Faith: A fractious mix of faith and tourism

Published July 5, 2015
Muslims believe Prophet Musa lies buried here but Jews contend he is buried in Egypt
Muslims believe Prophet Musa lies buried here but Jews contend he is buried in Egypt

“To visit the Holy Land was my dream, but it wasn’t to be,” a journalist friend responds when I tell him about my trip. Israel, the country he calls ‘temporarily occupied Palestine,’ refused him a visa despite a request-letter from Jordanian Prince Hassan bin Talal.

Absent are tourists from Islamic countries at sites holiest to Muslims. Their respective countries don’t recognise Israel which in turn won’t let them in. Hence, it’s a case of tit for tat. Pakistan goes a step further by being the only country in the world whose passport holders can visit “all countries of the world except Israel.” With all its entry and exit points tightly controlled by Israel, Muslim pilgrims who do manage to make it face extensive grilling at the border. Small wonder then, most of the worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or Prophet Ibrahim’s grave at Hebron are locals.

Hurting deeply is the world of Islam while Palestine and Israel slug out their intractable differences. Can you imagine a bigger tragedy than the present where the Holy Land is out of bounds for Muslims, no matter from where? They yearn to go; Israel will not let them in unless their countries recognise the state of Israel. That too is possible but for the polarising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his firebrand right-wing colleagues. They pour scorn over advice to engage with the Muslim world, condescendingly snubbing foreign leaders who want peace in the region. “We strongly reject attempts to force international diktat on us in regard to both security and peace,” is Netanyahu’s latest salvo to the visiting French foreign minister in Jerusalem.


The Holy Land in Jerusalem is out of bounds for Muslims


God’s revered prophet whose name Muslims invoke five times a day in their prayers lies buried in Hebron, a city divided between Palestine and Israel. “We have to walk this side of the road reserved for Muslims,” says my driver Ramadan.

He has driven me from Israeli-occupied Jerusalem to Hebron. Climbing up the steep deserted stairs, timeworn yet robust, we enter the 1,000-year old Ibrahimi Mosque. The prosaic entryway opens into a huge hall. Tall glass chandeliers light up the space laden with wall-to-wall prayer rugs woven in bright red. The colour and design is identical to the spread that I see in Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem. Enshrined are three enormous tombs in green coverings with Quranic verses embroidered in gold. I move to the first grave. It has Prophet Ibrahim’s name written in Arabic atop the latticed window encircling his vault. Next to him is his son Prophet Ishaq’s, and daughter-in-law Rafiqa’s tombs. Sarah, the wife of Prophet Ibrahim lies buried in another room facing her husband’s tomb. “The actual graves are 20 feet under the ground,” Ramadan tells me. I peer deep down through a small opening on the floor to see the subterranean crypts lit up with iridescent lamps. “Daily, olive oil is lowered down by a rope to keep the flame of the lamps burning.”

Stairway to Heaven: the mimbar (pulpit) at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was donated by Jordan after the original ( a gift from Salahuddin Ayyubi) was destroyed in a fire started by a fanatical zionist in 1969
Stairway to Heaven: the mimbar (pulpit) at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was donated by Jordan after the original ( a gift from Salahuddin Ayyubi) was destroyed in a fire started by a fanatical zionist in 1969

It is believed that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) visited Prophet Ibrahim and his family’s graves during the Isra wal Mi’raj or “Night Journey” from Mecca to Jerusalem and ascension to heaven. Prophet Ibrahim is mentioned 69 times in the Holy Quran. Considered the Patriarch of the three great monotheistic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — God declares in Surah al-Imran (3:65): O People of the Scripture, why do you argue about Abraham while the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Then will you not reason? And in 3:67 God says: Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah ]. And he was not of the polytheists.

I notice empty soda bottles lying strewn inside the room of Sarah’s tomb. “People want to touch the graves but they can’t due to the iron bars enclosing the tombs, but that doesn’t mean they should litter the holy ground,” murmurs Ramadan. The caretakers of Ibrahimi Mosque are too lethargic to ensure cleanliness. “For Muslims this is a mosque; for Jews it is a synagogue; for Christians it is a church,” he remarks. “All three religions seek their spiritual roots; but they pray separately,” he says pointing to a giant pane of bulletproof glass that serves as the dividing line. Descending the stairs, I notice tourists throng through a separate entryway to the graves that the Jews call the Cave of the Patriarchs. Israeli police greets them with broad smiles whereas on the Muslim side all I get is a reflexive stare bordering on indifference, emblematic of the hostility between Muslims and Jews. “While this confluence could have been an opportunity for unity and cooperation,” comments travel writer Rick Steves, “instead it has turned the tomb into a divisive place … Hebron’s market activity is a pocket of tension and high security. … This ghost street, fronted by blocked-up buildings, divides the communities of the feuding descendants of Abraham. A couple of thousand Israeli troops are posted here to manage the security.”

We leave Hebron and drive to Bethlehem. It is less than 14 miles away. It too is under Palestine Authority. I see one or two life size portraits of the late Yasir Arafat’s hanging from dilapidated electric poles on the roads as we head to the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Ramadan has a local guide lined up for me to visit the Church of the Nativity. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. “But first the Manger Square,” Jasim, the guide points to a palm-lined square named after the manger where Christ was born. “During Christmas, pilgrims from around the world gather here to sing carols.” Standing tall is a limestone mosque with its white minaret perched high above, contrasting beautifully with the teal blue sky. The mosque is named after Caliph Umar. After conquering Jerusalem, he traveled to Bethlehem to issue a “law” guaranteeing respect for the Church of the Nativity. The Caliph is said to have prayed at this mosque.

Israeli flags fly atop the Jewish Quarters in Al-Quds in Jerusalem
Israeli flags fly atop the Jewish Quarters in Al-Quds in Jerusalem

Garrulous Jasim is a fast walker as he leads me panting up the hill to the Church. Long lines of visitors wait to enter. The main entrance is called the Door of Humility because “you have to bend to get inside the church,” says Jasim as we swiftly move through the glittering 4th century marble columns. The crusaders built this small door, later altered by the Ottomans in order to keep mounted horsemen out of the church. “You wait here,” he stops me in my tracks, as he bounces off to chat up a guard. Soon he’s back! “Quick, go down these narrow stairs leading directly to the cave. Let’s beat the queues otherwise we’ll be here the whole day!” I sprint down below to the cave where I see emotional scenes by pilgrims touching the star that identifies the spot where Jesus was born. “Kim Kardashian and Kanye West came here last month with their baby girl. Pope Francis came too.” I am duly informed by Jasim. “Wow!” I say.

Grabbing a quick lunch, Ramadan has promised to take me to Jericho located near the Jordan River in the Palestinian controlled West Bank. It is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. “We can’t go,” he suddenly jettisons the plan and swiftly takes a detour to drive me to Prophet Musa’s grave. “There is problem in Jericho. The roads are blocked,” I am told. What do you mean by ‘problem’? I ask while sounding terribly disappointed. “One minute everything is okay. The next second problem flares up between the Palestinians and the Israelis and everything shuts down in a blink of an eye,” he replies.

The birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem
The birthplace of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem

We embark on a long drive through a remote winding road with undulating white hills, barren and deserted, presenting lonely outposts of life. As if Ramadan has read my thoughts: “The Americans helped Israel by building this superhighway to facilitate an easy exodus of Palestinians to Jordan. It worked!” he chortles. “Thousands of Palestinian refugees travelled this road to relocate to Jordan.”

In the shimmering remoteness stands a sprawling structure atop the tallest mount commanding a heavenly view. We have arrived at Nabi Musa’s Mosque and Maqam. Not a single visitor we see as we make our way through a paved courtyard with cats napping under the shady foliage. Offering our fateha at his grave, we walk around in solitude. Why is no one here? I ask Ramadan. “While Muslims believe this grave to be the resting place of Prophet Musa, the Jews don’t think so. They contend that he lies buried in Egypt.”

Turkey donated millions towards the renovation of Prophet Musa’s mosque and tomb. Palestinian government “pocketed” the money without remodelling the neglected holy site. For Muslims, faith and tourism appear star-crossed in Israel and Palestine of the moment, would you not conclude? Shway-shway, as they say in Arabic: slowly, slowly, things may change one day.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 5th, 2015

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