Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Rock, by Kanan Makiya

At the recommendation of UW MES Director Dr. David Morgan, I just read Kanan Makiya's novel The Rock. In this work, Makiya has taken stories from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish stories of the rock atop Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem and woven them together to produce a coherent narrative about the relationships among the largest monotheistic traditions, particularly Judaism and Islam.

In terms of plot, it concerns the life of Ka'b al-Ahbar, known to historians mainly for his role in passing on to Muslims Jewish traditions known as the Isra'iliyyat, which were of interest to Muslims for the information they contained about Prophets mentioned in the Qur'an. As envisioned by Makiya, Ka'b was simultaneously both Muslim and Jewish, a perfect example of what modern historians of the 7th century mean when they talk about how the boundaries between religious traditions had not yet hardened, and moving among them was quite easy.

Makiya, however, does not stop there, but instead uses Ka'b as one of a series of literary Russian dolls of which the innermost is the holy Rock itself. The point of this is to show the essential interrelationship of the monotheistic traditions, again especially Judaism and Islam, with another symbolic layer being a possible relationship between the Rock of Mt. Moriah and the Black Stone of the Ka'aba, two rocks which were perhaps together at the dawn of monotheism, which lost touch with each other, and were reunited by the Muslim conquest, and which will one day be again physically joined as well when the Ka'aba moves to the Dome of the Rock at the end of time.

As a historian of this period, I loved the way Makiya brings out the early affinities between Islam and Judaism, such as the caliph Umar's interest in Jewish holy sites as opposed to Christian cathedrals, and was absorbed by his lyrical weaving together of traditions so that it is often hard to tell which elements come from which religion. The Dome of the Rock, too, becomes more than just a Muslim shrine, but a monument to Jewish tradition, built on the Rock explained through Ka'b's stories to honor the figures whom Jews hold most sacred. It is a beautiful, engaging vision, one which we can only hope will one day sink roots into the region in which it is set.


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