We arrived in Jerusalem at about 3 a.m. We were among a group of 50 pilgrims comprising Americans and Canadians for whom it was like a dream come true, a lifelong wish fulfilled! Spiritually, it was an almost incredible stroke of good fortune that it happened to be the 27th night of Rajab – the night our Holy Prophet Muhammad (pbuh – peace be upon him) had been taken on his miraculous journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and then to the heavens, nearly 1500 years ago.
In the worldly sense, another historic event was the fact that our visit to Jerusalem coincided with Pope Francis’s first ever visit to this holy city. In fact, it was the first visit by any Pope after 1964.
During our brief stay in Jerusalem, we could feel the tense atmosphere in the Muslim quarter. It was painful to see check posts at all the entry points to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The history of Jerusalem is full of conflict, violence, death and destruction. This is in sharp contrast to the sanctity of this holy city for three Abrahamic religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Let us briefly look at the significance of Jerusalem for all these three religions.
Jerusalem is the third holiest city for Muslims after Makkah and Madinah. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was taken on his miraculous journey from Makkah to Jerusalem in one night. There he met all the prophets and led them in prayer after which he was taken to on a journey to the heavens, all in a matter of one night. Qur’anic verse (17:1) refers to the “the Farthest Mosque” (Al-Aqsa Mosque).
The two part journey, termed as “Al Isra Wal M’iraj” is a great source of knowledge and inspiration to the Muslims. It is a comprehensive source of knowledge as we get a detailed account of ‘the guided tour’ of the Heavens given to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in which he was shown symbolic incidents signifying reward and punishment for various acts and deeds. This miraculous journey is a source of inspiration to the Muslims as it affirms the special status and protocol bestowed upon Prophet Muhammedd (pbuh) while being taken to the highest heaven to meet with his Lord.
Part of Jerusalem's significance and holiness to Muslims derives from its strong association with Abraham, David, Solomon, and Jesus. They are all regarded as Prophets of Islam and their stories are mentioned in the Qur'an.
Jerusalem served as the first ‘Qibla’ (direction of prayer) for Muslims for many years unitl in 625 AD they were commanded to face ‘Ka’aba’ in the city of Makkah.
In Judaism, Jerusalem has been the holiest city and the ancestral and spiritual homeland of the Jewish people since the 10th century BCE. The city of Jerusalem is given special status in Jewish religious law. In particular, Jews outside Jerusalem pray facing its direction.
Jerusalem has long been embedded into Jewish religious consciousness. Jews have studied and personalized the struggle by King David to capture Jerusalem and his desire to build the Jewish temple there, as described in the Book of Samuel and the Book of Psalms. Many of King David's yearnings about Jerusalem have been adapted into popular prayers and songs.
According to the Hebrew Bible, the First Temple, at the site known as the Temple Mount today, was built by King Solomon and finished in 950 BC, and Mount Moriah is where Abraham almost sacrificed his son and talked to God.
In Christian tradition, Jerusalem's place in the life of Jesus gives it great importance, in addition to its place in the Old Testament. Jerusalem is the place where Jesus was brought as a child, to be "presented" at the Temple (Luke 2:22) and to attend festivals (Luke 2:41). According to the Gospels, Jesus preached and healed in Jerusalem, especially in the Temple courts.
Some of the most significant holy sites in Jerusalem include the location of ‘Last Supper’ of Jesus and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
In recent times, the situation around Al-Aqsa has remained very precarious, to say the least. It is most disturbing to imagine that such a revered place of worship should be ‘held hostage’ due to the hostilities between two faith groups. Like Al-Aqsa, peace and tranquility must be restored at all holy sites, rather the whole of Jerusalem and its surrounding areas.
If there is any city that deserves to have peace and tranquility, it is Jerusalem. All the three great religions teach love, mercy and compassion. However impractical and impossible it may sound, there is no harm wishing for peace, dreaming for peace and praying for peace.
The people of the region need peace. The people on both sides of the conflict need peace. War and conflict does not benefit anyone while peace has its dividends in shape of progress, prosperity and development. We hear many inspiring stories about peace and friendship every day – let us build on those stories and sow the seeds of peace and friendship. Eventually, PEACE will prevail InshaAllah (God Willing)!