Preserving Abraham: Lessons from the Angkor Wat and Church of Nativity

As they say, those who cannot look back to their past, will not move on to their destination. Heritage is part and parcel of any people's identity, regardless of who is on the right or wrong side of history - the oppressor, the oppressed, the extremist, the religious, the atheist. It is a human right.

For Arabs and Jews, to have an Abrahamic heritage is not only cultural, it is sacred. It speaks to many shared beliefs and traditions, the overlapping of mystical and physical spaces. Sharing space is already a logistical nightmare - how does one share the Holy?

Abraham is depicted in both Arabic and Hebrew literature as a believer in the Oneness of God, and the one who taught man how to worship, to quote Ab. V. 29 and Ber. 6b: “Whosoever has a benign eye, a simple heart, and a humble spirit, or who is humble and pious, is a disciple of Abraham.” David, a king in Judaism and prophet in Islam, founded the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to mark the site of Abraham’s test of sacrifice.The holy city has always been the primary sacred space for Jews, despite one exile after another.

On the other hand, “Bayt al-Maqdis” is referred to in the Quran as the former direction of Islamic prayer, until it was changed to Mecca in order to distinguish the new Muslims from the Jews. The next time it appears in tradition was
when the Prophet Muhammad died, in an authentic narration by Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, the Caliph Omar consulted Ka’ab El Ahbar, a Jewish convert, about where exactly to build “Al Aqsa.” Ka’ab pointed to the Jewish foundation rock, to quote: “so that all Jerusalem would be before you;” but Omar refused this proposal, reportedly saying: “You correspond to Judaism! (Mosnad Ahmed Ibn Hanbal).” An influential Sunni scholar, Ibn Kathier's comments on Omar's valuable behavior:

"He did not exalt it, by praying on it or before him, as Ka’ab, who belonged to people exalting it that they had made it their direction of prayer, had suggested… because it is the direction of prayer of the Jews (Tafseer Surah Al Israh: 1).”

But this status quo was bound to change. In 691 CE, the Umayyad caliphate built the Dome of the Rock atop the ruins of that Temple Mount. Although not considered as significant as the Masjid Al Aqsa built 50 years earlier, nor the Masjid Haram in Mecca, the dome marked the development of Jerusalem as a new Islamic center from its Judeo-Christian past. It also gained significance as the first dome ever built in Islamic architecture.

Omar’s decision to not build Al Aqsa on top of the Jewish sacred site calls to mind a similar story of religious co-existence in Bethlehem. Under the “Covenant of Omar” which protected the freedoms of Jews and Christians, Omar refused to pray inside the Church of Nativity so that Muslims cannot use it as an excuse to destroy the church in the future. The church stands tall today, right across the Mosque of Omar, which was donated by the Greek Orthodox Church to honor the caliph.

Unfortunately today, the status quo at the Dome of the Rock is far from the ideal, with tight physical and procedural security measures for Muslims, and non-Muslims who are occasionally tested to recite the Al Fatihah before entry. To make matters worse, in 2016, UNESCO, the United Nation’s heritage agency, passed a resolution that solely emphasized the Islamic heritage of the holy shrine. While for Muslims this meant protecting the mosques from future archaeological excavations, many Jews around the world rallied to what could be historical revisionism to their first and only spiritual and cultural center.

There is potential for Jerusalem to be modeled after another world heritage site in Cambodia: the Angkor Wat. Initially built as a Hindu temple, later transformed into a Buddhist monastery, UNESCO commemorates it for the glory of an entire "Khmer civilization" - neither Buddhist nor Hindu. The East Gallery houses an inscription of the early 18th century Buddhist monastery and the Hindu epic of the Mahabharata is honored in the West Gallery. The whole sacred temple complex remains to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites of dharmic religions in Southeast Asia (UNESCO, 1992).

All this should not be difficult as prior to the politicization of heritage, UNESCO once celebrated the site as a World Heritage Site for all the 3 Abrahamic religions:

"Among its 220 historic monuments, the Dome of the Rock stands out: built in the 7th century, it is decorated with beautiful geometric and floral motifs. It is recognized by all three religions as the site of Abraham’s sacrifice (UNESCO, 1981).”

In addition, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation itself, at the second Islamic conference at Lahore, acknowledged that “AI-Quds is a unique symbol of the confluence of Islam with the sacred divine religions (OIC 1974).“

What would Jerusalem as an “Abrahamic heritage city" look like?
Would a synagogue, mosque, church, make the sacred space any less holy?

The phrase “sacred heritage” is partly spiritual, partly mundane. Hence, this entails a 2-pronged approach - on the grassroots level, to preach inclusive narratives about one and another’s beliefs and traditions, and on a public management level, to design pathways that would facilitate inter-connectedness between communities, amidst territorial disputes. A multi-stakeholder partnership of Abrahamic communities?

There must be a way for all believers to remain spiritually connected to Abraham, while preserving the current structures and traditions in place. The very heritage that the Father of All Nations left behind was Oneness, monotheism, which supposedly transcended idolatry, tribalism, and other forms of other-ness. The only way to truly venerate his House of the Holy is by upholding the very prayers that blessed it, not by forcing illusory borders upon it.

In the words of the Sufi Sheikh Bawa in A Letter to the Leaders of the World:

”Jerusalem should be a sacred shrine, a place where the entire human race can worship God in peace (1979).”