Photo Credit: wiki
The Al-Aqsa Mosque, on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

{Written by A. Z. Mohamed and originally posted to the Gatestone Institute website}

Intriguingly, only when non-Muslims are in control of Jerusalem do Muslims seem to remember the city. Otherwise, as history shows, Muslims have never attached real significance to it. They never claimed Jerusalem as the capital of any country or empire. In fact, Muhammad instructed his people not to pray toward Jerusalem, as they had done previously, but to Mecca:

“And We did not make the qiblah which you used to face except that We might make evident who would follow the Messenger from who would turn back on his heels. And indeed, it is difficult except for those whom Allah has guided. And never would Allah have caused you to lose your faith.” — Quran 2:143, Sahih International.

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Certain Quranic verses, moreover, emphasize Jerusalem’s connection to the Jews and contradict its Islamization. The Quran does not promise Muslims to enter or rule Jerusalem. In fact, one of its verses quotes the Prophet Moses instructing the Jews to enter the Holy Land (al-ard al-muqaddesa) that God has given to them — including Jerusalem. This is a verse, however, that the majority of Arabs and Muslims choose to ignore:

“O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back [from fighting in Allah ‘s cause] and [thus] become losers.” — Quran 5:21, Sahih International.

An interpretation of the verse identifies al-ard al-muqaddesa as Beit al-Maqdis, or Jerusalem and its surroundings (here, here), or the region stretching from Egypt to Euphrates river (here).

In another verse, God Himself instructs the Children of Israel to dwell in the land:

“And We said after Pharaoh to the Children of Israel, “Dwell in the land, and when there comes the promise of the Hereafter, We will bring you forth in [one] gathering.” — Quran 17:104, Sahih International.

Again, “the land” in this verse is al-Sham (Levant), a region on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea and north of the Arabian Peninsula and south of Turkey.

“It was for the British that Jerusalem was so important — they are the ones who established Jerusalem as a capital,” said Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a historical geographer at Hebrew University, to the New York Times. “Before, it was not anyone’s capital since the times of the First and Second Temples,” Ben-Arieh added.

In December 1917, the British general Edmund Allenby seized control of Jerusalem from its Ottoman Turkish rulers.

In December 1949, the State of Israel decided to hold its Knesset sessions in Jerusalem and declared Jerusalem its capital. Then, In 1980, its Knesset passed the Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel and declared Jerusalem, complete and united, to be Israel’s “eternal and indivisible capital.”

Jerusalem was not even mentioned in the original Palestine National Charter (1964) or in the 1968 amended Palestinian National Charter. In the 1996 amendment, Jerusalem (Al-Quds) was only mentioned in the context of talking about UN resolutions relating to the status of the city.

Only in the transitional constitution of the Palestine authority (the Palestine Basic Law, approved by PLC in 1997, signed in 2002), does one find an article stating that Jerusalem is the capital city of “Palestine.”

It is remarkable that in spite of almost 1,200 years of Muslim rule, Jerusalem “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.” Islam and Muslims’ real connection to Jerusalem only came about six years after Prophet Muhammed’s death, when in 638 CE, the Caliph Omar and his invading armies captured Jerusalem.

Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Omar was given a tour of the city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the time for the Muslim prayer came, Omar declined the invitation by Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, to pray inside the Church and instead prayed outside. Omar’s fear was that that Muslims who would come after him might establish a mosque in place of the church if he would pray at the site. Omar, then, was conscious of what belonged to the Muslims and what belonged to the Christians.

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the Rock (or “Foundation Stone”) located there have been sacred to the Jews for millennia in their daily lives. According to Jewish tradition, the Rock is where Abraham, the progenitor and first patriarch of the Hebrew people, had prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Temple Mount was also the site of Solomon’s Temple and its successor, the Second Temple (also known as Herod’s Temple). Since the Temples’ destruction — the First Temple at the hands of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE, and the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE — the “Western Wall” of the Temple Mount (a retaining wall) is all that remains of the Temples, and the Temple Mount has since been the the direction towards which Jews face when praying.

According to al-Tabari [1] and Ibn Kathir [2], when Omar arrived at the Temple Mount, he prayed with his back to the Rock, facing Mecca in the southern corner of the platform, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque was later constructed.

Omar was therefore the first Muslim to pray on the Temple Mount. However, he clearly showed that the Mount and the Rock were no longer Muslims’ Qibla (the direction that should be faced when a Muslim prays). The Mount was the direction of Muslim prayers till 622 CE, when it was changed to the Kaaba in Mecca for eternity (Quran 2:142–145). However, the Mount and Rock were still sacred, and supposedly Islamic, because in 621 CE Prophet Muhammad told his followers that he had ascended into heaven from the site of the Rock.

In an attempt to transform Jerusalem into an Islamic sanctuary, or to Islamize it, the Dome of the Rock shrine was built over the Rock in 691-692 CE, and Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in 705 CE by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwān, some 55 and 70 years respectively after Muslim armies captured Jerusalem.

Although the Dome of the Rock structure (Arabic: Qubbat al-Ṣakhrah) is “the oldest extant Islamic monument,” it is not a mosque and does not fit easily into other categories of Muslim religious structures. The Dome’s “grand scale and lavish decoration,” as well as the extravagant services to its visitors, prompted some Muslim historians, such as Ibn Kathir and Ibn Taymiyyah to report that the Damascus-based Abd al-Malik built the Dome in an attempt to divert Muslims away from the Kaaba and toward Jerusalem while Mecca was under the control of rebels led by Abdullah Ibn al-Zubayr. That was probably the first time the Muslims had used Jerusalem in an internal political rivalry.

Scholars have also argued that Abd al-Malik built the Dome to proclaim the emergence of Islam as a supreme new faith. According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

“The Dome’s grand scale and lavish decoration may have been intended to rival that of the Christian holy buildings of Jerusalem, especially the domed Church of the Holy Sepulchre. According to this view, the message of Islam’s supremacy was also conveyed by the Dome’s Arabic inscriptions, which present a selection of Quʾrānic passages and paraphrases that outline Islam’s view of Jesus—i.e., denouncing the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, while emphasizing the unity of God and affirming Jesus’ status as a prophet.”

Notably, Ibn Taymiyyah decried not only the lavish decoration, but also the construction of the Dome itself as a kind of bidaa (heresy).

In a further Islamization of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount mosque was named Al-Aqsa, meaning in Arabic, “the farthest mosque”, the same phrase used in a key passage of the Quran called “Al-Israa, the Night Journey”:

“Exalted is He who took His Servant [Mohammed] by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.” — Quran 17:1, Sahih International.

Naming the Jerusalem mosque Al-Aqsa was an attempt to say that the Dome of the Rock was the very spot from which Mohammed ascended to heaven, thus connecting Jerusalem to divine revelation in Islamic belief. The problem however, is that Mohammed died in the year 632, which was 73 years before the first construction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque was completed.

For Muslims, Jerusalem’s significance is dependent upon political and religious rivalries; its importance appears evident when non-Muslims (including the Crusaders, the British, and the Jews) control or capture the city. Only at those phases in history did Islamic national leaders claim Jerusalem as their holiest city after Mecca and Medina.

Unsurprisingly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas once decried Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar, claiming that the latter had minimized Jerusalem’s significance by saying that “Jerusalem is not Mecca,” when Abbas had insisted on 2006 legislative elections being held in Jerusalem. If Al-Zahar had said that “Jerusalem is not Mecca and is not sacred,” he would have said the truth.

In Islam, Jerusalem is only blessed, but not sacred. Mecca it is not.

(A. Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East)


[1] The History of al-Tabari Vol. 12: The Battle of al-Qadisiyyah and the Conquest of Syria and Palestine A.D. 635-637/A.H. 14-15, pages 194-195. Published by State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992.
[2] Ibn Kathir (in Arabic, Bidaya), published by Maktabit AlMaaref, Beirut, 1966, II, page 96; VII, pages 54-56.

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