The Meaning of Jerusalem
Through My Mother’s Memories and My Faith
Dr. Imam Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
* Published in Saliba Sarsar and Carole Monica Burnett, What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (North Bethesda, Md: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Inc., 2021).
** Dr. Imam Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1970 and, in 1975, obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Arizona. He has taught courses on religion and science. He is author of Signs in the Heavens, co-editor of Islam and the West: A Dialog, and co-author of Islam and the Discovery of Freedom. He is currently President of the Minaret of Freedom Institute and the Muslim Chaplain at American University.
I am a Palestinian-American Muslim. Although I was taken away from it while still in my mother’s womb, Palestine is my motherland in a multi-dimensional sense. My mother was not only born and raised in Jerusalem, but she was named for it. Her name was “Qudsia,” the feminine form of al-Quds, “The Holy (one),” the Arabic name for Jerusalem. My father is from a small village just outside of Jerusalem, called Bir Nabala. The Israelis have expanded the boundary of the city to the point where it impinges now on my father’s village.
In 1947, my father returned to Palestine from America to find a wife. He had left Palestine while yet a boy. His parents had both died, and his eldest sister had to raise the family. His older brother Mustafa decided to come to America to earn money to support the family. At his sister’s request, Mustafa took twelve-year-old Hassan with him to make her burden a little easier, removing the about-to-turn-teenager from the passel of children for which she had to care. Now he was back, looking for a life-mate, and the college-educated city girl, school teacher, and radio pioneer (the first woman to read the news on Jerusalem radio) seemed the ideal wife to hold up under the cultural shock of a move to America.
My mother was pleased to marry this handsome and very intelligent, albeit uneducated, man, but she did not want to forsake her beloved homeland or the environs of the city for which she was named. If he wanted to marry her, he would have to stay in Palestine. He gladly agreed, and, in November 1947, they wed. And I took up residence in her womb.
In May 1948, less than six months into her pregnancy, the massacre at Deir Yassin took place. My mother had a student from Deir Yassin, and the stories of how the terrorists had split open the bellies of pregnant women to rip out the fetuses and stamp on them had their intended effect. She was terrorized, and she changed her mind. She would leave family and her ancestral homeland to come to a country she did not know to keep her baby safe from danger.
By the time she got her visa, my mother was too close to term to be allowed to fly on an airplane. They booked passage on the Marine Carp instead, and, ten days before the due date, I was born on board. I would not set foot on the land in which I was conceived until thirty-two years later. My knowledge of Jerusalem would come to me through my mother’s memories and the religion in which she raised me.
Jerusalem Through My Mother’s Memories
Raised in America, I envied my classmates who personally knew their grandparents. I knew mine only through my mother’s memories and a photograph of my grandfather in his fez and Ottoman mustache. He had been an assistant to the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, and his marriage to an Arab woman of Jerusalem spared his life from the anger of the mob during the Arab Revolt of 1916.
I had met only one of my maternal uncles, who had come to the United States to study. He passed on a flavor of my homeland through his playing of the lute, an instrument he left behind when his studies were done and he returned home. It hung on my mother’s wall until her passing, when it was inherited by my niece, now a musician in New York City. Of my mother’s other brothers, known to me only through her reminiscences, Lutfi was a memorable rascal. One time he got into trouble by sneaking up on a Jewish neighbor and clipping off one of his sidelocks.
My uncle’s juvenile mischief notwithstanding, the image my mother painted of the relations with her non-Muslim neighbors (the “People of the Book” as the Qur’an calls them) was warm and convivial. She would tell me how she would accompany her Christian neighbors as they walked the Stations of the Cross. Muslims do not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) had been crucified (for the Qur’an says that was only what God had made appear to be the case), but that did not stop her from sharing in the spirit of their holidays, as they would share in the Muslim Eids (feast days), when Muslim tradition demands that the meals marking the end of the month of fasting be shared with all close enough to smell the food.
In some ways, life in Jerusalem was atypical for my mother. She was a graduate of the Jerusalem Women’s College. A picture of her graduating class now hangs in my living room. There were only two dozen graduates that year, a testament to the rarity of higher education for women in Jerusalem in the first half of the twentieth century. Her family was too poor to send more than one child to college, and tradition would have demanded that it be Lutfi rather than Qudsia. But Lutfi was not the academic type and urged his father to let his studious sister go because she would appreciate it more. Fortunately, my grandfather’s good sense prevailed over tradition, and he conceded.
Once out of college, my mother not only took up teaching, but also got a job with the Palestine Broadcasting System. There she produced award-winning programs on the history of Islam and of the region. She even got to read the news one time when the regular announcer failed to show up. She did not enjoy the experience, as by that time the conflicts between the newly arrived Zionists and the indigenous peoples had become so seriously violent that, she said, she wept as she read the reports.
Her tears are another memory of Jerusalem. I cannot forget the day I came home from school to hear her crying. No child should have to hear his mother cry. It is for parents to dry the tears of their children. Young children do not know how to dry the tears of their parents.
“Why are you crying?’ I asked her.
“I am so homesick,” was her reply. She missed her family, her neighbors, the sights and the sounds of the holy city. I cannot remember if I was six or eight or ten when this happened. I only remember feeling helpless. It was something about which I could do nothing.
Jerusalem Through My Religion
When I was about to enter fourth grade, I began to ask my mother questions about religion. She gave me a copy of the Qur’an that included Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation into English. I began my serious study of Islam, which continues to this day. Within the narrative of Islam is a tale of three cities: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The significance of Jerusalem as the city of David, Solomon, Jesus, and Muhammad is the way it links three different religious communities into a single religious history. David, Solomon, and Jesus (peace be upon them all), who lived in Jerusalem, are mentioned more often by name in the Qur’an (16, 25, 17 times respectively) than Muhammad (four times, peace be upon him). And Moses (peace be upon him) – for whom the Holy Land was the object of his flight from Egypt, although he never made it to Jerusalem – is mentioned by name 135 times. Mary or Maryam, Mother of Isa or Jesus, is the only woman named in the Qur’an, with her name appearing seventy times. The 19th chapter or sȗrah of the Qur’an is named after her.
This significance is expanded upon by the Hadith (traditional reports about things the Prophet said and did) recounting his “Night Journey” to Jerusalem. The event is alluded to in the Qur’an in the passage (17:1): “Glory to (God) Who took His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque [Masjid-al-Harâm, in Mecca] to the farthest Mosque [al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem], whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who hears and sees (all things).” The traditions state that the Prophet was transported to Jerusalem (whether materially or in a vision is irrelevant to the point), where, united with all the previous prophets, he prayed together with them to the One God.
This significance of Jerusalem is also attested to by the fact that it was the original qibla, or direction of prayer. When the qibla was changed to Mecca, the Qur’an explained (2:142) that “To God belong both East and West” and (2:177) that righteousness lies not in facing a particular physical direction, but in belief and good deeds.
This significance of Jerusalem can be seen not only in the religious texts, but in Muslim history as well. When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattāb conquered Jerusalem in 637, he neither slaughtered the Christian inhabitants (as the Persians had done to the Christians when they conquered the city twenty-three years earlier and as the Crusaders did to the Muslims four centuries later) nor expelled them, but allowed them to remain. When the appreciative Patriarch Sophronius invited him to pray inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Umar declined, explaining that, although it was not forbidden for him to do so, he feared some future Muslims, more zealous about religious identity than observant of religious law, might use his having prayed there as an excuse to convert the church into a mosque. In later generations, some Christians accused Umar of betraying them by letting Jews into the city, but had he made any promise to keep them out, it would not have been legal under Islamic law.
My Visit to Jerusalem
Not until I was in my thirties would I finally set foot on the ground of my mother’s native city. My father had become afflicted with cancer and sought to cross a major item off his bucket list by taking his children to visit Palestine. My brother Maher, my new bride Frances (for whom this would be our honeymoon), and I eagerly accepted. After spending a week with some cousins in Amman, we would spend a week in the home of my mother’s big sister in the Old City.
When I told my mentor, Harvard Professor Robert Nozick, about my forthcoming trip, he urged me not to take as discrimination the close search we would receive from the Israeli border guards, assuring me that everyone, even Jews like himself, received the same scrutiny. I think he failed to notice some subtle differences in treatment. On the day we crossed over the Allenby Bridge from Amman to Jerusalem, I, with an Arab name, but traveling on an American passport and with an American accent, got through customs in 25 minutes. For my parents, with American passports but Palestinian accents, it took 50 minutes. For my cousin, a permanent resident of Jerusalem, it took the WHOLE DAY. Knowing that it would, she had left Amman after dawn prayers. We waved to her as she cooled her heels in the waiting room in the late morning, and she joined us in my aunt’s house for supper late that afternoon.
As we approached the city, our car, identified by the license plate color as owned by a Palestinian, was stopped by the Israeli police. When the officer poked his head into the car he saw my very American-looking wife in the back seat next to me and hastily explained, “I’m just checking to make sure your seat belts are fastened.” How thoughtful.
My aunt’s five-hundred-year-old house is ensconced within the walls of the Old City, near Herod’s Gate or Bab as-Zahra. Except for the master bedroom and the tabûn (a special kitchen for baking bread), every room is adjacent to the central courtyard, which itself is partly covered by a grape arbor. The grapes were not yet ripe, but had we come a month later, I think I could have just reached up and grabbed myself a fresh snack.
My aunt had always spoiled her little sister. Her hospitality, as well as that of her husband and their daughters, now was incredible. As Frances and I were newlyweds, they insisted we take the master bedroom, a lovely chamber with a cathedral ceiling. They did not want us to lack anything, which caused an awkward moment after our supper.
My aunt asked us what we wanted to do that evening, and Frances said she would like to go out for ice cream. A deathly silence fell upon the household. My aunt spoke little English, so finally my cousin explained the cause of their embarrassment: The ice cream parlor was in a section of the city closed off to non-Jews at night. “I don’t need ice cream,” Frances reassured our hosts.
The next day, we made our way past soldiers armed with rifles to a camp filled with “internally displaced” refugees. The day after that, Frances had traded in her touristy-looking straw hat for a Muslim style headscarf that provoked visible affection from the locals we met.
Then, we went to the market to engage in some old-fashioned haggling. My cousin had tutored me on exactly the tone of voice to take in responding to a shop-keeper’s opening price with an incredulous “shooo?” (“Whaaaaat?”) Frances admired an embroidered caftan. How much? They gave a price. “Shooo?” I said. I offered one fourth of what they asked. Impossible. They offered half. We walked out. They chased after us into the narrow old city street. OK. Deal.
One day we took a day trip to Ramallah, stopping at my father’s village of Bir Nabala. I finally was able to meet the aunt who had raised the family while her brothers went to America to support them. She had not seen her little brother in over thirty years. Every time my brother or I got near her, she would begin to whisper prayers over us.
Bir Nabala means “well of Nabala.” I asked if it were possible to drink of the water of the well. The locals seemed surprised that anyone would want to drink of the well water when piped water was available, but I insisted. The water was brackish, but to me the drink was a satisfying coming-home ritual. We then took a walk to the ruins of the house in which my father grew up, destroyed by an earthquake. Later I was shown the room in which I was conceived. Afterward I stood on the roof of that house and looked at the moon over the Jerusalem suburb and at a nearby hilltop where settlers were building their illegal homes.
My aunt’s neighbor was a professional tour guide, and we joined his tour starting at the Garden of Gethsemane. He said he always took his shoes off there because it is holy ground. We took in the panorama of the city below us, dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock. Beside it is the smaller silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Then, at prayer time on Friday we were there, less than a 10-minute walk from my aunt’s house.
As we entered the plaza, a Muslim guard shouted at Frances, but backed off when my mother shouted back at him. The Al-Aqsa Mosque was full, so I had to pray on the plaza between the two mosques. The women got to pray in the more impressive Dome of the Rock. I got to pray there later after it had emptied out. On my way in, I saw a hole in the wall made by Israeli fire during the June 1967 War. Mosque officials refused to repair it so that no one could ever forget.
Inside, I positioned myself so that I was facing both Mecca and the large rock where some believe that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him, mentioned by name in the Qur’an 69 times) prepared for the sacrifice of his son. The Qur’an does not name the son in question but, like the Bible, says it was his only son at the time. There was a time when Ishmael (peace be upon him, mentioned by name 11 times in the Qur’an) was his only son and never a time when his second son, Isaac (peace be upon him, mentioned by name 15 times), was the only son, so Muslims conclude the son in question was Ishmael. The fact that the Qur’an makes no mention of the name tells Muslims that the story of Abraham’s sacrifice is about the love of God, not about real estate.
I was removed from Jerusalem, but Jerusalem will never be removed from me.