An important concept for religious Muslims is qibla, the direction in which one should face during salah, the five-times-daily prayer that all Muslims are commanded to observe.
The traditional Islamic view is that the original qibla was in the direction of what they called Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), located in the heart of old Jerusalem on the site of Har ha-Bayit, (the Temple Mount), where the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. had stood.
This, however, was merely temporary. This qibla was used for only thirteen years, from 610 to 623 CE. The following year, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad had a sudden revelation, and determined that the new qibla was to face the Kaaba, at the centre of the most holy mosque in Mecca.
The importance of the qibla in Muslim religious practice is indicated in various ways. Most mosques have a mihrab, a niche in a wall, towards which Muslims pray. When an animal is slaughtered according to halal ritual, the animal is traditionally oriented according to qibla. And a deceased Muslim is buried at right angles to qibla, with the face turned towards Mecca.
A large body of research carried out by many medieval Islamic mathematicians was devoted to determining the correct qibla in various parts of the world. This work continued in later centuries, and sometimes yields unexpected results. For example, a Muslim praying in Alaska should not face south-west towards Europe or south-east towards Asia: these directions would be based on a Mercator-map projection of the world. The correct qibla is roughly north: the shortest distance and direction towards Mecca is on a great-circle route over the Arctic Circle.
One can only respect and admire these attempts by religious scholars over the centuries to find links between the requirements of religious practice and rational knowledge about the world.
It is, on the other hand, deeply disturbing when one finds Palestinian propagandists distorting their own Islamic history for the purposes of indoctrinating children.
A case in point is a recent TV program aimed at children, broadcast on the official Palestinian Authority channel. A boy reads a poem, and is treated by a “Bravo” response from the TV presenter and cheers from the studio audience:
I am a Palestinian, my name is Palestinian
I’ve etched my name on all the town squares…
Saladin calls to me from the depths of my heart
All my Arabness calls me to vengeance and liberation…
Thousands of prisoners and thousands who are jailed
call to this great nation and call to the millions
They say: To Jerusalem, the direction of prayer in the faith.
To war that will smash the oppression and destroy the Zionist’s soul…
Saladin was the 12th century Muslim conqueror from Iraq who defeated the Christian Crusaders and captured Jerusalem. Invoking his name in an anti-Israel battle cry is consistent with a central plank in militant Islamic ideology, namely that once an area has been conquered and brought under Islamic control, and later lost, every effort must be made to return it to Islam.
But there is something else here, as well. Note the line about Jerusalem, the “direction of prayer in the faith”.
But this qibla lasted for just 13 years of the fourteen centuries of Islamic history, less than one percent of all that time. Even more importantly, the change of direction was instituted by Muhammad himself. Yet here we have a Palestinian poet distorting his own religious history for political reasons. To link the qibla with the aim of war is no doubt a deliberate propaganda ploy by the poet and supported by a program director who promotes it to a mass audience on TV.
It is a dangerous trend, contributing to turning what is essentially an on-going dispute between two conflicting parties about territorial borders into a religious war that cannot be ended by reaching peace agreements based on mutual recognition of rights.
Sadly, it is not an isolated case. Indoctrination of Palestinian children via school textbooks and TV programs is rampant. What is dangerous about this development is that when religious themes are invoked to justify and encourage continued conflict, ordinary people can be motivated to perform horrendous acts – random stabbing of innocents, suicide bombings – in the belief that they are doing God’s work on earth. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book, Not in God’s Name, aptly describes this kind of motivation as “altruistic evil”.
It is bad enough when adults are indoctrinated in this way. When it is done to children, it is nothing other than child abuse.
Dr. Paul Gardner AM is a retired Melbourne academic, a founding member of the Jewish Christian Muslim Association, a former chairman of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission and currently a member of the Board of Governors of B’nai B’rith Australia/New Zealand.