By Rabbi Allen S. Maller
According to the Haj Ministry, five million Umrah visas were issued in 2013 and six million each during 2014 and 2015. It expects to issue more than 20 million visas by 2018. To the north some 1.09 million tourist entries into Israel were recorded in the first four months of 1017; a 28% increase over the same period last year. A record 349,000 Christian and Jewish foreigners visited during April (the Easter/Passover season); an increase of 38% over last year.
To this very day Jerusalem and Mecca remain much smaller than the capitals of the great Empires of the past (Rome and Constantinople) and the recent present (London and France). Yet the spirit that continues to rush forth from those two geographically tiny places, provides inspiration to billions of Christians, Jews and Muslims throughout the world; as more than 1.4 million pilgrims from abroad, plus 100,000+ Saudis, will perform the Hajj this year
In the pagan Greco-Roman Empire during the days of Jesus, the Jerusalem Temple (Beit HaMikdosh) was well known, while the Ka’aba, the House of God (Baitullah) in Mecca was hardly known at all. The first Roman reference to the Baitullah is from Diodorus Siculus, a first century BCE Roman historian who wrote that in Arabia there was a (pagan) temple greatly revered by the Arabs.
According to G. E. Von Grunebaum, who I studied with at UCLA in 1959-60, Mecca was also mentioned by Ptolemy, a second century Alexandrian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer, “The name he gives it allows us to identify it as a South Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary.” (G. E. Von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History 600–1258, p. 19)
Yet both of these cities and their sanctuaries, one almost unknown by the Romans and the other totally destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE; were destined, just a few centuries after Rome itself was looted and sacked; to become widely known throughout a world much larger than that of the Roman Empire, and each of them became for millions of monotheistic believers, the center of their spiritual world.
These two physical places have become much much larger in todays world because they function like a pair of lungs recycling the words and the spirit of the Abrahamic Prophets who walked their streets so many centuries ago.
Yet much of the ancient folklore about these two holy places is very similar; as the following fable illustrates, and shows how today these two holy places can be seen a one pair of lungs spreading the spirit of monotheistic holiness throughout the world.
This narration was transmitted orally in both Arabic and Hebrew for many centuries, and finally written down in several versions in the 19th century; explains how the pair of spiritual lungs came to be. Some say this happened in the time of Noah; others say in the generation when Abraham was born.
Two brothers who inherited a ‘valley to hilltop’ farm from their father, divided the land in half so each one could farm his own section. Over time, the older brother married and had four children, while the younger brother was still not married.
One year there was very little rain, and the crop was very meager. This was at the beginning of a long term draught that would turn the whole valley into an arid, treeless, desert where even grain did not grow, and all the springs dried up.
The younger brother lay awake one night praying and thought. “My brother has a wife and four children to feed and I have no children. He needs more grain than I do; especially now when grain is scarce.”
So that night the younger brother went to his barn, gathered a large sack of wheat, and left his wheat in his brother’s barn. Then he returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
Earlier that very same night, the older brother was also lying awake praying for rain when he thought: “In my old age my wife and I will have our grown children to take care of us, as well as grandchildren to enjoy, while my brother may have no children. He should at least sell more grain from his fields now, so he can provide for himself in his old age.”
So that night, the older brother also gathered a large sack of wheat, and left it in his brother’s barn, and returned home, feeling pleased with himself.
The next morning, the younger brother, surprised to see the amount of grain in his barn seemed unchanged said “I did not take as much wheat as I thought. Tonight I’ll take more.”
That same morning, the older brother standing in his barn, was thinking the same thoughts. After night fell, each brother gathered a greater amount of wheat from his barn and in the dark, secretly delivered it to his brother’s barn.
The next morning, the brothers were again puzzled and perplexed. “How can I be mistaken?” each one thought. “There’s the same amount of grain here as there was before. This is impossible! Tonight I’ll make no mistake – I’ll take two large sacks.”
The third night, more determined than ever, each brother gathered two large sacks of wheat from his barn, loaded them onto a cart, and slowly pulled his cart toward his brother’s barn. In the moonlight, each brother noticed a figure in the distance.
When the two brothers got closer, each recognized the form of the other and the load he was pulling, and they both realized what had happened.
Without a word, they dropped the ropes of their carts, ran to each other and embraced.
Only God can make a physical space into a Holy Place. And God’s love of the two brothers for their exemplary love and concern for each other inspired God’s prophets to make their descendants worthy to worship in a holy House rebuilt in that valley; and a holy House later built on that hill.
When all those, both near and far, who revere this place of spirit as a standard, share it in love with everyone else who reveres it, then God will do as Abraham requested, and “Make this (place) a land of Peace, and provide its people with the produce of of the land”. (Qur’an 2:126).
Then will the children of Adam and Abraham live in Holiness, Peace and Prosperity.
Christians and Jews believe the hill is Jerusalem. Muslims believe the valley is Mecca.
I believe that both are correct because I have learned many additional insights about the profound connections between Islam and Judaism that can be found in my new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms’ (a collection of 31 articles by a Reform Rabbi previously published by Islamic web sites which is now on Amazon ($15).
[Rabbi Allen S. Maller is a Reform Rabbi based in USA. He regularly contributes to India’s First Online Muslim Newspaper “IndianMuslimObserver.com”. Visit his website www.rabbimaller.com to know more. He can be reached at [email protected]]