Judiasm and Christianity hold the arc of the covenant and the holy grail as the most holy God given objects on Earth. The arc of the covenant is mentioned in one verse of the Quran-
[002:248] And (further) their Prophet said to them: “A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a symbol for you if ye indeed have faith.”
I do not know if these two objects are mentioned in the Sunna and I don’t think that the holy grail is mentioned in the Quran. Please correct me if I am wrong. What is the significance of both these holy objects in Islam? Many Jews and Christians are searching the world for these objects, thought to still exist. Should Muslims do the same?
Before I answer your questions regarding these two “relics”, some factual information needs to be considered regarding them and how they relate to the respective religions.
Ark of the Covenant
Hebrew MISHKAN (“dwelling”), in Jewish history, the portable sanctuary constructed by Moses as a place of worship for the Hebrew tribes during the period of wandering that preceded their arrival in the Promised Land. The Tabernacle no longer served a purpose after the erection of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 950 BC.
Israel’s earliest sanctuary was a simple tent within which, it was believed, God manifested his presence and communicated his will. The elaborate description of the Tabernacle in Exodus is believed by some to be anachronistic, for many scholars consider the narrative as having been written during or after the Babylonian Exile (586-538 BC–i.e., after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple).
The entire Tabernacle complex–whose specifications were dictated by God, according to the biblical account–consisted of a large court surrounding a comparatively small building that was the Tabernacle proper. The court, enclosed by linen hangings, had the shape of two adjacent squares. In the centre of the eastern square stood the altar of sacrifice for burnt offerings; nearby stood a basin holding water used by the priests for ritual ablutions. The corresponding position in the western square was occupied by the ark of the Law situated in the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle was constructed of tapestry curtains decorated with cherubim. The interior was divided into two rooms, “the holy place” and “the most holy place” (Holy of Holies). The outer room, or “holy place,” contained the table on which the bread of the Presence (shewbread) was placed, the altar of incense, and the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah). The inner room, or Holy of Holies, was thought to be the actual dwelling place of the God of Israel, who sat invisibly enthroned above a solid slab of gold that rested on the Ark of the Covenant and had a cherub at each end. This Ark was a gold-covered wooden box containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments1.
The sacred ark is designated by a different Hebrew word, ‘aron’ , which is the common name for a chest or coffer used for any purpose (Genesis 50:26; 2Kings 12:9,10). It is distinguished from all others by such titles as the “ark of God” (1 Samuel 3:3), “ark of the covenant” (Joshua 3:6; Hebrews 9:4), “ark of the testimony” (Exodus 25:22). It was made of acacia or shittim wood, a cubit and a half broad and high and two cubits long, and covered all over with the purest gold. Its upper surface or lid, the mercy-seat, was surrounded with a rim of gold; and on each of the two sides were two gold rings, in which were placed two gold-covered poles by which the ark could be carried (Numbers 7:9; 10:21; 4:5,19,20; 1 Kings 8:3,6). Over the ark, at the two extremities, were two cherubim, with their faces turned toward each other (Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 7:89). Their outspread wings over the top of the ark formed the throne of God, while the ark itself was his footstool (Exodus 25:10-22; 37:1-9). The ark was deposited in the “holy of holies,” and was so placed that one end of the poles by which it was carried touched the veil which separated the two apartments of the tabernacle (1 Kings 8:8). The two tables of stone which constituted the “testimony” or evidence of God’s covenant with the people (Deuteronomy 31:26), the “pot of manna” (Exodus 16:33), and “Aaron’s rod that budded” (Numbers 17:10), were laid up in the ark (Hebrews 9:4). (See TABERNACLE) The ark and the sanctuary were “the beauty of Israel” (Lamentations 2:1). During the journeys of the Israelites the ark was carried by the priests in advance of the host (Numbers 4:5,6; 10:33-36; Psalms 68:1; 132:8). It was borne by the priests into the bed of the Jordan, which separated, opening a pathway for the whole of the host to pass over (Joshua 3:15,16; 4:7,10,11,17,18). It was borne in the procession round Jericho (Joshua 6:4,6,8,11,12). When carried it was always wrapped in the veil, the badgers’ skins, and blue cloth, and carefully concealed even from the eyes of the Levites who carried it. After the settlement of Israel in Palestine the ark remained in the tabernacle at Gilgal for a season, and was then removed to Shiloh till the time of Eli, between 300 and 400 years (Jeremiah 7:12), when it was carried into the field of battle so as to secure, as they supposed, victory to the Hebrews, and was taken by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:3-11), who sent it back after retaining it seven months (1 Samuel 5:7,8). It remained then at Kirjath-jearim (7:1,2) till the time of David (twenty years), who wished to remove it to Jerusalem; but the proper mode of removing it having been neglected, Uzzah was smitten with death for putting “forth his hand to the ark of God,” and in consequence of this it was left in the house of Obed-edom in Gath-rimmon for three months (2 Samuel 6:1-11), at the end of which time David removed it in a grand procession to Jerusalem, where it was kept till a place was prepared for it (12-19). It was afterwards deposited by Solomon in the temple (1 Kings 8:6-9). When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and plundered the temple, the ark was probably taken away by Nebuchadnezzar and destroyed, as no trace of it is afterwards to be found. The absence of the ark from the second temple was one of the points in which it was inferior to the first temple2
In the temple, the ark occupied the Holy of Holies. With a permanent location, the theological understanding of the ark changed. The cover of the ark was seen as the throne of God with the cherubim supporting him and setting aside the space between their wings as his seat. Interestingly, Solomon placed huge cherubim to flank the ark in the temple, thus setting apart the entire ark and its surrounding space as God’s seat. Solomon aimed to make a place where God could “dwell forever” (1 Kings 8:13). Hezekiah, seeking divine aid against the Assyrians, called on the “God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim” (2 Kings 19:15).
The ark disappears from post-Solomonic biblical history except for a passing reference in 2 Chronicles 35:3, where the Levites are charged by Josiah no longer to carry the ark about. This may be as much a reflection of a postexilic understanding of Josiah (the new David who would correct the behavior of the Levites) as that of the actual ark itself.
In the return, according to the prophet Jeremiah, the ark would not be remembered or replaced, because Jerusalem would be “The Throne of the Lord” (3:16; the only prophetic mention of the ark). In the new temple envisioned by Ezekiel, no ark is mentioned. There will be no ark because in the new kingdom God will no longer be just a God of Israel, dwelling in a limited space, but will reveal himself as the God of all nations ruling with a new covenant. In Revelation 11:19 (the only New Testament mention) the ark has returned to the direct care of God, sacred, but no longer functional. In the New Testament, Christ himself is the bearer of the new covenant and the focus of God’s presence3.
Hebrew ARON HA-BERIT, in Judaism and Christianity, the ornate, gold-plated wooden chest that in biblical times housed the two tablets of the Law given to Moses by God. The Ark rested in the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem and was seen only by the high priest of the Israelites on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The Levites (priestly functionaries) carried the Ark with them during the Hebrews’ wanderings in the wilderness. Following the conquest of Canaan, the Promised Land, the Ark resided at Shiloh, but from time to time it was carried into battle by the Israelites. Taken to Jerusalem by King David, it was eventually placed in the Temple by King Solomon. The final fate of the Ark is unknown4.
The Holy Grail, according to some legends of the Middle Ages, was the cup used by our Savior in dispensing the wine at the last supper; and according to others, the platter on which the paschal lamb was served at the last Passover observed by our Lord. This cup, according to the legend, if approached by any but a perfectly pure and holy person, would be borne away and vanish from the sight. The quest of the Holy Grail was to be undertaken only by a knight who was perfectly chaste in thought, word, and act5
…object of legendary quest for the knights of Arthurian romance. The term evidently denoted a wide-mouthed or shallow vessel, though its precise etymology remains uncertain. The legend of the Grail possibly was inspired by classical and Celtic mythologies, which abound in horns of plenty, magic life-restoring caldrons, and the like. The first extant text to give such a vessel Christian significance as a mysterious, holy object was ChrÆ’©tien de Troyes’s late 12th-century unfinished romance Perceval, or Le Conte du Graal, which introduces the guileless rustic knight Perceval, whose dominant trait is innocence. In it, the religious is combined with the fantastic. Early in the 13th century, Robert de Borron’s poem Joseph d’Arimathie, or the Roman de l’estoire dou Graal, extended the Christian significance of the legend, while Wolfram von Eschenbach gave it profound and mystical expression in his epic Parzival. (In Wolfram’s account the Grail became a precious stone, fallen from heaven.) Prose versions of Robert de Borron’s works began to link the Grail story even more closely with Arthurian legend. A 13th-century German romance, Diu KrÆ’´ne, made the Grail hero Sir Gawain, while the Queste del Saint Graal (which forms part of what is called the Prose Lancelot, or Vulgate cycle) introduced a new hero, Sir Galahad. This latter work was to have the widest significance of all, and its essence was transmitted to English-speaking readers through Sir Thomas Malory’s late 15th-century prose Le Morte Darthur.
Robert de Borron’s poem recounted the Grail’s early history, linking it with the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and afterward by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood flowing from Christ’s wounds as he hung upon the Cross. The Queste del Saint Graal went on to create a new hero, the pure knight Sir Galahad, while the quest of the Grail itself became a search for mystical union with God. Only Galahad could look directly into the Grail and behold the divine mysteries that cannot be described by human tongue. The work was clearly influenced by the mystical teachings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the states of grace it describes corresponding to the stages by which St. Bernard explained man’s rise toward perfection in the mystical life. The work gained an added dimension by making Galahad the son of Lancelot, thus contrasting the story of chivalry inspired by human love (Lancelot and Guinevere) with that inspired by divine love (Galahad). In the last branch of the Vulgate cycle, the final disasters were linked with the withdrawal of the Grail, symbol of grace, never to be seen again.
Thus, the Grail theme came to form the culminating point of Arthurian romance, and it was to prove fruitful as a theme in literature down to the 20th century6.
Mythology & Folklore
A cup or bowl that was the subject of many legends in the MIDDLE AGES. It was often said to have been used by JESUS at the LAST SUPPER. The Grail was supposedly transported to BRITAIN, where it became an object of quest for the KNIGHTS of the ROUND TABLE. By extension, a “holy grail” is any esteemed object attained by long endeavor. A cup or plate that, according to medieval legend, was used by Jesus at the Last Supper and that later became the object of many chivalrous quests7.
It is obvious from the various sources that indeed the Ark of the Covenant is an artifact regarded in high esteem by the Israelites and their generations to follow. You have correctly inferred the importance of the Ark and its value in Judaism. However, I would like to point out that any expedition to find the Ark is purely of archaeological or adventure seeking purpose. There is no religious significance to the search for the Ark. I daresay that most serious scholars and practicing Jews accept that the Ark may never be found or that it is gone forever.
The Holy Grail is clearly a thing of legend. It enjoys no religious status nor does it pertain to Christianity as you have surmised. Thus, there is not much to say except that is has no religious significance and we may go as far as saying it’s non-existent. Any escapade indulging in the Grail’s recovery would be senseless.
Neither object has much significance in Islam. Since the Holy Grail is an object of fiction and fantasy there’s no need to expound upon it and it’s relationship with Islam. The Ark of the Covenant, though seemingly real from the descriptions of Biblical scripture, does not pertain to Islam in any religious way. As a matter of fact the words “Ark of the Covenant” (in Arabic of course) are not within the pages of the Qur’an. Moreover, it was the interpreter’s translation, due to his understanding of Biblical concepts, which may have caused him to render the verse as such. There are many other Muslim scholars of great repute that would disagree with his rendering. However, that is not the point. The fact is that the Ark of the Covenant has no religious basis in Islam should be understood.
Islam is only the continuation of the chain of the prophets of God, therefore, it respects the symbols set by the previous prophets of God as it would respect the symbols set by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) It should be stressed that the very nature of the position of the Ark shows that after the construction of the temple, the ark entailed only a kind of a ritualistic sanctity and therefore, Islam does not give it any special significance. The Ark, in fact, served as the Qibla (i.e. direction of prayer) for the Jews, with reference to their acts of worship during the phase of their wanderings8.
Neither object is alluded to in the collection of Ahadith, which you referred to as Sunnah (not to digress, but they are not the same). Lastly, since there is no religious significance to either object any expedition to find them would be purely a personal endeavor not connected to any spiritual or religious development.
I hope I have clarified the issue.
God knows best.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1994-2001. [↩]
- M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897. [↩]
- Thomas W. Davis Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. [↩]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1994-2001. [↩]
- Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc. [↩]
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 1994-2001. [↩]
- The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. [↩]
- Moiz Amjad [↩]