How did Jerusalem become so important to Muslims?
The importance of Jerusalem for Jews and Christians is beyond dispute, since the connection of this city to Judaism and Christianity is part of universal concepts about history and theology. However, when it comes to modern politics, we hear over and over that Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims demand that Jerusalem become the capital of the future Palestinian state, owing to its holiness to Islam. The question is how and when this city became holy to Muslims.
When the Prophet Muhammad established Islam, he introduced a minimum of innovations. He employed the hallowed personages, historic legends and sacred sites of Judaism, Christianity, and even paganism, by Islamizing them. Thus, according to Islam, Abraham was the first Muslim and Jesus and St. John (the sons of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron) were prophets and guardians of the second heaven. Many Biblical legends (“asatir al-awwalin”), which were familiar to the pagan Arabs before the dawn of Islam, underwent an Islamic conversion, and the Koran as well as the Hadith (the Islamic oral tradition), are replete with them.
Islamization was practiced on places as well as persons: Mecca and the holy stone – al-Ka’bah – were holy sites of the pre-Islamic pagan Arabs. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the Great Mosque of Istanbul were erected on the sites of Christian-Byzantine churches – two of the better known examples of how Islam treats sanctuaries of other faiths.
Jerusalem, too, underwent the process of Islamization: at first Muhammad attempted to convince the Jews near Medina to join his young community, and, by way of persuasion, established the direction of prayer (kiblah) to be to the north, towards Jerusalem, in keeping with Jewish practice; but after he failed in this attempt he turned against the Jews, killed many of them, and directed the kiblah southward, towards Mecca.
Muhammad’s abandonment of Jerusalem explains the fact that this city is not mentioned even once in the Koran. After Palestine was occupied by the Muslims, its capital was Ramle, 30 miles to the west of Jerusalem, signifying that Jerusalem meant nothing to them.
Islam rediscovered Jerusalem 50 years after Muhammad’s death. In 682 CE, ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr rebelled against the Islamic rulers in Damascus, conquered Mecca and prevented pilgrims from reaching Mecca for the Hajj. ‘Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad Calif, needed an alternative site for the pilgrimage and settled on Jerusalem which was then under his control. In order to justify this choice, a verse from the Koran was chosen (17,1 = sura 17, verse 1) which states (trans. by Majid Fakhri):
“Glory to Him who caused His servant to travel by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed, in order to show him some of Our Signs, He is indeed the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing.”
The meaning ascribed to this verse (see the commentary in al-Jallalayn) is that “the furthest mosque” (al-masgid al-aqsa) is in Jerusalem and that Muhammad was conveyed there one night (although at that time the journey took three days by camel), on the back of al-Buraq, a magical horse with the head of a woman, wings of an eagle, the tail of a peacock, and hoofs reaching to the horizon. He tethered the horse to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and from there ascended to the seventh heaven together with the angel Gabriel. On his way he met the prophets of other religions who are the guardians of the Seven Heavens: Adam, Jesus, St. John, Joseph, Idris (=Seth?), Aaron, Moses and Abraham who accompanied him on his way to Allah and who accepted him as their master.
Thus Islam tries to gain legitimacy over other, older religions, by creating a scene in which the former prophets agree to Muhammad’s mastery, thus making him Khatam al-Anbiya’ (“the Seal of the Prophets”). According to this legend, Islam came to the world in order to replace Judaism and Christianity rather than to live side by side with them.
Not surprisingly, this miraculous account contradicts a number of the tenets of Islam: How can a living man of flesh and blood ascend to heaven? How can a mythical creature carry a mortal to a real destination? Questions such as these have caused orthodox Muslim thinkers to conclude that the nocturnal journey was a dream of Muhammad’s. The journey and the ascent serves Islam to “go one better” than the Bible: Moses “only” went up to Mt. Sinai, in the middle of nowhere, and drew close to heaven, whereas Muhammad went all the way up to Allah, and from Jerusalem itself.
What are the difficulties with the belief that the al-Aqsa mosque described in Islamic tradition is located in Jerusalem? For one, the people of Mecca, who knew Muhammad well, did not believe this story. Only Abu Bakr, (later the first Caliph), believed him and thus was called al-Siddiq (“the believer”). The second difficulty is that Islamic tradition tells us that al-Aqsa mosque is near Mecca on the Arabian peninsula. This was unequivocally stated in “Kitab al-Maghazi” (Oxford University Press, 1966, vol. 3, pp. 958-9), a book by the Muslim historian and geographer al-Waqidi. According to al-Waqidi, there were two “masjeds” (places of prayer) in al-Gi’irranah, a village between Mecca and Ta’if, one was “the closer mosque” (al-masjid al-adna) and the other was “the further mosque” (al-masjid al-aqsa), and Muhammad would pray there when he went out of town.
This description by al-Waqidi which is supported by a chain of authorities (isnad), was not “convenient” for the Islamic propaganda of the 7th century. In order to establish a basis for the awareness of the “holiness” of Jerusalem in Islam, the Caliphs of the Ummayad dynasty invented many “traditions” upholding the value of Jerusalem (known as “fadha’il bayt al-Maqdis”), which would justify pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the faithful Muslims. Thus was al-Masjid al-Aqsa “transported” to Jerusalem. It should be noted that Saladin also adopted the myth of al-Aqsa and those “traditions” in order to recruit and inflame the Muslim warriors against the Crusaders in the 12th century.
Another aim of the Islamization of Jerusalem was to undermine the legitimacy of the older religions, Judaism and Christianity, which consider Jerusalem to be a holy city. Islam is presented as the only legitimate religion, destined to replace the other two, because Jews and Christians had changed and distorted (“ghyyarou wa-baddalou”) the Word of God, each in their turn. On the alleged forgeries of the Holy Scriptures, made by Jews and Christians, see the third chapter of: M. J. Kister, “haddithu ‘an bani isra’il wa-la haraja”, IOS 2 (1972), pp. 215-239. Kister quotes dozens of Islamic sources).
Though Judaism and Christianity can exist side by side in Jerusalem, Islam regards both of them as betrayals of Allah and his teachings, and has always done, and will continue to do, all in its power to expel both of them from this city. It is interesting to note that this expulsion is retroactive: The Islamic broadcasters of the Palestinian radio stations consistently make it a point to claim that the Jews never had a temple on the Temple Mount and certainly not two temples. (Where, then, according to them, did Jesus preach?)
Arafat, himself a secular person (ask the Hamas!), did exactly what the Caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty did 1300 years ago: he marshaled the holiness of Jerusalem to serve his political ends. He could not give control of Jerusalem over to the Jews since according to Islam they are impure and the wrath of Allah is upon them (“al-maghdhoub ‘alayhim”; Koran 1,7, see al-Jalalayn and other commentaries; note that verse numbers may differ slightly in the various editions of the Koran). The Jews are the sons of monkeys and pigs (5,60). (For the idea that Jews are related to pigs and monkeys see, for instance, Musnad al-Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, (Beirut 1969) vol. 3, p. 241. See also pages 348, 395, 397, 421, and vol. 6, p. 135.) The Jews are those who distorted the holy writings which were revealed to them (2,73; 3,72) and denied God’s signs (3,63). Since they violated the covenant with their God (4,154), He cursed them (5,16) and they are forever the inheritors of hell (3,112). So how could Arafat abandon Jerusalem to the Jews?
The Palestinian Arab media these days are full of messages of Jihad, calling to broaden the national-political war between Israel and the Palestinians into a religious-Islamic war between the Jews and the Muslims. READ THEIR LIPS: for them Christianity is no better than Judaism, since both “forfeited” their right to rule over Jerusalem. Only Islam – Din al-Haqq (“the Religion of Truth”) – has this right, and forever. This was and still is the leitmotiv in Friday sermons in Palestinian mosques and official media. (Note: photo acccompanying this article is a keffiya showing the hoped-for taking Jerusalem from Israel and the destruction of Israel on the scarf. On the right side it says “Jerusalem is ours” and the left: “Palestine” with no Israel on the map.)
Since the holiness of Jerusalem to Islam has always been, and still is no more than a politically motivated holiness, any Palestinian Arab politician would be putting his political head on the block should he give it up. Must Judaism and Christianity defer to myths related in Islamic texts or allegedly envisioned in Muhammad’s dreams, long after Jerusalem was established as the ancient, real center of these two religions which preceded Islam?
Should the world reshape the Middle East map just because Muslims decided to recycle the political problems of the Umayyads 1250 years after the curtain came down on their role in history?
Dr. Mordechai Kedar
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. Thoroughly familiar with Arab media in real time, he is frequently interviewed on the various news programs in Israel.