Maybe it was symptomatic of my own decayed faith or my wordly ignorance, but in the mysterious symmetry of Jerusalem the one place which conveyed to me a genuine religious feeling was the golden domed temple of Islam, the mosque of the holy rock where the three great religions meet.
I don't know a thing about religious architecture, but this temple of blue marble and gold, the Temple Mount with its serene circles within circles, feels different from the great cathedrals of Christianity. The splendor is overwhelming, yet it does not convey the human egotism of St. Peter's or Westminster Abbey, the vanity of popes and kings. One feels peaceful order in the cool marble circles; one also feels absolutely humbled by the complexity of the decoration, blue tile and gold and the undecipherable lessons of Mohammed.
I suppose that was the idea - cool and peaceful, yet awesome - when this magnificent temple was built 1,400 years ago. Like most Americans, like most citizens of western nations, I don't know very much about these Moslems. My Palestinian guide, Fathi Mustafa, repeated everything patiently, several times, the way a sweet-tempered adult instructs a slow-witted child. Mustafa knows from experience that the overwhelming western attitude toward Islamd is ignorance - ignorance with a veneer of racial superiority, the patronizing cloak of our colonialist past.
Let's be honest. Our reflexes are mired in stereotypes. Crazy Arabs. Weird people, these Moslems, praying all day, wearing rags on their heads. Chopping off hands, making women wear veils, Jihad, the holy war with flashing scimitars. Crazy for Allah.
Mustafa explained confidently: "The Koran gives rules for all human beings, how to live in peace. Islam means peace, peace in your heart for everybody. Not to use your power, but peace."
Amen. That is what each of the three religions promises, a sense of harmony with life's complexities, a deiverance from confusion. This promise of peace is so tantalizing that, by God, the faithful often will kill for it. Outside, down the winding alleys of the Arab quarter, away from the serene esplanade of this great mosque, Palestinian kids are throwing rocks at Jewish cops and Israeli soldiers are righteously bashing Moslem heads.
Yet Islam, perhaps because it is the youngest of the three religions, is the only one that attempts to recognize its rivals and incorporate their truths with its own. "Abraham was the grandfather of prophets," Mustafa explains for the third time. "Abraham and Moses and Jesus, all the prophets were Jews except Mohammed."
We advanced to the center of the mosque, where the holy rock called es-Sakhra is encircled by a low balus-trade. The rock, like Islam itself, joins all three religions. The stone itself is crude and obdurate, harsh and pure, the highest outcropping of Mt. Moriah, a perfect religious metaphor for un-compromising nature, surrounded in this temple by manmade splendor.
This is the very spot where King David chose to build the noble citadel of Israel. It is the holy foundation of Solomon's glorious temple and Herod's, the destruction of which Jews still mourn. This holy rock, at least according to Mustafa, is where the Romans brought Jesus on his way to trial and crucifixion. Why bring him here? Because it is the holy rock.
For Islam, this is the place where Mohammed, astride his magical horse El Buraq and aided by the angel Gabriel, leaped from Jerusalem to heaven. He spoke with God and returned with God's laws to found a new religion, 600 years after Christ. In one corner of the scarred rock, there is a cleft mark, the hoofprint of El Buraq.
Mohammed's night journey is parallel with Moses' ascent of Mt. Sinai to receive God's law on the tablets. Mohammed was a messenger, a prophet, not a God-in-man (only Christians believe in that). Next to the rock is the sealed gate of paradise which Mohammed will open when he returns to earth and all the good people will enter through it. Judgment day and deliverance for the faithful - this belief is shared by the three religions, like the rock itself.
Mustafa led me down a narrow staircase to the small cave within the holy rock itself. This is where Mohammed prayed. This cave, in legend, is where the souls of the Hebrew dead congregate. A very holy place.
There is a hole in the ceiling, as though somebody had carved a sky-light in the sacred rock.
"The Crusaders made that hole," he said, "when they ruled Jerusalem. They made this hole in the rock and they stuck a cross in it and the temple was a Christian church. The Crusaders killed 70,000 Moslems. You understand me? Then Sultan Saladin Ayubi conquered Jerusalem and he killed 70,000 Crusaders. You understand."
The riddle of Jerusalem, I think, goes like this: Every sacred wall leads to a crumbling passageway of another religion, a fallen pedestal, another sacred stone of a rival faith. So how can one excavate and restore the holy walls of one religion without desecrating the shrine of another?
The long, bloody history of this walled city tells us it cannot be done. History says these faith struggles will continue in one form or another for several more millennia unless, by accident or frenzy, they destroy the world first. That is Jerusalem's past, dark and sobering.
But the future does not have to repeat the past. I am not being entirely sentimental about this. There are objective reasons why the world might choose an alternative future of inter-dependence, one in which modest respect replaces our total ignorance. Right now, I think we are watching competing images, trying to decide which course is more truthful, the past or the future.
Anwar Sadat prays to Mecca five times a day. He is, as one cynical Israeli put it, "a religious nut, just like Carter and Begin." Nonetheless, what Sadat communicated to Americans was quite different and profound. Via television, Sadat blew away the "crazy Arab" image that lurks in the back of American minds. It is impossible to listen to Sadat, talking about his grandchildre, purring platitudes to a TV celebrity interviewer, speaking of peace in his rich-Brit accent, and imagine the wild-eyed Jihad of flashing scimitars.
My own hunch is that Sadat's human message to the non-Islamic audiences is at least as important to the future as any of the drafts and codicils carried from the peace table. Global television, thus, introduced an absolutely new element to world history, unknown to the Crusaders or Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent or the Kingdom of David: An opportunity, an obligation actually, to meet the alien faithful, face to face, in your own living room and discover that the core of his beliefs is not so strange after all.
Sadat comforts Americans. But Kohomeini of Iran scares us. The ayatollah evokes the old stereotype of Islam - crazy, weird Moslem fundamentalism. Off with their hands, their heads. Women two steps back. Forsake the future and turn back to the purity of the desert, from whence this faith was born.
Khomeini is strange, all right. I don't want to minimize the vast cultural differences between us and them. But, surely, Americans can recognize that the same moral fundamentalism which now stirs the Moslem world is also churning, powerfully, in our own society. And, for that matter, in Israel.
In America, one might say, the ayatollah of sexual orthodoxy is Anita Bryant. She demands that the government exclude a certain class of people from the full rights of citizenship because, by her light, these people, homosexuals, are spiritually unclean. Or one could say the Phyllis Schlafly is the ayatollah of male supremacy, preaching that the very fabric of American family life will be destroyed if women are granted full legal equality in the Constitution. The anti-abortion movement, likewise, seeks to use government power to prohibit the sexual license associated with legal abortions.
These political movements, like Khomeini's, demand moral authoritarianism from the government. I think they spring from similar anxieties in America, albeit vastly more modern in detail, Like the Middle East, the United States has passes through a generation of extraordinary change, economic growth and social disruption which tatters familiar relationships. New choices produce pain and bewilderment, a longing for older verities, and a time when many choices were made for individuals, by church or by government.
If you regard the old mullah's preachments as bizarre, then how do you explain those middle-class professionals in America whose religious search for the Holy Spirit leads them to "speak in tongues?" Or the young Jewish kids who grow up in the loose ambiance of Reform homes and announce to their horrified parents that they are becoming Orthodox? Or the searching young people who find comfort in the total commitment of these new religious sects that seem so bizarre and authoritarian to outsiders?
This is an ancient rhythm in all cultures, especially recurring in American history. Confronted with the confusion and decadence of modern choices, people pull back and seek to revive old truths. Usually, in time, the fundamentalist impulse gives way to change, but one must also say that the fundamentalist verities help people to cope with change. In short, Americans cannot mock in the Moslem world what is an important element of our own.
Two other objective realities might predict a future different and more rational than the past. One is oil, of course. Americans need Arab oil and will continue to need it, all rhetoric of independence notwithstanding. Yet the Arab world insists that the old neo-colonial relationships must end. Witness the shah, whose mighty made-in-USA army could not save him. Americans have to get used to the idea that we cannot blow away the Arabs or run over them or ignore them, as in ages past. We need their oil. We need them.
The other reality of potential peace is, strangely enough, the bomb. The big nuclear bomb. Israel has one. Or so I am told. This unofficial knowledge is so widespread that surely the Arab nations appreciate it, their bellicose rhetoric notwithstanding. A melodramatic Israeli told me: "If world war comes, then we, too, shall participate in the destruction of mankind." If the Arabs want Jihad, the Jews can turn the desert into glass.
Try to put all these elements together in your imagination: television and oil and nuclear holocaust and the natural fears of modern change. Try to imagine the future. I think it looks like my riddle, like the old walls of Jerusalem.
Islam is not Judaism is not Christianity. Yet they are all built from the same stones. At last, perhaps there is a dim, dawning recognition in this nuclear age. We cannot tear down their walls without destroying our own. Under those circumstances, who wants to cast the first stone?