What does the Covenant of Omar teach us about religious co-existence?

Abrahamic religions are more similar than they can possibly fathom, even if their politics are worlds apart today. The so-called “religious” war between the Jews and Muslims is nothing but ironic, and self-destructive.

Starting off with their common ancestor Abraham, in the Quran, he was depicted as a “hanif” – a staunch believer in the Oneness of God, and in Judaism, to quote Ab. V. 29 and Ber. 6b: “Whosoever has a benign eye, a simple heart, and a humble spirit, or who is humble and pious, is a disciple of Abraham.” Another biblical figure,David, who is a king in Judaism and prophet in Islam, later founded the Holy Temple which houses the foundation stone for Abraham’s sacrifice.

For the Jews, Jerusalem had since been, and remains to be, the first and only center of religion and culture for Jews, even if most where in exile for nearly 4,000 years. For the Muslims, “Bayt al-Maqdis” was first mentioned in the context of the former direction of prayer for Muslims who used to follow this Jewish tradition. In fact, one of the primary reasons it was changed to Mecca was to distinguish those who practiced the new Islamic faith from the Jews.

Given these religious facts alone, the God of Abraham does not seem to contradict Himself. How exactly did one’s religious site become another’s, or a better way to put it is, when did it become shared?

An oft-forgotten authentic narration from Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal recounts how the beloved companion of the Prophet Muhammad, Omar, conquered Palestine. Omar was said to have consulted Ka’ab El Ahbar, a Jewish convert, about where to build “Al Aqsa” to commemorate the Prophet’s miraculous night journey. Ka’ab pointed to the site of the foundation rock, to quote: “so that all Jerusalem would be before you;” but Omar refused, saying: “You correspond to Judaism! (Mosnad Ahmed Ibn Hanbal).” To quote an influential Sunni scholar, Ibn Kathier: “He neither exalted it, by praying and it is before him, as Ka’ab, who belonged to people exalting it that they had made it their direction of prayer, had suggested… because it is the direction of prayer of the Jews (Tafseer Surah Al Israh: 1).”

Omar’s peculiar decision to not build Al Aqsa on the current location of the Dome of the Rock is consistent with a similar story of religious freedom in Bethlehem. Omar refused to pray inside the Church of Nativity, lest in the future, Muslims might use it as an excuse to destroy the church. This agreement with the Patriarch became known as the “Covenant of Omar” which stood for religious freedom of Christians. His protection is the main reason why the church still stands strong today right across the Mosque of Omar, which was donated by the Greek Orthodox Church in honor of the caliph.

Today, as the Dome of the Rock sits atop the foundation stone, the contended mosque is not as religiously fundamental as the Masjid Haram in Mecca, nor the Al Aqsa built 50 years earlier. When it was built by the Umayyad caliphate in 691 CE, it simply marked the development of a new Islamic center from Jerusalem’s Judeo-Christian past. However, it is already historically significant as the first dome ever built in Islamic architecture, at the very least.

Whilst there is no turning back time to follow the Caliph’s, or even Muhammad’s words hundreds of years ago, how then can the spirit of the Covenant of Omar be realized today?

In the global arena, one key actor is UNESCO, the United Nation’s heritage agency. In late 2016, UNESCO fueled the fire after passing a resolution that solely emphasized the Islamic heritage of Jerusalem. In the 80s, the holy city was simply celebrated as a World Heritage Site for all 3 Abrahamic traditions: “Among its 220 historic monuments, the Dome of the Rock stands out: built in the 7th century, it is decorated with beautiful geometric and floral motifs. It is recognized by all three religions as the site of Abraham’s sacrifice (UNESCO, 1981).” There is also potential for Jerusalem to be modeled the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which was initially built as a Hindu temple, later transformed into a Buddhist monastery. UNESCO commemorates it for the glory of an entire Khmer civilization, neither Buddhist nor Hindu, but at the same time, it remains to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the dharmic religions (UNESCO, 1992). The East Gallery houses an inscription of the early 18th century Buddhist monastery and the Hindu epic of the Mahabharata is honored in the West Gallery.

Today, the Dome of the Rock is under Jordanian administration, with Israeli security control. It is usually open for public viewing except after Friday prayer, with worship exclusive to Muslims alone. Israeli and Palestinian security ask visitors to recite the first verse of the Quran, Al Fatihah, before proceeding – which is not far from putting metal detectors, on a spiritual front. There must be a way for the most sacred part of the Temple Mount to be accessible for all believers, should they want to, whilst preserving the status quo for less contended mosques and synagogues, with the likes of Masjid Aqsa and Kotel. After all, even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, at the second Islamic conference at Lahore, acknowledged that “AI-Quds is a unique symbol of the confluence of Islam with the sacred divine religions (OIC 1974).“ At the same time, as the state of Israel prides itself as the only liberal democracy in the region, it should eliminate its own versions of politicizing religion through the unresolved issues of illegal settlements and East Jerusalem, which remain to be impediments to peace in Jerusalem.

The very heritage that Abraham left behind was monotheism, which supposedly transcended idolatry, tribalism, and such forms of political other-ness. In the words of the Sufi Sheikh Bawa in A Letter to the Leaders of the World: ”Jerusalem should be a sacred shrine, a place where the entire human race can worship God in peace (1979).” Hence, the only way to venerate the House of the Holy is not by forcing illusory borders upon it, but by upholding the very prayers that blessed the land.

How would Abraham have worshipped at the Temple Mount? Would a synagogue and mosque, make it any less holy? 

Jerusalem was the place where humanity discovered formal religion, and where it remains to be learned.

About the Author
Regine is a peace activist and a fellow for the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She graduated with an MA in Conflict Resolution from Brandeis University, and the Program on Negotiation of Harvard Law School. Having been raised Christian in the Philippines, with a Jewish ancestry, a student of Sufi Islam, Regine embraces her multi-cultural heritage as she travels the world, learn different religions and cultures, cook global cuisines, and catwalk fashion trends.