Over the centuries, the Abrahamic faiths have found many things to fight over, and many modes of co-existence. The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where a $4m conservation project was formally unveiled this week, exemplifies both points. It is, so to speak, an interface between the monotheisms. Quarrels over the tomb of Jesus sparked the crusades, but in the lore of this sacred spot there are inspiring stories of symbiosis. It is jointly used by six quarrelsome Christian confessions, but the keys are kept dutifully by Jerusalem’s oldest Muslim dynasty. This arrangement is said to date from Jerusalem’s Muslim conquest, when Caliph Omar held back from saying Islamic prayers in the Sepulchre church, thus leaving it Christian. In Ottoman times, pilgrimage to the tomb and raising money for it were huge activities for the empire’s Christians; this underpinned a cordial relationship between Greek Orthodox hierarchs who were the Sepulchre’s main stewards and the city’s Turkish overlords. The exact terms on which Christian communities share the Sepulchre were fine-tuned by the Ottoman sultan; the British took this arrangement over, then the Israelis.
It so happens that one of the most articulate of non-specialist writers in English about Islam, the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, has just put forward a very different sort of proposal for terms on which Abraham’s children might co-exist. His concern is not with the sharing of hallowed space, more with doctrine and sacred narratives. Boldly, he suggests that despite all the theological contrasts, Jesus of Nazareth is a figure through whom historically-aware Christians, Muslims and Jews could come to closer mutual understanding. “Whether we are Jews, Christians and Muslims, we either share a faith followed by him, a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him,” he notes at the opening of his book, “The Islamic Jesus”.
But he is honest about the gaps. Christians believe Jesus was both the Son of God and the Messiah, the anointed prophet for whom Jews were yearning; Muslims believe he was the second but not the former; Jews generally believe he was neither.