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.
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 the qibla 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.
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 Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.
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'):
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.)
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:
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 referring to 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 about."
Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
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:
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.
Thus did a politically-inspired Umayyad building program lead to the Islamic sanctification of Jerusalem.
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.
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 village."*
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 Paassen, 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 the 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.
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 Organization."
"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.
A Saudi 50-riyal bill showing both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
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."
A mural in north Tehran shows the Ayatollah Khomeini looming over a picture of the Dome of the Rock, reminding Iranians of the importance their revolutionary leader placed on this holy site.
A corrected 1,000-rial Iranian banknote.
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 2000.
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."
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." 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.
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:
from the sacred temple of Mecca to the farther temple of Jerusalem
the Asad translation relies on square brackets:
from the Inviolable House of Worship [at Mecca] to the Remote House of Worship [at Jerusalem]
and the Behbudi-Turner version places it right in the text without any distinction at all:
from the Holy Mosque in Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Palestine.
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." The head of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, announced that "the temple is not to be found underneath Al-Aqsa mosque as the Jews claim."
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 has blossomed 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.
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, 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:
'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 Mecca]."
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
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.
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 Community.
The similarities are striking. Jews pray thrice daily to Jerusalem and Muslims five times 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 Jersey.
This parallelism of Mecca and Jerusalem offers the basis of a solution, as Sheikh Palazzi wisely writes:
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.
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.
* Such was the misery of the Holy Land at this time, it became a by-word for a depressing place. In his novel The Woman in White (1860), for example, Wilkie Collins describes an unattractive English town, Welmingham, by conjuring up Palestine:
Is there any wilderness of sand in the deserts of Arabia, is there any prospect of desolation among the ruins of Palestine, which can rival the repelling effect on the eye, and the depressing influence on the mind, of an English country town in the first stage of its existence, and in the transition state of its prosperity? ... The deserts of Arabia are innocent of our civilised desolation—the ruins of Palestine are incapable of our modern gloom!
Sep. 1, 2001 addendum: This article builds on an earlier version, "If I Forget Thee: Does Jerusalem Really Matter to Islam?" that appeared in The New Republic in April 1997.
Sep. 3, 2002 update: My weblog entry "The Prophet's Night Journey; To Where?" takes up a fascinating new analysis by Ahmad Muhammad 'Arafa.
Jan. 4, 2006 update: I dramatize today one of the implications of this article at "Offer: $1 million for Finding "Jerusalem" in the Koran."