Review of the paper on the Dome of the Rock and its Arabic text from the Omayyad period

Nasir Khan, August 21, 2016

This is a scholarly paper, originally in Swedish, authored by Lars Djerf in which he has concentrated mainly on the Arabic inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock (DR), their meaning and purpose in a wider political and religious context at a time when Islam had emerged as a dominant political power and religion in the Middle East by replacing the Byzantines in the region.

His presentation of the material is systematic and well-grounded in historical researches and important sources throughout the paper. The interpretation of the Qur’anic texts on DR takes into account the cultural context as Ludwig Wittgenstein had advanced in his views on ‘language games’. Philosophers belonging to different trends in the Continental and Anglo-American analytic philosophy have generally accepted the insights Wittgenstein provided about the working of languages in varying social contexts. The author emphasises ‘understanding intentions and actions’ while interpreting the Arabic texts. In a historical narrative, a text needs to be understood in its social and cultural context to see and analyse the intentions of the original writer.

The author has given a good summary of the condition of DR before Caliph Abd al-Malik (reigned 685-705 AD) started the construction of DR. He discards the view that the Caliph wanted to replace the Meccan shrine with a new structure at DR, as some people have suggested. In fact, much false propaganda is still found about this great caliph. Some have even argued that Abd al-Malik was the real founder of Islam and not the Prophet Muhammad! However, there is little support for such views in serious scholarship on the early history of Islam.

Islam arose in Christian and pagan environments. During the early centuries of the Church numerous Christological controversies arose. During the life of the prophet Muhammad, the controversies about the nature of Jesus (whether he was a man, a divine god or both) were widespread throughout the length and breadth of the Byzantine Empire. Christology had become extremely polemical and led to unending conflicts between different Christian sects.

However, the Qur’an offered a different view of Jesus from the ones professed by Christians. The author has discussed this point adequately and shown why the Qur’anic verses or paraphrases of the Qur’anic texts were meant to offer a theology that emphasised the humanity of Jesus and his prophthood. After the peaceful ‘conquest’ of Jerusalem by Caliph Omar in 638 AD, Islamic political power was established there. At that time, Jerusalem was mainly a Christian city.

By the time of Caliph Abd al-Malik Islamic power was stabilised and the Islamic empire had expanded vastly. Now the task for the new rulers was to assert the uniqueness of Islam as the true religion that was open to all others. The selective Arabic texts from the Qur’an were meant to show what Islam taught about Jesus. In a way, the message of Islam for Christians and Jews was there on DR for all to see. The pure form of monotheism (belief in only one god) that Islam represented was not reconcilable with the Trinitarian godhead of the Church.

In Iconoclastic controversy that lasted 120 years within the Byzantine Empire, St John of Damascus (c. 675-749 AD) defied Emperor Leo III and came firmly in support of icons. The work of St John of Damascus as the defender of orthodox Christianity was to combat Islam, which he termed as the ‘heresy of the Ishmaelites’. He did not see Islam as a new and independent religion. In fact, for him Islam was one more heresy within Christianity.

The author in his conclusion shows that the motives behind the inscriptions on the DR were purely missionary. Having shown what the Qur’an says about Jesus, a great and venerable prophet, the message to all was to come to Islam.

The author has written a commendable paper that contributes to our understanding of the interaction between Muslims and Christians. The attitude of the Omayyad caliphs of Damascus towards Christians was one of toleration and respect. They held high official positions in finance and public administration.

Photo: The Dome on the Rock, Jerusalem
No automatic alt text available.

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