More important, they also expose two big lies of the Palestinians: 1) the Islamic attitude towards the Jews; and 2) the Islamic relationships concerning Jerusalem.
1) Islam and the Jews: Love-Hate Relationship
Islam’s attitude towards Judaism and the Jews is a fascinating tale that began with admiration and imitation. Muhammad was highly influenced by the Jewish religion and in fact he admired the Jews as a model to imitate. The 90 Meccan Sūwar (p. of Sūrah) contain the history of the Jews from Abraham and his descendants to Moses and the Children of Israel in Egypt and Sinai Desert and to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. Moses was the chosen personality and he appears in 34 Sūwar.
Many of the Islamic views originate from the Jewish religion and traditions: Tawhīd, the belief in one unique God and denial of Fetishism. The belief in sin and Punishment, Hell and Paradise. Ummah, the religious congregation; Salāh, the prayer as an exhibition of the belief and the direction (also Jāhilīyah origin). Sawm, the fasting (together with Jāhilīyah origin). The heroes of Muhammad and Islam were Jewish and above all of them are Abraham and Moses. It is of note that Muhammad encompassed the history and creation of the Jewish people, being the chosen people, and the best of this is the centrality of the Land of Israel to the Jews.
Initially, Muhammad had no intention to establish a new religion. During the Mecca Period, Muhammad admired the Jews, as attested to in the Sūwar of the Qur’an. He explained that since the Jews have a book (Tawrat) and the Christians have a book (Injīl), and the Arabs have no book, he endeavored to give the Arabs a book. Muhammad introduced to the Arabs a book akin to the Tablets of the Testimony, which were given to Moses at Mount Sinai and contain great virtues.
The Qur’an insists that the Jewish Scripture is the voice of Allah. This is the book that Moses was given on Mount Sinai and it is the only truth as spoken by Allah and given to the chosen people, the Children of Israel. Moreover, when the Arabs mocked at Muhammad and persecuted him, he attested the Jews to remove the doubts about his prophetical prophetic messages and being the seal of all prophet.
Muhammad publicly stressed the Children of Israel are the Chosen People, and he will make Abraham and his descendants the leaders of all peoples:
O Children of Israel, remember my favor which I bestowed upon you, and that I exalted you (Faḍḍaltukūm) over all nations. We certainly chose them (Akhtarnāhūm) by knowledge over [all] the worlds (‘Ala al-‘Alāmīn). We showed them miracles which tested them beyond all doubt. We gave the Book to the Children of Israel and exalted them (faḍalnāhūm) above the nations. We have cause the Israelites to inherit them (Awrathnāhā).
Thus, there is much material in the Qur’an which links the Children of Israel to the Land of Israel. Abraham came to this land when he first left his homeland; the Children of Israel came to the Land when God brought them out of Egypt; the Temple of the Children of Israel stood in this Land. God promised that they will be gathered together in the land just before the end-times.
Allah’s promise to the Children of Israel is that He will never renege on his promise, therefore they must not leave their land, and otherwise Allah will grow angry with them and punish them. The Children of Israel were also given the Book as an inheritance, wa-Awrathnā Banī Isrā’īl al-Kitāb. The Book was bestowed upon those whom Allah has chosen, Alladhīna Istafaynā Min ‘Ibādinā. The Qur’ān also honors the Children of Israel with peace, guidance and safety. Allah will “destroy your enemies and make you rulers in the Land,” wa-Yastakhlifakum Fīl-Arḍ.
Not only Muhammad recognized the only rights and legitimacy of the Jews to the Land of Israel according to its biblical borders, but he insist that they must live only in it.
And we caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which we had blessed (al-Arḍ Allatī Bāraknā Fīhā). And the good word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel…
Enter, my people, the Holy Land (al-Arḍ al-Muqaddasah), which Allah has decreed for you (Allatī Kataba Allāhu Lakum) and do not turn back and [thus] become losers.
And we said after Pharaoh to the Children of Israel, “Dwell in the land, and when there comes the promise of the Hereafter, We will bring you forth in gathering.”
The Land of Israel is the “Holy Land” (al-Ard al-Muqaddasah); the “Blessed Land” (al-Ard al-Mubārakah); the “Land of Israel” (Ard Banī Isrā’īl). That is why Ibn Kathīr goes so far as to consider these verses a divine command to Israel for Jihad to enter the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. Though they sinned and strayed from Allay, their punishment was to delay their entry for forty years, after which they were to enter the land. They are also commanded to “enter the gate” which refers to the Land of Israel.
If the Macca era until September 622 and the beginning of the Medina period was characterized as one might say a love story between Muhammad and the Jews, the Medina period until Muhammad’s death is totally different. The love story transformed into hatred and animosity and ended with racial and religious anti-Semitism; genocide (Banū Qurayza tribe); ethnic cleansing (expulsion of the Jewish tribes Banū Nadīr and Banū Qanūwqā’), and by prohibiting the Jews from living on the Islamic lands.
Muhammad immigrated to Yathrīb, which became Madīnat an-Nabī (the City of the Prophet), exactly because Jews were there. However, after Badr War (March 624), everything was changed. Two main reasons were indicated:
a) Muhammad and his small group of supporters went from being persecuted to vanquishing their enemies. The immediate result was a rapidly growing community of followers. The figures are impressing: in twelve years of preaching in Mecca Muhammad had only at most 150 followers. After the victory at Badr, almost ten thousand joined his ranks. This fact shows one of the most important characteristics of the Arab political culture, namely following the war hero, the conqueror. However, the crucial result of Badr victory was that only from that period of time on Muhammad proclaimed himself as a prophet who brings a new religion to the Arabs, which is separate from that of the Jews. Now his preaching were not only warmongering against the infidel Arabs but precisely against the Jews.
b) The Jewish tribes of Medina, Banū Nadīr, Banū Qanuwqā’ and Banū Qurayza, reacted against Muhammad’s new approach and objected him as a prophet similar to the prophets of the Bible, and mainly being the seal of all prophets and the Qur’an is the words of Allah. The Jews refused to accept him, claiming he was a false prophet.
From Muhammad’s perspective, the Jewish tribes expected of him to embrace their own religion, however he declared adherence to the basic religion of Abraham and rejected the demand to follow their own religions. Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a pure monotheist Muslim (Ḥanīfan Musliman), and so are those who “who follow him, the Prophet and the true believers.” Abraham was also the founder of Mecca’s sacredness. Allah assigns to him the place of the Ka’ba, and tells him to purify it and proclaim to the people the duty of pilgrimage. The Qur’an also insists that the rest of the prophets, too, were the same, pure Muslims.
Muhammad claimed that the destiny of Islam is to control the entire world, being the only legitimate religion. Later on Muhammad proclaimed that all of prophets, from Adam and Noah to Abraham and his children, and to Moses, David, Solomon, Job, Jesus and Peter – were his prophets, Muslim prophets. The Muslim believers are the chosen community, and not the Jews, and Islam is above Judaism and Christianity. The full and last revelation from Allah was given to the Arabs by Muhammad, and the Qur’an is the final and superior scripture. Consequently the Ka’ba has become the religious center of Islam and the Ḥājj has transformed into Islamic ritual.
The Jews were mortal challenge to Muhammad, and according to the aggressive Arab political culture that externalizes the guilt, his reaction was brutal accusing the Jews with all the faults and sins. Consequently, the tribes of Banu Nadīr and Banu Qaynuqā’ were expelled, and their property was seized and expropriated to the Muslims. After the Battle of the Trench (627) all of the males from Banu Qurayza, from the age of fertility to the elderly were slaughtered, their heads cut off by a line, while the women and children were coerced to convert to Islam.
Now, the Qur’anic depiction of the Jews is highlighted in Sûrat al-Baqarah, 2:61 and Sûrat al-‘Imrān, 3:112. They are considered “cursed” and “enemies of Allah”, deserving of death. This is also expressed in the prayer Muslims say at least 17 times a day: Allah’s rage is upon them, therefore, he turned them into apes and pigs. Their worst sin was that they distorted the texts and intentionally concealed the appearance of Muhammad and his prophesies. They are the devil’s minions, and if they do not accept the true faith of Islam they will burn in the Hellfire. They are also “liars”, “accursed”, “stone-hearted”, “despicable traitors”, and the worst of all animals. They are the worst enemies of Islam, in fact the worst of Allah’s creation, and rats are in fact “mutated Jews.” It is the duty of the Muslims to persecute and kill the Jews:
The Day of Judgment will not come, until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. And when the Jews will hide behind a tree or a rock, the tree and the rock will call out: “Oh Muslims, oh, servants of Allah! A Jew is hiding behind me; come and kill him.”
Only Islam remains the religion of Abraham that Allah forwarded to Muhammad for the sake of all humanity. The Jews have become infidels, and they lost Allah’s covenant (Mīthāq). Their guilt: they associate others with Allah, like the idolaters.
2) Islam and the case of Jerusalem
According to the Palestinian narrative, the sanctity of Jerusalem stems from the following Islamic sources: a) Jerusalem is the first Qiblah, the prayer direction of the Muslims. b) Jerusalem is the third Ḥaram, Islamic holy place, after Mecca and Medina. c) Muhammed had supposedly made a miraculous a night trip to the Temple Mount, built a mosque there, and returned to Mecca that very night. According to this, Muhammed had thus established Jerusalem’s status and centrality in the Islamic faith and religion.
a) “Jerusalem is the first Qiblah” – what are the facts? When Muhammad made the Hijrah to Medina, he instructed his followers to pray like the Jews, towards al-Shām. It is important to note that even Bukhari, from the 9th century perspective claims that the direction of prayer was towards “Shām,” without any mentioning of Jerusalem. The Qur’an never mentions Jerusalem by name. The pagan Arabs had absolutely no affiliations or regard for Jerusalem and had no idea as to what it. Moreover, direction of prayer is Jewish tradition, unknown to the Arabs.
The refusal of the Jews, after 16-7 months of his presence in the Medina, to follow Muhammad’s new ‘theology’ turned him into their implacable and spiteful enemy to the extent that he made a 180 degree reversal and ordered to change the direction of prayer to the Ka’ba, the pagan shrine of Mecca.
Allah’s Apostle prayed facing Bayt al-Maqdis [the Jewish Temple Mount] for sixteen or seventeen months but he loved to face the Ka’ba. So Allah revealed: Verily, We have seen the turning of your face to the heaven (2:144). So, the Prophet faced the Ka’ba and the fools amongst the people namely ‘the Jews’ said, what has turned them from their Qiblah which they formerly observed? [Allah revealed]: Say: To Allah belongs the East and the West. He guides whom he will to a straight path (2:142)… Some men had died before the Qiblah was changed towards the Ka’ba. So Allah revealed [2:143].
The Prophet prayed facing Bayt al-Maqdis for sixteen or seventeen months but he wished that his Qiblah would be the Ka’ba. So Allah revealed 2:144 and he offered ‘Asr prayers and some people prayed with him. A man went out and passed by some people offering prayer in another mosque, and they were in the state of bowing. He said, I, by Allah, testify that I have prayed with the Prophet facing Mecca. Hearing that, they turned their faces to the Ka’ba while they were still bowing.
Ibn Sa’d agrees. In Mecca, Muhammad used to pray towards the Jewish Bayt al-Maqdis, with the Ka’ba in front of him. After his Hijrah he continued praying towards Bayt al-Maqdis for sixteen months and then he was instructed to turn towards the Ka’ba. By that, Jerusalem has lost its sacred status, and the Ka’ba remains the only Qiblah, and is identified as the ultimate Qiblah of Allah’s prophets.
Jerusalem was the prayer direction for only “16 or 17 months,” not because of religious reasons but because Muhammad wished to obtain the favor and support of the Jews when he arrived in Medina. The reason he fled in September 622 to Medina, was exactly because the Jewish tribes reside there. He thought that his admiration to the Jews and in fact that he wished to bring the Arabs a “Jewish book,” would help him to integrate in Medina more easily.
However, after the Jews objected to his claim to represent the Jewish religion and of being the last Jewish prophet and even mocked him as false prophet, and after Muhammad became a victorious war hero the instruction was amended from then on, Muslims must not follow the Jewish traditions, and were to pray toward Mecca. When Muslims pray, they face Mecca; in Jerusalem Muslims pray with their backs to the city toward Mecca. Even at burial, the Muslim dead face is turned toward Mecca.
Muhammad’s stance towards the Jews shifted totally to a deep hatred and animosity. Following this decision, Muslims in fact have turned their backs towards Jerusalem while praying. The Ka’ba in Mecca was fortified as a religious center and pilgrimage to Mecca has become an Islamic ritual. It is essential to note: it is not as many says, once the prayer direction was changed to Mecca the importance of Jerusalem was utterly cancelled. This is not the situation. Jerusalem was not important at all. Muhammad never mentioned its name. His former order to his followers was the direction of prayer of the Jews alone, and it was towards “Shām,” Syria.
In their astronomical and geographical analysis, the Muslim group under the title of Muslim awareness, clearly prove that the Qiblah after Muhammad’s death was never to Jerusalem. In their summary, “It was shown conclusively that the early mosques do not point at northern Arabia or even close vicinity of Jerusalem.”
b) Jerusalem is “the third Ḥaram” – what are the facts?
The issue of the “Ḥaram” concerning Jerusalem developed only during the Umayyad Period (750-661), and lasted at most 60 years only. Muhammad Ibn al-Zubayr, Abu Bakr grandson, revolted against the Umayyad ruler Yazid I, and refused to give him swear of allegiance (Bay’ah). After the Battle of Karbala in October 680, he established his power in Arabia, Iraq, and part of Egypt, thus denying the Umayyad Dynasty, its political center was in Damascus, to approach to Hijaz and to practice the Ḥājj, the pilgrimage in Mecca.
Jerusalem, which bordered the desert and being the faraway place from Mecca under Umayyad’s control, was chosen to replace Mecca as a place of worship and pilgrimage. For that, they had to build a mosque, the first in Jerusalem ever. The first structure, Qubbat as-Sakhrah (The Dome of the Rock), was built between the years 688 and 691, almost 60 years after the death of Muhammad (June 632). The second structure, the al-Aqşa, was built in 715, almost 83 years after Muhammad’s death.
From this perspective we can infer that the choice of Jerusalem was based on a political reality and not religious importance. It was only chosen to replace Mecca as a pilgrimage site for the Umayyad after Mecca became unavailable. Indeed, the fall of the Umayyad had also signified the end of the Jerusalem story as a place of Ḥājj. According to the testimony of one of Muhammad’s women, Jerusalem became Ḥaram only at the time when Muhammad admired the Jews and wish to get their political support and their religious legitimacy.
Therefore, Jerusalem being an Islamic Ḥaram is a religious myth that lasted for less of 100 years all in all out of 1300 Islamic history for political reasons. Contemporary Muslims and Palestinians have brought it to the forth for mere political reasons without any substantial religious corroborations.
c) Did Muhammad make a miraculous night visit to the Jewish Temple Mount?
The only reference in the Qur’an employed by Muslims, by means of their egregiously distorted political interpretations in our time, in respect to the sanctity of Jerusalem for Islam, is the first verse in Sūrah 17, Banī Isrā’īl:
“Glory to Him who journeyed his servant by night, from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque” (Subĥāna al-Ladhī Asra’ bi-‘Abdīhī Laylan Mina al-Masjidi al-Ḥarāmi Ilal-Masjidi al-’Aqşā”).
The verse called Isrā’ is connected to the Mi’rāj, which describe how Muhammad had a vision at night in which he hovers with angel Gabriel through the seven worlds while riding on his miraculous horse al-Buraq, and returns to Mecca the same night. On the way to the seven worlds he meets the prophets: Adam, St. John and Jesus, Joseph, Idris, Aaron, Moses and Abraham.
Flying horses and dragons and gods able to fly were common myths centuries before Muhammad. These myths were often grafted onto new religions. The whole story may have been influenced by the story of the prophet Elijah who flew into heaven in a burning chariot pulled by horses. Prophet Ezekiel experiences in Babylon a vision in which he was taken by a lock of his hair and a wind lifted him up between the earth and the heaven” to one of the gates of the Jerusalem Temple. In the following verse it is stated that Ezekiel saw there the glory of the God of Israel. The story of Muhammad has also its source in the story of the ladder of Jacob in the Bible.
The issue from Muhammad’s perspective was that his two most admired Jewish ancestors were Abraham and Moses, and both saw God face to face. God appeared to Abraham and promised him to inherit the Land of Israel. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received from God the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. So, if his prophets saw God, he is more entitled to see Allah by himself.
The only source from which contemporary Muslims derive the belief in the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam rests on their interpretation of this event of the so-called night journey on the white horse. The assertion that the Mosque that stands today on the north edge of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the same mosque called al-Aqşā in the Qur’an, that assertion is completely modern that lacks any historical foundation. Muhammad intended to reach heaven in order to behold Allah. Muhammad, in his opinion, was the seal of all prophets, believed that he was in a better situation to see Allah, because he was more important than his predecessors.
However, it is worthwhile to recall that the Jews never claimed that Moses functioned in, or ever visited, Jerusalem. Nor did Abraham, who lived a large part of his life and died in Hebron, ever visit Jerusalem. Most probably it was a very small Jebusite village during Abraham’s day. Moreover, there are no Jewish sources or other religious sources, or political and archaeological from antiquity that can be cited as a source of the story by Muhammad. Nor can it be said that there was some misunderstanding or inaccurate interpretation on Muhammad’s part. It is a pure political propagation promoted by contemporary Muslims for political ends.
Indeed, the Islamic tradition is not based on factual evidence and is not corroborated by religious or archaeological proofs. The claim that Muhammad’s miraculous visit had occurred on the Temple Mount is a new invention, spread by contemporary Muslim and Palestinian propagators. However, the most important and greatest reliable Islamic sages and classical exegetes and commentators discussed the subject of the meaning and place of al-Aqşā mosque. They raised various theories regarding its location, none is that al-Aqşā identified by the Jewish Temple Mount.
1) There is the approach of Ibn Abdallah Muhammad al-Wāqidi (748-822), a historian and biographer of Muhammad, who founded his suggestion on Islamic chain of testimony of authentic witnesses (called Isnād) who identify the al-Aqşā mosque as a prayer area established by Muhammad twenty kilometers north-east of Mecca on the way to Medina. In the Qur’an, the term Aqşa is a description of a location on earth. The verses contain a list of several holy places in the vicinity of Mecca, one of them being al-Mash‘ar al-Aqşa. al-Wāqidi also brings other sages who claim that al-Aqşā was a prayer area built by Muhammad 16 kilometers north-east from Mecca, in a place called Ji’rānah.
2) There is the approach proposed by Muhammad Ibn-Sa’ad (784-845), a biographer of Muhammad, with the consent of Abū Abdallah Muhammad al-Bukhārī (810-870), the most authentic author of the Ḥadīth; and Aḥmad ibn Shu’ayb al-Nasā’ī (829–915), a noted collector of Ḥadīth, who contend that the incident related to al-Aqşā in Surat Banī Isrā’īl, 17:1 occurred 18 months before the Hijrah (migration of Muhammad in September 622) at a place called Maqām Ibrāhīm, near the well of Zamzam – the well in the city of Mecca, adjacent to the Masjid al-Haram and the Ka’ba.
In Mecca, there was a well-known sacred area near the Ka‘ba, namely al-Ḥijr. It was a place of visions experienced during sleep. The best-known example is the dream of ‘Abd al-Muttalib, Muhammad’s grandfather, in which he was entrusted with the task of digging the well of Zamzam. Later sources contain more stories of visions experienced during sleep in al-Ḥijr.
Uri Rubin believes that this year, 619, was the year in which Muhammad’s wife, Khadīja, and his uncle ‘Abbās died, and these events deeply influenced Muhammad and perhaps contributed to this event. Alfred Guillaume has argued convincingly that in its original context the verse refers to a point on the outskirts of the ancient sacred enclave around Mecca.
3) Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (838-923), a Persian historian and biographer of Muhammad, and one of the first commentators on the Qur’an, has collated all of the Islamic sources. He states that Muhammad’s objective was spiritual: to reach the house of Allah in the upper firmament and to see Allah face to face. If Muhammad was to be the last and the most important of all the prophets, and Abraham and Moses had seen God face to face, Muhammad surely would have had to see Allah.
The important thing is that according to Tabari, Muhammad rode to heaven on the heavenly white horse, but did not dismount his horse or pray at any mosque. That was not his mission. He wished to see Allah. Therefore, he pursued his journey to heaven to see Allah and from there he returned directly to Mecca at the same night. Had Muhammad prayed in any al-Aqşā mosque, his followers would have been constrained to pray there, but that was not the case. From this perspective, Muhammad’s ascension (Mi’rāj) was failed, as there was no mentioning he met Allah.
Tabari also states the significance of al-Aqşā as representing not Jerusalem but the edge of the world, the farthermost point in the world. It may refer to “the highest heaven,” reflecting Muhammad’s aspiration to encompass the entire world. Ibn Hishām, states that Muhammad had other night visions which were not inserted to the Qur’an. The Meccans mocked at Muhammad of his night visions, in which he was deeply insulted. According to Ibn Ḥanbal, Muhammad did not erect any Mosque, and these are Jewish traditions called Isrā’īlīyāt.
Muslim exegetes refute this by claiming there is nothing in the Qur’an to indicate that al-Aqşā verse stands for a site in heaven. Rather, it seems to mean that the site is situated at the farthest end of the terrestrial course of the night journey. This verb occurs five more times in the Qur’an, all of which in passages describing biblical history. Three of them describe the nocturnal exodus of Moses with the Children of Israel from Egypt, and in the other two places the verb describes the nocturne flight of Lot with his family from his city. Thus accordingly, the Qur’anic al-Masjid al-Aqşā was identified as Medina.
4) A good summing up of the issue, is Muhammad Ibn-Ishāq (704-761), Muhammad’s most important biographer. He stated there are additional testimonies of Muhammad’s nocturnal journeys that were carried out while he was sleeping and were not included in the Qur’an. These journeys did not include visits to other places (such as Damascus, for example) apart from Mecca. As for this specific journey, he cites the testimony given by ‘Aisha, Muhammad’s beloved wife, who related to the issue of Isrā’ and Mi’rāj by declaring that Muhammad’s body was lying beside her throughout that entire night, but his spirit was taken by Allah and hovered in the heavens.
5) There is also a contemporary explanation introduced by the Egyptian researcher Ahmad Muhammad ‘Arafa (2003) through the medium of the Egyptian Ministry of Cultural Publications. He suggests that Muhammad’s night journey related to 17:1 refers to the Hijrah of the prophet from Mecca to Medina. The journey was not to Jerusalem but to Medina. The word Isrā’ in Arabic that appears in the Qur’an means “to move secretly from a dangerous location to a safe place.” In that way the prophet obeyed the instructions of Allah to the effect that Mecca was dangerous, his enemies were plotting to kill him, and he was to escape secretly at night to Medina. Muhammad’s praise for Allah in the Sūrah, demonstrates the importance of the event for Muhammad’s life and career.
Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields
When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.
The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.
Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.
Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.
To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.
With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.
Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”
“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.
Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.
“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.
Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.
That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.
In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.
The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.
The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.
That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”
Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”
Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit
The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.
The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.
In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.
It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.
The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.
Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.
Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.
The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.
Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations
Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.
Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.
Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.
How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.
Consider three recent instances.
First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.
Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”
Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.
Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.
Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.
Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.
For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.
In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.
Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.
Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.
In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”
Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.
These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.
The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.
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