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 The Muslim Claim to Jerusalem

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Join date : 2011-06-29

PostSubject: The Muslim Claim to Jerusalem   Mon Jul 11, 2011 2:29 pm

he Camp David II summit and the "Aqsa intifada" that followed
have confirmed what everyone had long known: Jerusalem is the knottiest
issue facing Arab and Israeli negotiators.
In part, the problem is practical: the Palestinians insist that the
capital of Israel serve as the capital of their future state too,
something Israelis are loathe to accept. But mostly, the problem is
religious: the ancient city has sacred associations for Jews and Muslims
alike (and Christians too, of course; but Christians today no longer
make an independent political claim to Jerusalem), and both insist on
sovereignty over their overlapping sacred areas.
In Jerusalem, theological and historical claims matter; they are the
functional equivalent to the deed to the city and have direct
operational consequences. Jewish and Muslim connections to the city
therefore require evaluation.
Comparing Religious Claims

An aerial view of the Temple Mount.
The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is an ancient and
powerful one. Judaism made Jerusalem a holy city over three thousand
years ago and through all that time Jews remained steadfast to it. Jews
pray in its direction, mention its name constantly in prayers, close the
Passover service with the wistful statement "Next year in Jerusalem,"
and recall the city in the blessing at the end of each meal. The
destruction of the Temple looms very large in Jewish consciousness;
remembrance takes such forms as a special day of mourning, houses left
partially unfinished, a woman's makeup or jewelry left incomplete, and a
glass smashed during the wedding ceremony. In addition, Jerusalem has
had a prominent historical role, is the only capital of a Jewish state,
and is the only city with a Jewish majority during the whole of the past
century. In the words of its current mayor, Jerusalem represents "the
purist expression of all that Jews prayed for, dreamed of, cried for,
and died for in the two thousand years since the destruction of the
Second Temple."
What about Muslims? Where does Jerusalem fit in Islam and Muslim
history? It is not the place to which they pray, is not once mentioned
by name in prayers, and it is connected to no mundane events in
Muhammad's life. The city never served as capital of a sovereign Muslim
state, and it never became a cultural or scholarly center. Little of
political import by Muslims was initiated there.
One comparison makes this point most clearly: Jerusalem appears in
the Jewish Bible 669 times and Zion (which usually means Jerusalem,
sometimes the Land of Israel) 154 times, or 823 times in all. The
Christian Bible mentions Jerusalem 154 times and Zion 7 times. In
contrast, the columnist Moshe Kohn notes, Jerusalem and Zion appear as
frequently in the Qur'an "as they do in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, the
Taoist Tao-Te Ching, the Buddhist Dhamapada and the Zoroastrian Zend
Avesta"—which is to say, not once.
The city being of such evidently minor religious importance, why does
it now loom so large for Muslims, to the point that a Muslim Zionism
seems to be in the making across the Muslim world? Why do Palestinian
demonstrators take to the streets shouting "We will sacrifice our blood
and souls for you, Jerusalem" and their brethren in Jordan yell "We
sacrifice our blood and soul for Al-Aqsa"? Why does King Fahd of Saudi
Arabia call on Muslim states to protect "the holy city [that] belongs to
all Muslims across the world"? Why did two surveys of American Muslims
find Jerusalem their most pressing foreign policy issue?
Because of politics. An historical survey shows that the stature of
the city, and the emotions surrounding it, inevitably rises for Muslims
when Jerusalem has political significance. Conversely, when the utility
of Jerusalem expires, so does its status and the passions about it. This
pattern first emerged during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad in
the early seventh century. Since then, it has been repeated on five
occasions: in the late seventh century, in the twelfth century
Countercrusade, in the thirteenth century Crusades, during the era of
British rule (1917-48), and since Israel took the city in 1967. The
consistency that emerges in such a long period provides an important
perspective on the current confrontation.
I. The Prophet Muhammad
According to the Arabic literary sources, Muhammad in A.D. 622 fled
his home town of Mecca for Medina, a city with a substantial Jewish
population. On arrival in Medina, if not slightly earlier, the Qur'an
adopted a number of practices friendly to Jews: a Yom Kippur-like fast, a
synagogue-like place of prayer, permission to eat kosher food, and
approval to marry Jewish women. Most important, the Qur'an repudiated
the pre-Islamic practice of the Meccans to pray toward the Ka'ba, the
small stone structure at the center of the main mosque in Mecca.
Instead, it adopted the Judaic practice of facing the Temple Mount in
Jerusalem during prayer. (Actually, the Qur'an only mentions the
direction as "Syria"; other information makes it clear that Jerusalem is
This, the first qibla (direction of prayer) of Islam, did not
last long. The Jews criticized the new faith and rejected the friendly
Islamic gestures; not long after, the Qur'an broke with them, probably
in early 624. The explanation of this change comes in a Qur'anic verse
instructing the faithful no longer to pray toward Syria but instead
toward Mecca. The passage (2:142-52) begins by anticipating questions
about this abrupt change:
<blockquote>The Fools among the people will say: "What has turned them [the Muslims] from the qibla to which they were always used?"</blockquote>
God then provides the answer:
<blockquote>We appointed the qibla that to which you was used,
only to test those who followed the Messenger [Muhammad] from those who
would turn on their heels [on Islam].</blockquote>
In other words, the new qibla served as a way to distinguish Muslims from Jews. From now on, Mecca would be the direction of prayer:
<blockquote>now shall we turn you to a qibla that shall please
you. Then turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque [in
Mecca]. Wherever you are, turn your faces in that direction.</blockquote>
The Qur'an then reiterates the point about no longer paying attention to Jews:
<blockquote>Even if you were to bring all the signs to the people of the Book [i.e., Jews], they would not follow your qibla.</blockquote>
Muslims subsequently accepted the point implicit to the Qur'anic explanation, that the adoption of Jerusalem as qibla
was a tactical move to win Jewish converts. "He chose the Holy House in
Jerusalem in order that the People of the Book [i.e., Jews] would be
conciliated," notes At-Tabari, an early Muslim commentator on the
Qur'an, "and the Jews were glad." Modern historians agree: W. Montgomery
Watt, a leading biographer of Muhammad, interprets the prophet's
"far-reaching concessions to Jewish feeling" in the light of two
motives, one of which was "the desire for a reconciliation with the
After the Qur'an repudiated Jerusalem, so did the Muslims: the first
description of the town under Muslim rule comes from the visiting Bishop
Arculf, a Gallic pilgrim, in 680, who reported seeing "an oblong house
of prayer, which they [the Muslims] pieced together with upright plans
and large beams over some ruined remains." Not for the last time, safely
under Muslim control, Jerusalem became a backwater.
This episode set the mold that would be repeated many times over
succeeding centuries: Muslims take interest religiously in Jerusalem
because of pressing but temporary concerns. Then, when those concerns
lapse, so does the focus on Jerusalem, and the city's standing greatly
II. Umayyads
The second round of interest in Jerusalem occurred during the rule of
the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty (661-750). A dissident leader in
Mecca, 'Abdullah b. az-Zubayr began a revolt against the Umayyads in 680
that lasted until his death in 692; while fighting him, Umayyad rulers
sought to aggrandize Syria at the expense of Arabia (and perhaps also to
help recruit an army against the Byzantine Empire). They took some
steps to sanctify Damascus, but mostly their campaign involved what
Amikam Elad of the Hebrew University calls an "enormous" effort "to
exalt and to glorify" Jerusalem. They may even have hoped to make it the
equal of Mecca.
The first Umayyad ruler, Mu'awiya, chose Jerusalem as the place where
he ascended to the caliphate; he and his successors engaged in a
construction program – religious edifices, a palace, and roads – in the
city. The Umayyads possibly had plans to make Jerusalem their political
and administrative capital; indeed, Elad finds that they in effect
treated it as such. But Jerusalem is primarily a city of faith, and, as
the Israeli scholar Izhak Hasson explains, the "Umayyad regime was
interested in ascribing an Islamic aura to its stronghold and center."
Toward this end (as well as to assert Islam's presence in its
competition with Christianity), the Umayyad caliph built Islam's first
grand structure, the Dome of the Rock, right on the spot of the Jewish
Temple, in 688-91. This remarkable building is not just the first
monumental sacred building of Islam but also the only one that still
stands today in roughly its original form.

The next Umayyad step was subtle and complex, and requires a pause to
note a passage of the Qur'an (17:1) describing the Prophet Muhammad's
Night Journey to heaven (isra'):
<blockquote>Glory to He who took His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the furthest mosque. (Subhana allathina asra bi-'abdihi laylatan min al-masjidi al-harami ila al-masjidi al-aqsa.)</blockquote>
When this Qur'anic passage was first revealed, in about 621, a place
called the Sacred Mosque already existed in Mecca. In contrast, the
"furthest mosque" was a turn of phrase, not a place. Some early Muslims
understood it as metaphorical or as a place in heaven. And if the
"furthest mosque" did exist on earth, Palestine would seem an unlikely
location, for many reasons. Some of them:
<blockquote>Elsewhere in the Qur'an (30:1), Palestine is called "the closest land" (adna al-ard).Palestine had not yet been conquered by the Muslims and contained not a single mosque.
The "furthest mosque" was apparently identified with places inside
Arabia: either Medina or a town called Ji'rana, about ten miles from
Mecca, which the Prophet visited in 630.
The earliest Muslim accounts of Jerusalem, such as the description of
Caliph 'Umar's reported visit to the city just after the Muslims
conquest in 638, nowhere identify the Temple Mount with the "furthest
mosque" of the Qur'an.
The Qur'anic inscriptions that make up a 240-meter mosaic frieze
inside the Dome of the Rock do not include Qur'an 17:1 and the story of
the Night Journey, suggesting that as late as 692 the idea of Jerusalem
as the lift-off for the Night Journey had not yet been established.
(Indeed, the first extant inscriptions of Qur'an 17:1 in Jerusalem date
from the eleventh century.)
Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiya (638-700), a close relative of the Prophet
Muhammad, is quoted denigrating the notion that the prophet ever set
foot on the Rock in Jerusalem; "these damned Syrians," by which he means
the Umayyads, "pretend that God put His foot on the Rock in Jerusalem,
though [only] one person ever put his foot on the rock, namely Abraham."
Then, in 715, to build up the prestige of their dominions, the
Umayyads did a most clever thing: they built a second mosque in
Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and called this one the Furthest
Mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa, Al-Aqsa Mosque). With this, the
Umayyads retroactively gave the city a role in Muhammad's life. This
association of Jerusalem with al-masjid al-aqsa fit into a wider
Muslim tendency to identify place names found in the Qur'an: "wherever
the Koran mentions a name of an event, stories were invented to give the
impression that somehow, somewhere, someone, knew what they were
Despite all logic (how can a mosque built nearly a century after the
Qur'an was received establish what the Qur'an meant?), building an
actual Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Palestinian historian A. L. Tibawi writes,
"gave reality to the figurative name used in the Koran." It also had the
hugely important effect of inserting Jerusalem post hoc into the
Qur'an and making it more central to Islam. Also, other changes
resulted. Several Qur'anic passages were re-interpreted to refer to this
city. Jerusalem came to be seen as the site of the Last Judgment. The
Umayyads cast aside the non-religious Roman name for the city, Aelia Capitolina (in Arabic, Iliya) and replaced it with Jewish-style names, either Al-Quds (The Holy) or Bayt al-Maqdis
(The Temple). They sponsored a form of literature praising the "virtues
of Jerusalem," a genre one author is tempted to call "Zionist."
Accounts of the prophet's sayings or doings (Arabic: hadiths,
often translated into English as "Traditions") favorable to Jerusalem
emerged at this time, some of them equating the city with Mecca. There
was even an effort to move the pilgrimage (hajj) from Mecca to Jerusalem.
Scholars agree that the Umayyads' motivation to assert a Muslim
presence in the sacred city had a strictly utilitarian purpose. The
Iraqi historian Abdul Aziz Duri finds "political reasons" behind their
actions. Hasson concurs:
<blockquote>The construction of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque,
the rituals instituted by the Umayyads on the Temple Mount and the
dissemination of Islamic-oriented Traditions regarding the sanctity of
the site, all point to the political motives which underlay the
glorification of Jerusalem among the Muslims.</blockquote>
Thus did a politically-inspired Umayyad building program lead to the Islamic sanctification of Jerusalem.
Abbasid Rule
Then, with the Umayyad demise in 750 and the move of the caliph's
capital to Baghdad, "imperial patronage became negligible" and Jerusalem
fell into near-obscurity. For the next three and a half centuries,
books praising this city lost favor and the construction of glorious
buildings not only came to an end but existing ones fell apart (the dome
over the rock collapsed in 1016). Gold was stripped off the dome to pay
for Al-Aqsa repair work. City walls collapsed. Worse, the rulers of the
new dynasty bled Jerusalem and its region country through what F. E.
Peters of New York University calls "their rapacity and their careless
indifference." The city declined to the point of becoming a shambles.
"Learned men are few, and the Christians numerous," bemoaned a
tenth-century Muslim native of Jerusalem. Only mystics continued to
visit the city.
In a typical put-down, another tenth-century author described the
city as "a provincial town attached to Ramla," a reference to the tiny,
insignificant town serving as Palestine's administrative center. Elad
characterizes Jerusalem in the early centuries of Muslim rule as "an
outlying city of diminished importance." The great historian S. D.
Goitein notes that the geographical dictionary of al-Yaqut mentions
Basra 170 times, Damascus 100 times, and Jerusalem only once, and that
one time in passing. He concludes from this and other evidence that, in
its first six centuries of Muslim rule, "Jerusalem mostly lived the life
of an out-of-the-way provincial town, delivered to the exactions of
rapacious officials and notables, often also to tribulations at the
hands of seditious fellahin [peasants] or nomads. . . . Jerusalem
certainly could not boast of excellence in the sciences of Islam or any
other fields."
By the early tenth century, notes Peters, Muslim rule over Jerusalem
had an "almost casual" quality with "no particular political
significance." Later too: Al-Ghazali, sometimes called the "Thomas
Aquinas of Islam," visited Jerusalem in 1096 but not once refers to the
Crusaders heading his way.
III. Early Crusades
The Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 initially aroused a very
mild Muslim response. The Franks did not rate much attention; Arabic
literature written in Crusader-occupied towns tended not even to mention
them . Thus, "calls to jihad at first fell upon deaf ears," writes
Robert Irwin, formerly of the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Emmanuel Sivan of the Hebrew University adds that "one does not detect
either shock or a sense of religious loss and humiliation."
Only as the effort to retake Jerusalem grew serious in about 1150 did
Muslim leaders seek to rouse jihad sentiments through the heightening
of emotions about Jerusalem. Using the means at their disposal (hadiths,
"virtues of Jerusalem" books, poetry), their propagandists stressed the
sanctity of Jerusalem and the urgency of its return to Muslim rule.
Newly-minted hadiths made Jerusalem ever-more critical to the Islamic
faith; one of them put words into the Prophet Muhammad's mouth saying
that, after his own death, Jerusalem's falling to the infidels is the
second greatest catastrophe facing Islam. Whereas not a single "virtues
of Jerusalem" volume appeared in the period 1100-50, very many came out
in the subsequent half century. In the 1160s, Sivan notes, "al-Quds
propaganda blossomed"; and when Saladin (Salah ad-Din) led the Muslims
to victory over Jerusalem in 1187, the "propaganda campaign . . .
attained its paroxysm." In a letter to his Crusader opponent, Saladin
wrote that the city "is to us as it is to you. It is even more important
to us."
The glow of the reconquest remained bright for several decades
thereafter; for example, Saladin's descendants (known as the Ayyubid
dynasty, which ruled until 1250) went on a great building and
restoration program in Jerusalem, thereby imbuing the city with a more
Muslim character. Until this point, Islamic Jerusalem had consisted only
of the shrines on the Temple Mount; now, for the first time,
specifically Islamic buildings (Sufi convents, schools) were built in
the surrounding city. Also, it was at this time, Oleg Grabar of
Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study notes, that the Dome of the Rock
came to be seen as the exact place where Muhammad's ascension to heaven
(mi'raj) took place during his Night Journey: if the "furthest
mosque" is in Jerusalem, then Muhammad's Night Journey and his
subsequent visit to heaven logically took place on the Temple
Mount—indeed, on the very rock from which Jesus was thought to have
ascended to heaven.
IV. Ayyubids
But once safely back in Muslim hands, interest in Jerusalem again
dropped; "the simple fact soon emerged that al-Quds was not essential to
the security of an empire based in Egypt or Syria. Accordingly, in
times of political or military crisis, the city proved to be
expendable," writes Donald P. Little of McGill University. In
particular, in 1219, when the Europeans attacked Egypt in the Fifth
Crusade, a grandson of Saladin named al-Mu'azzam decided to raze the
walls around Jerusalem, fearing that were the Franks to take the city
with walls, "they will kill all whom they find there and will have the
fate of Damascus and lands of Islam in their hands." Pulling down
Jerusalem's fortifications had the effect of prompting a mass exodus
from the city and its steep decline.
Also at this time, the Muslim ruler of Egypt and Palestine, al-Kamil
(another of Saladin's grandsons and the brother of al-Mu'azzam), offered
to trade Jerusalem to the Europeans if only the latter would leave
Egypt, but he had no takers. Ten years later, in 1229, just such a deal
was reached when al-Kamil did cede Jerusalem to Emperor Friedrich II; in
return, the German leader promised military aid to al-Kamil against
al-Mu'azzam, now a rival king. Al-Kamil insisted that the Temple Mount
remain in Muslim hands and "all the practices of Islam" continued to be
exercised there, a condition Friedrich complied with. Referring to his
deal with Frederick, al-Kamil wrote in a remarkably revealing
description of Jerusalem, "I conceded to the Franks only ruined churches
and houses." In other words, the city that had been heroically regained
by Saladin in 1187 was voluntarily traded away by his grandson just
forty-two years later.
On learning that Jerusalem was back in Christian hands, Muslims felt
predictably intense emotions. An Egyptian historian later wrote that the
loss of the city "was a great misfortune for the Muslims, and much
reproach was put upon al-Kamil, and many were the revilings of him in
all the lands." By 1239, another Ayyubid ruler, an-Nasir Da'ud, managed
to expel the Franks from the city.
But then he too ceded it right back to the Crusaders in return for
help against one of his relatives. This time, the Christians were less
respectful of the Islamic sanctuaries and turned the Temple Mount
mosques into churches.
Their intrusion did not last long; by 1244 the invasion of Palestine
by troops from Central Asia brought Jerusalem again under the rule of an
Ayyubid; and henceforth the city remained safely under Muslim rule for
nearly seven centuries. Jerusalem remained but a pawn in the Realpolitik
of the times, as explained in a letter from a later Ayyubid ruler,
as-Salih Ayyub, to his son: if the Crusaders threaten you in Cairo, he
wrote, and they demand from you the coast of Palestine and Jerusalem,
"give these places to them without delay on condition they have no
foothold in Egypt."
The psychology at work here bears note: that Christian knights
traveled from distant lands to make Jerusalem their capital made the
city more valuable in Muslim eyes too. "It was a city strongly coveted
by the enemies of the faith, and thus became, in a sort of mirror-image
syndrome, dear to Muslim hearts," Sivan explains. And so fractured
opinions coalesced into a powerful sensibility; political exigency
caused Muslims ever after to see Jerusalem as the third most holy city
of Islam (thalith al-masajid).
Mamluk and Ottoman Rule
During the Mamluk era (1250-1516), Jerusalem lapsed further into its
usual obscurity – capital of no dynasty, economic laggard, cultural
backwater—though its new-found prestige as an Islamic site remained
intact. Also, Jerusalem became a favorite place to exile political
leaders, due to its proximity to Egypt and its lack of walls, razed in
1219 and not rebuilt for over three centuries, making Jerusalem easy
prey for marauders. These notables endowed religious institutions,
especially religious schools, which in the aggregate had the effect of
re-establishing Islam in the city. But a general lack of interest
translated into decline and impoverishment. Many of the grand buildings,
including the Temple Mount sanctuaries, were abandoned and became
dilapidated as the city became depopulated. A fourteenth-century author
bemoaned the paucity of Muslims visiting Jerusalem. The Mamluks so
devastated Jerusalem that the town's entire population at the end of
their rule amounted to a miserable 4,000 souls.
The Ottoman period (1516-1917) got off to an excellent start when
Suleyman the Magnificent rebuilt the city walls in 1537-41 and lavished
money in Jerusalem (for example, assuring its water supply), but things
then quickly reverted to type. Jerusalem now suffered from the indignity
of being treated as a tax farm for non-resident, one-year (and very
rapacious) officials. "After having exhausted Jerusalem, the pasha
left," observed the French traveler François-René Chateaubriand in 1806.
At times, this rapaciousness prompted uprisings. The Turkish
authorities also raised funds for themselves by gouging European
visitors; in general, this allowed them to make fewer efforts in
Jerusalem than in other cities to promote the city's economy. The tax
rolls show soap as its only export. So insignificant was Jerusalem, it
was sometimes a mere appendage to the governorship of Nablus or Gaza.
Nor was scholarship cultivated: in 1670, a traveler reported that
standards had dropped so low that even the preacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque
spoke a low standard of literary Arabic. The many religious schools of
an earlier era disappeared. By 1806, the population had again dropped,
this time to under 9,000 residents.
Muslims during this long era could afford to ignore Jerusalem, writes
the historian James Parkes, because the city "was something that was
there, and it never occurred to a Muslim that it would not always be
there," safely under Muslim rule. Innumerable reports during these
centuries from Western pilgrims, tourists, and diplomats in Jerusalem
told of the city's execrable condition. George Sandys in 1611 found that
"Much lies waste; the old buildings (except a few) all ruined, the new
contemptible." Constantin Volney, one of the most scientific of
observers, noted in 1784 Jerusalem's "destroyed walls, its debris-filled
moat, its city circuit choked with ruins." "What desolation and
misery!" wrote Chateaubriand. Gustav Flaubert of Madame Bovary
fame visited in 1850 and found "Ruins everywhere, and everywhere the
odor of graves. It seems as if the Lord's curse hovers over the city.
The Holy City of three religions is rotting away from boredom,
desertion, and neglect." "Hapless are the favorites of heaven,"
commented Herman Melville in 1857. Mark Twain in 1867 found that
Jerusalem "has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper
The British government recognized the minimal Muslim interest in
Jerusalem during World War I. In negotiations with Sharif Husayn of
Mecca in 1915-16 over the terms of the Arab revolt against the Ottomans,
London decided not to include Jerusalem in territories to be assigned
to the Arabs because, as the chief British negotiator, Henry McMahon,
put it, "there was no place … of sufficient importance … further south"
of Damascus "to which the Arabs attached vital importance."
True to this spirit, the Turkish overlords of Jerusalem abandoned
Jerusalem rather than fight for it in 1917, evacuating it just in
advance of the British troops. One account indicates they were even
prepared to destroy the holy city. Jamal Pasha, the Ottoman
commander-in-chief, instructed his Austrian allies to "blow Jerusalem to
hell" should the British enter the city. The Austrians therefore had
their guns trained on the Dome of the Rock, with enough ammunition to
keep up two full days of intensive bombardment. According to Pierre van
Paasen, a journalist, that the dome still exists today is due to a
Jewish artillery captain in the Austrian army, Marek Schwartz, who
rather than respond to the approaching British troops with a barrage on
the Islamic holy places, "quietly spiked his own guns and walked into
the British lines."
V. British Rule
In modern times, notes the Israeli scholar Hava Lazarus-Yafeh,
Jerusalem "became the focus of religious and political Arab activity
only at the beginning of the [twentieth] century." She ascribes the
change mainly to "the renewed Jewish activity in the city and Judaism's
claims on the Western Wailing Wall." British rule over the city, lasting
from 1917 to 1948, then galvanized a renewed passion for Jerusalem.
Arab politicians made Jerusalem a prominent destination during the
British Mandatory period. Iraqi leaders frequently turned up in
Jerusalem, demonstrably praying at Al-Aqsa and giving emotional
speeches. Most famously, King Faysal of Iraq visited the city and made a
ceremonial entrance to the Temple Mount using the same gate as did
Caliph 'Umar when the city was first conquered in 638. Iraqi involvement
also included raising funds for an Islamic university in Jerusalem, and
setting up a consulate and an information office there.
The Palestinian leader (and mufti of Jerusalem) Hajj Amin al-Husayni
made the Temple Mount central to his anti-Zionist political efforts.
Husayni brought a contingent of Muslim notables to Jerusalem in 1931 for
an international congress to mobilize global Muslim opinion on behalf
of the Palestinians. He also exploited the draw of the Islamic holy
places in Jerusalem to find international Muslim support for his
campaign against Zionism. For example, he engaged in fundraising in
several Arab countries to restore the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa,
sometimes by sending out pictures of the Dome of the Rock under a Star
of David; his efforts did succeed in procuring the funds to restore
these monuments to their former glory.
Perhaps most indicative of the change in mood was the claim that the
Prophet Muhammad had tethered his horse to the western wall of the
Temple Mount. As established by Shmuel Berkowitz, Muslim scholars over
the centuries had variously theorized about the prophet tying horse to
the eastern or southern walls—but not one of them before the
Muslim-Jewish clashes at the Western Wall in 1929 ever associated this
incident with the western side. Once again, politics drove Muslim
piousness regarding Jerusalem.
Jordanian Rule
Sandwiched between British and Israeli eras, Jordanian rule over
Jerusalem in 1948-67 offers a useful control case; true to form, when
Muslims took the Old City (which contains the sanctuaries) they
noticeably lost interest in it. An initial excitement stirred when the
Jordanian forces captured the walled city in 1948 -- as evidenced by the
Coptic bishop's crowning King 'Abdullah as "King of Jerusalem" in
November of that year—but then the usual ennui set in. The Hashemites
had little affection for Jerusalem, where some of their worst enemies
lived and where 'Abdullah was assassinated in 1951. In fact, the
Hashemites made a concerted effort to diminish the holy city's
importance in favor of their capital, Amman. Jerusalem had served as the
British administrative capital, but now all government offices there
(save tourism) were shut down; Jerusalem no longer had authority even
over other parts of the West Bank. The Jordanians also closed some local
institutions (e.g., the Arab Higher Committee, the Supreme Muslim
Council) and moved others to Amman (the treasury of the waqf, or
religious endowment).
Jordanian efforts succeeded: once again, Arab Jerusalem became an
isolated provincial town, less important than Nablus. The economy so
stagnated that many thousands of Arab Jerusalemites left the town: while
the population of Amman increased five-fold in the period 1948-67, that
of Jerusalem grew by just 50 percent. To take out a bank loan meant
traveling to Amman. Amman had the privilege of hosting the country's
first university and the royal family's many residences. Jerusalem Arabs
knew full well what was going on, as evidenced by one notable's
complaint about the royal residences: "those palaces should have been
built in Jerusalem, but were removed from here, so that Jerusalem would
remain not a city, but a kind of village." East Jerusalem's Municipal
Council twice formally complained of the Jordanian authorities'
discrimination against their city.
Perhaps most insulting of all was the decline in Jerusalem's
religious standing. Mosques lacked sufficient funds. Jordanian radio
broadcast the Friday prayers not from Al-Aqsa Mosque but from an upstart
mosque in Amman. (Ironically, Radio Israel began broadcasting services
from Al-Aqsa immediately after the Israel victory in 1967.) This was
part of a larger pattern, as the Jordanian authorities sought to benefit
from the prestige of controlling Jerusalem even as they put the city
down: Marshall Breger and Thomas Idinopulos note that although King
'Abdullah "styled himself a protector of the holy sites, he did little
to promote the religious importance of Jerusalem to Muslims."
Nor were Jordan's rulers alone in ignoring Jerusalem; the city
virtually disappeared from the Arab diplomatic map. Malcolm Kerr's
well-known study on inter-Arab relations during this period (The Arab Cold War)
appears not once to mention the city. No foreign Arab leader came to
Jerusalem during the nineteen years when Jordan controlled East
Jerusalem, and King Husayn (r. 1952-99) himself only rarely visited.
King Faysal of Saudi Arabia spoke often after 1967 of his yearning to
pray in Jerusalem, yet he appears never to have bothered to pray there
when he had the chance. Perhaps most remarkable is that the PLO's
founding document, the Palestinian National Covenant of 1964, does not
once mention Jerusalem or even allude to it.
VI. Israeli Rule
This neglect came to an abrupt end after June 1967, when the Old City
came under Israeli control. Palestinians again made Jerusalem the
centerpiece of their political program. The Dome of the Rock turned up
in pictures everywhere, from Yasir Arafat's office to the corner
grocery. Slogans about Jerusalem proliferated and the city quickly
became the single most emotional issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The
PLO made up for its 1964 oversight by specifically mentioning Jerusalem
in its 1968 constitution as "the seat of the Palestine Liberation
"As during the era of the Crusaders," Lazarus-Yafeh points out,
Muslim leaders "began again to emphasize the sanctity of Jerusalem in
Islamic tradition." In the process, they even relied on some of the same
arguments (e.g., rejecting the occupying power's religious connections
to the city) and some of the same hadiths to back up those allegations.
Muslims began echoing the Jewish devotion to Jerusalem: Arafat declared
that "Al-Quds is in the innermost of our feeling, the feeling of our
people and the feeling of all Arabs, Muslims, and Christians in the
world." Extravagant statements became the norm (Jerusalem was now said
to be "comparable in holiness" to Mecca and Medina; or even "our most
sacred place"). Jerusalem turned up regularly in Arab League and United
Nations resolutions. The Jordanian and Saudi governments now gave as
munificently to the Jerusalem religious trust as they had been stingy
before 1967.
Nor were Palestinians alone in this emphasis on Jerusalem: the city
again served as a powerful vehicle for mobilizing Muslim opinion
internationally. This became especially clear in September 1969, when
King Faysal parlayed a fire at Al-Aqsa Mosque into the impetus to
convene twenty-five Muslim heads of state and establish the Organization
of the Islamic Conference, a United Nations-style institution for
Muslims. In Lebanon, the fundamentalist group Hizbullah depicts the Dome
of the Rock on everything from wall posters to scarves and under the
picture often repeats its slogan: "We are advancing." Lebanon's leading
Shi'i authority, Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, regularly exploits the theme
of liberating Jerusalem from Israeli control to inspire his own people;
he does so, explains his biographer Martin Kramer, not for
pie-in-the-sky reasons but "to mobilize a movement to liberate Lebanon
for Islam."
Similarly, the Islamic Republic of Iran has made Jerusalem a central
issue, following the dictate of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, who
remarked that "Jerusalem is the property of Muslims and must return to
them." Since shortly after the regime's founding, its 1-rial coin and
1000-rial banknote have featured the Dome of the Rock (though,
embarrassingly, the latter initially was mislabeled "Al-Aqsa Mosque").
Iranian soldiers at war with Saddam Husayn's forces in the 1980s
received simple maps showing their sweep through Iraq and on to
Jerusalem. Ayatollah Khomeini decreed the last Friday of Ramadan as
Jerusalem Day, and this commemoration has served as a major occasion for
anti-Israel harangues in many countries, including Turkey, Tunisia, and
Morocco. The Islamic Republic of Iran celebrates the holiday with
stamps and posters featuring scenes of Jerusalem accompanied by
exhortative slogans. In February 1997, a crowd of some 300,000
celebrated Jerusalem Day in the presence of dignitaries such as
President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Jerusalem Day is celebrated (complete with
a roster of speeches, an art exhibit, a folkloric show, and a youth
program) as far off as Dearborn, Michigan.
As it has become common for Muslims to claim passionate attachment to
Jerusalem, Muslim pilgrimages to the city have multiplied four-fold in
recent years. A new "virtues of Jerusalem" literature has developed. So
emotional has Jerusalem become to Muslims that they write books of
poetry about it (especially in Western languages). And in the political
realm, Jerusalem has become a uniquely unifying issue for
Arabic-speakers. "Jerusalem is the only issue that seems to unite the
Arabs. It is the rallying cry," a senior Arab diplomat noted in late
The fervor for Jerusalem at times challenges even the centrality of
Mecca. No less a personage than Crown Prince 'Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
has been said repeatedly to say that for him, "Jerusalem is just like
the holy city of Mecca." Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah goes
further yet, declaring in a major speech: "We won't give up on
Palestine, all of Palestine, and Jerusalem will remain the place to
which all jihad warriors will direct their prayers."
Dubious Claims
Along with these high emotions, four historically dubious claims promoting the Islamic claim to Jerusalem have emerged.
The Islamic connection to Jerusalem is older than the Jewish.
The Palestinian "minister" of religious endowments asserts that
Jerusalem has "always" been under Muslim sovereignty. Likewise, Ghada
Talhami, a polemicist, asserts that "There are other holy cities in
Islam, but Jerusalem holds a special place in the hearts and minds of
Muslims because its fate has always been intertwined with theirs."
Always? Jerusalem's founding antedated Islam by about two millennia, so
how can that be? Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on
American-Islamic Relations explains this anachronism: "the Muslim
attachment to Jerusalem does not begin with the prophet Muhammad, it
begins with the prophets Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus, who are also
prophets in Islam." In other words, the central figures of Judaism and
Christianity were really proto-Muslims. This accounts for the
Palestinian man-in-the-street declaring that "Jerusalem was Arab from
the day of creation."
The Qur'an mentions Jerusalem. So complete is the
identification of the Night Journey with Jerusalem that it is found in
many publications of the Qur'an, and especially in translations. Some
state in a footnote that the "furthest mosque" "must" refer to
Jerusalem. Others take the (blasphemous?) step of inserting Jerusalem
right into the text after "furthest mosque." This is done in a variety
of ways. The Sale translation uses italics:
<blockquote>from the sacred temple of Mecca to the farther temple of Jerusalem</blockquote>
the Asad translation relies on square brackets:
<blockquote>from the Inviolable House of Worship [at Mecca] to the Remote House of Worship [at Jerusalem]</blockquote>
and the Behbudi-Turner version places it right in the text without any distinction at all:
<blockquote>from the Holy Mosque in Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Palestine.</blockquote>
If the Qur'an in translation now has Jerusalem in its text, it cannot
be surprising to find that those who rely on those translations believe
that Jerusalem "is mentioned in the Qur'an"; and this is precisely what
a consortium of American Muslim institutions claimed in 2000. One of
their number went yet further; according to Hooper, "the Koran refers to
Jerusalem by its Islamic centerpiece, al-Aqsa Mosque." This error has
practical consequences: for example, Ahmad 'Abd ar-Rahman,
secretary-general of the PA "cabinet," rested his claim to Palestinian
sovereignty on this basis: "Jerusalem is above tampering, it is
inviolable, and nobody can tamper with it since it is a Qur'anic text."
Muhammad actually visited Jerusalem. The Islamic
biography of the Prophet Muhammad's life is very complete and it very
clearly does not mention his leaving the Arabian Peninsula, much less
voyaging to Jerusalem. Therefore, when Karen Armstrong, a specialist on
Islam, writes that "Muslim texts make it clear that … the story of
Muhammad's mystical Night Journey to Jerusalem … was not a physical
experience but a visionary one," she is merely stating the obvious.
Indeed, this phrase is contained in an article titled, "Islam's Stake:
Why Jerusalem Was Central to Muhammad" which posits that "Jerusalem was
central to the spiritual identity of Muslims from the very beginning of
their faith." Not good enough. Armstrong found herself under attack for a
"shameless misrepresentation" of Islam and claiming that "Muslims
themselves do not believe the miracle of their own prophet."
Jerusalem has no importance to Jews. The first step is
to deny a Jewish connection to the Western (or Wailing) Wall, the only
portion of the ancient Temple that still stands. In 1967, a top Islamic
official of the Temple Mount portrayed Jewish attachment to the wall as
an act of "aggression against al-Aqsa mosque." The late King Faysal of
Saudi Arabia spoke on this subject with undisguised scorn: "The Wailing
Wall is a structure they weep against, and they have no historic right
to it. Another wall can be built for them to weep against." 'Abd
al-Malik Dahamsha, a Muslim member of Israel's parliament, has flatly
stated that "the Western Wall is not associated with the remains of the
Jewish Temple." The Palestinian Authority's website states about the
Western Wall that "Some Orthodox religious Jews consider it as a holy
place for them, and claim that the wall is part of their temple which
all historic studies and archeological excavations have failed to find
any proof for such a claim." The PA's mufti describes the Western Wall
as "just a fence belonging to the Muslim holy site" and declares that
"There is not a single stone in the Wailing-Wall relating to Jewish
history." He also makes light of the Jewish connection, dismissively
telling an Israeli interviewer, "I heard that your Temple was in Nablus
or perhaps Bethlehem." Likewise, Arafat announced that Jews "consider
Hebron to be holier than Jerusalem." There has even been some
scholarship, from 'Ayn Shams University in Egypt, alleging to show that
Al-Aqsa Mosque predates the Jewish antiquities in Jerusalem – by no less
than two thousand years.
In this spirit, Muslim institutions pressure the Western media to
call the Temple Mount and the Western Wall by their Islamic names (Al-Haram ash-Sharif, Al-Buraq), and not their much older Jewish names. (Al-Haram ash-Sharif,
for example, dates only from the Ottoman era.) When Western journalists
do not comply, Arafat responds with outrage, with his news agency
portraying this as part of a "constant conspiracy against our sanctities
in Palestine" and his mufti deeming this contrary to Islamic law.
The second step is to deny Jews access to the wall. "It's prohibited
for Jews to pray at the Western Wall," asserts an Islamist leader living
in Israel. The director of the Al-Aqsa Mosque asserts that "This is a
place for Muslims, only Muslims. There is no temple here, only Al-Aqsa
Mosque and the Dome of the Rock." The Voice of Palestine radio station
demands that Israeli politicians not be allowed even to touch the wall.
'Ikrima Sabri, the Palestinian Authority's mufti, prohibits Jews from
making repairs to the wall and extends Islamic claims further: "All the
buildings surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque are an Islamic waqf."
The third step is to reject any form of Jewish control in Jerusalem,
as Arafat did in mid-2000: "I will not agree to any Israeli sovereign
presence in Jerusalem." He was echoed by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince
Abdullah, who stated that "There is nothing to negotiate about and
compromise on when it comes to Jerusalem." Even Oman's Minister of State
for Foreign Affairs Yusuf bin 'Alawi bin 'Abdullah told the Israeli
prime minister that sovereignty in Jerusalem should be exclusively
Palestinian "to ensure security and stability."
The final step is to deny Jews access to Jerusalem at all. Toward
this end, a body of literature blossoms that insists on an exclusive
Islamic claim to all of Jerusalem. School textbooks allude to the city's
role in Christianity and Islam, but ignore Judaism. An American
affiliate of Hamas claims Jerusalem as "an Arab, Palestinian and Islamic
holy city." A banner carried in a street protest puts it succinctly:
"Jerusalem is Arab." No place for Jews here.
Anti-Jerusalem Views
This Muslim love of Zion notwithstanding, Islam contains a recessive
but persistent strain of anti-Jerusalem sentiment, premised on the idea
that emphasizing Jerusalem is non-Islamic and can undermine the special
sanctity of Mecca.
In the early period of Islam, the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis
notes, "there was strong resistance among many theologians and jurists"
to the notion of Jerusalem as a holy city. They viewed this as a
"Judaizing error—as one more among many attempts by Jewish converts to
infiltrate Jewish ideas into Islam." Anti-Jerusalem stalwarts circulated
stories to show that the idea of Jerusalem's holiness is a Jewish
practice. In the most important of them, a converted Jew, named Ka'b
al-Ahbar, suggested to Caliph 'Umar that Al-Aqsa Mosque be built by the
Dome of the Rock. The caliph responded by accusing him of reversion to
his Jewish roots:
<blockquote>'Umar asked him: "Where do you think we should put the place of prayer?""By the [Temple Mount] rock," answered Ka'b.
By God, Ka'b," said 'Umar, "you are following after Judaism. I saw you take off your sandals [following Jewish practice]."
"I wanted to feel the touch of it with my bare feet," said Ka'b.
"I saw you," said 'Umar. "But no … Go along! We were not commanded
concerning the Rock, but we were commanded concerning the Ka'ba [in
Another version of this anecdote makes the Jewish content even more
explicit: in this one, Ka'b al-Ahbar tries to induce Caliph 'Umar to
pray north of the Holy Rock, pointing out the advantage of this: "Then
the entire Al-Quds, that is, Al-Masjid al-Haram will be before you." In
other words, the convert from Judaism is saying, the Rock and Mecca will
be in a straight line and Muslims can pray toward both of them at the
same time.
That Muslims for almost a year and a half during Muhammad's lifetime
directed prayers toward Jerusalem has had a permanently contradictory
effect on that city's standing in Islam. The incident partially imbued
Jerusalem with prestige and sanctity, but it also made the city a place
uniquely rejected by God. Some early hadiths have Muslims expressing
this rejection by purposefully praying with their back sides to
Jerusalem, a custom that still survives in vestigial form; he who prays
in Al-Aqsa Mosque not coincidentally turns his back precisely to the
Temple area toward which Jews pray. Or, in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's
sharp formulation: when a Muslim prays in Al-Aqsa, "his back is to it.
Also some of his lower parts."
Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), one of Islam's strictest and most
influential religious thinkers, is perhaps the outstanding spokesman of
the anti-Jerusalem view. In his wide-ranging attempt to purify Islam of
accretions and impieties, he dismissed the sacredness of Jerusalem as a
notion deriving from Jews and Christians, and also from the long-ago
Umayyad rivalry with Mecca. Ibn Taymiya's student, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya
(1292-1350), went further and rejected hadiths about Jerusalem as
false. More broadly, learned Muslims living after the Crusades knew that
the great publicity given to hadiths extolling Jerusalem's sanctity
resulted from the Countercrusade—from political exigency, that is—and
therefore treated them warily.
There are other signs too of Jerusalem's relatively low standing in
the ladder of sanctity: a historian of art finds that, "in contrast to
representations of Mecca, Medina, and the Ka'ba, depictions of Jerusalem
are scanty." The belief that the Last Judgment would take place in
Jerusalem was said by some medieval authors to be a forgery to induce
Muslims to visit the city.
Modern writers sometimes take exception to the envelope of piety that
has surrounded Jerusalem. Muhammad Abu Zayd wrote a book in Egypt in
1930 that was so radical that it was withdrawn from circulation and is
no longer even extant. In it, among many other points, he
<blockquote>dismissed the notion of the Prophet's heavenly journey via
Jerusalem, claiming that the Qur'anic rendition actually refers to his
Hijra from Mecca to Madina; "the more remote mosque" (al-masjid al-aqsa) thus had nothing to do with Jerusalem, but was in fact the mosque in Madina.</blockquote>
That this viewpoint is banned shows the nearly complete victory in
Islam of the pro-Jerusalem viewpoint. Still, an occasional expression
still filters through. At a summit meeting of Arab leaders in March
2001, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi made fun of his colleagues' obsession with
Al-Aqsa Mosque. "The hell with it," delegates quoted him saying, "you
solve it or you don't, it's just a mosque and I can pray anywhere."
Politics, not religious sensibility, has fueled the Muslim attachment
to Jerusalem for nearly fourteen centuries; what the historian Bernard
Wasserstein has written about the growth of Muslim feeling in the course
of the Countercrusade applies through the centuries: "often in the
history of Jerusalem, heightened religious fervour may be explained in
large part by political necessity." This pattern has three main
implications. First, Jerusalem will never be more than a secondary city
for Muslims; "belief in the sanctity of Jerusalem," Sivan rightly
concludes, "cannot be said to have been widely diffused nor deeply
rooted in Islam." Second, the Muslim interest lies not so much in
controlling Jerusalem as it does in denying control over the city to
anyone else. Third, the Islamic connection to the city is weaker than
the Jewish one because it arises as much from transitory and mundane
considerations as from the immutable claims of faith.
Mecca, by contrast, is the eternal city of Islam, the place from
which non-Muslims are strictly forbidden. Very roughly speaking, what
Jerusalem is to Jews, Mecca is to Muslims – a point made in the Qur'an
itself (2:145) in recognizing that Muslims have one qibla and
"the people of the Book" another one. The parallel was noted by medieval
Muslims; the geographer Yaqut (1179-1229) wrote, for example, that
"Mecca is holy to Muslims and Jerusalem to the Jews." In modern times,
some scholars have come to the same conclusion: "Jerusalem plays for the
Jewish people the same role that Mecca has for Muslims," writes Abdul
Hadi Palazzi, director of the Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic
The similarities are striking. Jews pray thrice to Jerusalem, Muslims
five times daily to Mecca. Muslims see Mecca as the navel of the world,
just as Jews see Jerusalem. Whereas Jews believe Abraham nearly
sacrificed Ishmael's brother Isaac in Jerusalem, Muslims believe this
episode took place in Mecca. The Ka'ba in Mecca has similar functions
for Muslims as the Temple in Jerusalem for Jews (such as serving as a
destination for pilgrimage). The Temple and Ka'ba are both said to be
inimitable structures. The supplicant takes off his shoes and goes
barefoot in both their precincts. Solomon's Temple was inaugurated on
Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the year, and the Ka'ba receives its new
cover also on the tenth day of each year. If Jerusalem is for Jews a
place so holy that not just its soil but even its air is deemed sacred,
Mecca is the place whose "very mention reverberates awe in Muslims'
hearts," according to Abad Ahmad of the Islamic Society of Central
This parallelism of Mecca and Jerusalem offers the basis of a solution, as Sheikh Palazzi wisely writes:
<blockquote>separation in directions of prayer is a mean to decrease
possible rivalries in management of Holy Places. For those who receive
from Allah the gift of equilibrium and the attitude to reconciliation,
it should not be difficult to conclude that, as no one is willing to
deny Muslims a complete sovereignty over Mecca, from an Islamic point of
view - notwithstanding opposite, groundless propagandistic claims -
there is not any sound theological reason to deny an equal right of Jews
over Jerusalem.</blockquote>
To back up this view, Palazzi notes several striking and
oft-neglected passages in the Qur'an. One of them (5:22-23) quotes Moses
instructing the Jews to "enter the Holy Land (al-ard al-muqaddisa)
which God has assigned unto you." Another verse (17:104) has God
Himself making the same point: "We said to the Children of Israel:
'Dwell securely in the Land.'" Qur'an 2:145 states that the Jews "would
not follow your qibla; nor are you going to follow their qibla,"
indicating a recognition of the Temple Mount as the Jews' direction of
prayer. "God himself is saying that Jerusalem is as important to Jews as
Mecca is to Moslems," Palazzi concludes.
His analysis has a clear and sensible implication: just as Muslims
rule an undivided Mecca, Jews should rule an undivided Jerusalem.

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