Although the importance of Jerusalem for Christians and Jews is part of universal concepts of history and theology and beyond dispute, when it comes to modern politics, we hear over and over again Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims demanding that Jerusalem become the capital of the future Palestinian state, owing to its holiness in Islam.
The question is: When and how did 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.
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; the Koran as well as the Hadith (the Islamic oral tradition), are replete with them.
Islamization was enforced 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 Islamization: At first Muhammad tried to convince the Jews near Medina to join his young community. By way of persuasion, he established the direction of prayer (kiblah) to be to the north, towards Jerusalem, in keeping with Jewish practice; but after he failed in this effort, he turned against the Jews, killed many of them, and directed the kiblah southward, towards Mecca.
Muhammad’s abandonment of Jerusalem can explain why this city is not mentioned even once in the Koran. When Palestine was occupied by the Muslims, its capital was Ramlah, 30 miles to the west of Jerusalem, signifying that to them Jerusalem meant nothing.
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 Caliph, then needed an alternative site for the pilgrimage and settled on Jerusalem which was at that time under his control. 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 by camel the journey took three days), 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 all accompanied him on his way to Allah and accepted him as their master.
Islam tries in this way to gain legitimacy over other, older religions: It creates a scene in which the former prophets agree to Muhammad’s mastery, and make him Khatam al-Anbiya’ (“the Seal of the Prophets”).
According to this legend, Islam came to the world to replace Judaism and Christianity, not to live side by side with them.
Ironically, 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 serve 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 from Jerusalem itself.
There are difficulties, however, 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 was therefore called al-Siddiq (“the Believer”).
A second difficulty is that Islamic tradition tells us that the 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 farther mosque” (al-masjid al-aqsa), where Muhammad would pray when he went out of town. This description by al-Waqidi, however, supported by a chain of authorities (isnad), was not “convenient” for the Islamic propaganda of the 7th century.
To establish a basis for the “holiness” of Jerusalem in Islam, the Caliphs of the Ummayad dynasty invented “traditions” upholding the value of Jerusalem (known as “fadha’il bayt al-Maqdis”), and which would justify a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the faithful Muslims. Thus was “the farther mosque,” al-Masjid al-Aqsa, “transported” to Jerusalem.
Saladin also adopted the myth of al-Aqsa and these “traditions” 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. As Jews and Christians had changed and distorted (“ghyyarou wa-baddalou”) the Word of God, each in their turn, Islam is presented as the only legitimate religion, destined to replace the other two.1
Although Judaism and Christianity can exist side by side in Jerusalem, Islam regards both of them as betrayals of Allah and his teachings; it has always done -- and will continue to do -- all in its power to expel both of them from this city.
Moreover, 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, 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.
As, according to Islam, Jews are impure and the wrath of Allah is upon them, Arafat could not give control of Jerusalem to the Jews.2
According to the Koran, the Jews are those who distorted the holy writings which were revealed to Islam (2,73; 3,72), and who denied God’s signs (3,63). As they violated the covenant with the Muslim God (4,154), He cursed them (5,16) and they are forever the inheritors of Hell (3,112). So how could Arafat ever have abandoned Jerusalem to the Jews?
The Palestinian media these days are full of messages of Jihad, calls to broaden the national-political war between the Palestinians and Israel into a religious-Islamic war between Muslims and Jews. For the Palestinian media, Christianity is no better than Judaism: Both “forfeited” their right to rule over Jerusalem.
Only Islam, Din al-Haqq (“the Religion of Truth”), has this right -- and has it forever.
This was, and still is, the leitmotiv in Friday sermons in Palestinian mosques and official media.
As the holiness of Jerusalem to Islam has always been -- and still is -- a politically motivated holiness, any Palestinian politician would be putting his political head on the block should he give it up.
Therefore, must Christianity and Judaism defer to myths in Islamic texts, or allegedly envisioned in Muhammad’s dreams, long after Jerusalem was established as the center of these two religions which preceded Islam?
And should the world reshape the Middle East map because Muslims decided to recycle the political problems of the Umayyads 1250 years after the curtain came down on their role in history?
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1: 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.
2: “al-maghdhoub ‘alayhim”; Koran 1,7, see al-Jalalayn and other commentaries; 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.)
For more details about this subject, look, for example, at www.britannica.com/seo/m/miraj and the links provided in it. Searching for keywords such as miraj, isra, alburaq, alquds etc. could also be useful.