Book review by Steve France
What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections.
Edited by Dr. Saliba Sarsar and Dr. Carole Monica C. Burnett, Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, 2021, paperback, 214 pp
In a just-published volume of essays, distinguished Muslims tell the world—and particularly Christians—what Jerusalem means to them: a shared holiness. They bear anguished witness to Israel’s ever deeper aggressions in occupied East Jerusalem, which includes the incomparable Old City and its historic and spiritual treasures. What also is striking, however, is how calm and confident the contributors are in making clear that Jerusalem simply can never be defined as the exclusive possession of any political power or any individual religion, and still be Jerusalem, however hard Israel and its devoted U.S. enabler may try.
“Jerusalem is a shared gift, not the sole property of one government or one people,” Jordanian scholar El Hassan bin Talal says in his forward to the book. El Hassan, the author of his own book-length study of Jerusalem, is a royal prince of the Kingdom of Jordan. As such, he belongs to the Hashemite dynasty, which descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad, and is internationally recognized as the “Custodian” of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. In this book, the prince refrains from expressly condemning Israel’s “annexation” of all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital. Nor does he call out the United States, which under former President Donald Trump endorsed the Jewish State’s claim to sole sovereignty over Jerusalem and moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (a move the Biden administration has refused to reverse).
Nonetheless, What Jerusalem Means to Us is a pointed protest against Israel’s flouting of international law and contempt for the city’s multifaith, multicultural identity. It follows the publication of a companion volume of meditations, What Jerusalem Means to Us: Christian Perspectives and Reflections, published in 2018 and also available from Middle East Books.
In keeping with their peaceful convictions and intentions, many contributors focus on the holy splendors and historical riches of the city, which Muslims call al-Quds—the Holy. Above all, are the glories of the Haram Al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary that contains al-Aqsa Mosque and the stunning golden dome that covers an immensely significant rocky outcropping. On that rock Abraham is believed to have offered his son to God, and it was to that spot that the Prophet Muhammad was miraculously flown from Mecca by his steed to lead all the prophets in prayer and thence be taken up into heaven and instructed by Allah. Thus, writes artist, author and anthropologist Dr. Ali Qleibo, the rock is “the point of connection between heaven and earth” and was the first “Qibla,” before Mecca was made the place toward which all Muslims pray.
In their different ways, the essays explain how these and other features of Jerusalem express deep and sublime spiritual truths about God’s creation and His plan for mankind’s peace, justice and eternal happiness.
Scholarly contributors detail the way in which, over the centuries, Muslims and their rulers honored God, and memorialized Allah’s precepts and intentions in the physical and cultural development of Jerusalem, including respectful accommodation of Jewish and Christian residents as they cared for their equally venerated holy sites. Also recounted is the imprint of the British, who conquered the city in 1917 and laid the groundwork for Zionist Jews to conquer it in their turn, all the way up to some of the latest anti-Palestinian policies.
Dr. Hisham Khatib, a collector of artwork, maps and photographs, impresses on the readers that “Jerusalem to us Muslims is not only its religious significance.” It is also its historic, social and cultural value. “Wherever you go,” he says, whether in the Old City, “where almost every building has a history of its own,” or in the communities surrounding it, the indigenous inhabitants experience strong, if ineffable, attachments. This, he says, explains why, despite all the indignities and hardships they suffer under occupation, “most of Jerusalem’s residents have insisted on remaining in the city.”
Many contributors share deeply personal experiences and bonds that link them to the stones and people of Jerusalem. Some stories are amusing. For example, as a child growing up in the Dheisheh refugee camp only a few miles outside the city, Prof. Azzam S. Elayan, Ph.D., was fixated on getting a chance to accompany his blind father on trips to the Holy City, but his older brother, Adnan, always got to go instead. Azzam longed to see the legendary Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Under his brother’s spell, he also burned with a truly fanatical desire to partake of a “Jerusalem falafel sandwich with shatta, a hot sauce especially made for having with falafel.” In the boy’s belief system, the taste of that falafel was literally the taste of heaven. Now, he confides, “I cannot think of my father without thinking of Jerusalem, nor can I think of Jerusalem without thinking of my father,” a beloved personage in the Old City, where he was a master artisan, assembling and caning chairs and furnishing them with various elegant weaves.
Many poignant memories and heavy losses are shared, but one that can stand for all of them is relatively impersonal. It comes from a married couple, Dr. Mohammed Abu-Nimer and Dr. Ilham Nasser. Since moving away 30 years ago, they have returned every year to visit the city, but every year they notice “there is less and less room” for them or other non-Jews. More shops have closed, more Israeli flags are planted on house roofs, walks they used to love are no longer possible, and “the idea that Jerusalem belongs to all” fades a little more.
It is moving and heartening to listen to these Muslim voices tell of their love for Jerusalem and its message of universal peace and brotherhood. Rana Hajjaj, one of several younger essayists, takes a somewhat different tack, however. Born in Kuwait and raised in Lebanon, she lives in New York and works with al-Quds Bard College. Hajjaj doesn’t undercut the spiritual meaning of Jerusalem, but her eye is on contemporary realities, whether in exile or in Jerusalem. She “takes us on a journey through a life of displacement and dispossession,” as the book’s editor, Dr. Carole Monica C. Burnett, puts it in an introduction.
In other words, Hajjaj recounts another maddening Palestinian life in a world that “is telling me that I do not have the right to exist.” Although one side of her Palestinian family is from Jerusalem, it took Hajjaj three decades before she saw Jerusalem for herself. Ten minutes from Ben Gurion airport, she noticed the highway was decked in barbed-wire, and electric fencing. In the city, she saw and smelled apartheid in the difference between West Jerusalem, with its daily garbage collection and street-cleaning, and East Jerusalem, where garbage is picked up once every three weeks, and so on. Looking to the future, Hajjaj says, “True leadership [on the part of the Palestinian Authority] would walk away from the Oslo Accords…halt all forms of security cooperation [and] dissolve itself,” giving Palestinians “a shot at democracy.” Endlessly “beg[ging] the international community to solve our problems” won’t work.
Overall, the takeaway from these diverse Muslim perspectives is that Jerusalem will always belong to the world. It lives deeply in the hearts of its Muslim children. They will never give it up. May more voices, from all three faiths—and secular voices of good will—be sounded on behalf of the Holy City.
Steve France is a DC-based activist and writer, affiliated with Episcopal Peace Fellowship, Palestine-Israel Network.