The Dome of the Rock – reading its iconographic project

The Dome of the Rock was built in 72 a.h. (691-2 A.D.) and, besides being the most ancient Islamic building survived till our days, it is, most probably, the first monument to have been built by the new rulers of the Near East.
Its building followed a highly uneasy period: during the ten years that precede its construction Umayyads took temporary control of the Hijaz and of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, furthermore, they had to face attacks from religious groups opposing their power.

Interestingly, the long bands of inscriptions on the monument, help us understanding what was the context of its erection, and what was the message its patron ‘Abd al-Malik wanted to convey.

The position – not only the Night Journey

The place in which the Dome of the Rock was built is quite interesting: it is just on the top of Mount Moriah (aka Temple Mount) and it shares its site with the other two monotheistic religions that have Jerusalem as their spiritual centre, Judaism and Christianity. This connection is strikingly clear if we consider some the importance of this place for the traditions of the three religions.

As for the Judaism, let just point out that in this place the second Jewish Temple was built, and it is also associated with the first Temple. The rock that stays just in the middle of the building is traditionally considered to be the one on which Abraham was about to sacrifice his own son Isaac, thus proving his extreme trust in God. For Christianity, this is the place of many of the important events related to the life of Christ. Here Christ also predicted the destruction of the Herod’s temple.

Sectional axonometric view through dome © Creswell Archive

Sectional axonometric view through dome © Creswell Archive

It is commonly held that the Dome of the Rock has been built to commemorate the Night Journey of Muhammad. The Rock that stands in the centre is related to Muhammad’s Night Journey (isra’) and his ascension to the sky (mi’raj). Some theories point out that the architecture of the Dome of the Rock actually resembles that of a martyrium, a place related to the commemoration of a pious person, in Christian tradition. Well, we must admit that the octagonal structure, with the two walkways that go around the Rock, is the one typical of Christian martyria.

Anyway this relation between the Night Journey and Ascension and the actual construction of the Dome of the Rock appears in historical sources decades after the construction of the monument. For this reason theories have been produced, saying that the construction of the monument was rather related to political events, namely, the Umayyad conquest of the Christian city. As for the structure, it is absolutely true that in the first centuries of Islam, Islamic architecture was strongly influenced by the other traditions that Islam encountered during its expansion.

Considering its position, this theory seems to me the most acceptable: ‘Abd al-Malik constructed a visible, outstanding monuments to underline the conquest of Jerusalem by a new, outstanding religion.

The inscriptions – their content and how it relates with the context

The inscriptions that embellish the surface of the Dome of the Rock has been widely studied, I know. What I want to do here is to concentrate on the Ummayyad inscriptions, on the inner and outer faces of the octagonal arcade, and gather the concepts expressed by scholars through times and point out some interesting features.

First of all, what I want to point out here is a way to look at qur’anic inscriptions as conveyor of a message that is not only a mere glorification of Islamic faith [as I pointed out here]. They can and need to be read in the context of their production: the choice of the text to be inscribed is not casual.

As for the reading of the inscriptions, I use the wonderful article produced by the late Estelle Whelan.

Approaching to the building, the text written on the outer face of the arcade reads:

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. [beginning of the shahadah] – Say: He is God, the One! God, the Eternal Refuge! He neither begets nor is born. Nor is there to Him any equivalent. [Q 112 complete except for the introductory basmalah] – Muhammad is the Messenger of God, [completion of the shahadah] – the blessing of God be upon Him [blessing]. //

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. Muhammad is the Messenger of God. [shahadah, complete] – Indeed, God and His angels shower blessings on the Pro//phet. O you who believe! Ask blessing on him and salute him with a worthy salutation [Q 33:56, complete].

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. [beginning of the shahadah] – Pra//ise to God, who has not taken a son and has had no partner in His dominion and has no need of a protector out of weakness; and glorify Him with great glorification. [Q 17:111, complete except the initial “And say”] – Muhammad is the Messenger of G//od. [completion of the shahadah] – the blessing of God be on him and the angels and His prophets, and peace be on him, and may God have mercy. [blessing]

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. [beginning of the shahadah] – To Him belongs dominion, and to Him belongs all praise. He gives life and causes death, and He is over all things competent. [conflation of Q 64:1 and Q 57:2] – Muhammad is the Messenger of God, [completion of the shahadah] – the blessing of God be upon Him. May He accept His intercession on the Day of Judgment on behalf of His people. [blessing and prayer] //

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. Muhammad is the Messenger of God. [shahadah, complete] – The blessing of God be upon Him [blessing].

The servant of God ‘A//bd [Allah the Imam al-Ma’mun, Commander] of the Faithful, built this dome in the year two and seventy. May God accept from him and be content with him. Amen, Lord of the worlds, praise be to God. [foundation inscription]

In the inner face the inscriptions continues:

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. [beginning of the shahadah] – To Him belongs dominion, and to Him belongs all praise. He gives life and causes death, and He is over all things competent. [conflation of Q 64:1 and Q 57:2] – Muhammad is the servant of God and His messenger [variant completion of the shahadah] – Ind//eed, God and His angels shower blessings on the Pro//phet. O you who believe! Ask blessing on him and salute him with a worthy salutation. [Q 33:56, complete] – The blessing of God be on Him and peace be on Him and may God have mercy. [blessing, not in the Qur’anic text] – O People of the Book, do not commit excess in your // religion or say about God except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul created at a command from Him. So believe in God and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; de//sist – it is better for you. Indeed, God is but one god. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heaven and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is God as Disposer of affairs. Never would the Messiah disdain to b//e a servant of God, nor would the angels near to Him. And whoever disdains His worship and his arrogant – He will gather to Himself all together. [Q 4:171-172 complete] – Oh God, bless Your messenger and your servant Je//sus son of Mary. [interjection introduction the following passage] – Peace in on him the day he was born and the day he will die and the day he is raised alive! [Q 19:33 complete, with change from first to the third person] – This is Jesus, the son of Mary – the word of truth about which they are in dispute. It is not befitting for God to take a son; exalted is He! Wh//en He decrees an affair, He only says to it “Be”, and it is. [Q 19:34-35 complete] – Indeed, God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path. [Q 19:36 complete, except for initial “and”] – God witnesses that there is no deity except H//im, and so do the angels and those of knowledge – that He is maintaining creation in justice. There is no deity except Him, the Exalted in Might, the Wise. Indeed, the religion in the sight of God is Islam. And whose who were given the Scripture did not differ except after knowledge had come to them – out of jealous animosity between themselves. And whoever disbelieves in the verses of God, then indeed, God is swift in taking account. [Q 3:18-19 complete]

Dome of the Rock © Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock © Dome of the Rock

The inscriptions in context

First of all it is interesting to underline how the content of the inscriptions seems to vary also according to their position in the building.  Even if the general content is common in both the outer and inner inscription, the main focus in the two of them changes.

In the outer inscription the contents, we may say, are related more generally to the Islamic profession of faith: we mainly find the shahadah, the tawhid and blessings to the Prophet and, in one instance, also an interesting remark about God’s dominion (Q 7:111). Interestingly enough, the inner inscriptions seem to have a more specific message to convey: the focus here is the rejection of the Trinitarian dogma. The qur’anic quotations concentrate in depicting Jesus as a prophet, refusing the Christian dogma of him being the son of God. The verses aim at honouring him as prophet, strongly affirm the tawhid.

It is important to notice the fruition of the inscribed text: as Estelle Whelan points out, the main text is to be found in the inner face of the arcade, thus it was entirely readable only by those “who were returning as they entered, which involved circumambulation of the middle ambulatory. From this consideration we also understand that the actual position of the text in the building points out that the circumambulatory movement around the rock has always been meant, even in the first period after the construction of the Dome.

The content of the inscriptions is meaningful if we consider what we know about the time of the erection of the Dome: the city of Jerusalem, even if under Muslim control, was actually the most meaningful city for Christianity and Judaism. The Umayyad caliphate had, of course, to deal with the People of the Book. These inscriptions, while rejecting the dogma of the Trinity, actually do not reject Christianity totally: in Q 4:171-172, in fact, it is clearly stated the status of Jesus according to Islam. Jesus is not the son of God, but still he is his servant and his prophet.

Umayyad inscription in the inner face of the arcade

Umayyad inscription in the inner face of the arcade – Source faculty.maxwell.syr.edu

Erika Dodd underlined how this concept can be compared to the iconographic project displayed in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, decorated with mosaics between 690 and 787. The decoration motifs in the Dome of the Rock are clearly related to those found in the Church, but whereas the Church of Nativity’s iconographic programme is concerned with affirming the Trinity of God, the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock, forming themselves an iconographic programme, are concerned with the affirmation of the tawhid.

The inscriptions acquire thus a particularly interesting meaning when relating them with the context of production and also when comparing them with contemporary monuments.

What is also interesting is the way in which the Qur’anic quotations, taken from different part of the Holy Book, are here juxtaposed in order to convey a specific message that can be read as both homiletic and propagandistic…

‘Abd al-Malik’s propaganda – monumental inscriptions and coins

It is clear from the text of the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock that the shahadah used is longer than usual, and stresses, once again, the concept of the Unity of God:

In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate. There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

It is worth noticing that the same long shahadah is to be found in the coins struck for ‘Abd al-Malik starting from 77 a. h. (696-7 A.D.). This new coin was the first issue of a revolutionary reform in which the images were completely replaced by words.

'Abd al-Malik's coin, issued 77 a.h.

‘Abd al-Malik’s coin, issued 77 a.h. © British Museum

The central, horizontal text of the coin reads:

 (left):  There is no god but God. He is One. He has no associate. [beginning of the shahadah]

(right): He is God, the One! God, the Eternal Refuge! He neither begets nor is born. [Q 112:1-3 compete, except for initial “say”]

From this we can clearly assume that the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock are to be read in context, as part of a wider iconographic programme. The final aim of the message that ‘Abd al-Malik wanted to convey was,clearly, related to Islamic religious (and political) propaganda in a context and in a city where the three monotheistic religions had to coexist under the same Muslim flag.


Read also The Dome of the Rock – its inscriptions and religious relations in early Islamic Jerusalem (SquareKufic, 26 Jan 2016)

Bibliography and further readings

Archnet, “Qubba al-Sakhra” [http://archnet.org/sites/2814] (accessed Sep 12, 2014)

R. Avner, “The Dome of the Rock in Light of the Development of Concentric Martyria in Jerusalem: Architecture and Architectural Iconography”, in Muqarnas 27 (2010), pp. 31-49. [full text]

S. S. Blair and J. Bloom, “Inscriptions in art and architecture”, in J. D. McAuliffe, The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2006, pp. 163-178.

E. Dodd, “The Image of the word: Notes on the religious iconography in Islam”, in Berytus, 18 (1969), pp. 35-62. [full text (reprinted), p. 185]

R. Ettinghausen and O. Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1987, pp. 28-34.

O. Grabar, “The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem”, in Ars Orientalis 3 (1959), pp. 33-62. [full text (reprinted), p.147]

O. Grabar, “Al-Haram al-Sharif”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Brill, Leiden 1966, III, pp. 173-175.

O. Grabar, “Qubbat al-Sakhrah”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Brill, Leiden 1980, V, pp. 298-299.

O. Grabar, “The Meaning of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem”, in Medieval Studies at Minnesota, 3 (1988), pp. 1-10. [full text (reprinted)]

O. Grabar, “The Haram al-Sharif: An Essay in Interpretation”, in Bulletin of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies 2 (2000), pp. 1-13. [full article (reprinted)]

R. Hillenbrandt, Islamic Art and Architecture, Thames and Hudson, London 1999.

N. N. N. Khoury, “The Dome of the Rock, the Ka’ba, and Ghumdan: Arab Myths and Umayyad Monuments”, in Muqarnas, 10 (1993), pp. 57-65. [full text]

T. Leisten, “Mashhad Al-Nasr: Monuments of War and Victory in Medieval Islamic Art”, in Muqarnas 13 (1996), pp. 7-26. [full text]

G. Necipoglu, “The Dome of the Rock as Palimpsest: ‘Abd al-Malik’s Grand Narrative and Sultan Suleyman’s Glosses”, in Muqarnas XXV (2008), pp. 17-105. [full text]

N. Rabbat, “The Meaning of the Umayyad Dome of the Rock”, in Muqarnas, 6 (1989), pp. 12-21. [full text]

N. Rabbat, “The Dome of the Rock Revisited: Some Remarks on al-Wasiti’s Accounts”, in Muqarnas, 10 (1993), pp. 66-75. [full text]

E. Whelan, “Forgotten Witness: Evidence for the Early Codification of the Qur’an”, in Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, 1 (1998), pp. 1-14. [full article, via jstor]

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One thought on “The Dome of the Rock – reading its iconographic project

  1. Pingback: The Dome of the Rock – its inscriptions and the Religions in Early Islamic Jerusalem | SquareKufic

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