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Islamic Art: The Dome of the Rock

Introduction

The Dome of the Rock is a key landmark that also serves as an Islamic shrine. This landmark is located in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, an ancient platform often referred as “The Noble Sanctuary” by Muslims. This landmark that took 3 years to complete (from 1688 to 1691) is “the oldest extant Islamic building in the world” (Cunningham & Reich 2005).

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From an architectural perspective the Dome of the Rock has numerous meanings and symbols that relates to religion, especially the Islamic faith. This is because the building is a monumental landmark for the formation and creation of Islam (Hillenbrand 1999). In addition, the site on which the Dome of the Rock has been constructed is regarded holy by both the Jewish and Christian communities. For this reason, the construction of this edifice at the site is a symbol of the victory of Islam as the new faith over these other tow religions. Structurally, the dome of the rock has an octagonal shape, a shape that symbolizes the link between heaven and earth.

Historical perspective

Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad caliph, is believed to have facilitated in the construction of the Dome of the Rock that commenced from 688 AD, and was completed in 691 AD. The intention of constructing this monumental building was not for it to later be turned into a mosque. Rather, the intention of its builders was for it to become a pilgrim’s shrine. The traditions of the Islamic faith provide that the main reason why the Dome of the Rock was constructed was with a view to commemorating the ascension into heaven of Prophet Muhammad, following his nocturnal journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (Hillenbrand 1999).

Abd al-Malik wished to construct a magnificent Muslim structure that would offer competition to the various Christendom churches, in addition to serving the purpose of a symbolic statement not just to the Christian, but to the Jews as well, with regard to how superior the then new Islam faith had become. According to Insoll (1999) “His building spoke to Jews by its location, to Christians by its interior decoration” (Insoll 1999).

Significance

From a religious point of view, the Dome of the Rock remains amongst the key Islamic holiest sites in existence. The importance of this landmark emanates not least from the religious beliefs that are held as concerns the rock at the very heart of this structure. Islamic traditions provide that this rock is the spot from which Prophet Muhammad made his ascent to heaven, in the company of angel Gabriel (Grabar & Nuseibah 1996). This was on the same night that Prophet Muhammad was to make his ‘nocturnal journey’ to Jerusalem, from Mecca.

Even before the arrival of Muslim as a religion, the sacred rock that would later have the Dome of the Rock built over was considered to be, at least by the Jews, the exact place at which Abraham had offered to make a sacrifice of his son Isaac. This is a belief that the Jews hold onto to this day. Furthermore, a majority of the people hold the belief that this monumental Islamic edifice stand adjacent to “the Holy Holies of both Herod’; and Solomon’ temple” (Insoll 1999).

A number of scholars (for example, Cunningham & Reich 2005) have held various opinions as regards the religious significance of the Dome of the Rock. This monument has been constructed on a sacred site to both the Jews and the Christians, in effect asserting itself as an edifice of victory for the new faith, Islam, over the other older religions. From the perspective of the Islamic faith however, the Dome of the Rock symbolizes the final statement and continuation of “the faith of the People of the Book- Muslims” (Insoll 1999). In addition, this monument signifies a symbolic establishment of faith or conquering power “within the conquered land” (Insoll 1999). Islamic power, along with its position ‘as the revealed truth’ is stressed further by way of the imagery and inscriptions that are to be found inside this building.

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The Dome of the Rock, according to Insoll (1999), seems to emphasize three fundamental points. First is a forceful assertion of Islamic fundamental principles. Secondly, that Muhammad occupies a special position in religion, in addition to noting the significance of his historic mission. Thirdly, the Dome of the Rock recognizes Jesus’ position, in addition to that of other prophets. This is depicted in the new faith’s (Islam) theology. Insoll (1999), has interpreted the inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock as a declaration (one meant to be read by all ‘the People of the Book’, or Muslims, while the other is directed at Christians) that their religion, Islam, had surpassed both Judaism together with their inheritance of this religion from David), as well as Christianity (along with its doctrine about Jesus). These assertions acts to further cement the identity and power of Islam as a new faith.

As a piece of art, the Dome of the Rock signifies the decisive propaganda that the rulers of Arab descent tried to spread to their subject through religion. For this reason, this building is deemed significant in as far as the rise of Islam as a religion is concerned. The various Arabic inscriptions on the interior and exterior walls of the Dome of the Rock are a further testimony of efforts by Arabs to spread Islam through propaganda. For example, the colonnade’s outer face is adorned with several Quran passages. These passages consists of five classes of short phrases, and each of these groups of phrases lays emphasis on unity, in addition to the unconditional and unrivalled power of God (Glasse & Smith 2003).

With regard to the building architecture, this too is important religion-wise, in terms of helping us in understanding the spread and rise of Islam as a religion. The dome of this edifice has been modeled to resemble Christian churches in Syria. The dome also bears a close resemblance with a number of earlier Byzantines buildings, especially with regard to their geometrical structures. Through the use of the Byzantines architecture, it is thought that the dome sought to illustrate evidence on ‘the conquered people of the power of new rulers’ (Kennedy 2004).

The entire drum of the Dome bears a rhythmic distribution of enormously complex floral scrolls, interspersed by tall amphorae reinforced by precious stones. Traditionally, the amphora characterized by a lack of flowing scrolls is interpreted as having an association with “the tree of life”. From the iconography of Christianity, this symbolizes a renewal. An argument has also been fronted to the effect that the winged motif that appears to be a characteristic of the drum section of the Dome of the Rock in fact a symbol of ‘an angelic figure’ (Kennedy 2004 ).

Another suggestion indicates that the ‘Abd al-Malik’ inscription found on the inside of the Dome was meant to give believers spiritual guidance, in addition to exhibiting the fundamental difference that exist between on the one hand, Islam and on the other hand, Christianity. The implication here is that the construction of the Dome of the Rock was both a vehicle for, and a symbol of, “the emergence of the self-definition of Islam over Christianity” (Insoll 1999).

The shape that the Dome of the Rock has assumed has a significant place in Islam as religion. To start with, the shape symbolizes Prophet Muhammad ascent into heaven. In addition, the building’s octagonal structure symbolizes a mathematical series step that border on a square (a symbol of ‘fixity of earthly manifestations’) and a square (a symbol of heavenly perfection) (Kennedy 2004). The traditional fonts of baptism have also been designed in a similar shape, as are the tombs of Saints. In the latter, their lower part tends to be square, with a drum in the shape of an octagon being inserted between the dome and the cube. This symbolizes the Saint as a connection between God and man (Cunningham & Reich 2005). Similarly, the Dome of the Rock is thought of as a link between heaven and earth, and hence its religious significance.

Taking into consideration the fact that early Islam had more to do with both Judaism and Christianity, it may then be easier to interpret the symbolic meaning of numerous floral and trees motifs that have been depicted in the entire Dome of the Rock, especially with regard to a variety of mosaic series. A number of mosaics that are found within the Dome of the Rock have often been seen to depict “vessels” and “flowers”. From a Jewish perspective this is a symbol of values, as “good deeds” are often described using flowers (Cunningham & Reich 2005).

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Also, the inscriptions emphasizes that God is without offspring, and that his messenger is Muhammad. On the other hand, the text found on the dome’s inner face declares the status of Muhammad, along with God’s unity. There are also several verses that have been addressed to “the people of the book”, a declaration on the falsehood of the ‘Trinity’, a caution that religion makes no room for mistakes, and an exploration of the correct view held about Jesus. One amongst the many passages warns against “speaking of three (gods)” (Blair & Bloom 1994).

The inscriptions are also quite clear regarding the issue of Islamic doctrine development. In this regard, status evidence of Islamic fundamental beliefs are provided (that is, the non-divine and non-messianic status of Jesus, accepting a status of multiplicity in terms of prophets, revelation and reception of Muhammad, as well as the designation of Islam as a religion) (Kennedy 2004).

The walls of the Dome of the Rock have been in-scripted with Islamic words that have been sourced from the Quran (Kennedy 2004). This signifies the earliest Quran extant citation, on a date that coincides with the year in which the Rock of the Dome was completed; 691 AD. Free of metaphorical decoration, the Dome of the Rock symbolizes a response to alterations in religious point of reference. A number of inscription bands adorn the building’s interior, with one of the bands being as long as 240 meters in length. This band is important, as it is seen as the founding inscription of this monumental edifice. On it, there have been scripted scripts of Kufic that runs parallel to the pinnacle of the octagonal arcade sides, found within the Dome of the Rock. From its exterior, the arcade is adorned with inscription quotes that have been obtained from various verses of the Quran, all of which offers glory to God. Most of the texts on the interior of the Dome of the Rock are mainly religious (Glasse & Smith 2003).

In addition, these religious texts have been deliberately but carefully composed from selected passages of the Quran, then later on used in quite a distinctive form. The interior mosaic of the Dome of the Rock marks both stylized and realistic depictions of vegetation, as well as other relevant themes. According to the laws of Islam, it is forbidden to depict living beings through the work of art. These mosaics so adorned call to mind exotic garden, probably the gardens to be found in paradise. In addition, there is also rich jewelry that has also been represented in the various mosaics, and essentials necklaces, breastplates, as well as a Persian crown. It is worth of note here that the caliph Omar was the ruler of Persia, in 637 AD. As such, these mosaics are a representation of the various Persian crowns that were hanged during his reign, in Mecca (Grabar & Nuseibah 1996).

Moreover Insoll (1999) has noted that the pictorial imagery that adorns the inside of the monumental Dome of the Rock is quite important in terms of the identity and power of “the new faith”. Insoll (1999) offers an interpretative alternative that succeed in providing an explanation as to why Ssanina and Byzantine royal symbols got used in decorating the interior walls of the Dome of the Rock. The explanation that Insoll offer is that these are symbols that clearly identify the defeat of unbelievers, resulting into their conversion to ‘the true faith’ (Grabar & Nuseibah 1996)

Current status

At the moment, the Dome of the Rock has received an aluminum covering, in addition to being topped over with a crescent of gold. It is adorned with magnificent a design that bears their roots to the Syrian/Byzantine motifs. Calligraphic decorations (these are quite common in a majority of the Islamic art) dominate the exterior and interior of this edifice that amounts to about 240 meters. The various inscriptions that are found inside of the Dome of the Rock all have to do with verses from the Quran regarding Jesus and the kind of relationships that he had with Jerusalem (Cunningham & Reich 2005).

The interior as well as the exterior of the Dome of the Rock have over the years been refurbished on a continuous basis. This is in addition to the numerous renovations that the building has received. A prayer chamber is located below the sanctuary, and this chamber is often accessed via the use of a stairway. At the same time, the main floor of the building also has a larger area dedicated to prayers. At the payer chamber, one is able to get a glimpse of a crack within the rock. This crack, as per the traditions of the Muslims, happened at a time when Prophet Muhammad made his ascent into heaven (Grabar & Nuseibar 1996).

Such groups as the Eretz Yisrael and Temple Mount faithful movement have communicated their wish to have the Dome of the Rock moved to Mecca, with a proposal that a Third Temple be built to replace it. Seeing that Muslims considers the very ground under which this monument has been constructed to be quite sacred (Glasse & Smith 2003), if a relocation were to occur, then such a move would not only be controversial in nature, but there is a possibility that it could also provoke violence. A majority of the Israelis are extremely undecided regarding the suggestion made by the two movements to have the dome relocated.

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It is the feeling of a faction of the religious Jews, who subscribe to the rabbinic dictum that this shrine ought to be rebuilt “in the messianic era” only (Kennedy 2004). In addition, the group has asserted that it would be seen as quite conceited of the people to attempt at forcing the hand of God. Nevertheless, it is the position of several Christian evangelic members that the very act of relocating the dome is a precondition to both the second coming, and Armageddon.

Such a view inclines towards a belief in “a prophetic rebuilding of the Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock” (Kennedy 2004). Elsewhere, the Dome of the Rock has been featured on the backside of the 1000 rials Iranian banknote (Grabar & Nuseibar 1996). In terns of possession, the Dome of the Rock is both maintained and owned officially by the Jordanian Ministry of Awaqaf (Cunningham & Reich 2005).

Conclusion

The Dome of the Rock, situated Old Jerusalem’ eastern side, at the Temple Mount has gone down the annals of history as Islam’s third “most holy place” (Cunningham & Reich 2005). This shrine was constructed in 691 AD by Abd al-Malik. Muslim traditions hold that this edifice is situated at the site where Prophet Muhammad made his ascent into heaven, accompanied by angel Gabriel, following his nocturnal trip from Mecca, to Jerusalem. The architectural design of the Dome of the Rock bears symbolic meaning to religion.

The dome has its interiors and exterior walls adorned with Arabic calligraphy of various verses from the Quran, talking about Jesus as well as the relationship he had in Jerusalem. The shape of the dome is quite symbolic to the Muslim faith, as it signifies the ascension that Prophet Muhammad made to heaven. In addition, its location, coupled with its grandeur are quite significance, as they help Islam as a new faith to assert itself in a region hitherto dominated by Christianity and Judaism (Kennedy 2004).

There are also numerous inscriptions within and without the building. The objective of these Arabic inscriptions that are attributed to ‘Abd al-Malik’ was to give believers spiritual guidance. In addition, these inscriptions help in expounding the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity (Grabar & Nuseibah 1996). The octagonal structure of the building is symbolic of the position that this shrine occupies, as a link between heaven and earth. Various ‘flowers’ and ‘vessels’ can also be seen through out the building, and these are symbolic of the ‘good deeds’ in Islam.

Work cited

Blair, Sheila, & Bloom, Jonathan. The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994

Cunningham, Lawrence & Reich, John. Culture and Values; a survey of the humanities. New York: Cengage Learning, 2005.

Glasse, Cyril, & Smith, Houston. The new encyclopedia of Islam. London: Rowman Alktamira, 2003

Grabar, O & Nuseibah, S. The Dome of the Rock. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1996.

Hillenbrand, Robert. Islamic Art and Architecture: World of Art Series. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Kennedy, H. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the 6th to the 11th Century. (2nd Ed). London: Longman, 2004.

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