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 The Politics of Holy Place


The Politics of Holy Place


by Alastair McIntosh, Centre for Human Ecology, Edinburgh



Published in Land & Liberty, Henry George Foundation of Great Britain, Autumn 1999, p. 15.

For related papers relevant to combatting Islamophobia, see: [Montgomery Watt Interview]  and [GulfWatch].



A religious people’s sense of Holy Place is often associated with their deepest identity. Whether as a sacred shrine, mountain or city, the association between God and place stirs the deepest passions. It is therefore only human that Holy Place tends to find political representation as territory. But too often this degrades worship into discrimination, terror and killing.


The problem becomes acute when more than one tradition claim the same sacred place. In the name of God, love is driven out. Sanctity is profaned.


But is sacred space necessary exclusive of diverse traditions? Allow me to offer an example that suggests it need not be so; that spiritual space can be saved from territorial politics.


At the end of the Gulf War the British Government called upon church leaders to organise national services of thanksgiving. “Do not be shy,” said the commander of the British forces on the BBC’s Nine O’clock News on the last day of February 1991. “I have a message for the people back home. Ring your church bells.”


But the same news bulletin announced that one hundred thousand Iraqi conscripts were dead. The mainstream church leaders of Scotland kept their bells silent. The British government was told that this was not an occasion for “thanksgiving.”


An interfaith conference was held on the holy Isle of Iona. From this a joint Moslem-Christian communiqué resulted in the decision that national interfaith services of reconciliation would take place. One would be in Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral and the other in Glasgow Mosque.


But a problem arose with the Edinburgh event. The timing was going to clash with the Moslems’ evening call to prayer. They would be unable to attend.


It was then that Dr Bashir Maan, the spokesperson of Glasgow Mosque, remembered something from the Hadith. This is the oral tradition of Islam. Seemingly Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) had allowed visiting Christians to use his mosque for their worship. Might it be conceivable, he wondered, for us likewise to do something in this spirit?


Scotland’s Christian leaders responded warmly. They would even allow Moslem worship to be conducted in front of the altar at St Giles Cathedral as part of the service. So it came to pass that Christians watched on as Moslems prayed in their church. Our silence felt respectful to the point of inner participation.


The following week, on 25 October 1991, Imam Tufail Hussain Shah addressed Christians at prayer in the community hall of the Glasgow Mosque. Referring to the previous week’s event, he said, “We joined that night, and again now in this Mosque, to worship the same God, God as was known to the early Jews as Yahweh. God as revealed in the Christian tradition through Jesus Christ. God who we Muslims know by the Arabic word, Allah... We share a common commitment to love, justice, charity, mercy, piety and peace. Building these qualities in our hearts perhaps matters more to God than cleverness in arguing about religion. I believe it is God, Allah, who has brought us together. Let us try to stay together and work for peace not only in the Gulf and Middle East, but throught this planet, this Universe of God.”


Some years later I was telling this story whilst lecturing in Edinburgh University. The son of a Nigerian imam came up to me afterwards. “You know,” he told me, “we read all about that in our newspaper in Nigeria.” He explained that at the time Moslems and Christians were killing each other in his country. His father and his colleagues were so astonished to hear that Scottish Christians could talk with Moslems that they decided to initiate the same approach with the Christian leaders in their area. The killings did not entirely stop as a result, but they had greatly reduced.


Scriptural discernment often yields a basis for interfaith sharing. For example, Surah V:48 of the Koran states that the Koran confirms rather than overturns, “whatever Scripture was before it, and is a watcher over it.” Religious diversity was created by God. As Akbar, the great Mogul emperor of India (1542-1605) showed, such concepts as “the sphere of Islam” can be expressed by creating a culture that affirms interfaith toleration, mutual learning and profound respect.


Similarly, for Christians of goodwill, Jesus replaces a static notion of “holy places” or “holy land” with an understanding of incarnation. Here concepts of space are incorporated into the “Body of Christ.” In John’s gospel, for example, it is He, not Jacob’s well, that is the source of life-giving water (4:7-15); He, not the Pool of Bethesda, that offers healing (5:2-9). The whole of the creation is thereby rendered holy on account of the synonymy of life and incarnation (John 1:1-9, cf. Proverbs 8:22-36).


Moslems and adherents to non-Christian faiths are all part of God’s creation. Their sharing of Christian holy places is therefore no different than their sharing of this earth. The Bible tells us (Leviticus 25:23), the Koran tells us (Surah XX:53), and sacred texts from many other faiths all tell us that ultimately this does not belong to any human political construction of territory. It belongs to its creator, God, alone. That is what we honour in respecting Holy Place.





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