These days, Jerusalem has returned to the headlines in the Middle East because of the plan to build a pedestrian bridge to the “Mughrabi” Gate of the Temple Mount. Many bridges have been built in Israel without arousing even one word of criticism in the Arab or Islamic world, but if Israel comes anywhere near the Temple Mount – whether it be for the tunnels or archaeological digs – the speakers of the Arab and Islamic world immediately jump to their feet and scream bitterly. In this article we will attempt to explain why this is so.
Jerusalem, at least the Old City and the Temple Mount, appears as a Palestinian political demand ever since it was liberated from the Jordanian occupation in June 1967, despite the fact that it was never the capital of anything in Islam and wasn’t even the regional Palestinian capital after the Muslim Conquest in the seventh century. The capital was Ramle, 30 kilometers to the west from Jerusalem. And so, we ask: Why is Jerusalem holy to a religion that was established and developed in the Arabian desert, which today is part of Saudi Arabia? How did Jerusalem win the status of “the third holiest site in Islam” despite the fact that it does not appear even once in the Qur’an?
To understand why this is so, we must trace the evolution of the idea of the holiness of Jerusalem in Islam. According to the Qur’an (Chapter 25, Verse 5) The prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was harshly criticized by the members of his tribe in Mecca for bringing them a religion which was nothing but “Asatir al-Awwalin” (the legends of the precursors), meaning the religious narrative of the Jews and the Christians, because many of the stories that appear in the Qur’an are copies of stories from the Bible. Apparently Muhammad learned these stories from his very close friend, a Jew from Yemen named Ka’b. The criticism of Islam, as a copy of other religions made Islam appear illegitimate, so in order to get a “seal of approval” Muhammad tried to convert three Jewish tribes who lived in a desert oasis called “Khaybar”, which was situated near the city of al-Medina. This is why the direction of prayer for Muslims was determined to be Northward, towards Jerusalem, for some 16 months; but the Jews remained loyal to Judaism and did not embrace Islam. Therefore Muhammad waged war against them, slaughtered the men and took the women, including Safiya, the daughter of one of the tribal heads, whom he took as a wife. After he eliminated these Jewish tribes and was no longer interested in their direction of prayer, he abandoned Jerusalem and turned the direction of prayer Southward, towards the city of Mecca. He later conquered Mecca, burned the idols that were within, and consecrated the city.
In those days Muhammad had a group of supporters in the city of al-Ta’if, which was located at a distance of a two-day walk from Mecca. When he walked to Ta’if and back Muhammad would spend the night in the village of “al-Gi’irrana”, and Islamic tradition has it that near the village were two mosques, “The Nearby Mosque” (“al-Masjid al-adna”) and the “Distant Mosque”, (“al-Masjid al-Aqsa”), and that he would pray in one of them before setting out on his day-long journey, either to Ta’if or back to Mecca. The Qur’an (Chapter 17, Verse 1) states that one night a miracle occurred to Muhammad; the Creator took him to the Distant Mosque in order to show him His miracles. The people of that generation understood this passage literally, because they knew that “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” was near the village on the way to Ta’if. Muhammad died in the year 632, without ever having visited Jerusalem.
Five years after Muhammad’s death, Jerusalem was conquered without a battle, when Bishop Sophronius opened its gates to the formidable army of the second Caliph, ‘Umar bin al-Khattab. Sophronius took the caliph and his entourage for a tour of the city, and included in his entourage was Ka’b, Muhammad’s Jewish friend. When they arrived at the entrance to the Temple Mount Ka’b removed his shoes, apparently because of the passage “remove your shoes, from your feet” because the place was holy. Caliph ‘Umar saw this and asked him the meaning of his actions, and Ka’b answered that it was because of the holiness of the place. Caliph ‘Umar became angry with him, scolded him and said that he was trying to insert Jewish concepts into Islam, and insisted that he put his shoes back on immediately because the place was not holy at all. The great Islamic historian, al-Tabari, tells this anecdote and we can derive from it the interpretation that Jerusalem in the year 627 CE – even though it was under Muslim occupation – was not considered by them to be a holy place.
Thirty years after the death of Muhammad, the Umayyad Caliphs transferred the capital of the Muslim Empire from the Hijaz to Damascus, incurring the wrath of those Meccans who were loyal to Muhammad and his legacy. In the following generation, because of the looting, plundering and booty that the Muslims perpetrated upon the empires of Persia, Byzantium and many other places, Damascus became a city of wealth, permissiveness, gala celebrations, debauchery and drunkenness, and in relations between men and women, there was no abomination that the people of Damascus didn’t take part in. It’s low moral status caused the people of Mecca who were faithful to the legacy of Muhammad, to declare the residents of Damascus to be heretics. Therefore, in the year 682, under the command of Abdallah bin al-Zubayr, the Meccans organized and rebelled against the Caliph, and prevented the residents of Damascus from coming to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage.
There are those who see a relationship between the rebellion of Abdallah bin al-Zubayr and the disturbing events that occurred two years earlier, in the year 680, when the army of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya eliminated the greatest of the rebels, Husein bin ‘Ali, in the city of Kerbala, which is in the south of Iraq. Hussein bin ‘Ali was the grandson of Muhammad; his mother was Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, and his father was ‘Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and the fourth Caliph, whose supporters are the Shi’ites, even today. However, the fact that Husein was a member of the Prophet’s family didn’t help him to escape from the procedure of “proof of performance”: He was decapitated and his head was brought to Damascus in order to show the Caliph that the leader of the Shi’ite opposition had been eliminated. The Caliph put the head on his desk for a month, so that everyone who came to his office would “see and fear”. It is thought that Abdallah bin al-Zubayr, the rebel from Mecca, was one of the Shi’ite supporters, and that this is the real reason that the people of Damascus, who lived in the shadow of the Caliph, Husein bin ‘Ali’s murderer, were prevented from taking part in the Hajj pilgrimage. Whether because of the debauchery of the residents of Damascus, or because of the cruelty of the Caliph towards the grandson of Muhammad, the people of Mecca, armed Bedouins well versed in the ways of war, blocked off the routes of the Hajj from the people of Damascus and its surroundings, and Caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya searched for an alternative location for the Hajj in order to strengthen his position. The political and military rebellion of Mecca continued for eight years, but it was still necessary to make the Hajj pilgrimage, which is a basic commandment according to Islam, every year. What did they do? They looked for an alternative place to do the Hajj; a place that would have an aura of holiness, that would allow the Caliph to declare it as a place of pilgrimage instead of Mecca.
At that time, many Jews and Christians converted to Islam, at least outwardly, in order to escape the burden of the heavy tax that was imposed upon them. Because of their conversion to Islam they carried in their hearts and in their mouths the exaltation of Jerusalem, the Holy City, and this is how the idea of Jerusalem as a holy city entered into Islam. The Caliph decided that Jerusalem will be the place for pilgrimage, but he needed support from the Islamic writings to enable him to paint his decision in an Islamic color. That is why that passage in the Qur’an that speaks of the miracle of Muhammad’s night journey to the “Distant Mosque” was taken, and a new exegesis was attached to it: that the al-Aqsa mosque is located in Jerusalem, and that Muhammad was brought to Jerusalem during the night and ascended to the seventh heaven. During his ascent, the prophets of the previous religions – Judaism and Christianity – joined him: Adam, Jesus, Johannes, Seth, Joseph, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham. In heaven, next to Allah’ throne, they prayed behind Muhammad, and this indicates that they accepted his sovereignty over themselves and that Judaism and Christianity pass the baton of leadership on to Islam. All of this is under the Throne of Glory, that is, that the coronation of Islam over Judaism and Christianity is a matter of Allah’s Magisterial Decision. Islam, according to this story, came to the world not to live side by side with Judaism and Christianity; it rather came to replace them.
In order to better establish the validity of the transfer of the Hajj to Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock was built in the center of the Temple Mount, so that the circumambulation can take place around it. It was built with eight walls, apparently to signify that it is double the holiness of the Ka’ba in Mecca, which has only four walls. In addition, many “Hadith” (oral tradition) pieces had been forged, attributed to Muhammad, which implies that the sanctity of Jerusalem is greater than the sanctity of Mecca.
After eight years of Abdallah bin al-Zubayr’s rebellion, the Umayyads succeeded to transfer the Hajj back to Mecca, at which point the tales about Jerusalem were dropped. Salah- al-Din brought them up again in the 12th century, when the Muslim commander wanted to rouse up his fighters in preparation for the battle with the Crusaders. After Jerusalem was liberated, it’s high status was again abandoned, mainly to avoid undermining the hegemony of Mecca and Medina.
The story of Muhammad’s night journey to Jerusalem is very important to Islam, because this what gives Islam legitimacy as a valid religion, not a copy but a religion that was not intended to coexist in peace with other religions, but rather to replace them, to destroy them and to build itself upon their ruins. Therefore Arabs “Islamized” the important figures that appear in the Torah and in the Bible, built mosques on top of synagogues, churches, and monasteries and formulated laws to denigrate Jews and Christians. The yellow patch is a Muslim invention of the ninth century. Many of the Islamic concepts of philosophy and religious law are taken from Jewish and Christian sources. According to the Islamic approach, the Jews, and after them the Christians, distorted and falsified the holy writings, so Allah became angry with them (according to the Qur’an, Chapter 1, Verse 7), removed the prophecy from them and gave it to Muhammad; According to Islamic approach, Judaism and Christianity have lost their meaning as religions. Moreover, these religions have no holy places, and any Jewish or Christian claim of ownership on any holy site is the false claim of a religion – according to Islam – which has become invalid. So the Muslims are not at all impressed by the Jewish claim that Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish kingdom, whether during the First or Second Temple period, because of this simple claim: David and Solomon were Muslims! And it’s no wonder: according to the Qur’an (Chapter 3, Verse 19) “Allah’s religion is Islam”, and so, Islam has Islamized the Lord of the Universe. It is for this reason that the Israeli demands for sovereignty over Jerusalem is a contradiction to the foundational belief in Islam, the belief that Judaism has finished its role in the world. Therefore it is strictly forbidden for a Muslim to allow a Jew – heaven forbid – to control the place from which Muhammad (according to the Islamic legend) rose up to heaven, and this is why the Palestinians are so insistent about getting their hands on Jerusalem. Jews can live under the auspices and control of Islam, but not to conquer a land that was ever Muslim, and of course not to rule in the city from which Muhammad – according to their claim – rose to heaven. Control over Jerusalem would give the Palestinians Islamic legitimacy, almost as much as the religious legitimacy that the king of Saudi Arabia has because of his custodianship for Mecca and Medina. And on the contrary, if they surrender Jerusalem to the Jews, they will be accused by many Muslims of betraying Islam.
Muslims who are faithful to their religion know that it is not intended to live side-by-side with the previous religions, Judaism and Christianity, but to replace them and to be built upon their ruins. And so the battle between Islam and Judaism is a battle between “Din al-Haqq”, the religion of truth, which is Islam, and “Din al-Batil”, the obsolete religion, which is Judaism and Christianity. Watching what has been happening in Israel for the last sixty three years they shudder: the Jews have returned to their land and conquered it from the Muslims. Then they conquered Jerusalem, and the next step will be the building of the Temple and Judaism will again become a relevant and living religion. What, then, will be the fate of Islam, the faith that is supposed to replace Judaism and Christianity? The return of the Jews to their land and to their city is a threat to Islam as a religion, and Israel’s actions in Jerusalem are seen by Muslims as a theological danger much more than a territorial, nationalistic or political problem.
The unbreakable connection between religion and politics in Islam has turned the theological problem into a political problem, therefore the question of the holiness of Jerusalem in Islam is expressed politically: Muhammad tries to base his religious and political status among the Jews by praying toward Jerusalem, the Caliphs from Damascus artificially make Jerusalem a place to go for pilgrimage as a result of a political competition with Mecca and Medina, and Salah al-Din uses it to arouse his fighters. The Palestinians today have adopted Jerusalem as the seal of religious approval for their state, which is not at all certain to arise. They know that if they dare to leave the site of the Temple in the hands of the Jews, that the Islamic fundamentalists, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda will rise up and accuse them of treason. This is the reason that their spokesmen say again and again, that without Jerusalem as its capital they will not establish a Palestinian state.
The connection between Jerusalem and politics is expressed in another way: everyone knows that the source of the disagreement between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis is the political question of who was the legitimate Caliph in the middle of the seventh century: ‘Ali bin Abi Talib, the fourth caliph, or Mu’awiya bin Abi Sufyan, the ruler of Damascus, who rebelled against ‘Ali and became the fifth Caliph. Mu’awiya is the first Caliph from the Umayyads, and it was Yazid, his son, who sanctified Jerusalem as an alternative place to do the Hajj pilgrimage. Yazid was also the one who had Husein bin ‘Ali decapitated and therefore the Shi’ites – supporters of ‘Ali and his descendants – see the Umayyads as their eternal enemies, and their deeds as illegitimate. Therefore, the holiness of Jerusalem was not accepted by the Shi’ites and their third holiest place is the city of Najaf, in southern Iraq, ‘Ali’s burial site. Today, politics plays a role here as well: the leaders of Iran and the Shi’ite Hizballah can not remain behind when the subject is Israel, so they jump on the bandwagon “To liberate Jerusalem from the impurity of the Zionists”, despite the fact that according to Shi’ite tradition Jerusalem has no status as a holy place.
Today, the historical reality of Jerusalem stands before the leaders of the State of Israel: On one hand – it is the city that is central to the Jewish faith since King David until today, the center of Jewish ritual and religious life, the Jewish capital for approximately 3000 years and the center of the longing, hopes and prayers of Jews from the four corners of the Earth. On the other hand – the city that Islam has adopted only because it is holy to others, a city whose “holiness” stems completely from a problem of Islamic legitimacy and the political problems of the Islamic Empire, since the days of Muhammad until our times.
The question that confronts us today is whether Judaism will submit to the Islamic religious narrative, which invalidates Judaism and Christianity, and appropriates their holiness, their prophets and their “founding fathers” unto itself, or will they stand up for their rights to be living and thriving religions, that adhere to their holy places and will not behave submissively toward the desert tribes who, after conquering the Land of Israel geographically, are trying, for 1400 years, to overthrow the history and theology of its people.
So everyone to whom Israel’s holy places are dear must raise their voices high, to demand that Israel’s government will not dare to treat the holy city as if it were just another piece of real estate, and sell it for a delusion of peace with those who don’t see Jews as having any right to their country, only in order to stay in power. Jerusalem is not just another parcel of land or a building that belongs to the State of Israel, but the heart of hearts of the entire Jewish and Christian people all over the world. Therefore, if it is necessary to build a bridge in Jerusalem Israel must build it and pay no heed to those who wish to undermine the Jews’ right to live in their holy city and their land. Jews and Christians make no claim that Mecca doesn’t belong to Islam, and they must demand from the Muslims to keep their hands off of Jerusalem and to cease waging the religious war, Jihad, that they declared against Israel only because Jews have returned to their land and to their historical capital city. There will be real peace in the Middle East if, and only if the Muslims will recognize the right of the Jews and the Christians to live in the land of Israel and in its holy, historic capital.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper and in the blog ‘Middle East and Terrorism’.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally.