Omphalos

mosque of omar The_rock_of_the_Dome_of_the_Rock_CorrectedIs there really a fissure under the Dome of the Rock that leads to the navel of the universe? Tradition says so.  The hole in the southeast corner (the top of the photo is south) leads to a cave underneath called the Well of Souls.  Graham Hancock, in The Sign and the Seal, even speculated on the possibility it once concealed the Ark of the Covenant.

klein bottle1That would have been a physical hole. But what about a spiritual hole? Islamic architectural design in particular is meant to mask a building’s architectural edges in order to emphasize the unseen spiritual reality. Somewhere here in the courtyard outside the mosque of Omar, to the north and east, there is said to be a spiritual hole in the universe that leads directly to Allah. In this spot, a prayer is a thousand times more influential than anywhere else.

I am trying to picture this disturbance in the spiritual realm. Would it look something like a Klein bottle, with a hole in the middle leading to the whole universe? (link to photo credit)

Yes, I was told about this place, and was left there near that spot right at prayer time while my companion went to perform his prayers, after cautioning me not to speak English, as it was during the Intifada and only the Faithful were allowed inside the mosque enclosure.

So what would you do if you found yourself standing alone at the brink of the whole spiritual universe?  Would you try interact with it in some way?  Would you wish to put something in, take something out, or just take notice?

mosque of omar photo album500px

About these ads

13 Responses to “Omphalos”

  1. empty Says:

    The idea of a place that has very special power is very attractive. The opposite point of view, expressed by this little story, is also very attractive:

    One day Nesruddin Hodja was praying in the mosque. His feet were bothering him a lot, so he propped them up on the altar to rest.

    Hodja, you can’t put your feet there! That’s a holy place !!!

    Oh, uh, sorry … but, wait, where can I put them?

  2. Nijma Says:

    I love the Nasreddin stories.

    From the standpoint of the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in the photographs, the big Arab freak-out item is the shoe. Shoes are allowed everywhere here except the mosque (I’m not sure about the smaller mosque, the Mosque of Omar–there is a separate women’s entrance, so my companion couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t be discovered if I went in by myself.) At the al-Aqsa mosque, everyone takes off their shoes and leaves them by the entrance before they go in. The feet also get washed in a ritual, although that can be done ahead of time.

    A few feet away from the mosque entrance, Israeli soldiers sit on a bench at the top of the Western Wall, while the Jewish faithful pray below. Sometimes a fight will break out, and the Moslem faithful will grab shoes and fling them at the Israeli soldiers. The soldiers fling the shoes right back.

    • empty Says:

      The only mosque I have ever visited was a very American one. I organized a field trip for some kids (and parents) from the Unitarian church that we belong to. I’m pasting in a copy (edited a bit for anonymity) of the email message that I sent afterwards to the parents of the Sunday school class, to show what it was like:

      Here are some highlights of what I remember from today’s visit to the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland.

      Eight of us went …

      Our guide, Mary, welcomed us in the midst of a boisterous noisy crowded scene in the entry hall of the building. The first few minutes of the visit were difficult. It was hard to hear and listen, and hard for us or Mary to know how to begin, amid all the background noise and bustle.

      Mary explained, maybe a little apologetically, that the ICB is a community center, and that on Sunday mornings it is a school. In response to a question, she also said that it is a mosque, and she made it clear that throughout the Muslim world every mosque is a community center. Clearly in our part of the world, where Muslims are a small minority, “community center” has a special meaning — it is a place where people and families who may be very much assimilated into the larger American community can keep their religious traditions alive. By the end of the visit I would have a vivid impression of this.

      Mary could not show us the prayer hall right away, because it was being used for a meeting. The library, too, was unavailable. We eventually found a quieter place to talk, in a corridor outside some classrooms. Inside the rooms we could see children of various ages. Some of them were studying religion and others were studying Arabic. Because shoes are not allowed in the classrooms, there were shoes strewn on the floor out in the corridors, and we had to pick our way among them.

      Noon prayer is held at the ICB on Sunday as soon as classes are over at 1:00. As the time for prayers approached, Mary had us remove our own shoes and discussed what we were about to see. She told us something about the Muslim requirement to pray at five specified times daily, and about the various ways in which people fit the mid-day prayer requirement into their busy American lives. She discussed the meaning of prayer a little. She told us that what we were about to see was not the weekly worship service (those are held on Friday) but rather the regular noon prayer, which some people choose to perform here, either because they are here for school anyway or because they like to do it with the community.

      When the call to prayer was heard, people went into the prayer hall, a large sunny carpeted room, and took their places, men and boys in the front, women and girls in the back, and began to pray. Folding chairs had been set up for us inside the room, near the door. When the call to prayer was heard a second time, more people entered. The worshippers formed lines and began silently praying in prescribed postures, first standing, then bending over, then prostrate, then standing again, and so on, changing to the next posture every time the imam spoke the words “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

      Mary had explained that the imam who leads the prayer on a given occasion is someone who was chosen by the community for just that time.

      It was a lively scene. More worshippers were entering all the time, sometimes quietly, sometimes noisily in the case of children. The door banged behind them every time. It never stopped. The bustle did not seem to bother those who were praying, and I imagined that the sense of community must more than make up for the distractions. I suppose one gets plenty of chances to pray in a quieter setting, like home, throughout the week.

      The room faced toward Mecca, but also toward a large snow-covered ChildLife climbing structure in the yard, where children could be seen climbing and sliding. In addition, there was a cute little girl right in the room who wandered around, sometimes standing in front of the congregation and dreamily twirling on the sill of one of the big sunny windows. Except for her, everyone in the room was earnestly going through the prayerful motions. The women and girls had their hair covered with scarves and such. Apart from that, the apparel was everyday American. Many people, I think most of the males, were in jeans. At least one man wore a Red Sox cap while praying, and at least one youth wore a Red Sox cap turned backwards.

      Afterwards we sat on the carpet in the now empty prayer hall and had a very interesting talk with Mary. I won’t try to capture it all, but among other things she talked about what the word “jihad” really means (not “holy war” but “struggle”, struggle to do what is right). We also learned something about her own story. She grew up, the granddaughter of immigrants from rural Lebanon, in a Massachusetts town where most families were Catholic. Her parents and grandparents worked for years to bring the first mosque in New England into being, in a process that began years before she was born. She herself first developed an interest in religion very suddenly in middle age.

      I hope the kids got something out of it. I know the adults did!

  3. Nijma Says:

    Unitarian, yes: “Christian but more than Christian; Protestant but more than Protestant.

    The mosque you visited sounds a lot less conservative than the (somewhat notorious) one I go to. In particular, the part about people coming in and out during the prayers sounds unusual. I have always seen everyone in place in time for prayers, with all the ablutions done already. Sometimes the women also put a separate gown and head cover over their street clothes. The women pray in a room completely separate from the men.

    Interesting to hear that the women in that mosque pray behind the men. I have heard that is because the women don’t want the men staring at their butts. But do men want other men staring at their butts? Do the men want the women staring at their butts? This butt staring thing is something I will need to give more consideration.

    I have noticed that the women tend to make one long line or sometimes two. I try to stand next to someone else since I don’t know the prayers. Either that or sit in a chair if my knees are bothering. Islam is very hard on chondromalacia. Lately I have looked for excuses not to pray with them, even though I find it a spiritually useful exercise, and they seem to want it that way too, since a big deal has been made about people having witnessed me praying, as if it proved I was a secret Moslem. I don’t want to get into any “kafir” type issues (some say a kafir can be killed) where it could be claimed I had changed my religion away from Islam.

    Then there was the time when they were voting on something and they insisted on giving me a ballot, and I just happened to cast the tie-breaking vote, and then they went to the sheik and said “we voted to…” Oy, vay.

    Just for comparison, when I attended one Arabic speaking Christian church in Amman, the men and women also were sitting separately on either side of an aisle.

    Yes, jihad is “striving”. Those who can’t be soldiers can “strive” through Koran study. Women can “strive” through housework. Oh, goody.

    and she made it clear that throughout the Muslim world every mosque is a community center
    Yeah, well, maybe. There are mosques where only men are allowed, so maybe it depends on your idea of “community”. Also note that in the Middle East, jihad, er, wars, always start on a Friday after mosque.

    Back to the subject of prayer times, if you look at the prayer times button in my right sidebar–the yellow dove with the calligraphy that spells salaam–it’s to a progressive mosque that is currently involved in dialog with the Jewish community to the point of issuing joint statements, the sheik with a rabbi and whose cross-religious activities include staying in each others homes as a response to religiously targeted violence. Anyhow you can see the exact time is called out both for the adhan (call to prayer) and for the prayer itself.

  4. Nijma Says:

    But of course the Nasreddin story wasn’t about shoes or jihad, it was about sacred space. I don’t agree with its premise, which seems to be something like “it doesn’t matter what you do in a sacred space” or maybe “all space is sacred.”

    • empty Says:

      “All space is sacred” does seem to be the message. I think that that is much the same as “God is everywhere?”, but of course it’s not exactly the same.

      I don’t think it says “it doesn’t matter what you do in a sacred space”. More like “the rules of behavior that apply in a place of worship (should) apply everywhere else, too”. And I would prefer not to turn that around into the logically equivalent but different-feeling “whatever the rules are outside of the place of worship, they should be the rules inside, too” — especially if you think that it doesn’t matter what you do outside — but of course you don’t really believe that.

      How about “it is good to remember how you approach the place of worship and transfer that same attitude of reverence to your entire world”?

  5. empty Says:

    And I think that in order to “agree with” this story you do not really need to believe that there is point in having special rules of behavior in a place of worship. All of the Nasreddin stories have something absurd about them, so that it’s easy to find fault with what they say if you approach them literally. I thought you said you liked them!

  6. empty Says:

    no point

  7. Nijma Says:

    My favorite Nasreddin story is about him repeatedly crossing a border on a donkey. The customs official is convinced he is smuggling, but has never been able to catch him. Finally Nasreddin decides to retire, and on his last trip across the border bids the official farewell. As Nasreddin departs the customs official says, “Now that you’re retiring, do you mind telling me what it is you’ve been smuggling all these years?” “Not at all”, says Nasreddin. “Donkeys”.

    Unlike Jesus, who is usually pictured as a buffoon in these folk stories, Nesruddin is usually pictured as having some unique insight, or being able to survive bureaucratic oppression through his wits, but in this mosque story he appears to be merely flaunting convention. I suppose you could make a case about resting his feet–certain types of heart problems that make the ankles swell can be alleviated by elevating the feet. If you want to interpret it like that, then the story becomes similar to the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

    http://bible.cc/mark/2-27.htm

    But like you, I interpreted it as being about holy space. Perhaps the story just serves to open a dialogue about the subject.

  8. empty Says:

    On further reflection, I suppose that I was wrong to say that these stories all have an element of the absurd. Many of them, maybe most, are trickster stories. But the ones that stick in my mind the most are the ones that can serve as teaching tales by surprising you with some crazy logic. Like the one I mentioned before, or like the one where he is supposed to give a sermon but all he says is

    “Do you know what I’m going to say?”
    (No, answers the congregation.)
    “Well why should I talk to people who don’t know what I’m talking about?”
    (He leaves.)

    They invite him to come back another day.
    “Do you know what I’m going to say?”
    (Yes, answers the congregation.)
    “Well then there’s no point in saying it.”
    (He leaves.)

    Third time, they think they’re ready.
    “Do you know what I’m going to say?”
    (Half of them say yes, half say no.)
    “Good. The ones who know can tell it to the ones who don’t.”
    (He leaves.)

  9. Nijma Says:

    In that story he has merely escaped the expectations of social convention.

    Or is there more…like why is he being invited to speak in the first place? Why are they not satisfied with their present imam? Or has their imam gotten dissatisfied and gone awol? Not enough information…and the stories probably aren’t meant to be that complex.

    But how about this: he gave them an obviously flippant answer and they treated it as being profound. Human nature has not changed at all, ugye? The joke is on them, for wanting someone to lead them around by the nose.

  10. empty Says:

    I don’t accept the “merely”.

    The story is nonsensical enough that I believe any sense you find in it is going to have to be something you bring to it, just as anything the congregants get out of his sermon is going to have to be something they brought with them.

    They wanted to be led around by the nose, and instead he danced around their noses. I like to think that there is some wise-foolishness there.

  11. Nijma Says:

    They tried to deify him, but instead of milking it and trying to make a profit, he remained true to himself?


Comments are closed.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.