the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

1999 - online version

The Dome of the Rock: Jerusalem’s Hallmark

By Leslie Hoppe ofm
Professor of Biblical Interpretation and Archeology
Old Testament Professor CTU, Chicago, IL

The most universally recognized symbol of Jerusalem is not a Jewish or Christian holy place but a Muslim one: the Dome of the Rock. When people see its golden dome rising above the open expanse of the Temple Mount, they think of only one place in the world. It is Jerusalem’s answer to Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, and New York’s Empire State Building. The Dome of the Rock is Jerusalem.

What is this building? Who built it and why? Sometimes the building with the golden dome is called "the mosque of Omar." While Muslims do pray in the Dome of the Rock, it is not a mosque. Also, the Caliph Omar was not responsible for its construction since it was built almost seventy years after he added Jerusalem to the Muslim empire. It was Caliph ‘Adb al-Malik who, in A.D. 691, commissioned Christian architects to build a shrine over the large outcropping of bedrock on the site where Solomon’s Temple stood. Why al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock has been the subject of some controversy.

Some historians suggest that al-Malik ordered the shrine to be built in order to attract Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem and away from Mecca. He was vying for the leadership of the Muslim world and his chief rival lived in Mecca. Supposedly al-Malik thought erecting an impressive building would make him look like the most important Islamic leader. While the caliph would not have been the first person to use religion to support political ambition, it is unlikely that he would have challenged what was one of Islam’s most fundamental practices. The pilgrimage to Mecca was a duty of every Muslim. Substituting any city for Mecca would have been unthinkable less than sixty years after Mohammed’s death.

A second explanation for the building of the Dome of the Rock reflects Muslim piety that has interpreted a passage from the Koran as referring to Jerusalem although the text does not name the city explicitly:
Glorified be He who carried His servant [Mohammed] by night
From the Masjid al-Haram [the mosque in Mecca] to the Masjid
Al-Aqsa [the farthest mosque]. (Sura 17:1)

Later biographers developed the details of the night journey during which Mohammed, escorted by the angel Gabriel, came to Jerusalem from Mecca on a magical horse named Buraq to join earlier prophets including Jesus for prayer. Also associated with this night journey was Mohammed’s ascension, during which the prophet went to heaven from the rock over which the Dome of the Rock now stands.

Did al-Malik build the Dome of the Rock to immortalize Mohammed’s night journey and ascension? There is no evidence that Muslims located "the farthest mosque" in Jerusalem when the Dome of the Rock was built. The association came three hundred years later. Even when Muslims began identifying Jerusalem as the place of "the farthest mosque," they did not consider the Dome of the Rock as the place from which the Prophet ascended into heaven. About A.D. 1200, Muslims built a smaller structure called the "Dome of the Ascension" next to the Dome of the Rock. Obviously, its builders did not consider the Dome of the Rock as built over the place of Mohammed’s ascension.

Why, then, did al-Malik build the Dome of the Rock? The building itself will tell us. There is an inscription in the Dome of the Rock that can help explain the building’s purpose. It is made of several passages from the Koran that challenge the Christian belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus:

People of the Book (the Bible), overstep not bounds in your religion and of God, speak only truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle of God and His word which He conveyed to Mary and a Spirit proceeding from Him. Believe therefore in God and his apostles and say not ‘Three.’ It will be better for you. God is only one God. Far be it from His glory that He should have a son. His is whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And God is a sufficient Guardian. The Messiah does not disdain being a servant of God nor do the angels who are near Him. And all who disdain His service are filled with pride. God will gather them all to Himself.

The Dome of the Rock, then, calls Christians to accept Islam and to recognize the true place of Jesus in the plan of God. Apparently the original purpose of the Islamic shrine was to emphasize the superiority of Islam over Christianity. The Dome of the Rock was built to proclaim the central tenets of Islam: the unity of God and the finality of Mohammed’s role as God’s prophet. It is a statement, in most tangible form, that proclaimed that the Arab conquest of what had been a Christian city for four hundred years had more than political consequences. It transformed Jerusalem into an Islamic city that is to proclaim the message of Mohammed to the world. Because the structure was built on a site that rabbinic tradition associated with Abraham, it also serves to coopt the patriarch for the new faith. Of course, the Dome of the Rock stands on the place where Solomon’s temple once stood. The Muslim shrine than implies that Islam has also replaced Judaism. Apparently, then, the original purpose of the Dome of the Rock was to emphasize the superiority of Islam over both Judaism and Christianity.

The Dome of the Rock symbolized a transformation of Jerusalem. What was a Jewish city, then a Christian city became a Muslim city. Jerusalem retained its Islamic character until the beginning of the twentieth century. Today the city is very diverse culturally and religiously. There is a small Christian population divided among Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian communities. There is a much larger Muslim population concentrated in the Old City and the neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem adjacent to it. The bulk of the city’s population is Jewish though not all are religious. Those who are represent the spectrum of Jewish observance from the Hassidic to the Reform movements. In such a context, it is not wise for any one religious community to claim a position of dominance to the exclusion of all others. All Jewish, Christian, and Muslim believers should feel comfortable in the city that they all regard as holy. Those secular Palestinian and Jewish Jerusalemites who do not follow their ancestral religious traditions need the freedom to call the city their home as well. Similarly, pilgrims to the city, whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, should experience Jerusalem as a mother welcoming them home.

The religious and cultural diversity of Jerusalem is, at the same time, its glory and its burden. Relationships among the city’s religious communities have not neem cordial. Still, if the city is to be a genuine home for all its citizens and visitors, it is important that these religious communities move even tolerance and respect to celebrate their common belief in the one God and the variety of ways they have developed in expressing that belief.

The Dome of the Rock was built to proclaim the superiority of Islam over Judaism and Christianity and to give Jerusalem an Islamic identity. The realities of life in Jerusalem today make claims of superiority irrelevant relics of the past that do not contribute to understanding, acceptance, and peace that should be the glory of Jerusalem today. Anything less is unworthy of the One God worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

copyright 1999

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