Despite 1,300 years of Muslim Arab rule, Jerusalem was never the capital of an Arab entity.
Oddly, the PLO’s National Covenant, written in 1964, never mentioned Jerusalem. Only after Israel regained control of the entire city did the PLO “update” its Covenant to include Jerusalem.
Overall, the role of Jerusalem in Islam is best understood as the outcome of political pressure impacting on religious belief.
Mohammed, who founded Islam in 622 CE, was born and raised in present-day Saudi Arabia, he never set foot in Jerusalem.
His connection to the city came years after his death when the Dome of the Rock shrine and the al-Aqsa mosque were built in 688 and 691, respectively, their construction spurred by political and religious rivalries.
In 638 CE, the Caliph (or successor to Mohammed) Omar and his invading armies captured Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire. One reason they wanted to erect a holy structure in Jerusalem was to proclaim Islam’s supremacy over Christianity and its most important shrine, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
More important was the power struggle within Islam itself. The Damascus-based Umayyad Caliphs who controlled Jerusalem wanted to establish an alternative holy site if their rivals blocked access to Mecca. That was important because the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca was (and remains today) one of the Five Pillars of Islam. As a result, they built what became known as the Dome of the Rock shrine and the adjacent mosque.
To enhance the prestige of the “substitute Mecca,” the Jerusalem mosque was named “al-Aqsa.” It means “the furthest mosque” in Arabic, but has far broader implications, since it is the same phrase used in a key passage of the Quran called “The Night Journey.” In that passage, Mohammed arrives at “al-Aqsa” on a winged steed accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel, from there they ascend into heaven for a divine meeting with Allah, after which Mohammed returns to Mecca.
Naming the Jerusalem mosque “al-Aqsa” was an attempt to say the Dome of the Rock was the very spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, thus tying Jerusalem to divine revelation in Islamic belief. The problem however is, that Mohammed died in the year 632, nearly 50 years before the first construction of the “al-Aqsa” Mosque was completed.
Jerusalem never replaced the importance of Mecca in the Islamic world. When the Umayyad dynasty fell in 750, Jerusalem also fell into near obscurity for 350 years, until the Crusades. During those centuries, many Islamic sites in Jerusalem fell into disrepair and in 1016 the Dome of the Rock collapsed.
Still, for 1,300 years, various Islamic dynasties (Syrian, Egyptian, and Turkish) continued to govern Jerusalem as part of their overall control of the Land of Israel, disrupted only by the Crusaders. What is amazing is that over that period, not one Islamic dynasty ever made Jerusalem its capital.
By the 19th century, Jerusalem had been so neglected by Islamic rulers that several prominent Western writers who visited Jerusalem were moved to write about it. French writer Gustav Flaubert, for example, found “ruins everywhere” during his visit in 1850 when it was part of the Turkish Empire (1516-1917). Seventeen years later Mark Twain wrote that Jerusalem had “become a pauper village.”
Indeed, Jerusalem’s importance in the Islamic world only appears evident when non-Muslims (including the Crusaders, the British, and the Jews) control or capture the city. Only at those points in history did Islamic leaders claim Jerusalem as their third most holy city after Mecca and Medina.
That was again the case in 1967, when Israel captured Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem (and the Old City) during the 1967 Six-Day War.
The Jewish Ties to Jerusalem
Jerusalem, wrote historian Sir Martin Gilbert, is not a ‘mere’ city. “It holds the central spiritual and physical place in the history of the Jews as a people.”
No matter where Jews lived throughout the world, their thoughts and prayers were directed toward Jerusalem. Even today, whether in Israel, the United States or anywhere else, Jewish ritual practice, holiday celebration, and lifecycle events include recognition of Jerusalem as a core element of the Jewish experience. Consider that:
- -Jews in prayer always turn toward Jerusalem.
- -Arks (the sacred chests) that hold Torah scrolls in synagogues throughout the world face Jerusalem.
- -Jews end Passover Seders each year with the words: “Next year in Jerusalem”; the same words are pronounced at the end of Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year.
- -A three-week moratorium on weddings in the summer recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BCE. That period culminates in a special day of mourning – Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av) – commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples.
- -Jewish wedding ceremonies – joyous occasions, are marked by sorrow over the loss of Jerusalem. The groom recites a biblical verse from the -Babylonian Exile: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,” and breaks a glass in commemoration of the destruction of the Temples.
Even body language, often said to tell volumes about a person, reflects the importance of Jerusalem to Jews as a people and, arguably, the lower priority the city holds for Muslims:
- -When Jews pray they face Jerusalem; in Jerusalem Israelis pray facing the Temple Mount.
- -When Muslims pray, they face Mecca; in Jerusalem Muslims pray with their backs to the city.
- -Even at burial, a Muslim face, is turned toward Mecca.
Finally, consider the number of times Jerusalem is mentioned in the two religions’ holy books:
- -The Old Testament mentions ‘Jerusalem’ 349 times. Zion, another name for ‘Jerusalem,’ is mentioned 108 times.
- -The Quran never mentions Jerusalem – not even once.
Even when others controlled Jerusalem, Jews maintained a physical presence in the city, despite being persecuted and impoverished.
Before the advent of modern Zionism in the 1880s, Jews were moved by a form of religious Zionism to live in the Holy Land, settling particularly in four holy cities: Safed, Tiberias, Hebron, and most importantly – Jerusalem.
Consequently, Jews constituted a majority of the city’s population for generations. In 1898, “In this City of the Jews, where the Jewish population outnumbers all others three to one …” Jews constituted 75 percent of the Old City population in what former Secretary-General Kofi Annan called ‘East Jerusalem.’
In 1914, when the Ottoman Turks ruled the city, 45,000 Jews made up a majority of the 65,000 residents. And at the time of Israeli statehood in 1948, 100,000 Jews lived in the city, compared to only 65,000 Arabs.
Arab claims to Jerusalem, a Jewish city by all definitions, reflect the “what’s-mine-is-mine, what’s-yours-is-mine” mentality, underlying Palestinian concepts of how to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Eli E. Hertz is the president of Myths and Facts, an organization devoted to research and publication of information regarding US interests in the world and particularly in the Middle East. Mr. Hertz is also the Chairman of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting. His writings and opinions, unless stated otherwise, are not derived from his position as Chairman of CAMERA.
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