There is perhaps no other city in the world that has drawn the continued attention of the world community as much as the city of Jerusalem, especially among the adherents of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The city’s religious centrality has generated its historical and political importance, as well as its symbolic impact, but its religious position has also been at the root of a considerable controversy. This controversy focuses on who has the greater attachment and entitlement to the city, and for whom Jerusalem has the greatest religious, cultural, historical and political importance: “In all probability one would never be able to gauge the degree of attachment that an individual community feels toward the city, for attachment is psychological and thus highly subjective.”1 While the Muslims, for example, especially Palestinian and Arab Islamists, recognize the religious significance of Jerusalem to Christians and Jews, they stress the Muslim character of the city and Muslim entitlement to it, and their attachment to Jerusalem constitutes part of their doctrinal views of the city.
Indeed, Jerusalem’s multifaceted meaning stands behind the interest of Muslims all over the world in the land of Palestine as a whole. The city has strong evocative and emotional associations and has its own place in the hearts of Muslims. It is considered the third-holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. It derives its religious prominence from being the first Qibla, the initial direction toward which the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslim community turned their faces in prayer. The direction was changed a year and a half later to Mecca by “divine command.”
Jerusalem also derives significance from its association with Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous nocturnal journey to the city and then his ascension to Heaven. This event is mentioned in the Koran in the first verse of chapter 17, “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqsa), the precincts of which We have blessed, that we might show him some of our signs.”2
In the nocturnal journey (al-lsra’ wal Mi’raj) , according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad was transported one night on a winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem where he led Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in a prayer. Afterwards, Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the archangel Gabriel. In this journey of ascension, Muhammad passed through the seven heavens where he encountered earlier prophets. The Dome of the Rock is the site from which Muhammad ascended.
Although some critics argue that Muhammad’s journey was spiritual and not physical, this journey has a three-fold significance:
First, it linked the city of Jerusalem with Islam in its very early days in addition to the sura which refers to Jerusalem as the first Qibla. Second, it inspired the Muslims with a bulk of lore, so much so, that Muslims all over the world celebrate that occasion every year. Third, it ushered in a new era in the life of the city because, from then on, the Muslims considered it their holy duty to protect it from the encroachment of the Byzantines and the Persians who were non-Semitic people.3
In addition, it is believed that a Koranic verse (v. 44 of chapter 43) was revealed in Jerusalem: “Ask those of our messengers We sent before thee: Have We appointed apart from the All-Merciful, gods to be served?”4
Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, accepted in person the capitulation of Jerusalem which was under Byzantine rule. Omar had also located the Rock, the place hallowed by the Prophet’s nocturnal journey, and before leaving Jerusalem, he built a mosque close to the Rock. Furthermore, a number of the Prophet’s companions visited the city and at least one of them resided and died in it.
From this humble beginning to the rise, some fifty years later, of great monuments of Muslim architecture, Jerusalem’s place as the third holy city in Islam was finally established. Its Roman name was dropped and it became al Bait al-Muqaddas (the Holy House), in apposition to al Bait al-Haram (the Sacred House), the appellation of Mecca. A variant of the name was Bait al-Maqdis or simply al-Quds (the Holy City). Later still it became al-Quds ash-Sharif (the Holy and Noble City).5
The religious significance of Jerusalem and its function as a source of religious legitimacy were also highlighted during both the Umayyad and Abbasid rule. Mu’awiyah, the first Umayyad caliph, for example, proclaimed himself caliph in Jerusalem, rather than in Damascus, his capital.
Under Mu’awiyah’s successor, Jerusalem became virtually the religious capital, since Mecca and Medina were in the hands of his rivals. Even when Mecca and Medina came under their control, the Umayyad caliphs continued to pay equal respect to Jerusalem. The Abbasid caliphs paid Jerusalem a similar regard, and the city remained equally significant to successive Muslim rulers, up to the Mamelukes and the Ottomans who also accorded. the city religious status equal to that of Mecca and Medina. But despite its religious significance, Jerusalem was never the capital of Islam. The selection of the seat of the Islamic Caliphate was a matter of strategy, otherwise Mecca should have been the choice.6
The Religion of All Prophets
Historically speaking, Jerusalem has generally been the site for Muslim pilgrimage, prayer, study or residence. Al-Aqsa Mosque was a particular seat of learning. Muslim scholars came to Jerusalem from distant lands. “Just as it is true to say that the first textbook in Islam was the Koran, so it is true to say that the first school was the mosque.7
Muslims believe in all the Jewish and Christian prophets and holy scriptures. The Jewish and Christian legacies are an integral part of the Muslim legacy. Synagogues and churches are God’s shrines and their adherents are the people of the book, not heathens or unbelievers. But Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Islam, more than Judaism or Christianity, afforded the city the most tolerant period because of Islam’s nature being the religion of all prophets, from Abraham to Muhammad.8
The Muslims ruled Jerusalem for thirteen centuries from the middle of the seventh century (638 A.D.) to the beginning of the twentieth century (1917) with the exception of about 103 years of Crusader domination. The passage of time, and certain events, served to enhance Jerusalem’s position in the Muslim tradition and history. One such event is the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099 which interrupted the Muslim rule of the city. Palestinian and Arab Muslims dwell a great deal on this holy war waged by the Crusaders against non-Christians, Muslims and Jews. This war, in which all non-Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem were wiped out, their property looted, and their houses occupied, is considered one of the most significant events to have shaped the Muslim outlook towards the Christian/Western world as a whole. It has yet to be ascertained if any roots of the current wave of Islamic fundamentalism actually lie in the Crusader war which marked open hostility between the Muslim and Christian/Western worlds.
In 1187 Saladdin, a Muslim leader, reconquered and recovered Jerusalem. This recovery of Jerusalem “figures larger in Islamic history than its first acquisition by ‘Umar five and a half centuries before.”9 The coincidence of Saladdin’s entry into the city with the anniversary of the Prophet’s nocturnal journey was regarded by Muslims as providential.
The current Israeli occupation of Jerusalem (since 1967) is viewed by Palestinians and Muslims equal in magnitude to the Crusades: “By occupying Palestine, the modem Crusaders have earned the enmity of all Arabs; by seizing Jerusalem, that of all Muslims. Are the modem Crusaders bent on forcing history to repeat itself?”10
Clear focus by Palestinian and Arab Islamists on Jerusalem began to take place after the Israeli occupation of the eastern part of the city in 1967. Vocal and repeated Muslim pronouncements on the city which stress its Arab and Islamic character carne as a reaction to Israeli measures to Judaize the city and distort or wipe out its Arab and Islamic identity. They justifiably fear Jewish designs on East Jerusalem and the holy places in it, especially since Israel unilaterally annexed it after the 1967 war.
Since the rise of contemporary Arab and Palestinian fundamentalist movements, primarily as a reaction to certain political or socioeconomic factors, the holy city of Jerusalem has been a source of inspiration and mobilization to them. Therefore, the Jewish occupation of the city reminds the Islamists of Muslim and Arab weakness and of the need to rise and free Jerusalem from Jewish hegemony. It is infuriating to Arab and Palestinian fundamentalists to have their first Qibla and the third-holiest city in Islam under foreign, especially Jewish, control.
Politically, the city carries the same import to the various Palestinian political groups, secularists and Islamists alike. This fact is reflected in their various political discourse although there is no elaborate mention of Jerusalem in their respective national and political programs or charters. This stand emanates, of course, from the assumption that Jerusalem is an integral part of Palestine. Indeed, Jerusalem is the heart of Palestine. Its loss to a foreign enemy deprives the Palestinian Islamists of their unique position as the custodians of the holy city, and their struggle to regain Jerusalem places them at center stage.
While the nationalists stress Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state as inscribed in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988, the Islamists emphasize its religious nature and the fact that it is an integral part of Muslim Palestine. Genuine commitments to Jerusalem aside, there is no doubt that the various Palestinian political groups also invoke the name of the city for political reasons.
For example, the name of Jerusalem is frequently evoked in Palestinian Muslim fundamentalist literature. A leaflet issued by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) defines the status of Jerusalem and Palestine for Muslims in the following way:
Is there a spot after Mecca and Medina over which Muslim hearts hover more than Jerusalem, the first Muslim Qibla, to which worshippers come from all corners of the earth. The prayers on the land of al-Aqsa mosque equals five hundred prayers elsewhere except for the two holy mosques. Jerusalem is the cradle of religions and the shelter of prophets … The nocturnal journey was a blessing from God to the land of Palestine. This journey did not take place to any other capital or city in the world, but only to Jerusalem in order to make it the sister of Mecca in history, and in order for the Muslims to know that the concession of Jerusalem is just like conceding Mecca and Medina.11
Like the Palestinian Islamic groups, Arab Islamic movements do consider Jerusalem, indeed the whole of Palestine, which derives its religious significance from Jerusalem, a Muslim religious endowment (waqf). Muhammad Hamid Abu al-Nasr, the Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Society which delineates doctrinal attitudes for the Muslim Brotherhood Societies in Arab countries, including Hamas, states:
We have never bargained and we shall never bargain over the land of Palestine. Palestine, all of Palestine, belongs to all the Muslims. The link between Palestine and the Muslims is derived from their commitment to the doctrine and the shari’a … Therefore, bargaining over Palestine means bargaining over our faith, our shari’a and our holy shrines. It also means renouncing and disavowing our history, our martyrs, and our heroes … Relinquishing Palestine is an act of treason … Allah ruled that we should not relinquish our homelands to our enemies. He made it imperative for us to seek the means of power and strength, and to struggle against the enemies in order to regain what was usurped from us. This is the verdict of Allah and we shall not violate His verdict…12
Jerusalem’s Centrality to the Palestinians
Islamic scholars and authorities in other Arab states, described as moderate, reiterate similar positions on Palestine. The pronouncements of these scholars and authorities playa role in defining the positions of their governments towards the Palestinian issue. Sheikh Abd-al-Aziz Bin Baz, the most prominent religious scholar and authority in Saudi Arabia, argues that “the Palestinian problem is an Islamic problem first and last” and that the Muslims “must fight an Islamic jihad against the Jews until the land returns to its owners.”13
Because of its significance to Muslims and Islamists alike, Jerusalem assumes political significance to rulers and governments that wish to enhance their religious legitimacy. Reference to Jerusalem by PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, as the “capital of the Palestinian state,” the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the seat of Muhammad’s nocturnal journey is a constant part of Arafat’s discourse on the Palestinian issue. Arafat is fully conscious of the centrality of Jerusalem to the Palestinian people and to the Palestinian Islamists in particular whose attitude can be particularly constraining to the PLO leadership. The charter of Hamas states:
The land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf for Muslim generations until the day of judgment. It is inadmissible to abandon it or a part of it, or to concede it all or a part of it… Who has the right to decide on behalf of the Muslim generations from now until the day of judgement?14
As in Arafat’s speeches, and even more so, Jerusalem is a fixed item in King Hussein’s speeches and statements, the reason being the King/s awareness of the place that Jerusalem occupies in the hearts and minds of his subjects, and his desire to stress his special link to the city as a descendant of the Prophet. Ever since Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank were annexed to Jordan in 1950, the Hashemite regime took care of the city and of the holy places in it. Jordan has continued to administer and service the holy places in Jerusalem even after the Israeli occupation and annexation of the city.
Attempts by the Saudi monarch, King Fahd, to service the holy places in Jerusalem created open Jordanian anxiety. The regime of King Hussein saw these attempts as an impingement on Jordanian responsibilities. The competition over Jerusalem emanates from the historic and deep-seated suspicion between the Hashemites and the Saudi family.
Donations made by King Hassan of Morocco, on the other hand, to refurbish al-Aqsa Mosque did not arouse Jordanian concern. King Hassan, the Commander of the Faithful in his country, does not aspire to challenge the Jordanian special relationship to the city. His symbolic act was perhaps sufficient to convey a message and a reminder to his people that Jerusalem is present in his heart and mind.
The late Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, conscious of the religious and symbolic significance of Jerusalem to Arabs and Muslims, including those in his country, went to al-Aqsa Mosque for prayer during his visit to Israel in 1977 in an attempt to mitigate political opposition to his visit. In fact, his assassination at the hands of Muslim militants in 1980 might be attributed to his failure to save Jerusalem from Jewish control, as the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty did not address the issue of Jerusalem or challenge Israel’s annexation of the city.
Israeli measures in the city have acted as cause and catalyst, inflaming Muslim fundamentalist sentiments. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, and Israeli statements claim of the “united” city as the eternal capital of Israel fill Palestinian and Arab Islamists with anger and resentment.
Immediately after the occupation of the city, Israel destroyed the Maghariba quarter and evicted its Arab inhabitants. Israel transformed the quarter into an open square in front of the Wailing Wall for Jewish prayer. With the destruction of the quarter, two mosques, al-Buraq and al-Afdali, were also destroyed. In August 1968 a fire was set in the al-Aqsa Mosque, destroying its furniture, altar and some of its walls. The Muslims held Israel responsible and condemned it for complicity.
Al-Aqsa Mosque was also the object of repeated attempts of sabotage. In March 1980, explosives were found there, and in April 1982, an Israeli soldier attacked the Dome of the Rock, killing two Palestinians and injuring forty-four others. In March 1983, a group of 46 Israelis brought explosives and placed them in the area underneath al-Aqsa Mosque; they were discovered by the guards of the Mosque.
Extremist Jewish groups continue their encroachment on Muslim holy sites. One such extremist group, the Temple Mount Faithful, has repeatedly tried to enter al-Haram ash-Sharif to lay the cornerstone for building the Third [Jewish] Temple. During one attempt, on October 8, 1990, five thousand Palestinians were on the site trying to prevent the group from entering al-Haram. A clash ensued between Palestinian and Israeli troops on the scene resulting in the death of 21 Palestinians and the injury of 150 others. Israeli excavation activities in the city are not perceived by Palestinian and Arab Islamists as innocent acts but as part of Israeli designs on the city.
No Political Solution Without Jerusalem
Jerusalem is part of the struggle for Palestine which ensued in the wake of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate of 1922. When the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 suggested the internationalization of Jerusalem, both the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine rejected the proposal, the Muslim rejection emanating from the view of Jerusalem as a Muslim religious endowment.
Exclusive claims to Jerusalem which are inscribed in holy scripts make compromise political solutions to the problem of the city rather difficult. A permanent solution to the problem of Jerusalem is contingent on a solution to the question of Palestine, and vice versa. But no permanent solution to the Palestinian question is likely to take place without the resolution of the issue of Jerusalem. So far, Jerusalem remains one of the main obstacles to the realization of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The deliberate dismissal and postponement of the issue of Jerusalem might have been a primary reason for the strong Islamic opposition to the peace process. When the Palestinians went to the Madrid peace conference of October 1991, Jerusalem was not included among the documents of the conference, and Palestinians from East Jerusalem were not allowed to be members in the official delegation to the conference. In opposition to the Madrid peace conference, Arab and Palestinian Islamists hastened to take part in a conference that was held in Teheran to condemn the Madrid conference and Arab and Palestinian participation in it.
Jerusalem was also absent from the Palestinian-Israeli agreement as illustrated in the Oslo Declaration of Principles, signed in Washington on September 13, 1993. Jerusalem was once again postponed to negotiations on the final status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Oslo agreement was severely criticized by Arab and Palestinian Islamists. Islamic movements in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere issued separate statements rejecting the agreement particularly because it failed to address the question of Jerusalem in addition to other issues. Palestinian Islamists issued statements to the same effect and vowed to continue the struggle against Israeli occupation. Both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad attacked PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, personally and accused him of national treason.
Israel’s declared insistence on considering “united Jerusalem” as the eternal capital of Israel is likely to complicate efforts at finding a common denominator between the Palestinians and the Israelis regarding an acceptable agreement on the city. In this sense, Jerusalem may continue to be an issue of severe contention between the two sides. The nature of the solution of the issue of Jerusalem is bound to condition the attitude of Palestinian and Arab Islamists toward an Arab-Israeli peace. If control over Arab Jerusalem, and definitely over Muslim religious sites, is not granted to the Palestinians, the Arabs, or the Muslims, the city will remain a source and symbol for Muslim resentment, indoctrination, mobilization and perhaps agitation and struggle.
These ideas were first presented in a paper prepared for the Tantur Conference, May 29-June 1, 1994.
- Ibrahim Abu Lughod, “Jerusalem – Islamic Perspective II:’ in O. Kelly Ingram, ed., Jerusalem: Key to Peace in the Middle East (North Carolina: Triangle Friends of the Middle East, 1977), p. 53. [↩]
- A. L. Tibawi, “Jerusalem: Its Place in Islam and Arab History,” in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed., The Arab-Israeli Confrontation of June, 1967: An Arab Perspective (Evanston: Northwest University Press, 1970), p. 12. [↩]
- Ishaq Musa Husaini, “Jerusalem in Islamic Perspective:’ in O. Kelly Ingram, ibid., p. 41. [↩]
- Tibawi, op cit., p. 12. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 14. [↩]
- Husaini, op. cit., p. 41. [↩]
- Tibawi, op. cit., p. 18. [↩]
- Husaini, op. cit., p. 39. [↩]
- Tibawi,op cit., p. 21. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 48. [↩]
- The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), “The Anniversary of the Nocturnal Journey Is an Escalation to the Blessed Resistance” (Al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj Tas’id lil-Muqawama al-Mubaraka), a leaflet issued on March 13, 1988. [↩]
- Muhammad Hamid Abu-al-Nasr, “Our Stand Toward the Settlement.” A statement from the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, May 26, 1991. [↩]
- James Piscatori, “Religion and Realpolitik: Islamic Responses to the Gulf War:’ in James Piscatori, Islamic Fundamentalism and the Gulf Crisis (Chicago: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1991) p. 6, originally quoted from Abd-al-Aziz Bin Baz, Majmu’ Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi’a (Collection of Fatawas and Miscellaneous Articles) (Riyadh: al-Idara al-‘ Amma li’l- Tab’ wa’l Tarjama, 1408 A.H./1987), p. 271. [↩]
- Mithaq Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Hamas) [Charter of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)], August 18, 1988, p. 11. [↩]