Whatever one does, one always rebuilds a monument in one’s own way. But something has already been gained if we use only the original stones.
The problem that everyone faces in writing about the Dome of the Rock is that so few ‘stones’ remain from the first century of Islam. Why was it built then; what did it mean to the Muslims who built it? We know so little, and so much has been irretrievably lost. Most of what we do know began to be written down a century after the events described. So how can anyone, writer or scholar, go about building their monument, their own account of how the Dome of the Rock was imagined into existence?
Fiction is a device for stepping into a breach that scholarship will never be able to fill. Not any kind of fiction, but a fiction of assembly. I have of late seen myself as piecing together stories culled from the literature of three religious traditions, as though I were making a mosaic. You find a piece, smooth and perhaps trim the edges, then try to shape it to fit your own fears and desires. The result is new – unmistakably so – but new in a way that mimics the assembly of a building to a new plan using the detritus of greatly esteemed predecessors as its raw material.
This way of telling a tale, not coincidentally, is also used by the protagonist of my novel, a learned former Jew from the Yemen, Ka’b al-Ahbar, who may even have been a rabbi, and is said to have accompanied the Muslim Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab when he came to and conquered Jerusalem in 638. Jewish and Christian sources tell us nothing about Ka’b. The little we know comes from Islamic literature, in which he occupies a shadowy place (highly respected at first, deeply compromised in later sources). As far as we can judge, Ka’b is the oldest Muslim authority on Jewish scripture and the source of many, if not most, of what Muslim tradition has to say about the significance of Jerusalem. It is reasonable to suppose that he, or someone like him, was the source of much of the ‘rock lore’ on which Islam’s first monument was built.
Ka’b arrived in Medina around the time of the Prophet’s death in 632. In one version of events, he accepted the prophecy of Muhammad during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr (632-34). Mu’awiyya, a contemporary of Ka’b and later the founder of the Umayyad Caliphate, is reported as saying that Ka’b ‘possessed knowledge like fruit, but we were remiss in accepting it from him’; he adds that Ka’b was ‘the most reliable of those who pass on traditions on the authority of the People of the Book, but in spite of this we used to test him for falsehood.’ Was this last clause a later addition to what Mu’awiyya actually said? Or was Ka’b seen this way by his contemporaries? The task I set myself in writing about Ka’b was to allow for both possibilities while sticking to the ‘fact’ that Mu’awiyya, and after him his protégé Abd al-Malik, the caliph who built the Dome of the Rock, held Ka’b in extremely high regard.
I imagine him as a qassas, a popular storyteller and preacher. Over the centuries these people have had different roles, from interpreting sacred texts to telling stories like the Thousand and One Nights. Many have been charlatans. This isn’t to say that Ka’b wouldn’t have taken his storytelling as seriously as his listeners, for whom it was a way of learning to understand the great metaphysical questions. He dealt in a genre of stories known as Isra’iliyat (Judaica), which fell into disrepute some time after his death. I imagine Ka’b, always aware of what he thought his audience wanted to hear, cobbling together elements from the Bible, the Koran, rabbinical literature, southern Arabian folklore and his own likes and dislikes. I think of him as an entertaining rogue, a man with an agenda but also someone who enjoyed playing to the gallery. In its early years, Islam would have needed men like him to flesh out the religion’s appeal and give the Prophet’s message a cultural framework wide enough to attract converts beyond bedouin Arabia.
What kind of Muslim was Ka’b? He had, after all, converted only on the eve of Umar’s departure for Jerusalem, and may even have been compelled to do so by his puritanical and ascetic protector. He was by then an old man, perhaps in his seventies or eighties. However, we know that allegiance to Muhammad as God’s Messenger was all that conversion to Islam entailed in those early years. You could be a Muslim and continue praying towards Jerusalem, as all Muslims used to do in the first years of Muhammad’s mission. And Muhammad’s followers are said to have fasted on the Jewish Day of Atonement. In fact you could probably be a Muslim and a Jew at the same time so long as you accepted Muhammad as a true messenger from God. Historians have argued that Jews used to read the Torah in Hebrew and interpret it to the Prophet’s followers in Arabic. And we know that a very early Christian Church historian, Sozomen, had already commented on the deep affinities between the beliefs of the Arabs and those of the Jews, affinities that are hard to imagine today.
The larger point I am trying to make is that being a Muslim or a Jew in the seventh century was nothing like it is today. Sibling rivalries, which took two hundred years to solidify into distinct and antagonistic religious identities in the case of Christianity and Judaism, were in a state of flux at the time of the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. It isn’t even clear that there was any rivalry over Jerusalem.
Umar went to the city at the invitation of Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, a stubborn old Greek born in Damascus. Sophronius was about to do the hardest thing he had ever been called on to do: sign a treaty surrendering the seat of his patriarchate to an upstart conqueror, a desert chieftain and barbarian. It is unlikely that he knew anything much about Umar or his religion: the Koran had not yet been put together as a book.
At the time of this encounter between the leaders of Christianity and Islam, Palestinian Jewry was in decline: there had been forced conversions and massive persecution over the previous two centuries, culminating in massacres of Christians by Jews and of Jews by Christians during the interlude of Persian rule between 615 and 630. The emperor Heraklius, who ended Persian rule, carried out a pogrom of Jerusalem’s Jews just before his own defeat at the hands of Umar’s bedouin armies. We know, from his own words, that Sophronius blamed the Jews for the Persian sacking of the city. The sources tell us nothing about an encounter between Sophronius and Ka’b, but we can assume that Sophronius would not have taken kindly to the presence of Ka’b al-Ahbar at the moment of his greatest humiliation.
Muslim and Christian sources agree that Sophronius took Umar on a tour of the Holy City, and that Umar, who visited many fine churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was really interested in one site only: the Temple Mount. At the time of the Muslim conquest the Temple Mount was the city dump. Whether this was a deliberate insult to the Jews is unclear, but in spite of Sophronius’ attempts to dissuade him, this was where Umar insisted on going.
The first thing the Muslims did was to clean up the Temple Mount. Since 692, it has been graced by the Dome of the Rock, the oldest Muslim monument and Muslim civilisation’s first great work of art, a building that looks today almost exactly as it did when it was completed. The evidence suggests that it was not built for the reasons Muslims now give, but rather to celebrate and revere a Jewish holy site, the last remaining vestige of the Temple of the Jews, a relic that Jewish sages since the second century had invested with such importance they called it Even Shetiyah (‘the Rock of Foundation’), the navel of the universe, the site of Abraham’s sacrifice and many other things besides. There is good reason to think that, thanks to men like Ka’b, at least some of these associations were in Muslim minds when the Dome of the Rock was built. But all this has now been forgotten by both Muslims and Jews, erased from their historical traditions. Ka’b, a renegade from the faith, is not to be found in any Jewish source.
The contribution of marginals like Ka’b has gone largely unappreciated by Muslims, in part out of a fear of undermining the authenticity of the Muslim claim to Jerusalem. I believe that were it more widely known it would have precisely the opposite effect, but the present mindset is such that in the summer of 2000, a senior Palestinian negotiator asked his Israeli counterpart: ‘How do you know that your Holy Temple was on the Haram?’ Such attitudes make a nonsense of Muslim tradition. It is in no one’s interest to forget that the Dome of the Rock is a Muslim monument built by Christian craftsmen to celebrate a Jewish holy site.