In 2012 I had the blessed opportunity to once again visit the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, on my return I had a dream that I was praying in the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. At that time, I had the opinion that I would one day visit the mosque and Jerusalem once they were freed from Israeli occupation, and now that I think about it I can’t quite remember why I had that opinion. That changed however once we heard Habib Ali Jifri talk about the topic. Last year the Radical Middle Way hosted a two day seminar studying the twentieth book of Imam al-Ghazali’s ‘Revival of Religious Sciences’, during the course one of the African scholars present asked Habib Ali to talk about and discuss his recent visit to Palestine and al-Aqsa, something I was unaware of, and had apparently been taken as quite controversial. Habib Ali explained why he went and why he encouraged all Muslims who have the ability to visit Palestine should do so, God willing I will explain the points he made in a subsequent post, and from that point on why I now feel the same way. After Habib Ali finished it was clear to me that I needed to make the intention to visit the mosque and the people of Palestine with or without Israeli occupation. The biggest hurdle was to convince my parents, but after some substantial period of time, and by elucidating Habib Ali’s comments to them, my father eventually agreed. The cheapest flight available to Tel Aviv at the time was in December of this year, and with that we were booked.
On arriving in Israel/Palestine the main issue is dealing with Israeli border “security” if you are a Muslim or someone with Arab descent. A quick look through the internet will reveal a number of people’s experiences and encounters in dealing with entering and leaving Israel. One of the first ones I came across was on Mondoweiss about two girls’ ordeals of Palestinian origin. To know the full extent of what Israeli security will do to probe your personal life that article is a good reference. I had arrived fully prepared for their questioning, having removed any emails and posts on Facebook they would have found disliking to their tastes. However in the end they only kept us for around an hour, which is a relatively short time for being questioned by the state of Israel. I’ve had friends who I know personally kept at the border with Jordan for 14 hours, and another friend kept for 6 hours at Tel Aviv before being told he would be deported in the morning. Their main questioning was around family history, father’s name, grandfather’s name, if I knew anyone in Israel or Palestine (I was surprised the Shin Bet officer questioning me even used the term ‘Palestine’), relatives in Pakistan, their contact details blah blah blah. I complied with their requests as I knew this was part of their strategy to deter people from visiting al-Aqsa and that I had nothing to hide from them (mainly because everything I did have to hide had already been deleted). Eventually they asked me for all my email addresses, including work and any old teenage emails and all my mobile phone numbers. After that I eventually received my passport back with a blue coupon confirming I had been granted access to Israel, and surprisingly I got it back before my father’s. One piece of advice is to recite Ayat al-Kursi and verse 9 of Surat Ya-Seen before getting into any kind of situation where you don’t want people to pay attention to you and if you want to be hidden, this may have been the reason why we ended up not having to stay very long at the airport.
The following day was our first full day in Palestine, we stayed in East Jerusalem in an Arab owned hotel just outside the old city walls. The old city itself is typical of medieval Muslim cities, however it’s not as spread out and complicated as Fez, so making your way around is not too much of a problem (if you know what to expect from a medieval Muslim city). Our first stop was al-Aqsa where I could finally fulfill the intention for my trip. All the gates are policed by the Palestinian Authority, who check to see if you are Muslim, giving your name as ‘Muhammad’ is usually sufficient. Non-Muslims are only allowed to enter the sanctuary through the Maghribiya Gate next to the Western Wall during certain hours. As soon as you enter you’re greeted with a vast open plain which contrasts with the constricted streets outside, and in the middle shines the Dome of the Rock, the gateway between heaven and earth. It is here the Children of Israel kept the Ark of the Covenant, where all souls must travel through to reach the heavens, and it is here the Prophet (ﷺ) travelled to the Divine Presence. To go in you need to satisfy the waqf official you are Muslim, usually by reciting the declaration of faith. Most times there’s also a guide who works for the waqf who will show you around and explain things to you, they’re not supposed to take a fee but some of them will expect one. The Dome of the Rock (usually used as a prayer space for women particularly during busy periods) is one of the many mosques inside al-Haram al-Sharif but the whole area is considered al-Aqsa. Underneath the rock is a cave which is also used as a prayer space. The other main building is the Qibli Mosque, the main prayer area in al-Aqsa, and which is quite commonly referred to (some consider it erroneously) as the al-Aqsa Mosque. Most of the other mosques in the haram are underground, as the sanctuary is essentially on top of a mountain, they include the Old Mosque which is the original prayer space before the Qibli Mosque was built. The Marwani Mosque, commonly referred to as “Solomon’s Stables” which contains the prayer niche of Sayidda Maryam, and the Buraq Mosque, where it is believed the Prophet (ﷺ) tied Buraq when he arrived in Jerusalem. It was a great relief having been able to fulfill the intention of my visit, as I wasn’t sure if it would happen or not. To be able to follow the steps of the Prophet (ﷺ) and be able to obey him in coming to pray at the Noble Sanctuary was a great blessing of which I cannot be more than thankful for. After praying zuhr we went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place believed by Christians to be where Jesus was crucified and died. From there we took a taxi from Damascus Gate to the Mount of Olives, a place that has a number of important sites related to all three Abrahamic religions, such as a large ancient Jewish cemetery, the Chapel of the Ascension and the Garden of Gethsemane. The main thing I wanted to visit here was the tomb of my namesake, the companion Salman al-Farisi, unfortunately it was closed and there was no caretaker around who could open it for us. For anyone wishing to visit the tomb it’s located a little uphill from where tourists are dropped off at the Mount of Olives, on a road called Suleiman El Farsi (sic), it’s in a small building annexed to what I believe was a madrassa (See Google Street view here). There is also a tomb nearby associated with Rabi’a al-Adawiyyah (Rabi’a al-Basri) but this is more likely to be a different Rabi’a as opposed to the famous Sufi waliyah. From the mosque we made our way down the mountain back to Jerusalem. As per most of the world outside of Britain a lot of places shut for lunchtime/siestas, so a number of the sites were closed when we were there.
The next day our plan was to visit Nablus. However the weather started to change, currently we were in the middle of a torrential downpour which was about to turn into a snowstorm, so the day was spent unfortunately not doing much. We made the trip again to the area near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to visit the Mosque of Omar which we had forgotten about the previous day. The mosque is located in front of the church but unfortunately it was shut.
The next day the plan was to visit Bethlehem and Hebron, the rain had turned into snow and Jerusalem was now covered in it. Undeterred I was unwilling to spend another day in the hotel room boring my mind into non-existence. However on arriving to meet the tour company they told us that Hebron had a foot of snow overnight and the roads to the city were shut. Allah is the best of planners. My main desire of the trip was to visit Hebron and our master Ibrahim, I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Instead we spent the day in Bethlehem with our tour guide Yamen, a native Palestinian and peace activist who has spent most of his life in Bethlehem. He started off by showing us the Separation Barrier and explaining how the settlements and Israeli policies are squeezing the life and living out of people in the area. From there we proceeded to the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square, the main sites in the city. After that he took us around the back streets of the city explaining to us that these are areas most tourists don’t get to see because the tour companies avoid them as they highlight the the sheer deprivation of the locality, and potentially provide a downer for the tourists who do decide to come. After our walkabout we returned to Manger Square for lunch where Yamen introduced us to a great dish called sakkan, I also used it as an opportunity to pray in the Mosque of Omar, the story of which is the same as the one in Jerusalem, in that the Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab was invited to pray in the church, but he declined in the fear Muslims would take it as a prayer space, so instead he prayed a short distance away, and the mosque is built on this spot. After lunch we were shown more of the Separation Barrier and nearby settlements and their effect on the area, after which we were treated to a famous Palestinian dessert called knafeh. Our tour guide Yamen did a great job and didn’t mince his words about the situation in the occupied territories, something that many of the tourists who visit the area need to hear. He works with a number of politically minded tour companies in Israel, the one we booked with was Green Olive Tours which from their website you can see offer a number of different packages, most of which cater towards people who want to understand the numerous socio-political and religious situations of different communities in Israel/Palestine.
The following day was a Friday, and my plan was to pray Juma’a at the mosque before heading to the airport for our return flight. Unfortunately the snow had turned into a bit of a blizzard overnight, the largest amount of snow to fall in the region for decades. As a result I wasn’t able to attend prayers, instead we had to leave 2 hours earlier than scheduled to get to the airport as the main highway (Highway 1) between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv was shut. The other route (Highway 443) was just about open, it turned out to be the strangest journey I’ve had, as it felt like a trip through a disaster movie where anything could go wrong at any time. The road in the opposite in direction was completely shut, littered with abandoned cars, the side we were travelling on had the occasional setback, as every now and again a vehicle would get stuck, or traffic had to make way for cars coming from the other direction. Thankfully, we eventually made it out of the mountainous areas of the West Bank and the snow was finished, but eventually, and ironically, as we were approaching a military checkpoint, it started to hail heavily leaving frost on the road. The checkpoint was manned by what seemed like just two teenage female conscripts, one of which who just asked us where we were from and wished us a safe flight when we responded ‘London’. Arriving at Ben Gurion airport however is a different story, again I was prepared for what was to come and ensured we arrived at the airport three hours before the flight as everyone recommends you should. Their “security” starts at the road entrance to the airport where your driver will be racially profiled if they’re Arab, you will be sent to the side to be examined for explosives. A search of the vehicle, bags, person and mobile phone ensues, a sticker is placed on your bags indicating this search has been carried out. On arriving at the terminal entrance you’re again racially profiled and asked to present your passport at the door if you have the wrong complexion. Next at check in you’re asked about your visit to Israel and the standard security questions about who packed your luggage and if there’s anything dangerous in them. Your bags and passport are tagged with a barcode which starts with a number between 1 -6, 1 being minimal threat, and 6 being the highest, we were given a 3. If you have luggage to check in it’s passed through a complex machine that does a thorough x-ray of your bags. Next is immigration, and as expected we were again brought to the side for further questioning, mirroring what happened when we entered the country, although this time they don’t take their time as they want to avoid you missing your flight. The one thing that was different here was the number of people cross-examining myself and my father. There was the senior immigration official, a plain clothes police office who I realised had been following us since we entered the terminal building, and was watching our body language as we waited outside for our passports, a plain clothes Shin Bet officer who I believe was Druze as he spoke Arabic but feigned surprise when we told him we spoke neither Hebrew nor Arabic, and one of the senior airport security personnel. Each one took turns to ask us different questions, most of which revolved around the usual baloney about heritage, purpose of visiting Israel, whether someone had encouraged us to visit for any particular reason, again all part of their intimidation tactic to stop you from visiting again and in the hope you will relay your experiences to other Muslims who will then be put off from visiting Palestine. If they had any genuine security concerns they would have had all the answers to their questions on the computer record entered by the officers when we entered the country. At one point all of them came out together standing over us while the female Mizrahi immigration officer asked us what countries we had visited in the last ten years, pretending to write down our responses. The whole thing lasted around half an hour, after which eventually you reach your gate, but not before having one last security check where you have the standard airport x-ray of hold luggage and a metal detector test carried out. Just in case you managed to pick up some contraband in the 1 minute between checks when they weren’t able to watch your every move.
And so ended our pilgrimage to Palestine. Although we missed out on quite a few things God willing my intention is to return again and visit the places destiny held us back from visiting this time round. Despite the efforts of the Israeli establishment from not wanting me and other Muslims from doing so, my hope is to return and continue to visit the Holy Land continuously from now on. In the next post I will explain some of the reasons why I feel Muslims should make an effort to visit al-Aqsa and Palestine in general.