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Israel and its significance to Muslims

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By Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans

To ignore the significance of the land of Israel to Muslims would be not only to slight the world's third so-called Abrahamic faith, but to ignore the geopolitical realities of the Middle East.

Muslims, or adherents of the religion of Islam, are not very numerous in the United States (estimates hover around 3 million or less, though that number outstrips those in many mainline Protestant denominations).

In America, where it makes news when a Muslim wins a Congressional seat, (in the 112th Congress there were two), Christians and Jews dominate the dialogue about Israel.

But as some of the scholars and clergy interviewed for this series have pointed out, when it comes to resolving long-term tensions in the land considered blessed by all three faiths, Muslims, most specifically Palestinian Muslims, must have one of the two major seats at the table.

The links between Muslims, Jews and Christians were forged more than millennia ago, when, according to Islam, the Quran was dictated to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.

Considered the authoritative, infallible revelation of God, the Quran is rich in allusions to biblical characters, including Adam and Eve, Abraham, Lot, Mary the mother of Jesus, and other characters from the Christian Scriptures.

Moses is mentioned more times in the Quran than the prophet Muhammad himself, according to Islamic scholar and Imam Zaid Shakir of California's Zaytuna College. The Quran also quotes from the Psalms, the Torah (first five books of the Bible), and the Gospels in their "original" versions, Shakir adds.

Though there is no specific scriptural foundation for the belief, according to Khalid Blankinship, Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the sanctuary of Abraham in the West Bank city of Hebron, is the fourth most sacred site in Islam. It is considered to be the tomb of the patriarchs and their wives.

The "Sacred Mosque" in Mecca, Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (the Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina, and Al-Aqsa Mosque (the farthest Mosque) in Jerusalem are the three other sacred places, in descending order of sacredness" he adds.

"The al-Aqsa enclosure contains the Dome of the Rock as well as the al-Aqsa Mosque itself," says Blankinship, chair of Temple University's religion department. It is from the Rock that Muhammad is believed by Muslims to have ascended into heaven after his "night journey," says Blankinship, who cites this verse from the Quran ("His Servant" is commonly thought to be Muhammad): "Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al- Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing."

Because of these historic and spiritual connections, any Muslim whose life is dedicated to worshipping God views the area as significant, Shakir says. But, in a material sense, the land has an additional importance to Palestinian Muslims, he suggests.

"As the land is sacred to all three, everyone, regardless of their religion, should have the right to live in peace."

When Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together on the land as religious communities, there was a history of "peace and harmony and mutual respect" he says. But "when it became a nationalist issue … it became a conflict of particular intensity. "

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will be solved when Israel placates the Palestinians without being coercive, says Blankinship, who concurs with Shakir that the issue isn't fundamentally a clash of faiths.

"The rampant religion of the day is not religion, but nationalism," Blankinship says, one in which nationalists will use sacred texts to justify their own positions.

The only viable resolution, argues Shakir, is not a two-state or a one-state solution, but a "no-state" one, in which participants are able to "move into a new way of envisioning political community, not dependent on territory, but the human and religious experience of everyone who shares the land."

It is hard to imagine what that might look like. As Blankinship unspools the many complexities that attend the current conflict, it also is easy to become discouraged, mired in a morass of devilish detail.

But I keep thinking of something Muslim convert and local Lancaster supply imam Erich Scherfen says about the spiritual commonalities between the three faiths who claim the inheritance of Abraham.

"Jesus Christ himself was a Palestinian citizen (the Romans called Israel Palestine, he said, as a way of getting back at Jewish insurgents). If there had been such a thing as a passport, Jesus' passport would have had a Palestinian stamp."

Throughout history, adherents of all three faiths have known what it is like to be persecuted in the name of God, to have been oppressed by foreign governments, to have made huge sacrifices so that their heritage would be preserved for future generations. Will the universality of these experiences be enough to bring them together in tolerance?

While the path isn't clear, there is reason, if not much reason yet, to hope.

(Courtesy: Lancaster Online)
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