Qanta A. Ahmed
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Part 4: The farthest Muslims

Part 4 of A Muslim's Requiem: Finding that the core of The Dome of the Rock suffers from decay that echoes the current state of Islam

After offering prayers in the Dome’s inner sanctum, Ibrahim, my guide, led me up the steps.

We were careful not to bang our heads on the low ceiling. Turning around at the top, Ibrahim pointed to the glass-enclosed roof of the cave, the Rock, showing me it remained intact. All I saw was a mass of electrical wiring.

The sanctity of the stone was lost amid a spaghetti of cables and energy-saving bulbs. I paused to  snap the fractured blue tiles bearing the Shahadah, quickly moving on with diminishing hopes of capturing some architectural beauty.

Upstairs, a maze of scaffolding interrupted the crude fans discrediting every edifice – so many barnacles pock-marking a long sunken ship.

(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Discouraged, I suddenly missed my architect father. He would have known each and every principle of the Dome’s construction. In,
naming every feature, he would have put language to the beauty of a magnificent past which, even if obscured by the ramshackle present, surely lingered here.

A maze of scaffolding (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
A maze of scaffolding (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Still, I did what I could. I walked around the Dome craning my neck, one hand on my scarf, the other on the shutter. Relying on the zoom of my camera, slowly, I spied  detail amid  debris. In the dim light alternating between the flickering glare of fluorescent tubes and the insipid beam of mismatched chandeliers once donated by vainglorious leaders but now devoid of light bulbs, I began to see. Shyly, the fading beauty of the shrine peered back at me.

(photo: Qanta Ahmed)
(photo: Qanta Ahmed)

I felt newly small below her vastness. Despite her mummification in slipshod scaffolding and swathes of canvas, the dowager Dome was still regal. As I followed Ibrahim, his detailed narration fell from my ears and soon I found myself in a labyrinth of childhood memories.

As we walked in circles, I revisited my girlhood filled with the mosques. Now, I walked in my father’s footfall surrounded by the striped arches of Cordoba, now I scurried in my mother’s shadow in Qum. In the stillness of the Dome, the sound of fountains returns. In the whispers of the worshipers, the embers of a Granada breeze stir against my cheek, the fragrant Generalife suddenly near. I am a tiny child gamboling on the green lawns of Jalalabad. I am a wide-eyed munchkin captured by bustling Tehran. In the stripes above, a gorgeous layer cake- the precision of a 16th century Mughal mosque in Thatta returns. There are so many memories.

As I circle the octagon, I traverse Islamic civilization, from Anadalus to Agra, from Muslim girlhood to Muslim womanhood. Mesmerizing, the Dome revolves, or could it be me?  I glimpse now the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, now the Blue Mosque of Isfahan, now the Baad Shaahi Masjid of Lahore, now the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal on the languid Jumna. Technicolor ceilings merge with the geometry of Mughal memory echoing the Lahore Fort. Mosques of my memory are vibrant blues and peacock greens, their terracotta meticulously striped, their calligraphy gorgeously mosaic-ed. In my memory, mosques had once been churches and churches had once been mosques. They unify into a dancing kaleidoscope. Empires had risen. Empires had fallen.  Always their buildings remained, sole, authentic historians.

And in my reverie, in my every memory palace: my architect aesthete father. Guide to his impish daughter of seven, he leads her this way, and that, as he unveiled to her the divine beauty only man can forge in earthly stone. Inscribing deeply in me the beauty intended by long dead authors, thirty-eight years on, because of my father, in this fading shrine I could still inhabit the painstaking glory of Islamic civilization at its long-past ascendancy. I know the beauty at the center of Islamic expression.

Grown, I have acquired my father’s habit of amassing buildings in my mind. The memories find me here on the Temple Mount, submerging my sorrow for the neglected elegy with tender hope. In this Dome, I relish my father’s legacy: his special attachment for the romanticism of crumbling architectures, which now to both of us communicate the peerless medium of enshrined beauty, a daughter’s most precious inheritance.

The ancient architects of Islam had possessed expansive imaginations, such appetites for beauty, but today, here, all that remained were the sun-bleached bones, the fading mosaics, the bald gardens, and unseeing visitors, few of whom could understand the beauty enfolding us.

Leaving the Dome, we walked South, on to Al Aqsa. It was hotter still. At the doorway, four men gently chatting took in the scene of the American tourist and her guide. Patiently, they waited for the Asr prayer. My spirits lifted. This was a more animated scene, their expressions, refreshingly benign.

As we walked in, my eye fell on the shelves of books encircling massive pillars. They looked suspiciously homogenous- copies of the Quran, all from the same publisher. No one had moved them from their place. Ramshackle shelves lay bare awaiting shoes of the faithful. We were between prayer times. Al Aqsa was empty.

Low domed roofs arched overhead, each rendered in the same limestone. Pleasing corridors stretched in longitudinal halls. Here and there, a lone woman studied her Quran. Other than that, Ibrahim and I were alone. We walked around the corner and, approaching a smaller vestibule, we confronted enormous columns. Their diameter deeper than the height of a tall man, they were disproportionate to the low roof. Each of the massive pillars were carefully supported by modern concrete abutments and steel girdles. These pillars looked much older. They didn’t belong to  Al Aqsa. Nearby, Ibrahim pointed out the roof overhead. A distinct break in the brickwork was evident.

The columns distinctly shown.
The columns distinctly shown. (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

“This was the entrance to the Second Jewish Temple that was here before Al Aqsa. You can see it is absolutely distinct.” And without doubt, it was easy to see, this had been a place of worship for Jews centuries before. Perhaps we were standing at the gate. Somehow, these hardy arches, these massive pillars had escaped even the Romans’ determined destruction of the Second Temple. Before this place was made ours, it had clearly been theirs. We were on borrowed ground. Incredible at something so ancient, confronted with the profound reality preceding Islam, we fell into the shared silence of young believers.

Distinct brick work of Jewish temple easily seen (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Distinct brick work of Jewish temple easily seen (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

Retracing our steps, we returned to the main level where Ibrahim pointed out the obscenely lavish series of pillars that stood in stark distinction to the main structure.

Mussolini's Pillars (photo: Qanta Ahmed)
Mussolini’s Pillars (photo: Qanta Ahmed)

“Gifts from Mussolini,” he explained. Il Duce had been currying favor with the then Mufti of Jerusalem, an overt anti-Semite and eager pro-Hitler fascist. The pillars of Carrera marble had been either a bribe or a pay off, possibly both. Either way, they were an architectural affront. In the austere seventh century structure, theirs was the clarion call for the marriage of arrogance and wealth that would come to define the modern petro-Islamic empire. After viewing the carved staircase of an imam’s pulpit, a gift from Syria, and studying the spectacular stained windows which had somehow remained intact Ibrahim asked me if I wanted to wait for Asr prayer. I did not.

Leaving the golden dome, it gleamed in the lowering sun; it’s radiance ever magnetic. Descending the steps, I stole a final, backward glance, just as I do whenever leaving Mecca. Framed by majestic, malachite Cypresses, the liquid disc was made a setting sun. I found my heart sinking in concert.

While the golden Duomo was indeed the jewel in Jerusalem’s extraordinary crown, today Israel’s very diadem, I had seen beyond the symbol. Today, rather than a treasure stewarded by God’s Vice-Regents, the Dome was no more than a cipher, a prize political pawn among Islamists. Hollowed by the modern Muslim world that dared lay claim to its legitimacy at the expense of its noble integrity, only memories of an extinguishing, romantic Islam now enlivened it.

From afar, our Arab communities gleam like the dazzling Dome. From afar, their golden wealth and power intimidates and defines. In our lurid gold self-reflection, we forget the Dome defines not one, but two peoples. Inside, the most cursory view reveals the patchwork of decay and neglect at our core. It’s not only Jews who mourn the Temple Mount, but Muslims too. While the followers of Moses weep for the destruction of the second Temple and before it, the first, the followers of Mohammed must lament the remnants of the last revealed faith.

Our spiritual values as modern Muslims have died under the suffocation of dim ritualism prizing external religiosity, ill concealing our barren souls. We wither under the impositions of a harsh, concrete Islam. The austere, if awesomely wealthy, Wahabiism has corralled the Muslims’ global public space at the expense of our noble history. Unchallenged, its Promethean clasp drains us of our last breath.

Little thrives under such dominance. Not even the fertile soils of blessed, God-given Jerusalem, nor centuries of prayers invested by the loyal-most Keepers of the Covenant in the pristine sanctity of this place, the holy of holies, not even in the seams of the sacred Rock that enclosed Adam, the stone that Gibrael strained to still as Barak ascended, the earth trembled and Mohammed was launched, not even the shade of God himself in which I walked at Al Aqsa that day- none of this can nurture us now.

Nowhere in my long ago travels and imperfect memory is the anoxia of Islamism more apparent than the spent bosom of the Farthest Mosque. Here, we have become the Farthest Muslims. I feel our departure most acutely in Jerusalem, the world’s gentle biographer, the beating, romantic heart of all belief, to all People, of all Books. Jerusalem, dear Muslims, is home to a gilded dome rendered hollow, little more than a fading husk to the richness once contained therein. She is ours no more.

This is the last of a four-part series about my recent visit to the Dome of the Rock, beginning with the first, A Muslim’s RequiemPart 2: Reaching the Dome, and Part 3: Inside the Dome

About the Author
Qanta Ahmed, MD, is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a life member, Council on Foreign Relations and an Honorary Fellow at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. She is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom'
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