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by Mordechai Keidar


Jerusalemin Islam is no more than a political affair. The Palestinians have adopted it today as a religious seal of approval for the state they hope to establish

Jerusalem has returned to the headlines due to Ehud Olmert's intentions to include it in the agreement of principles he is formulating together with Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile the Muslim Waqf is proceeding with its destruction of Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount.

Despite the fact that control of Jerusalem, at the least the Old City and the Temple Mount, has been a persistent Palestinian political demand ever since its liberation from the Jordanian conquest over 40 years ago, the city was never the capital of any Muslim entity, and was not even the capital of the Palestinian region after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. The regional capital was Ramlah.

To find out how Jerusalem became sacred to a religion that was founded and developed in the Arabian Desert and how it merited Islamic attention despite the fact it does not appear in the Koran, one must delve into the various incarnations of Jerusalem's sacredness to Islam.

Trying to Lure Arabian Jews to Islam

Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, sought to attract to his religion three Jewish tribes living in the oasis of Kheibar near the city of Medina, and toward that end he determined that the Muslim community would pray northwards in the direction of Jerusalem, just like the Jews. After he became convinced that the Jews were not adopting Islam he annihilated them cruelly and turned the direction of prayer south towards the city of Mecca, which he subsequently conquered, and Jerusalem was abandoned.

In those days Mohammed had a group of supporters in the town of Ta'if, which is two days' walking distance from Mecca. Journeying from Ta'if and back Mohammed would spend the night in the village of Al-gi'ranah, which Muslim tradition holds had two mosques, the "the closer mosque" (al-masjid al-adana) and "the further mosque" (al-masjid al-aqsa). The Koran (17, 1) relates that one night a miracle occurred to Mohammed. The Creator took him to the further mosque to demonstrate His miracles. Mohammed's contemporaries understood the verse literally.

Jerusalem: The Alternative Devised by the Rulers of Damascus

Mohammed, who died in 632, never visited Jerusalem.

Twenty-five years after his death the capital of the Muslim empire was transferred from Mecca to Damascus, stirring the wrath of those loyal to Mohammed and his tradition. In the next generation Damascus, thanks to the plunder, the spoils and the booty the Muslims looted in Persia, Byzantium and many other places, became a wealthy and debauched city. Its low moral standards persuaded those faithful to Mohammed's tradition to declare the inhabitants of Damascus heretics, and for that purpose in 682 they organized under the command of Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, rebelled against the caliph and prevented the residents of Damascus from making the Hajj to Mecca.

The political and military revolt continued for eight years, and the men of Damascus, wanting to continue observing the fundamental commandment of going on the Hajj, searched for an alternative with an aura of holiness. The caliph decided that Jerusalem would be the place for pilgrimage, but needed support from Islamic scripture.

The Nocturnal Journey and the Falsification of the Oral Traditions

For this purpose the verse from the Koran that speaks of the miracle of the nocturnal journey to the further mosque was appropriated and a new interpretation that spoke of the Al-Aqsa Mosque located in Jerusalem was adopted. Mohammed was transported there by night, ascended to the seventh heaven and on the way he was joined by the prophets of the previous religions, Judaism and Christianity; in the heavens they prayed behind Mohammed and accepted upon themselves his suzerainty. Likewise oral traditions (Hadith) attributed to Mohammed were falsified to have him emphasize the importance of Jerusalem. These tales of Jerusalem were reawakened by Saladin in the 12th century, to motivate the fighters in anticipation of his war against the Crusaders. After Jerusalem was liberated it was abandoned once again primarily to avoid undermining the hegemony of Mecca and Medina.

The story of Mohammed's nocturnal journey to Jerusalem was important to Islam since it provides legitimacy to Islam as a religion that did not make its appearance to coexist with the previous religions, but to supplant them, destroy them and build itself upon their ruins.

Control of Jerusalem would give the Palestinians Islamic legitimacy, almost equivalent to the level of religious legitimacy enjoyed by the King of Saudi Arabia since he is responsible for Mecca and Medina. The reverse is true: if they were to surrender Jerusalem to the Jews they would be accused by many Muslims of betraying Islam.

In Summation

Jerusalem under Islam is no more than a political matter: Mohammed attempted to consolidate his status in Jewish eyes by praying towards it; the caliphs from Damascus adopted it as a pilgrimage site due to the political problem caused by the revolt in Mecca; Saladin used it to inflame his fighters; and the Palestinians today have adopted it as a religious seal of approval for their state if and when it should arise.

Dr. Mordechai Keidar is a lecturer in the Department of Arabic Studies and is a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.

This article appeared Sep 12, 2007 in Omedia as part of Omedia's collaboration with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.


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