‘Abd al-Malik’s Inscription in the Dome of the Rock and its anti-Christian Polemical Nature

 

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most dominant monuments in Jerusalem, not only visually – standing out from general layout of the Old City with its Byzantine inspired architecture, but also symbolically being situated at the spot where the Jewish Second Temple is believed to have been situated, being an object for many controversies, even when mistaken for al-Aqsa Mosque.

It has been widely acknowledged – at least in academic circles – that it was build during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik, though some Muslim sources want to credit it to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, or – as it has been attempted by later rulers – to the Abbasid ruler, al-Ma’mun. According to the interior inscription found on the outer octagonal arcade, the building was finished in 72 AH (ca. 691-692 CE), though it is not clear when constructions where begun.

So far we are very clear on when the Dome of the Rock was constructed, the question of why it was constructed and what it attempts to tell us is less clear. As Oleg Grabar explains in his article about the Dome of the Rock[1], it is generally not a question about when, but rather of why and what is attempted to be conveyed.

Goldziher created a thesis that the construction was an attempt by ‘Abd al-Malik, to move the spiritual center from Mecca to Jerusalem, since Mecca was ruled by his opponent, Abdallah ibn Zubair, and this gave him legitimacy as “Amir al-Mu’minin” over al-Malik[2], but that has been contested by several later historians, such as for example Gotein[3] and Rabbat[4], pointing to a number of incidents, accounts regarding ‘Abd al-Malik and the Dome of the Rock, and the inscription of the octagonal arcade.

Grabar points out three “documents”, which can help us reaching a better understanding when it comes to these questions, namely “through its location, through its inscription, and through its mosaics”[5].

In the following I will attempt to focus on the interpretation of the inscription of the Dome of the Rock, in order to see what arguments we can deduce for either thesis, and while this isn’t meant to be any form of concluding analysis (I hardly feel myself even the least qualified for that), it can at least give us a better understanding of which messages were attempted to be expressed and why.

Analyzing the Inscription:

The Outer Octagon:

There are six parts found on the outer side of the octagon, five with religious declaration and one – the final – with information on the date of the building and how built it (text changed).

The religious declaration follow a somewhat similar order: a praise to God, a particular message based on a Quranic verse, and a declaration of Muhammad being the messenger of God. The second and fifth declaration differ from the others by either having the particular message displayed after the declaration of Muhammad as messenger (the second declaration) or not having any particular message at all (the fifth declaration).

The praise of God in all examples goes “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate”, except in the third part, which does not have the part about God not having an associate. The first part is from Quran 1:1, followed by the first part of the Shahadah, “la ilah illa Allah”. The two following sentences are a declaration of God’s unity.

All of the declarations end of with some form of praising Muhammad as God’s messenger, all declaring that “Muhammad is the messenger of God, the blessing of God be on him.” The only exception is the second declaration, which only mentions the first part, though it adds an ayah[6] as extended praise of Muhammad. The second, third and fourth declaration each have added elements to the praise of Muhammad, while the first and fifth only have a short praise (as it appears above).

The message of the first declaration is extending the monotheistic message of Islam: “Say: He is God, the One! God, the eternally Besought of all! He begetteth not nor was begotten. And there is none comparable to Him.”

It seems to hint at the Christian teachings of Jesus being the son of God, refusing this notion, so in this vain this could be understood not only to be an expression of God’s unity, but also as a message to the Christians.

The second declaration is mixed into the praise of Muhammad. This would seem a little odd, but it might be plausible, considering that the praise of Muhammad follows after the praise of God, and it might seem weird if the praise of Muhammad would be repeated twice in the same declaration.

The third declaration again returns to the anti-Christian polemics, stating “praise be to God, Who hath not taken unto Himself a son, and Who hath no partner in the Sovereignty, nor hath He any protecting friend through dependence. And magnify Him with all magnificence.”[7]

It is clearly a reaction against the Christian doctrine of Jesus being the son of God, sitting at His right side.

As stated earlier, this declaration does not have the sentence of God not having an associate in the introductory praise of God, which is the case for the other declarations. I wondered whether this could be based on restorations removing the text, but it seems clear that the reason behind, is the same that we find of the particular message in the second declaration being intermixed with the praise of Muhammad. Again, the message deals exactly with God not having an associate, so there is no need to mention that and thus repeating the message twice after each other.

The fourth declaration is a return to the praise of God, stating that “unto Him belongeth sovereignty and unto Him belongeth praise. He quickeneth. And He giveth death; and He has power over all things.”

This seems like a general declaration of God’s might, without being directed at any particular faith, except if we see the first sentence as another reaction against the Christians (giving praise both to Jesus and God).

 

The Inner Octagon:

The inner declaration does only consist of one declaration, expanding over the whole gallery. It is introduced with the same formula used to introduce each declaration on the outer gallery – “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. There is no god but God alone, without partner” – for then to repeat the message from the fourth declaration on the outer gallery.

This is then followed by praise of Muhammad, which then is followed by the warning to the “people of the Book” not to go beyond the bounds of the religion.

From there it turns into an anti-Christian polemics on the nature of Jesus’ – all the time he is mention by name, it is as “Jesus, son of Maryam” – relation to God, not as His son, but as His messenger, submitting himself to God totally.

There are some interesting points to note here. First, it seems as if it has been attempted to fit the inner and the outer inscription. So we for example see that the southern side has the praise of God on both sides, though the praise is not exactly of the same nature. The south-western side is devoted to the praise of Muhammad, and though the Quranic verse from 33:56 is found on the western part on the outer gallery, it is still very close to where it appears on the inner gallery. This incident, as well as the exact same wording of the introductory praise of God on the southern part on both sides, is the only example on exact same text found in the same direction on both sides. Quran 57:2 is found on both sides as well, but not mirrored on both sides at the same direction[8].

Some themes are repeated close to each other though. In the north-western direction we see the theme of God not having a son, with the text on the outer gallery stating (starting from west with “praise”) “be to God Who has not taken a son and who does not have any partner in dominion nor any protector”, and the inner gallery stating “Glory be to Him – that He should have a son! To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and in the earth.”

On the north-eastern side we see an interesting relation between God being the one who gives life and makes people die (on the outer side), and Jesus being born and going to die (inner), even playing on God being “powerful over all things” and Jesus who will be “raised up alive”.

And then on the eastern side we have the repeated message of there not being any god but God, having the inner side declaring that this is witnessed by “God, His angels and men possessed of knowledge and upholding justice”.

Though there are elements which can be seen as including Jews as well, the overall message here seems to be directed mainly against Christians and the Christian faith.

 

Some questions appear. Why is the message directed mainly at the Christians, and why an anti-Christian polemic in an Islamic shrine, and not rather outside in the public? What role did this inscription play?

To start with the last question. The structure of the inscription seems to be made in order for people to circle the inner parts, before actually entering it. The way the declarations are arranged, praise to God, praising Muhammad, establishing that God is without partner, establishing that His is all sovereignty, leaving the mentioning of the year of construction and who commanded the building’s construction out of the general theme (and why is that mentioned here?), would demand one to circle the outer chamber in order to read the total message. This can be a relation to the practice of circling the Ka’ba in Mecca during Hajj, but it can also be related to Jewish Biblical (and wider Semitic) traditions of circling a particular object. We see for example the Torah scroll being circled in the synagogue when taken out to be read and put back again, we see it from the Biblical account of the Israelites conquering Jericho, circling the wall seven times to make the wall tear down. It can be that there isn’t any particular relation between either or, though cases can be made for both[9], but rather that the practice would seem so obvious in a monument giving the opportunity, that this just felt normal. There is also the possibility, that the text simply is written as it is by coincidence, that no particular thought was put into making people circle the inner chamber before entering, but there is too much of a connection, both in structure and message, between the outer and inner gallery, that I see that as being the case. Rather I believe that there is some idea added to this setting, though exactly what isn’t clear.

Why the anti-Christian polemical nature of the inscription? Why not focusing solely at Islam or reacting to both Christianity and Judaism, not to talk about other religions as well? The focus seems to be too set on Christianity merely to be coincidental or as a reaction against non-Muslim religions.

Gotein points to the general Christian architecture, which might not have impressed the first generations of Muslims religiously – being used and accustomed to more modest surroundings from their lives in Mecca and Medina – but the second and later generations, being born and raised in other surroundings, might have wondered why Christian monuments were of a greater stature than the Muslim ones. There is some similarities in size and design between the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock, pointing at the influence from the one to the other, but this could be caused by both being based on a general Byzantine design, having the octagonal shape surrounding an inner circle.

The anti-Christian polemical nature does make it plausible to expect the motive of the construction as being a reaction to the Christians. Particularly since the vast majority at the time was Christian, and the Jews were not many, the natural thing would be to direct it mainly against Christianity. But why inside the Dome and not outside? What was the Christians’ relation to the Dome of the Rock or at least the site it was constructed?

Some notes on the Christian attitude to Jerusalem could be of worth here. As was stated earlier the Romans build a temple for Jupiter on the site, as well as a temple for Venus on a spot which seems to have been important for the Christians[10], by tradition believed to have been the spot where Jesus was crucified, and the cave near where he was buried for three days. The temple of Venus was destroyed under Constantine I though, building a church on the place, the Holy Sepulchre, which was to be viewed as the “New Temple” in the “New Jerusalem”.[11]

This shows us that the importance of the Temple Mount, and the site of the Temple, was transferred away from the Temple Mount to the place where Jesus was believed crucified and buried, the new center of the city. This is further strengthened by the Madapa map, leaving an empty spot where the Temple Mount is to be found, telling us of the lack of importance the place had to the Christians.

But maybe exactly this contrast between the center of the “New Jerusalem” and the ruins on the Temple Mount, was the reason for the anti-Christian polemical message in the Dome of the Rock. Prawer points this out, writing:

“Not only do these buildings perpetuate the Savior’s memory, but they also provide visible proof that the true faith has triumphed. One might have thought that Christianity has vanquished paganism, but in fact it has also triumphed over Judaism, as the physical contrast between the new buildings and the ruins of the Jewish Temple testifies. And so, Eusebius writes, the new Jerusalem towers over the ancient.”[12]

Towering both physical and symbolic. Maybe this was what motivated ‘Abd al-Malik? Sure, the Muslims were in power, but the Christians could still point to this particular relation between the two sacrificial sites, the old irrelevant one where the Jew had to bring their sacrifices for their sins, and the new one, being the site where the final sacrifice had to be brought, making the Christians triumphant. And not only that, considering the state of the relation between the Christian Byzantine empire – the Byzantines putting pressure on the Umayyad caliphate[13], there most likely was a certain pressure on the Muslim rulers, and – considering the many times Jerusalem had changed from one ruler to another during the century (being conquered by the Persians in 614, given to the governance of the Jews, then to the Christians in 617, being reconquered in 628, having Heraclius triumphant returning the relic of the Holy Cross in 630/631, for then to be conquered by the Arabs in 637/638) – there might have been Christian expectations of a soon Muslim defeat.

So we have to do with a situation where the Muslims might be the rulers, but there were internal problems among the Muslims, the Christians could point to the superiority of the physical and symbolic Christian presence vs. the Muslim ditto, as well as being able to point to recent history where the Christians did end being victors, hinting at the new upper hand of the Christian Byzantine empire in the north. Could this make Muslims doubt their religion? And could it prevent potential converts?

It will still be a guess, but I believe it plausible to argue that al-Malik would strengthen the symbolic strength of Islam in Jerusalem, particularly considering the relation the Umayyad had to the city and the land.

Would Christians then enter this new superior building? Maybe they wouldn’t have to, it would be enough for them to see that the Temple Mount no longer was in ruins. That a new and triumphant building, outshining their spiritual center, would be erected, not by the Jews, but by those claiming to substitute both the Jews and the Christians. The Holy Sepulchre was no longer the center of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount was once again.

The inscription can have been for the Muslims, securing them that the Christians were wrong, inherently wrong, removing any doubt from the minds of the Muslims. This didn’t have to be a Islamic message, it could be an anti-Christian message. The Dome of the Rock wasn’t a mosque, a place to pray, it was a shrine, a triumphant shrine showing the Christians that they were wrong on all respects, both in applying the Holy Sepulchre – this supposed spot for the crucifixion of the false Jesus – the spiritual and physical center of the city, as well as in applying God with partners.

While we might have answered the question on what the motive is for the Dome of the Rock, and what the purpose with the anti-Christian polemical inscription is, we still haven’t dealt with the reason for the structure and organization of the message. Wouldn’t it be enough simply to write the anti-Christian polemic at the entrances to the Dome of the Rock or on the walls? Why is it organized so it takes one to follow in a circle first in the outer part and then in the inner part, in order to read the whole message?

Jerusalem did hold (as it still does) a certain importance in Islamic thought. Though still being subordinate to Mecca and Medina, it was still a city given great religious importance. That way we see that Jerusalem was the focus for the first qibla, as well as being told that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the stone found in the Dome of the Rock, and many more accounts could be found. This is enough though to point out some issues, which could direct the behavior when entering the Dome of the Rock. First off, since Jerusalem – and the rock – had been the focus of the first qibla, it wasn’t far to connect behavior to the focus of the second – and final – qibla to that of the first. Second off, since Muhammad ascended to heaven here, there would clearly be some spiritual importance over the place, also directing the behavior of the place. And third off, both Mecca and Jerusalem was known for hosting stones/rocks of major importance.

It would not be weird to see that the way the Muslims would behave in Mecca, would influence how they behaved in Jerusalem. That doesn’t mean that ‘Abd al-Malik attempted to create a “new Mecca”, as Goldziher theorize, but that the behaver for one spiritual center would influence the behavior in another spiritual center.

Thus, it would only be normal to form the anti-Christian polemic so the Muslims could mirror the circumambulation in Mecca, and thus create yet another connection between the two cities, not only through tales, but also through behavior, connecting the Muslim religion to both places.

 

On the question of what the inscription found in the Dome of the Rock can tell us about the motive behind the building of the shrine, as well as the purpose of the shrine, we have found out that Christian physical and symbolic dominance at the time of ‘Abd al-Malik most likely provoked a need, to establish Muslim superiority. One thing has to be said on why it was ‘Abd al-Malik, and not for example ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab or Mu’awiyah I, who built the shrine. Regarding the former it has already been hinted that the first generations of Muslims were more modest in their expectations. To that can be added that the period was not stable enough, as well as the fact that the Muslims were expanding at the time. Also Mu’awiyah was of the first generation, and the Christian superiority regarding the symbolic presence in Jerusalem most likely wasn’t felt yet. The Byzantines were pressed by Mu’awiyah, and the second generation only growing up. Only during the coming generations did people expect more of a dominant religion, but al-Malik’s predecessors never had the quiet to begin such a project as this.

Furthermore, the relation between Mecca and Jerusalem most likely influenced the way the inscription was written and structured, so the Muslims could simulate the circumambulation of Mecca, and still read the message conveyed by the inscription.

I would argue that we see a double influence here, that of the need of a reaction to the Christians, and that of the influence of the relation between Mecca and Jerusalem. Still, this doesn’t give the full picture. What I haven’t dealt with here is the broader architecture and design, which points to more influences, which also hold an important part of explaining the full story of the Dome of the Rock. Such we see symbolic art which hints at Jewish influences. There is not sufficient place here to delve into that – and others – questions unfortunately, but it would be something which could be the focus for future projects, particularly in comparative studies of attitudes to religio-spiritual centers in the three Abrahamic religions.

 

Source Material:

Rabbat, Nasser – “The Meaning of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock”, Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture, Vol. 6, edited by Oleg Grabar, Brill, Leiden, 1989.

Gotein, Shlomo Dov – “The Historical Background of the Erection of the Dome of the Rock”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1950, 104-108.

Kristel Kessler “’Abd al-Malik’s Inscription in the Dome of the Rock: A Reconsideration”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, No. 1, 1970.

Graber, Oleg – “Studies in Medieval Islamic Art: The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.” Variorum Reprints, London, 1976.

Prawer, Joshua – “Chapter Ten: Christian Attitudes Towards Jerusalem in the Early Middle Ages”, from “The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period 638-1099”, pp. 311-348. Edited by Joshua Prawer & Haggai Ben-Shammai, New York University Press.

The Inscription of the Dome of the Rock, translated by Dr. Heather Ecker – found at http://www.learn.columbia.edu/courses/islamic/pdf/Inscrip_Dome.pdf

 

[1] Grabar: “The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.” p. 33, second column: “The problem, therefore, is neither reconstruction nor dating, but essentielly interpretation: if we consider the long tradition of Mount Moriah as a sacred place, what was its significance in the eyes of the Muslims?”

[2] Gotein: “The Historical Background of the Erection of the Dome of the Rock”, p. 104, first column.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rabbat: “The Meaning of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock.”

[5] Grabar: “The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem”, p. 33, second column.

[6] Quran 33:56.

[7] Quran 17:111.

[8] It is found on the outer gallery in the north-eastern direction, while on the inner gallery it is found in the southern direction.

[9] Prof. Raya Shani points to the many Jewish themes found in the Dome of the Rock in her article “The Solomon Theme in the Decorative and Epigraphical Programmes of the Dome of the Rock, (“Sifting Sands, Reading Signs: Studies in honour of Professor Géza Fehérvári, Furnace Publishing, London, 2006, pp. 95-104), which makes the Jewish influence seem plausible, while the fact that Mecca was ruled by ‘Abd al-Maliki’s enemy when the Dome was begun constructed, as well as the major religious importance of the Ka’ba and the connection between the rock in the Dome of the Rock and the Ka’ba would make it plausible to expect this connection instead.

[10] Prawer: “Christian Attitudes Towards Jerusalem in the Early Middle Ages”, p. 317.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, p. 318.

[13] Rabbat: “The Meaning of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock”, p. 16.

Author: Peter Kaltoft

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