrate those beliefs. Each community seems to have been quite oblivious if not totally indifferent to the existence of any other. This is not to say that any of the communities were less visible than the others. The Christian and Jew had as much right to go to his chosen place of prayer and make his supplication, as any Muslim. Neither does there seem to have been a segregation of communities evidenced through distinct living quarters. As Grabar explains, given the small area of the city it was far more plausible that families of different religious allegiances shared living spaces and only segregated their spaces of pious and ritual behavior.
      As the miraculous night journey of Prophet Muhammad became increasingly emphasized by the community in its pious claims to salvation, the city of Jerusalem became associated with the event and became a part of its historic memory. At the same time, Jewish tales were used to elaborate the Quranic reference to the event, and Jewish heroes of Jerusalem who were also mentioned in the Quran, became a part of the Islamic memory. Ironically, the significant memories of the city's Christian past which were known to the conquering Muslims, became detached from those various sites in the minds of the Muslim faithful. Inevitably the Christian city that had been confronted by the Muslims lost its significance and then its place.
      And yet, what the strange Quranic epigraph, embedded in the essential symbol of the Dome which enshrines the rocky outcrop, declares is singularly directed to the Christian presence in the region. It is a declaration that also challenges Grabar's representation of the people of 7th to 8th century Jerusalem, as a people who became religiously segregated in their places of worship. Moreover, it is a declaration which is strangely left unnoticed not only by the 10th century traveler al-Muqaddisi despite his undertaking to describe the site, but by the later visitor Nasîr-i-Khusrau as well. Grabar's identification of the inscription as belonging in the context of the Antique style of the building's architecture, and his depiction of the writing itself as comparable to other inscriptions of `Abd al-Malik's era, is therefore extremely important. On the other hand, it is significant that during Crusader occupation the Dome became a place of Christian worship under the Knights Templar. The building was annually visited by Christian pilgrims at Easter, including Arab Christian pilgrims. Did they not notice the statement which was hostile to their essential faith? If they had, would they not have destroyed it? Islamic historians have tended to ignore this question, which is surely critical if one is to undertand how such an inscription has managed to survive. The mosaic writing clearly demands a more complete explanation.
      The Shape of the Holy by Oleg Grabar is an exploration of Umayyyad and post Umayyad Jerusalem to the time of the first crusade, which sets out to indicate the development of an urban Muslim center from what had just previously been a Christian sanctuary. Grabar is obviously an art-historian to whom Jerusalem means much more than a simple object of study. He has lived in Jerusalem and come to love it, and the vision with which he conceives the medieval city as "it must have been" is clearly grounded in profound scholarship. It is what moves him to reminds us again and again, that there is still much work to be done, and that we have by no means completely understood early Islamic Jerusalem. What draws one to this work, however, is his ability to explain and present his argument which he does through the skillful use of language and illustration--both photographical and computer generated.

Reviewed by Rizwi Faizer
Date: July 1999.

  The background design is an adaptation of the eighth century Mshatta wall. ^^Return to Top^^
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