In this episode of Islam on the Edges, Dr. Ermin Sinanovic talks to Dr. Hatem Bazian of the UC Berkeley and the Zaytuna College about Islamic Palestine and its place in Muslim theology, culture, history, memory, and future.
In yet another round of the colonizing violence against the native Palestinian population – both Muslim and Christian – it is tempting to reduce the situation to a political conflict. While politics is no doubt at the root of the current occupation of Palestine, what is often
forgotten is the place of Palestine in Muslim theology, history, memory, and imagination.
Salam alaykum! Greetings! And welcome to “Islamic Palestine,” episode 3 of the “Islam on the Edges” channel of the Maydan Podcast, a production of Maydan, an online publication of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. My name is Ermin Sinanovic. I am curator and host of “Islam on the Edges”.
Why talk about Palestine on the “Islam on the Edges” podcast? Is not Palestine at the center of the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim and has been so for many centuries? To begin answering this question, we should recall that the sacred area in Bayt al-Maqdis or Jerusalem is referred to in the Qur’an as “al-masjid al-aqsa” or the “farthest/remote mosque.” The edginess or the edge-nature of the sacred area in question is, then, established in Islam by the highest authority.
The other reason for it being included in “Islam on the Edges” is because there is a real fear and a possibility that Palestine may end up just like al-Andalus, “Muslim Spain.” What was once a thriving culture became only a distant memory. One should not let the analogy go too far though, for Palestine is too important to the Muslims to be lost forever – something, one must say in all honesty, al-Andalus never was or will be. The case of al-Andalus provides an excellent example of what happens when people are expelled from the land and when all that remains are distant memories and destroyed and repurposed buildings. By traveling to the edges of our memory we recover important artifacts that tie us to our present and future.
It is probably safe to say that many people, Muslims or otherwise, do not have strong knowledge about the central nature the sacred land in and around Palestine occupies in Muslim consciousness. In this episode, I talk to Dr. Hatem Bazian of the UC Berkeley and the Zaytuna College about Islamic Palestine and its place in Muslim theology, culture, history, memory, and future.
Dr. Hatem Bazian is a co-founder and Professor of Islamic Law and Theology at Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the United States. In addition, Prof. Bazian is a lecturer in the Departments of Near Eastern and Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2009, Prof. Bazian founded at Berkeley the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the Center for Race and Gender, a research unit dedicated to the systematic study of Othering Islam and Muslims. In 2012, he launched the Islamophobia Studies Journal, which is published bi-annually. Dr. Bazian holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Islamic Studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
[TRANSCRIPT] Islam on the Edges: Episode 3 – Islamic Palestine
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 00:08
In yet another round of the colonizing violence against the native Palestinian population – both Muslim and Christian – it is tempting to reduce the situation to a political conflict. While politics is no doubt at the root of the current occupation of Palestine, what is often forgotten is the place of Palestine in Muslim theology, history, memory, and imgination.
Salam alaykum! Greetings and welcome to Islamic Palestine, episode 3 of the Islam on the Edges channel of the Maydan Podcast, a production of the Maydan, an online publication of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University. My name is Ermin Sinanovic, I am curator and host of Islam on the Edges.”
Why talk about Palestine on the Islam on the Edges podcast? Is not Palestine at the center of the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim and has been so for many centuries? To begin answering this question, we should recall that the sacred area in Bayt al-Maqdis or Jerusalem is referred to in the Qur’an as al-masjid al-aqsa or the “farthest/remote mosque.” The edginess or the edge-nature of the sacred area in question is, then, established in Islam by the highest authority. The other reason for it being included in Islam on the Edges is because there is a real fear and possibility that Palestine may end up just like al-Andalus, Muslim Spain. What was once a thriving culture became only a distant memory. One should not let the analogy go too far though for Palestine is too important to the Muslims to be lost forever – something, one must say in all honesty, al-Andalus never was or will be. The case of al-Andalus provides an excellent example of what happens when people are expelled from the land and when all that remains are distant memories and destroyed and repurposed buildings. By traveling to the edges of our memory, we recover important artifacts that tie us to our present and future. It is probably safe to say that many people, Muslims or otherwise, do not have strong knowledge about the central nature the sacred land in and around Palestine occupies in Muslim consciousness. In this episode, I talk to Dr. Hatem Bazian of UC Berkeley and Zaytuna College about Islamic Palestine and its place in Muslim theology, culture, history, memory, and future.
My guest is Dr. Hatem Bazian, who is an Assistant Professor at Zaytuna college. He’s also a teaching professor in the Department of Near Eastern Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Bazian is an advisor to the Religion, Politics and Globalization Center at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2009, he founded the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at UC Berkeley. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Islamophobia Studies journal and founder and director of the International Islamophobia Studies consortium as well as a co-founder of Zaytuna college. Dr. Bazian, welcome to our podcast.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 03:32
Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 03:35
Absolutely. Dr. Hatem, I want to start this topic, talking about Islamic Palestine, by asking you about names and naming. What are the names of the historic areas of Palestine that have been used in Islamic history and culture, and which of these names do you think is most appropriate to use today?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 04:03
If we’re looking at the Islamic terminology that was used in relation to the area which we call Palestine, one is that you have the reference to masjid al-aqsa, which is the farthest mosque, that comes to us from chapter 17 of the Qur’an, where the first verse says, “Glory be to his name that transported his servant from the sacred precincts,” which is Mecca, “to the furthest mosque.” That would be the first usage, in terms of the area, within the Islamic textual tradition. Second, we have, in the Quranic text itself, the reference to this region as Bayt al-Maqdis, the house of sacredness or the sacred land or sacred place. I don’t think the term “holy” is used, Bayt al-Maqdis is the sacred house rather than the holy house. There is holiness in the sacred, but we’ll set that aside. The third terminology that comes to us early from early reference in Islamic texts is Aelia Capitolina, which is a reference to the city of Jerusalem as it was referred to with in the Mesopotamian period, which would be the early period of the contact between the Islam of the Arabian peninsula to the city of Jerusalem. These three references we see occurring: Bayt al-Maqdis, masjid al-aqsa, Aelia Capitolina, are in reference to Jerusalem in particular as Islamic texts or textual sources refer to it as such.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 06:17
I see. When the Qur’an refers to masjid al-aqsa and when the Muslims talk about masjid al-aqsa, what specific area is referred to? Is it synonymous with the Temple of Solomon? Is that it or is it something different? Obviously the Qur’an is referring to masjid al-aqsa, the farthest mosque, but somebody could say that there was no mosque at that time when the Qur’an was revealed, so what is it really referring to?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 06:51
Well, here, the idea of a mosque is not to be confused with the building that represents the mosque or represents the sacred. The reference to al-aqsa mosque also comes to us from a Hadith of the Prophet. The Prophet is reported to have said that the first place of worship that has been designated or placed on earth is the one in Mecca, which is the sacred house in Mecca. The second is the one that is in Jerusalem, which is al-aqsa mosque, and between them, in the Hadith it says, four years. The understanding of the commentators on the Qur’an (a number of commentators, I looked at almost 26 different commentators on that), some say that the first designation was actually during the descent of Adam to the earth. The first act of Adam was to locate a place where he would actually reconnect with the divine because it’s not only that there is a casting out of paradise, but also there’s a spatial separation. There is a Hadith or reference that the angel guided Adam to the location where the sacred house in Mecca is to be located as the sacred site. There’s that reference relative to Mecca and then the other is that there is the site in Jerusalem and, as such, that also would’ve been within the same time period of the Adamic presence. The second reference is in relation to Abraham, because the Qur’anic tradition said in chapter two of the Qur’an that God commanded Abraham to build the Kaaba, the sacred house, and to elevate or build the pillars of the sacred in Mecca. He is supported by his son, Ishmael, at the time to build the Kaaba. Similarly, Abraham is connected to the building and the look and the construction of the al-aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Now, whether that was designating the site or building is still subject to commentators.
The interesting thing is that, when Abraham arrived into the land of Canaan, the al-aqsa site or that plateau was already a site of religious observance. What we could point is that there is a pre-Abrahamic period in Jerusalem and that raises the question of the sending of prophets to mankind before the time of Abraham. So, there’s that aspect to it. When Muslims today speak about the al-aqsa mosque, they speak about the plateau that is about 139 acres that has many different buildings, nine different prayer niches or prayer sites, including many other areas in there. When the Muslims arrived in Jerusalem during the time of Omar, there’s a discussion that takes place that we find in the collection of Sahih Muslim as well as in Sahih al-Bukhari where a dialogue takes place between Omar and Sophronius, who was the patriarch of Jerusalem, on the one hand and then between Omar and Ka’b al-Akhbar, who converted to Islam and was in the company of Omar, of trying to locate the site of the sacred, where the Prophet ascended to the heavens from. This is where Omar actually, as well as the companions that were with him, searched to see what the Prophet described in terms of the rock that he had ascended from. In that dialogue, Sophronius supposedly invites Omar to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as the site of the sacred and Omar said, after looking at it, that that is not what the Prophet described. After a while, they come upon the plateau that, at the time, is described as a garbage dump, meaning that, in this ruin, there were not any structures in there. Omar identifies the rock that is on there that is where the Mi’raj occurred, the ascension to the heavens of the Prophet. Ka’b al-Akhbar enters into the conversation as the discussion evolves on where to build the mosque.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 11:59
Did he convert from Judaism?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 12:03
He converted from Judaism to Islam, so he was Muslim already. There was a conversation where Ka’b al-Akhbar gives Omar the idea of building the mosque behind the rock, and, in reference, he says, we combine between the qibla of David, which is a prophet of Islam as well in the Qur’an, and our direction of the Kaaba. So here, the reference to this being the rock or the site of the Prophet David comes from his understanding of the Jewish tradition as it relates to the sacred. Omar comes with the opinion that no, we will build the mosque, meaning the physical building, facing the Kaaba, and we will keep the rock behind us. The mosque, which we call the physical building, the al-aqsa mosque, is what we call in Jerusalem al-masjid al-qibli, which is the one that faces the qibla all the way at the end. It’s all the way at the end. Now, the Dome of the Rock gets built to cover over the rock that is the site of the ascension of the prophet during the mihrage. The question is is this the location of the temple of Solomon or not? This is where we have the reference from Ka’b al Akhbar in that dialogue between him and Omar, Omar does not affirm it or negate it, rather he actually takes the opinion that we should build the mosque facing the Kaaba, which is our direction of prayer.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 13:39
Thank you so much for that. I was struck so much by your connecting the prophets from Adam to Abraham to Ismael all the way to the Prophet Muhammed. What was really interesting is that I was reminded of the hadith where the Prophet had mentioned that he is the missing brick. You know, that example of me and the prophets who came before me is like a person who builds a house and then the whole hadith and he identified, it seems to me, the way you’re describing sacred history. In some ways, it seems to have been missing in the Old Testament’s and the New Testament’s presentation of that sacred history is Ismael’s side of the story. That side of Abraham’s progeny, which seemed to have closed the circle with Prophet Muhammad. Anything that you can think of and connect it to the sacred history and into the history of bayt al-maqdis.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 14:44
Well, as far as the Muslims’ view of the lineage of prophets or the prophetic tradition is that Muslims believe in all of the prophets that have come before the prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an mentions 25 by name, but in the prophetic tradition, there are actually over a hundred thousand prophets that have been sent to mankind. The Qur’an affirms this, that there isn’t a people except that God has sent them a messenger or a prophet to speak in their own tongue. Islam affirms the continuity of the prophetic figure as the conduit for divine communication to mankind and guidance. In relations to the Islamic tradition, both Abraham and Ishmael play a prominent role in the emergence of the sacred in the Kaaba or in Mecca because Abraham takes his wife, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, and locates them in the barren valley of Mecca.
Thereis the miracle that is attributed to that episode of Hager and Ishmael, where she is in this barren valley and they run out of water. Hager runs between two Hills searching for water, looking for help, and, miraculously, the water of Zamzam springs with a miraculous intervention of angelic intervention and the water of Zamzam comes out of there. It is upon that episode that Mecca develops and a whole tradition of linking back to Abraham through Ishmael develops, the lineage that from it comes the Prophet Muhammad, thus connecting the Abrahamic tradition to the Islamic tradition. When the command to Abraham comes to sacrifice his son, the dominant opinion in the Islamic tradition is that Ishmael was the subject of the sacrifice because he was, at the time, the only son for his father and, as such, the command to sacrifice is attributed to Abraham and Ishmael, and it is occurring in Mecca. There is also a minority opinion within the Islamic tradition that still affirms and says that it was Isaac and the location being in Jerusalem. So here, the Islamic tradition does not, in essence, negate or attempt to isolate in any way the continuity of revelations beforehand and relating the sacred to all of the prophetic figures. They are seen to be a brotherhood that was sent by God to mankind for guidance. Each one of them has the central messages of the oneness of God, of living ethical and moral life in accordance with the settled laws of Wednesday, and to uphold the responsibility of being the witness of God on earth. In this sense, that’s how you could connect the sacred in relation to both the locations as well as the lineages that we speak about. It is the propensity of human beings to try to use bloodlines or, what you call a prototype of nationalism, the tribe and relationships as a way to isolate themselves from the broader humanity. I think the Islamic tradition is counter to that, even though some within the Muslim world might take this as their way of expressing their uniqueness, but I think the Islamic tradition, textual and otherwise, is a countermeasure to it.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 19:02
Thank you so much. I think that was really important, connecting the sacred histories of Mecca and Jerusalem. Dr. Hatim, I’m sure you’re aware of the sometimes deliberate efforts to minimize or negate the importance of al-Quds. That is to say that it’s really ephemeral to Islamic theology and culture that somehow Jerusalem is not as important to Islamic theology and culture as, for instance, Mecca and Medina. Can you please enlighten us about what is the actual place of al-Quds in Islamic sources?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 19:40
I think we have to look at it again in layered and also in historical continuities. One, when Muslims read the narrative of Abraham, they’re not reading the narrative of a foreigner, they’re reading a narrative of a prophet of their own. When they read the narrative of Moses, they’re not reading Moses as a foreigner, they’re reading Moses as a prophet of their own. When they read the narrative of Isaac, of Jacob, of Solomon, of David, of Jesus, and all our prophetic figures. One of the most dominant narratives in the Koran is the narrative of Moses. For Muslims, Moses is a prophet of Islam because he glorified the oneness of God and was sent to assert this narrative. That’s one aspect of it, that all of the prophetic figures that traversed, lived, and received revelation in Palestine are part of this Islamic narrative.
Second is that there are at least two chapters in the Koran that are dedicated to al-aqsa, dedicated to the sacred in Jerusalem, chapter al-isra, which is the night journey, and the chapter of an-najm, the star. Both chapters of al-isra speak of the night journey where an-najm speaks of the ascension. There are those two important chapters of the Qur’an that relate. Broadly speaking, there is a whole prophetic tradition that speaks about the uniqueness and the special status of Jerusalem and the special status of the sacred connected, both in terms of what Muslims should do to express the affinity to the sacred and, more importantly, also things or developments thereafter in Islamic history, as well as scenarios pointing to the end of time, type of religious dedication to the sacred. All those are intertwined.
Lastly, I would say that Muslims who engage in spiritual journeys, there is a considerable focus on the literature in Muslim sacredness, whether you speak about Sufism or purification of the heart and so on, the mihraj, which is the ascension, plays an important role in much of the literature. For example, many of the masters of spirituality, they’ll say your prayers are a form of daily ascension. You come into encounter with the divine as you prostrate in the same way that the prophet went into the outermost heaven and engaged with the divine. Much of the literature on spirituality is actually connected to Jerusalem, connected to the sacred in there with the understanding that Jerusalem does present a gateway to the heavens because the Prophet ascended to the heavens, ascended to divine presence from that location. There is an understanding of a miraculous celestial gate that connects the temporal to the divine presence in the heavens and it is located in Jerusalem. All this is an expression of how Muslims relate just to Jerusalem and to the outside as the site of sacredness.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 23:45
Yeah. Thank you so much. Let’s move to the post-prophetic history. I know I’m asking a lot now in this question because I’m asking you to give us, in a few minutes, an overview of pretty much the whole Muslim history, but if you could, maybe in a few points or bullets, tell us how have different Muslim administrations treated this geographical area starting with the Rashidun, the rightly guided Caliphs, Omar comes to Jersualem (we already talked about that), then later the Abbassids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans. How did they treat this geographical area? Did this geographical area have a special place and in what sense?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 24:32
I wanted to begin this conversation with the following, that the population of Palestine embraced Islam at the hands of the Prophet. We get a delegation coming from Palestine on the ninth year of the hijrah to meet the Prophet in Medina and embrace Islam at his hand. We have that reference in sirat sham as well as in other historical texts.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 25:06
This is known as the year of the delegation.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 25:09
Year of delegations where the delegation comes and one of the more important figures is Tamim bin Awsidari, who leads one of the leaders of the delegation that comes to meet the Prophet, who was a knowledgeable person of the biblical text, meaning he was Christian and leading a delegation. They embrace Islam, which would be about 10 years before the arrival of the Muslim armies during the reign of Omar for what we call Islamic conquest. It’s important in this, because there’s often this conflation between Muslim military arrival with Islamization, that in here what we have is Islamization in Palestine that occurs before the arrival of Muslim armies. In the Caliphate of the Rashidun, Jerusalem played an important site because it was understood to be a sacred site both at the time of Omar and Uthman, less so at the time of Ali because Ali’s reign was a very difficult period, almost five years of an intense civil war, so not only did Palestine and Jerusalem take a back road, even Medina itself was ransacked during the later days. Ali had to take his supporters and move to Iraq, so the sacred in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem took a back seat. You could say that the Umayyad period was where Jerusalem and Palestine played an important role. During the reign of Muawiya, the narrative relative to Muawiya, and you could read it in ibn Kathir or even Tabari, that Muawiya used to spend six months of the year in Jerusalem rather than being in Damascus. He would spend time in Jerusalem and spend considerable time attending to the architectural construction of Jerusalem in the way that we see it today and it really owes a lot to the Umayyad period around from 680, 685, where the plans for really building the al-aqsa mosque and then the Dome of the Rock. The Umayyads actually are credited for building the two main buildings that have the Dome of the Rock itself and the al-aqsa mosque, and that became a focal point because they are really, especially the Dome of the Rock, architectural masterpieces in terms of their construction. It’s one of the early monuments or early sacred monuments that are built in Islam. I also look at it as an early form of interfaith debate because on the outer walls, or outer surroundings, of the Dome of the Rock is written the chapter of Mariam, the mother of Jesus. It’s a nod to Jerusalem having a Christian population. Across the road, on the other side is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, so there was a form of using architecture in order to engage in interfaith dialogue.
Today, we do that on Facebook and Instagram, but, back then, the building itself architecturally was a form of religious debate. When the Umayyad lost power to the Abbasids, Jerusalem actually faced dark consequences because the center of Islamic rule shifted to Baghdad in Iraq. It wasn’t until after a period of time, almost after the first hundred years of Abbasid rule, that the attention to Jerusalem gets renewed, where some of the early tension that was present between the Umayyad and Abbasid receded, the Umayyad have lost their power, and the Abbasid became confident, and cemented and stabilized their rule, attention to the sacred actually began to shift to redevelopment and reconstruction of the al-aqsa mosque and the sacred compound.
There were a number of earthquakes that took place that damaged the building and, at a certain point, the Abbasids were actually turning away from sending the resources that are needed to reconstruct the damaged property, but then later on, they actually brought the resources that were needed. You can see that there is a shift between the Umayyads and the Abbasids. During the crusades period, Palestine, and in particular Jerusalem, gets to be really transformed in the sense that for 92 years, the al-aqsa compound was the headquarter of the Knights of the Templars, who were the the Knights of the crusaders, who transformed the al-aqsa mosque into a church and also used some of the facilities for their own forces. For 92 years, al-aqsa mosque was not used by Muslims, who were prohibited. It was transformed by the crusaders as well as many other religious sites that were Muslim sites, which came to be destoryed and damaged during this period.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 31:16
I’m glad you’re bringing that up because when people are talking today about the occupation of Palestine, this is not the first time that the Muslims had local control over that territory. If you could reflect briefly on the similarities and differences, to what extent is the current occupation similar or different to the crusaders’ occupation of Palestine?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 31:44
Palestine has been the crossroad of the contestation of powers and attempts to lay claim to it from the earliest periods in history and, therefore, the arrival of the crusaders, which was one of the most violent periods, and, not to discount the current period, in relations to the history of the region, the crusaders, in their own records, said that when they conquered Jerusalem, they put the sword to everybody in the city. The record is that blood was running all over the city.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 32:25
They also killed Christians.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 32:27
Muslims, Jews, the wrong Christians, because Eastern Christians were seen to be wrong Christians, and also as they came, through their march from Europe, in any area that they came across, whether it’s Syria or Anatolia, they actually wreaked havoc throughout the regions that they came through. The crusader period was a destructive period in Palestinian history, but you could also compare it to the current destruction that has been visited by Zionism. I would say the crusaders claimed that they had sacred rights to Palestine and, therefore, coming to the sacred was a way to absolve their sin as well as to rectify their relationship with God, that this was a sacred mission that they were undertaking and, as such, everyone that is not of their kind of faith has to be killed and eliminated.
One could say that Zionism today, in essence, operates under a manifest destiny that claims that God gave them this this land and are using a form of ethno-nationalism in order to lay claim and evict and ethnically cleansed the population of that land as a way to say that this is a way for us to articulate our relationship to the sacred. Jerusalem and Palestine are going through a similar experience to the crusades and from the vantage point of the Palestinians, when they look at Zionism and they look at Israel, they are making the comparisons between the ravages that were brought on by the crusaders and that are brought out by Zionism. The fact that Zionist Jews experienced antisemitism in Europe, for the Palestinians, that is just not a cause for them to face the suffering or to face the ravages of Zionism in order to absolve European history of what they have done to the Zionist Jews who came into Palestine. There’s a rationalization of why we’re doing this because of what happened to us. This is a causality that is being used to rationalize rather than to actually understand the dynamics and its effects on the Palestinian.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 35:11
If we fast forward to today, who is in charge of Islamic sites today considering that Palestine does not have a proper government who is in charge of the endowments? I’m sure you’re going to connect this to the Ottoman period and the break with the Ottoman period as well in the area.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 35:37
It’s good to start with the Ottomans. During the period of the Ottomans, beginning from around 1516 or 1517 and onward, the Ottoman reconstructed and re-invigorated the structure of awqaf in Palestine. When we think about the old wall of Jerusalem, they reconstructed the wall and fortified it. They made a point to actually set up a whole network of awqaf, especially to serve the pilgrims because the pilgrimage caravan used to gather in Damascus and then the Ottoman caliph would come and lead the caravan either to come back to stop at Jerusalem first or in the way back, you stop at Jerusalem. There’s this tradition of building awqaf to serve the pilgrims, which connect us also to the Moroccan community, to the Indian community, to the Bukhara community, to various communities. Jerusalem’s uniqueness during the Ottoman period is that each of the communities built awqaf to service their pilgrims and those who want to come and spend time at the sacred and, in particular, to speak about the Moroccan quarter, which was completely wiped out during the post-1967 Israeli occupation of Jerusalem. The courtyard that today we look at and say, “this is the wailing wall courtyard.” That courtyard was actually all Moroccan endowments, the early part was set up by <inaudible> as well as Muhammad Marinee. They were Moroccan and set up awqaf there to serve the pilgrims that will come from Morocco on the way in and the way out. The Ottomans set up an administrative structure that divided the region into what we call sanjak, which is like a county or a state type. You’ll have the Jerusalem sanjak, you have the Anabolis sanjak, you have the Gaza sanjak in the south, and then sometimes the sanjak of Beirut or Tripoli will actually have part of the Northern part of Palestine, so administratively they set up this structure.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 38:16
And in the Balkans as well.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 38:18
It’s their administrative infrastructure. Appointments to positions, whether it’s the Mufti positions or the overseer of the religious endowments, they used to send annually what’s called the surah, which is the allocations that were to be distributed, the governors to be appointed as well as the army appointees who were being appointed in there. That was the administrative, even though we know that in the 19th century, the Ottoman’s went through a whole bunch of reforms, endowment reforms was one, but there are records that there was systematic attention to the religious sites and they administered them in a really careful way to make sure that the sacred is always attended to. As the British came with the mandate, the British began the process of undoing and administratively transforming Palestine and making it possible for the take over of vast public land and assigning it especially to Zionists, and began the whole transformation, geographical transformation, administrative transformation, legal transformation of Palestine.
Once we get into the Israeli occupation of 48 and 67, one part of the arc of the 1948 is that Israel usurped and took over a vast number of religious properties and endowments. Hundreds of mosques were actually either completely demolished, wiped out, or also taken over by Israel in 1948. There is actually an interesting book on sacred monuments in Palestine published in 1925. It’ll be an interesting research idea, I don’t know if I have the time, to go and actually trace the sacred sites that were enumerated in 1925 in the text and see where they are at right now, which gets me into the administrative structure. How is al-aqsa mosque administered now? Supposedly, al-aqsa is under the administrative responsibility of the Jordanian government. This is as a result of Jordan taking over the West Bank post-1948 and becoming the effective governing authority from 48 to 67 and, post-1967, continued to allocate the resources, make the appointments, even take care of the educational infrastructure, all of that was managed by Jordanians administratively. By 1987, when the first uprising took place, Jordan disconnected itself from responsibility for all of the West Bank, but maintained the authority to administer the awqaf in Jerusalem.
Jordan still is the recognizable authority for administering the al-aqsa mosque. Moving to the Oslo agreement, the Oslo agreement created the Palestinian Authority. Within the Palestinian authority, they also set up a ministry of awqaf. You see it often that there is a Mufti that is appointed from the Palestinian Authority and there is a Mufti that is appointed by the Jordanians to oversee the awqaf. This is, I don’t want to say the chaos, but it’s the unique circumstances that you find relative to the administration of al-aqsa mosque and how the Jordanian government, which has the official recognized responsibility, and then the Palestinian Authority that is attempting, or at least is in a position to, also lay claim to representation and attention to al-aqsa mosque.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 42:50
If one is to go to Palestine today and speak to the Palestinians and you yourself are of Palestinian origin, how does Palestine, especially Islamic Palestine, live in their memory? How do they recall it? To my understanding, a place continues to exist as long as it continues to exist in people’s memory. Even though many of the lands in the area are occupied physically, how does Palestine, especially Islamic Palestine, continue to live in that memory?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 43:26
I could answer this question from the most recent response, both of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in Gaza in 1948. I do think that Netanyahu himself has made a massive miscalculation. He thought that he would instigate the current round of assault, abuse, and violence against the Palestinians in order for him to possibly improve his political standing as two days prior to the assault on al-aqsa compound area, the Israeli president assigned the responsibility to form a new government to the other political party since Netanyahu failed to form a government and Netanyahu is facing two massive corruption cases. He’s been delaying this for some time under the understanding that he has immunity as long as he’s serving in a prime minister position. I’m saying this because he miscalculated, he thought it would be business as usual. We will swing our muscles, that the police will harass the Palestinians, sharpen the support to the settlers, and this will actually get his political fortunes to be higher
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 45:22
As he had done many times before in the past.
Dr. Hatem Bazian 45:25
Not only him but Ehud Barak and others. It’s again, as we know, you flex your muscle on the Palestinians and you’ll get the cheering crowd. Racism works and we also could see it work in many places. What was interesting is that this occurred during the month of Ramadan, where usually people spend most of their time in reading the Qur’an and in attending the mosque and, in particular in Jerusalem, people spend their time in al-aqsa mosque, some of us almost 24/7. Many of the Jerusalem families, as well as families from 48, they usually come and break their fast in Ramadan in the courtyards, as you will have these what you call communal iftars that take place. For the Palestinians, while the national identity is there, you cannot speak of Palestinian national identity without the sacred, without Jerusalem, without al-aqsa.
Palestinians response to the Israeli assault is that “Yes, we are weakened by the occupation. Yes, we might not have all the abilities of freedom of movement and the amenities to live as other people around the world, and you might have the gun to our chest and our head, but our relationship to the sacred is literally a red line that separates our relationship to Zionism and Israel to our relationship to God.” Therefore, people’s response was commensurate to their imagination of the relationship of the sacred because they see themselves– the Kaaba is said to be the house of God, but also the Palestinians as it relates to al-aqsa mosque, they see themselves as the people of God sitting and protecting and preserving the sacred and the gate to the heavens between the earth and heavens, and they see themselves as upholding that relationship. When the Israeli army attempted to disrupt that imaginary trust, it transformed into an immediate response of people. That’s what you witness in terms of that imaginary that is always there being activated. I don’t think there is a return back to the period relative to what the Palestinians are experiencing today.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 48:14
That’s really a fascinating answer, providing a good overview of the political theology undergirding the Palestinian worldview. When we talk about Palestinians, obviously we’re not talking only about Muslims, we’re talking about Muslims and Christians as well. So, Dr. Hatem, as we are getting closer to ending our podcast, maybe I can ask you this final question and that is how is Islamic Palestine to be preserved for future generations? What is our collective obligation toward it today?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 48:52
In terms of preserving Muslim Palestine, I do think it begins with Jerusalem. It begins with an al-aqsa mosque. It begins with understanding both the sacred significance of this location and also thinking of the historical continuity there. For example, many read Ihya ‘Ulum al Din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) of Muhammad al Ghazzali, who wrote it in part in Jerusalem when he spent his time in there, then spent sometimes in meditations in Damascus. You cannot read that literature without looking there at the centrality and the history of this place. Part of it is preserving that relationship. Muslims should also actually also think of the massive footprint of sacredness that is infused throughout the lands. I think for those who do research, and again, speaking to individuals who are interested in research and work, researching all the sacredness that are there, there’s often a propensity for much of the focus on Palestine is only to think of trying to locate the biblical text and, important as it is in terms of reading and thinking, but there is a much richer, as well as continuous, historical linkages in there that are infused with almost 1400 years of actual detailed history that needs to be navigated. For those who are engaged in work and research, to think about those components and every part of it could be subject to investigation. Another area that I’m also interested in is the area of researching, documenting, and reviving the whole infrastructure of awqaf that is there, both from the early period, the Ottoman period, but also new awqaf that needs to be set. For example, individuals who are in the business of digitizing manuscripts since Palestinians often have been subject to massive violation of their academic and intellectual capacity to the level of stealing their own books, so preserving our written material, digitizing them and making those collections as part of the way to engage with Muslim Palestine is very important for us to do so and really engage with. The last thing that I encourage is for Muslims to visit Palestine, to express solidarity, as well as relating to Palestinians, but this should not be done under the whole rubric of normalization and trying to think of Palestine and Palestinians through Zionist lens. If you were thinking about, let me take a trip and go hand in hand with my Zionist colleagues, this, I would say from as aPalestinian, is a non-starter because you’re violating their call for centering Palestine and Palestinians, especially as we are experiencing a period of intense apartheid and intense human right violations. If you want to visit and experience Palestine through Palestinian eyes, spend time with Palestinians, spend time in Palestinian facilities, hotels, and with Palestinian people that take you to tour, to fuse yourself with what does it mean to actually look at Palestine through Palestinian Muslim, as well as Christian, eyes. I would say increasingly some of our Jewish allies that want to pursue a decolonized vision of Palestine and their relationship with the Palestinians. That’s what I would recommend.
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 52:56
To be more specific and maybe to conclude on this, what are the areas or the places not to be missed if one is to go and do exactly what you just said? Obviously people are going to go to the masjid al-aqsa, the Dome of the Rock, the obvious, but what are some of the other sacred places that you think anyone who wants to learn about the Palestinians, and especially Islamic Palestine, need to visit?
Dr. Hatem Bazian 53:26
You for sure have to visit al khalil, people know it in English as Hebron, which is a problem in terms of terminology itself. Al Khalil is the site of the burial of the prophet, Abraham, and his family. It is also the location of the oldest continuously managed waqf in Islamic history. This is the endowment that was set up by the Prophet to Tamim bin Awsidary and the Palestinians. They still run one of the oldest soup kitchens in the world. When you visit there, you actually are served a soup from the endowment that has been continuously in existence there. You could actually visit there, to visit some of the sites in Nablus as well. It has prophets, there are attributions to the graves of Prophet Yusuf and, in the valley, there are a number of religious sites and sacred sites that you could visit.
I would also recommend for people to visit the Christian side because for us also, Jesus is a prophet of Islam. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, to visit Bethlehem, Nazareth, all those places. For individuals who are interested in the crusaders and Saladin’s history, you could also visit some of the Crusader castles that straddle the border on Jordan and Palestine as well as in the north, but also going to the areas on the coastal areas where some of the endowments from the time of the Ayyubid dynasty into the Ottoman dynasty. Visiting the city of Acre, which actually defeated Napoleon for those who study Napoleon’s genius, the Palestinians defeated Napoleon and he had to trail back to Egypt and the British confronted him right there at the coast of Alexandria in Egypt. That’s also a site of resistance, and not only in relations to Napoleon, but also in relations to the early periods of the British and Zionism as well. There are many of these locations.
Then if you go down to Gaza, Gaza is also known as Gaza Hashim, who is the grandfather of the Prophet that is buried in Gaza and it’s been old, a historical site of trade, as a point of departure to link to North Africa as well as up the coast to go up to Europe for the trade that was coming through the Red Sea or through the Indian Ocean. There’s such a rich history. I recommend that people visit the oldest olive tree in the world, which is approximately 6,500 years old. There’s places to live and to go and visit in that way as well,
Dr. Ermin Sinanovic 56:27
While you’re making me want to go right now, if only the conditions allow and permit all of us to go and visit very soon. Thank you so much!
I’ve been talking to Dr. Hatem Bazian of the University of California, Berkeley, and Zaytuna College on Muslim Palestine for the Islam on the Edges channel of the Maydan Podcast at George Mason University. Thank you so much, Dr. Bazian.