For some years the gentle rhythm of the Jewish calendar has whispered in my Muslim ear. As my many Jewish friends around the world make their various observations — whether in degrees of devout orthodoxy or — in their own words – ‘culturally Jewish’ but ‘avowedly secular’, it has over the years become impossible for me to ignore the arrival of this, the holiest time of the Jewish year.
It was in South Carolina that I first attended Shabbat services. It was in New York that I first learned of Selichot. It was in Ra’anana, Israel that I first fasted on Yom Kippur. It was in Long Island that I first recited the Kaddish, as we buried my rabbi. It was in Boston that I first celebrated a Jewish marriage. In the intervening years I have grown to anticipate and enjoy the arrival of Rosh Hashanah — the Head of the Year — and the Days of Atonement which immediately follow. As I watch my friends retreat into private observations and reflections, I too reflect, and account, hoping my name might also be recorded in the Book of Life anew.
My Jewish year began with a Jewish wedding in Tel Aviv, Shabbat in Melbourne and Sydney, memorial services in Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz as I marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, springtime in Jerusalem joining others in combating anti-Semitism, my witnessed commitment to defend the vulnerable as I accepted an Honorary Fellowship at The Technion-Israel Institute of Science and Technology, and an East Coast summer considering my contribution to honoring Jewish memory with colleagues at the Shoah Foundation.
In between, I have practiced medicine and Islam. I have observed Ramadan, performed my salaat and, as every Muslim with means is required, spent freely in the name of my Maker. Though not a Jew, increasingly I find my Muslim life enriched by the Jewry surrounding it, my Islam informed by the mysteries of the Jewish year experienced through the Judaism vividly embodied by the diverse Jewish people who accompany me in this life.
How different my comfort with the proximity of Judaism to my Islam, a proximity which constantly deepens my attachment to my own faith as well as the faith revealed to us by Moses’. Judaism increases my understanding of Our God and expands my dimensions of Islam. How stark a difference this comfort in Jewish solidarity shown to me from the televised discomfort, the rage of Muslims rejecting Judaism at its epicenter, the self appointed Sentinels purportedly ‘guarding’ Al-Aqsa from the Jewish people, from the Keepers of God’s Covenant. How their aversion recoils, where my attraction draws me nearer. How their rejection colors hatreds violently, as my belief is calmed and soothed by Jewish love. How their repulsion of our sibling and ancestor faith, in one of mankind’s holiest places, an aversion so deep their sibling brethren are utterly unknown to them and through their unseeing eyes, they remain unknown to themselves. How detached these Muslims from the knowledge that Judaism is Islam’s predecessor, the Torah among our Divine Books, Judaism’s tablets, then texts, our Informer, its laws our commandments, its covenants, templates of our foundation, its laws our precedents, its followers, like us ViceRegents of our Maker, no less than our sacred flesh. While I have been circumnavigating the globe deep in the Jewish Diaspora, at the epicenter of Jewish spirit, at the center of Abrahamic faith, the forces between Muslims and Jews repel both peoples magnetically asunder.
As I watch the reports of upheaval at al-Aqsa, the new Jewish year has commenced with turbulence. The discovery of explosives inside the third holiest site of Islam, the IDF’s confiscation of these items to ensure the peace, the incendiary retaliation these measures triggered, sufficient to trigger an EU call for calm and firebrand Iran to demand an OIC Summit, bring me both despair and desolation, my memories of my own visits to these places newly vivid.
My first visit to al-Aqsa, and to the Dome, and to the Kotel was in the month of May just two years ago. Because I am privileged in the eyes of Israel as a Muslim, I could visit, and worship at all three, while I could not offer the same opportunity to a Jew. Accompanied by my Israeli guide, a Jerusalem born Muslim, Ibrahim Ghazzawi, I still feel the sharp rejection of the bearded brotherhood sentry at the Dome of the Rock, my humiliation as the sentry challenged and rankly tested evidence of my Islamic identity while Ibrahim tried hard to shield me from such ignominy.
The experience tainted my entire visit to the Dome of the Rock. Even deep inside the cave within the Rock, as I prayed the harassment continued. As Ibrahim stood respectfully to one side to avoid observing my prayer (as is customary for a Muslim man) he was ceaselessly heckled by boorish Muslim women chastising him for not praying.
Later approaching the Kotel with my handwritten page-long prayer, I was struck by the contrast, the quiet acceptance among Jewish women I was afforded at the Kotel. Women who asked not whom I worshiped, nor how I prayed, but merely understood through my gestures my desire. For them it was enough that I wished to stand among them as we prayed to our Maker.
As the columns of women parted, I walked between mothers and grandmothers, daughters, young charges, often sons watched by their young sisters. I invited no harassment, no scrutiny, no challenge, no rancor. Each instead engaged in her religious study, whether ritual prayer or wordless contemplation, the youngest cradled in their mother’s arms, dozing in the innocence of their wordless reverie.
Covering my hair, I chose to emulate some of the other women, and pay homage to my Islam, which requires women to cover their hair in worship. Around me others continued bareheaded. No woman judged another. No woman questioned another’s legitimacy. No woman doubted another’s sincerity. Deep into the phalanx of Jewish womanhood, I was simply gently enfolded – their Judaism, my Islam, a perfect fit. Quietly they moved back and forth, to the side and to behind, as they made room for Muslim hands to shyly touch the Holy Kotel, for a Muslim woman to deposit her private prayer to the God of Abraham and Moses and Mohammed deep into a crevice, to allow her space to supplicate in the rudimentary Arabic that was her language of prayer, and for brief moments, even to pause for a photograph which now hangs here in my home. Moving away, my eye drawn upwards by thoughts celestial rustling through the whispering of the breeze, high in the ancient wall I spied another mother, a dove, nestling, as though peace had come to partake of the view.
In contrast, the territorial and ruthless domination of the public space, of public worship, of external religiosity, is a hallmark of Islamism. The policing of belief, and that of believers, is an archetypal feature of Islamism. Forbidding worshippers from entering holy sites in Islam, including non-conforming or pluralist Muslims who reject both the ideology and accouterments of Islamism is an impassioned pastime of fervent Islamists who foolishly believe only they are the keepers of our Maker, only they are the arbiters of faith only they the guardians to our Creator.
The rise of the female Sentinel now identified as an outlawed group in Israel but embodied by angry orthodox veiled women abusing, intimidating, spitting upon and harassing Jews visiting the Temple Mount is a desecration of my Muslim faith. Unfortunately, I too have collided with Sentinels, which I more accurately describe as Religious Police. I have experienced them first hand not only in Saudi Arabia but in the holiest sites of Islam- inside Mecca and Medina itself.
Listening to my Jewish friends who are Israeli speak of their tours of the Temple Mount and the harassment others in the group faced by such Sentinels at al-Aqsa, I am catapulted to my own harassments at the hands of similar Muslims. On most occasions, in my experience it was Muslim women who harassed me, whether in Mecca and the Al-Aqsa, but also Medina.
My offenses to their Sentinel eyes were countless. My veil: improperly secured. My visible ears: an affront to my maker. My trousers: an abomination. My nail polish: haram, sufficient to bar me entry to Medina after a 700 km drive to the Mosque. Wisps of my hair peeking from my forehead: an affront to another woman’s worship as we retracted the steps of Hagar in the Holy Mosque in Mecca. Even my knowledge of Islam was suspect after I recited the Surah Fatiha to the sentry guarding entry to the Dome of the Rock. Each of these Muslims, whether Palestinian, Saudi or other nationals was appointing themselves arbiter of my faith, intermediary between myself and my Maker and obstructing my efforts to worship my Creator — the ultimate desecration of Islamic belief, which like Judaism, demands no obstacle between believer and Maker.
The intimidation my Israel Jewish friend witnessed transpiring on a male Jew in his tour group affronted me even more than it did either man. Such intimidation is not the work of a ‘Guardian’ of Islam but the work of Blasphemy, where the believer appoints himself to the Majesty and Authority only our Maker can have. Only our Maker can know if prayers are accepted or rejected if worship is legitimate or debased. al-Aqsa, under Muslim Jordanian jurisdiction has been made, by the actions of Islamists a symbol, not of Islam but of Islamism, not of worship, but of war, not of limitless vistas in which to remember God, but a hollow symbol cheapened by the feeble efforts to ‘copyright’ , and co-opt God for territorial mandate. Nothing could be less worthy of Islam, let alone of the third holiest site of Islam, triptych to Mecca and Medina.
That women choose to go forth as Sentinels is additionally horrifying because I like them, am a Muslim woman. Paramount to the conduct of Muslim women, like Jewish women, is dignity. There can be no dignity in protesting, harassing and intimidating fellow believers. No dignity in spewing expletives, in ugly gesturing, in bullying and domination. No doubt puppeteers for these women calculate the difficulties Jewish men and Jewish soldiers will have confronting an impassioned woman and in this way these faith illiterate women in their efforts to Objectify AlAqsa are themselves objectified further.
My despair deepens further when I think of neighboring Qatar, which, at the behest of a thoughtful Christian, demonstrated an Islamic ideal – pluralism- in a decision to share the public space with the Christians who make their home in Qatar- a decision made by a Wahhabi cleric no less. September 13th, 1988 marked the first time Catholic Holy Mass and Christian Service was publically observed in Qatar. Since then the Catholic Church in Doha has continued to offer services to Qatar’s Christian population. Other denominations soon followed suit, and Christian service has since become an integral part to Qatar’s theocratic Wahhabism, the official state religion. Where once the State police harassed attacked and even arrested Christians in worship, they now protect Christians and guide traffic on days of Christian observation. Qatar’s arrival at this moment, an aberration in comparison to the surrounding Gulf Arab States, is the outcome of a Christian’s literacy in both his own Christianity and his host nation’s Islam.
The Authors of “Persecuted” by Paul Marshall, Nina Shea, and Lela Gilbert record the events well in an arresting section amid their compelling narrative of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Egyptian Born Christian Ambassador Joseph Ghougassian, appointed US Ambassador to Qatar, began dialoguing with the Qatar head of the Sharia Court, the authority which controlling all aspects of religious expression in Qatar. That he could dialogue in Arabic and with deep insight of Islam- a function of his pluralistic upbringing in Muslim Egypt- ensured the Sheikh of Qatar’s Sharia Court was clear on the implications of preventing Christian worship in Qatar.
Ambassador Ghougassian recorded the delicate dialogue, spanning months, in his book ‘The Knight and the Falcon’ which challenged the Saudi principle of banning Churches in the Kingdom and the claim that ‘infidel Christians and Jews’ – while recognized as People of the Book in the Quran, are excluded from the Saudi Islamic Kingdom even though such borders never existed in the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed. At first the Qatari Sheikh contended that Christians were banned from worship in Qatar for the same reasons- that Christians not defile the Islamic State of Qatar. Appealing to the religious sheikh’s sensibilities would however require reframing, something the Ambassador because of his understanding of Islam, was more than capable of doing. Quoting the Ambassador at length is appropriate here:
Well, Allah forbid, if you were to die tomorrow,’ said the Ambassador to the Sheikh, and you appeared in front of Allah, do you think Allah would be pleased with you? Do you think Allah might complain by telling you ‘My son, what have you done to those hundreds of thousands of Christian Souls who lived and worked in Qatar when you were the head of the Shariah Court? Look in the Jahannam. There they are. Because you prohibited them from openly professing their faith and performing their religious duties before me, they forgot me, stopped worshipping me, and went astray on the wrong path.’
Struck for the first time by his sense of responsibility to his Maker not only for Muslims but for all believers, the Sheikh agreed, and Christian Worship with State sanction was established in Qatar. I would ask the same question of those Muslims prohibiting Jewish worshipers from their silent heartfelt prayers, from their return to their spiritual origins in the ruins of the second Temple. We must as Muslims ensure they have the same freedom to profess their beliefs as God demands of them. If we obstruct their communion with the Maker, we are no different than the worst authoritarian theocracies far too numerous in the Muslim Majority world. Islam is too powerful to need guardians, too expansive to compete for territory, too everlasting to benefit from the futile snarl and bite of a self-appointed Sentinel. True, eternal honor of Islam comes when we, followers of Islam, honor those alongside us, whatever their path to our Maker.
This is my prayer in these Days of Awe. This is my appeal, as I reflect and account for my actions. That for each and every Jewish person at these times of holy worship, reflection and redemption, we as Muslims might welcome them as gently and wholeheartedly at the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa on Mount Moriah as I was once welcomed at the Kotel.
Only then can we honor the spirit of our Creation — as a reflection of our joint Maker and as blood-siblings in faith, recognizing the holiest site of Judaism predated the birth of Islam by centuries. Anything other is mere objectification of a site which has been held holy for centuries before, and since, Islam, and to make justification of such objectification is not the work of Islam, but the mark of Islamism, an Islamism which seeks not only to eject the believing Jew from his holy worship but the believing Muslim too. Make no mistake, this is not Islam, This is Islamism. And of Islamism and its insatiable quest for cultural domination, there can be no more Sentinel sign than this.