Clad in a light beige suit, matching the stone walls of one of the world’s oldest cities, British bass player Danny ‘Hamza’ Thompson strolls through the ancient streets of Jerusalem in a bid to uncover the religious and spiritual significance the city holds for Muslims, past and present. Having converted to Islam in 1990, the last time Thompson visited, he participated in a telethon in Tel Aviv when he was only recognised as a distinguished musician. Today, he arrives in Jerusalem, proudly, as a Muslim.
Standing at the top of the archaic city, overlooking the Dome of the Rock, Thompson meets Tim Winter. A lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, Winter recalls how the great majority of people who travelled to Medieval Jerusalem were Muslims from all corners of the globe. Medieval pilgrimage to the East is often associated with Jewish and Christian travellers, however, a significant number of pilgrims were actually Muslim. Jerusalem holds great importance for all the Abrahamic religions, a fact that has made the city a centre of conflict for centuries; Thompson’s encounter with a local man, however, displays a different narrative, one that seeks peace and brotherhood. He remarks, “We have no difference between a Muslim and a Christian…we live [as] brothers together.”
Prior to visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the message of brotherhood is reiterated in an interesting exchange between Thompson, his guide, Sheikh Jamil (who runs a local t-shirt shop and helps to restore the historical mosques of Jerusalem), and Jamil’s friend, a Greek patriarch. Their exchange transpires with embraces and warm greetings, with Jamil exclaiming there is absolutely “no fighting, Alhamdulillah, no fighting” between the Muslims and Christians, while his friend greets Thompson by referring to him as his ‘akh’ (his ‘brother’) and exclaims, “You are welcome!” Their encounter is a reminder that the streets of Jerusalem are filled with people of more than one faith, colour and race; not every interaction is met with discord and not all are embroiled in conflict.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located in the Christian Quarter of the old city. The site is believed, by Christians, to have been the location for Jesus’ crucifixion as well as the place of his burial and resurrection. The first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, commissioned the church to be built on the site in the early 4th century. Despite being one of most sacred sites- if not the most sacred site- in Christendom, the church is managed by a Muslim family. Thompson meets the keeper of the church, a middle aged Muslim man, who holds the responsibility of opening the doors to the building each morning and closing them each night. He says that the keys to the church are passed down from generation to generation, from father to son.
The similarities between the Abrahamic faiths are emphasised, as well as a history that often displayed tolerance; Winter explains that under Byzantine rule, Jewish access to Jerusalem was difficult; the Muslims later rectified this problem and gave them admittance.
The last place that Thompson visits is the Al Aqsa mosque, with its dark dome glistening under the mid-afternoon sun. The first Qibla (direction for prayer) was Al Aqsa, and had been so since the time of Abraham. It was only when God ordered the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to change its location that the Qibla moved to Mecca.
Abdul Aziz Bukhari, of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order, states that it is imperative that Muslims still visit the site; the change of Qibla did not decrease its importance. Tim Winter relates visiting the Al Aqsa mosque to maintaining the spiritual aspect of Islam; it is a place to meditate and contemplate on a purely spiritual level. In a time when Muslims are turning away from spirituality and getting lost in the political landscape of the faith, visiting Jerusalem has never been more essential.
Thompson reflects on the religious significance of Al-Aqsa as the place in which the Prophet made his ascent to heaven, narrating the hadith of the Night Journey. Exiting the mosque, Thompson declares Jerusalem really is a holy land for everyone, and stating, “The Prophet said, ‘Be in this world as a stranger or a wayfarer.’ Maybe coming to the furthest mosque here is the beginning of our real pilgrimage.”
Having yet to visit Al Aqsa, Thompson’s visit to Jerusalem reminded me of its significance and evoked a desire in me to immerse myself in the religious and spiritual essence of the city. Needless to say, I loved this documentary. Reflecting on the architectural masterpiece that is the great mosque of Jerusalem, Winter notes how the vibrancy of the outer walls “[conjure] down a chunk of heaven onto the earth.” Tiles of royal blue, navy and sapphire reflect the night sky of Jerusalem. He beautifully describes the mosque as a “bridge between heaven and earth because this is the point [at which] the founder of Islam united heaven and earth, through being carried up to the seven heavens to the presence of God.” If this connection to the Almighty doesn’t make you want to pack your bags immediately, I don’t know what will.
Watch now on Alchemiya: The Furthest Mosque