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The Muslim Claim to Jerusalem…and why it just doesn’t hold any weight


The 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 purest 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 meant.)

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:

The Fools among the people will say: “What has turned them [the Muslims] from theqibla to which they were always used?”

God then provides the answer:

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].

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:

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.

The Qur’an then reiterates the point about no longer paying attention to Jews:

Even if you were to bring all the signs to the people of the Book [i.e., Jews], they would not follow your qibla.

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 Jews.”

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 planks 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 diminishes.

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


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