The Dome of the Rock is probably the most studied Islamic monument. The architectural forms and features of the monuments and the inscriptions that decorate its walls have been studied and discussed thoroughly by scholars and academics, in many occasion creating a link between the Dome and other monuments.
I also have written an article on the iconographic program of the inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock.
The basic assumption, when one compares the Dome of the Rock and its meaning with other, typically Christian, monuments is that the Dome can be read as an architectural symbol of the ‘clash of civilizations’ that existed in early Islamic Jerusalem. Yet, a new book by a professor of Art History edited by Brill, can shed new light and provide a new, challenging perspective.
The Clash of Civilizations in early Islamic Jerusalem
‘Clash of Civilizations’ can be perceived as a strong phrase, but usually this is how late-7th-century Jerusalem is depicted.
Making a long story (incredibly) short: the Islamic Arab invaders capture the city, probably the most sacred city on earth, where the Jewish and Christian communities are still present. ‘Abd al-Malik starts the construction of the Dome of the Rock, which is dated 72 a.h. (691-2 AD). The Dome is part of ‘Abd al-Malik religious-political propaganda against the other religious communities living in Jerusalem.
As I have already discussed scholars have provided interpretation of the Qur’anic inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock. In most of the cases the academics tend to underline the fact that the Qur’anic verses on the Dome of the Rock contain explicit references to the concept of Divine Uniqueness (tawhid), clearly set against the Trinity Dogma.
Estelle Whelan, on the one hand, discusses how the inscriptions of the Dome are connected to a wider anti-Christian propaganda ‘Abd al-Malik pursued also through his coinage: both on the monument and in the coins ‘Abd al-Mailk started to struck some years later, we find the same Qur’anic passages, the same words are used. In both cases, the Islamic concept of the divine uniqueness is underlined.
Estelle Whelan underlines how the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock where not chosen randomly: the Qur’anic text was carefully selected to convey a message. The inscription has an homiletic aim.
Another interesting article, is the one by Erika Dodd. She wants to demonstrate how Qur’anic inscriptions in Islamic monuments can be considered just like the paintings in Christian churches: in both cases the aim is to convey a clear message to the believer through an iconographic program. To explain the concept, Erika Dodd compares the inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock and the mosaics of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem (decorated between 690 and 787). Again the conclusion is: the two messages are opposing each other, with the Dome of the Rock declaring the uniqueness of God and the Church of the Nativity underling the Trinity.
The basic assumption is the same: in the late-7th-century Jerusalem at least two religions were facing each other. The co-existence of the two religions (actually three, with Judaism), did not result in any fruitful encounter, but was mostly characterized by a clash in which each religion pursued its own goal and tried to prevail.
A new perspective
Not long ago Brill edited a new book by Lawrence Nees, professor of art history, whose focus has been for long Medieval art in Northern Europe.
The book title, Perspective on Early Islamic Art in Jerusalem is quite self-explanatory.
Nees himself makes it clear: in his career he focused on other subjects, other than Islamic art. This makes him a sort of outsider: as an outsider he is able to look at things differently, without the prejudices that usually guide other academics and scholars that have always studied the topic. As he puts it: “Sometimes distance can bring into focus what is difficult to see when standing very close, and my perspective is at least a different, and perhaps a fresh one.”
What Nees challanges is the concept of continuity: scholars studying early Islamic art in Jerusalem cannot analyse the earlier phases with in mind what happened after, using this knowledge to determine interactions also at those earlier stages. In other words, even if we know that in later centuries the clash between religious communities in Jerusalem became harsher and harsher, this does not mean that inevitably the relations between religions have always been tense.
In practice, Nees challenges the assumptions that the similarity between the Dome of the Rock and Christian martyria was actually recognized at the time: ‘One can and should wonder whether similarities in plan would have been even noticed much less endowed with important meaning by contemporary observers of medieval buildings […]. The similarities obvious to modern scholars looking at these graphic representations, plans, a genre wholly unfamiliar in the early medieval period, might well have escaped medieval observer’.
In his book Nees also takes briefly into consideration the inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock.
‘Less anti-Christian than it might well have been’
Nees, speaking of the inscriptions of the Dome of the Rock, rejects the anti-Christian interpretation commonly given by academics. He suggests, following Grabar’s interpretation, that they can in fact be seen as carrier of a sort of ecumenical statement, ‘appealing rather than rejecting the Christians’.
For instance, Nees underlines citing Grabar, the Qur’an contains much more anti-Christian verses, for instance the one confuting the occurence of the crucifixion (Q 4:157). The verses used in the Dome of the Rock are instead seen as being closed to the Christian tradition. It is a fact that only the Christian religion is cited and no reference is made to Jews or any Old Testament events.
It is also remarkable that the inscriptions of the Dome, 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.
Of course, Nees’s book, is a survey on early Islamic art in Jerusalem, and in particular on the Haram al-Sharif: his study does not want to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Dome of the Rock. This discussion is set in a much wider study.
Still, the fact that the author focuses also on the role of the inscriptions, underlines even more their importance in the study of the Islamic past.
Read also The Dome of the Rock – reading its iconographic project (SquareKufic, 12 Sep 2014)
Bibliography and further readings
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]
O. Grabar, The Shape of the Holy. Early Islamic Jerusalem, Princeton, 1996.
L. Nees, Perspective on Early Islamic Art in Jerusalem, Brill, Leiden 2015.
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]