Dr. Sheikh Ekrima Sabri is the outspoken head Imam of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mosque is packed with history and conflict. Yet it has stood the test of time. The centuries-old mosque, located in the heart of the Old City in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem, is under the administration of the Jordanian- Palestinian led Islamic waqf. Sheikh Sabri has been delivering sermons there since 1973. More than 40 years on, Joanna Andrews, uncovers some of its troubled past and Sheikh Sabri’s hopes for the future.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque has great historic importance in the Islamic world and Sheikh Dr. Ekrima Sabri is doing all he can to revive its status as the third holiest site in Islam, as well as its educational importance. But that’s easier said than done.
The mosque has faced plenty of hardship; it has been destroyed by earthquakes in the past, and today it faces repeated attacked by Jewish extremists who attempt to claim Jewish sovereignty over the Islamic Holy place.
According to Judaism, the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque is where the Temple of Solomon once stood. Palestinians fear that Israel could divide Al-Aqsa Mosque in the same way it divided another mosque in the West Bank where authorities ordered a rotation between Muslims and Jews.
Sheikh Sabri says the biggest challenge he faces every day is “the oppressive Israeli occupation.” He adds, “The threats to Al-Aqsa Mosque are the Jewish ambitions, the invasions of its courtyards and the control of the external doors of the mosque by the occupation police.”
Last year, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, joined a group of Israeli settlers in breaking into the mosque. The Israeli raid entered from the Mughrabi Gate, guarded by Israeli forces.
Sheikh Sabri, a well-respected figure, has a forthright views on Israel. He has been quoted saying that the western wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque never has - and never will be Jewish property, as acknowledged by the United Nations in 1930 that the Western Wall is an Islamic waqf. Shiekh Sabri has warned that the mosque “is a red line.”
He says, “Israeli settlers launch daily attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque under the surveillance of the occupation security services in order to impose a new reality in Al-Aqsa courtyards, in a tactic known as the temporal division.” He has repeatedly urged the Palestinians to intensify their presence inside the Mosque to protect it - and “defend it against any Jewish aggression.”
The preacher points out that while Israel systematically restricts access of the Palestinian congregation to the mosque – a clear violation of its right to freedom of worship – it permits entry to Israeli settlers.
In August 2014, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs cited that it has witnessed the prohibition of Palestinian women from entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as men under the age of 50.
Even Sheikh Sabri, a family man with five children, has in the past, been banned from access to Al-Aqsa Mosque by the Israeli military. “The oppressive Israeli occupation took three decisions to ban me from entering into the premises of Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to prevent me from delivering the Friday sermons and meeting Muslim worshippers - under the allegations of instigation and disturbing public security, according to the claims of the occupation authorities.”
He received a six-month ban in November 2009, when he returned from Hijaz after performing the Hajj rituals in 1430 AH. Another six month ban was served in May 2010 - even before the end of the first ban was over. That was quickly followed with a two month ban in early 2011.
He says the decisions by the Israeli military government “were inspired by the oppressive British emergency law that was promulgated in 1945 AD in the aftermath of the brutal British colonisation of Palestine.”
Sheikh Sabri adds, “The Israeli occupation authorities use this oppressive law against the resistant Palestinian people.”
He says other decisions were taken to impose a travel ban on him, “to allegedly prevent me from contacting any party that is hostile to Israel.”
In one instance he claims he didn’t even receive a notification of the ban from the authorities. “This decision took me by surprise when I arrived at the border bridge sometime in May 2007. It happened again on several other occasions a few years later.”
The decisions were neither founded on evidence nor issued by legal courts, he says. “The occupation authorities were thus inspired by the oppressive emergency law that was issued in 1945 AD during the obnoxious British colonisation of Palestine and was directed against the people of Palestine. And now the brutal Israeli occupation authorities implement this law against us in general and the prisoners in particular.”
Sheikh Sabri is not only the Imam and Preacher of Al-Aqsa Mosque, he is also the Chairman of the Supreme Muslim Council-Jerusalem, and in 1994 he was appointed by the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat as the grand mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine. It is his job to receive citizens, solve their problems and if necessary to issue fatwas.
He was born in 1939 in Qalqilya, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. He was born into a family known for their religious devotion and love of learning. He followed in the footsteps of his late father who was also a preacher in Al-Aqsa Mosque, and occupied several positions including the judge of Jerusalem, a member of the Sharia Court of Appeal, and of the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem.
His passion for learning is apparent. He completed his secondary education in Nablus, after which he obtained a BA in Islamic Law and Arabic language. In 1989, he received an MA in Islamic Law from An-Najah National University in Nablus, then a PhD in Islamic Jurisprudence from Al Azhar University in Egypt in 2001.
Education has played a key role throughout his life. “My success story started with choosing the teaching profession at the beginning of my career, which I consider to be the noblest profession”.
He started his career as a teacher at Al-Aqsa secondary School (formerly the Islamic Scientific Academy). After the war of June 1967, he became the principal of Al-Aqsa Secondary School. He reflects, “It had to move from the Tankaziya building that was seized by the Israeli occupation authorities to the Islamic Orphanage headquarters in the old city before moving again to Al Aqsa Mosque in Bab al-Asbat.”
During his tenure at Al-Aqsa Secondary School he contributed to the dissemination of the Quran's teachings in Jerusalem and its suburbs. He also founded the first House of Quran in 1972.
His CV is packed with other high profile positions including director of preaching and guidance in the West Bank, Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Abu Dees. He is the founder and chairman of the Committee of Scholars and Preachers that was established in 1992, head of the Supreme Fatwa Council, preacher of Al-Aqsa Mosque, founding member of the Association of the International Islamic Conference of Mosques in Mecca and he was elected President of the Supreme Muslim Council in Jerusalem in 1998.
He studied under his late father and other distinguished scholars, and has also authored many books including three-volume notes on the Hadith that were for many years part of the curriculum of religious schools in the West Bank. He has also penned numerous studies about various topics that have been hashed out from both sides at global conferences and seminars.
TURNING A BLIND EYE
Sheikh Sabri believes that, “Interfaith dialogue is a positive idea that aims at coordinating efforts and political attitudes, and backing vulnerable peoples.” But he adds, “As for beliefs, the followers of each religion have their own beliefs. Injustice that befalls vulnerable people is due to oppressive political attitudes by colonialist states.”
He says that religious leaders have a “duty” to put pressure on those “oppressive states to stop their abusive policies”.
He believes that other Arab countries can also play a key role to help their neighbours, “Each Arab country should be aware of its duties. The Almighty God will judge all those who failed to assist Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The Sheikh says that interfaith dialogue can play a vital role, but actions speak louder than words. He gives the example of pledges at Arab League summits to allocate US $500 million annually to Jerusalem. However, he says, it was mere lip-services and the funds have never materialised.
Sheikh Sabri has all but given up hope on the international community. He says, “I don't ask anything from the international community because I have no trust in it since it is dominated by the United States which stands by the Israeli occupation authorities and provides them with financial, military and political support.”
He concludes, “The international institutions have lost their credibility.”