|Volume VII, February 2000, Number 2
|The Modern History of Islamic Jerusalem: Academic Myths and Propaganda
|Ghada Hashem Talhami
Dr. Talhami is D.K. Pearsons professor of Politics and
chair of the Politics Department at Lake Forest College. For a printable pdf version of this article, click here.
No city can match the rich history and universalist
values of Jerusalem. Much of this universalism
must be attributed to Muslim rule, a period of over thirteen centuries in which
the city never lost its reputation for tolerance and religious
co-existence. The city's unique
religious pedigree elevated its status beyond the limitations of economic and
strategic considerations. Indeed, one
cannot contemplate Jerusalem's future without dwelling on its uniquely
monotheistic legacy. For, whereas other
centers of habitation claimed a divine connection, none can rival the complex
and overlapping rights of as many religious communities as Jerusalem.
Destined to experience the fragility of
political security and power, Jerusalem has never succeeded in excluding
diverse religious communities from its space.
The stamp of religious universalism is indelibly marked on its history.
Jerusalem was also a place of human habitation, not a city of
who worshiped at its temples constantly struggled to define their
rights through political power.
Religion and politics were always two sides of the Jerusalem coin,
testing the patience of rulers and clerics.
Not surprisingly, the temptation to endow the city with the trappings of
political power as the administrative center of this empire or that kingdom
often influenced the religious sentiment of the faithful.
This is particularly true in the age of
modern nationalism, in which the lethal mix of religion and power politics
threatens the harmony of the various communities.
Additionally, archaeological and political polemics nowadays
threaten Jerusalem's universalist heritage.
Israeli claims for exclusive control over Jerusalem have benefited
greatly from the debates of the archaeologists and historians.
The cost has been greater to the city's
religious communities, which are threatened with the loss of their traditional
autonomy and even permanent exile from the city.
Students of history can only watch with amazement as Israel
tries to wrest control of the Old City and make it an exclusively Jewish
enclave. Whether or not this grand
strategy succeeds will depend not only on the Palestinian population itself but
also on those who uphold international law.
The Israeli transformation of Jerusalem will also ultimately depend on
the willingness of historians to resist the reconstruction of Jerusalem's
Islamic past. Two of the major Israeli
themes in this reconstructionist approach are the denial of the sanctity of
Jerusalem to Muslims and the belittling of the status of Jerusalem, both
temporal and spiritual, during the centuries of Islamic control.
It is essential, therefore, that attempts by
zealot Jewish groups to capture Jerusalem's holy sites be analyzed in the
context of the latest eschatological transformation of their religio-political
views. The Israeli government's efforts
to convert Jerusalem into its eternal capital must also be analyzed
in the context of the communal diversity of
the city and the multiplicity of rights and religious domains.
Today Muslims, Christians and Jews hold irreconcilable
positions on Jerusalem. The fact that
direct Christian control of the city ended with the Crusades should not
diminish scholarly interest in the Christian legacy of Jerusalem, nor in the
potentially enormous influence wielded by some Christian powers over the fate
of the city. The Christian picture is
further complicated by the political allegiance of Palestinian Christians, and
its divergence from the emotional and religious loyalties of Western
Christians. But for the Muslims, the
sanctity of Jerusalem derives from the Islamic definition of holiness, which
prohibits the transfer of religious properties to non-believers.
Jerusalem became irrefutably holy to Muslims as the place from
which it is believed Muhammad rose to heaven and received instructions
regarding the Muslim prayers. Physical
space associated with a divine revelation becomes a religious trust and the
occupants its guardians. Muslims today
regard Jerusalem as a waqf (a religious foundation), which cannot change
ownership. And since Palestine is the
final repose of Muslim clerics, learned sheikhs and those who devoted their
lives to the service of the faith, then all of Palestine is a religious trust.1
The story of Muslim regard for Jerusalem begins with the
Prophet Muhammad's nocturnal journey, as it is referred to in the Quran, and
ascension to heaven. This event was of
monumental significance to the development of the Muslim faith.
Following news of the journey, Muslims were
ordered to face Jerusalem during the act of prayer.
Designating Jerusalem as the qiblah signified Muhammad's
resolve to create a non-tribal religion based on the universalist concept of
monotheism. For Muhammad, Jerusalem
symbolized the continuity of the older religions.
The sacred rock from which Muhammad rose to heaven was of
particular significance to Islam since it was the spot at which Abraham offered
to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. For
Muslims, Abraham was not a Jewish prophet; he was the father of the
monotheistic idea, the cornerstone of the Muslim faith, which based its
theological revolution on the oneness of God.
In the Quran, Abraham was presented as neither a Jew nor a Christian,
but as the precursor of the one true religion. More important, Muhammad did not
designate Makkah as the qiblah at first, because it was the center of the pagan
religions of Arab tribes and was dominated by stone idols.
Until its liberation from pagan rule and the
purification of its temple in 630, Makkah was clearly unsuitable as the
direction of prayers. To pray facing
Makkah meant to pray to pagan idols.2
Most Israeli and Orientalist writers, however, minimize the
Islamic centrality of Jerusalem to Muslims.
A major theme in their argument is the brevity of the Quran's reference
to Jerusalem and Muhammad's nocturnal journey.
In a 1996 study, the Israeli writer Izhak Hasson claims that there was
no direct reference to Jerusalem in the Quran by any of its known names (Aelia,
Beit al-Maqdes, al-Quds, etc.). He did
state that when the tafseer or exegesis of the Quran began, a century
after the emergence of Islam, Arab scholars deduced that such names as al-zaytoun
(Mount of Olives), mubawwa sidq (safe residence), rabwa that qarar
(the eternal hill), and al-masjid al-aqsa (the furthest mosque), were
explicitly identified with Jerusalem.
It is unclear, however, why these identifications should surprise him,
especially the latter reference, which occurs in the opening line of the
chapter describing Muhammad's journey.
The fact that the earliest Muslim scholars considered al-masjid al-aqsa
to be Jerusalem "from time immemorial" did not impress him.
He even makes the unsubstantiated claim that
early Muslim authorities interpreted al-masjid al-aqsa to be similar to the
Judaic concept of a heavenly Jerusalem or a heavenly temple.
Hasson then mentions that later Quranic
exegesis and various biographies of Muhammad rejected this interpretation.
The fact that the heavenly-Jerusalem concept
was only enshrined in Shii literature in order to make the ascription of
holiness to Kufa more palatable should have persuaded Hasson against this
Hasson then cites the work of S. D. Goitein in the Encyclopedia
of Islam, in which the historian of the Geniza Records commented on the
connection between the early verses of the Nocturnal Journey chapter and
references to al-masjid al-aqsa in the seventh verse.
According to Goitein, this linkage can only be explained by the
manner in which the Quran itself was collected and recorded.
It was during the period of the third caliph,
Uthman ibn Affan (644-656), that the Quran, hitherto committed to memory by
Muhammad's companions, was finally written down.
Referring to this process as "editing," Goitein claimed that it
was only then that the two aforementioned verses were placed within the same
chapter or surah. Collecting the
Quran, claims Hasson, involved placing Quranic verses in a special order and
fixing titles to various untitled chapters.
He further makes the claim that identifying Jerusalem as the site of the
Nocturnal Journey was not mentioned in the early decades of Islam, even when
the glorification of Jerusalem was a primary objective of the Umayyad
dynasty. Hasson does not explain the
apparent contradiction between this assertion and the Umayyad's success in
establishing the sanctity of Jerusalem in the minds of the believers.3
It is clear from analyzing Muhammad's reasons for choosing
Jerusalem as the site of his visit and ascension to heaven that he viewed the
city in broader terms than a Jewish holy place.
Indeed, modern Muslim scholars, who are angered by exclusive
Jewish claims to Jerusalem, often remind us that the city was not built by
David. The city boasts a long
pre-Israelite history and the dominance and habitation of other non-Hebraic
populations. Palestinian historian K.
J. Asali, for instance, wrote that King David and his soldiers took over the
city by entering it through a tunnel.
According to the Old Testament, Jerusalem at the time of King David's
takeover in 1,000 BCE was a populated city that had existed for 2,000
years. It had been inhabited at one
time or another by Canaanites, Amorites, Jebusites and Hittites.
The oldest known name of Jerusalem was
actually Urusalem, which was of Amorite derivation based on the
Canaanite-Amoritic god Salem or Shalem.
The rest of that name, uru, meant "founded by."
The well-known American Biblical
archeologist, W. F. Albright, had already identified the names of the two
earliest Jerusalem rulers as the Amorites Saz Anu and Yaqir Ammo.
Asali also reminds us that the Bible states
the origins of the Amorites as Canaanite; they may in fact have been the
earliest people of the land of Canaan.
In the year 2,000 BCE, these people were succeeded by the Jebusites, who
were also identified as Canaanites.4
Muslims proceeded to build shrines to various religions, not
only to Islam, as soon as they entrenched themselves around Jerusalem's
sacred-rock area. By the ninth century
CE, the Haram al-Sharif, where the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque stood,
was also dedicated to non-Islamic religions.
Shrines were built to honor David, Solomon and Jesus.
In addition, since Jews did not regard the
Western Wall of the Temple with veneration until the sixteenth century, the
Wall was dedicated as a Muslim shrine commemorating the area where Muhammad
tethered his winged horse, al-Buraq, on the night of his celestial
journey. Historians assume that a small
Jewish synagogue probably stood near the wall during the Umayyad and Abbasid
periods, but until the beginning of the Ottoman period, Jews worshiped mainly
at the Mount of Olives. It was there
that the prophet Ezekiel is believed to have witnessed the flight of the "divine
presence" from Jerusalem and its disappearance behind that mountain.
This occasion climaxed the destruction of
the Temple in 586 BCE at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king.
Major Jewish religious festivals were
celebrated at the Mount of Olives, where the worshipers prayed for the return
of "the holy presence." And although
some European Jewish travelers who visited the city in the fifteenth century
noted the impressive size of the stones of the wall, the structure did not
inspire any religious feeling.5
Muslims, therefore, not only commemorated the pluralist
religious traditions of Jerusalem, but at first they attempted to replicate the
same modest places of worship they had erected at Madinah.
But as the Muslims' building program to
immortalize the Nocturnal Journey commenced, non-Muslim historians colored
these events with their own political propaganda.
Much controversy has surrounded both the initial modest Muslim
efforts to mark the holy event and the later resplendent structures built under
the Umayyads. Bishop Arculf, a Gallic
cleric who visited Jerusalem in 670, during the early Umayyad period, was among
the first Christian pilgrims to record his impressions of the city under Muslim
rule. He wrote: "The Saracens now
frequent a four-sided house of prayer, which they have built rudely,
constructing it by raising boards and great beams upon some remains of ruins.6
The simplicity and modest proportions of this structure were
later interpreted as evidence of the low esteem in which Muslims held
Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem was the
third direction for prayer, the first two being Makkah and Madinah, it was not
considered a major center, according to Caliph Umar's first building in the
Holy City. But Muslim authorities
describe Muhammad's first mosque at Madinah as also extremely modest,
constructed essentially of wood, with one stone to mark the direction of the qiblah.
It was a model for the early mosques,
expressing rejection of the splendor and opulence of the pagan Kaaba's
structure at Makkah and Islam's self-image as the religion of austerity and
Muslim traditions added another explanation: Muhammad himself demanded that the
Madinah mosque be kept simple since the Day of Judgment was at hand, heralded
by the new faith.8
When Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, the Umayyad caliph, constructed
the magnificent structure known as the Dome of the Rock (begun in 688 and
completed in 691), Jerusalem's status rose in Muslim eyes.
Some Western and Israeli writers have
interpreted this newly established grandeur in purely political terms.
Since the Jerusalem construction program of
the Umayyads began at the height of their war with Makkah's ruler, Abd Allah
ibn al-Zubayr, who rebelled against the Umayyad caliph Yazid, in 683, it was
assumed to be politically inspired. The
rebellion lasted until 692, and it was during this period that the Umayyads
catapulted Jerusalem to the status of a major Muslim religious center.
A close examination of Abd al-Malik's efforts, however, reveals
an entirely different story. Abd
al-Malik was clearly conscious of the Christian splendor of Jerusalem,
expressed in several domed structures, and wanted to commission a monument
equally expressive of the Muslim heavenly vision.
Moreover, the inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock were not
directed at the rebellious Makkans but at Jerusalem's Christians.
The Dome was meant to be a structure
affirming the monotheism of Islam and its relationship to the other Abrahamic
faiths. What could be more appropriate
than inscriptions saying that God regarded Jesus as his prophet and that the
center of the faith was not the doctrine of the Trinity but the oneness of God?9
Muslim rulers, beginning with Caliph Muawiyah, the founder of
the Umayyad dynasty, have always recognized the city's sanctity to
Christians. Muawiyah and his successors
also viewed the Muslim presence in the city as a confirmation of Islam's
universal message. He not only received
the oath of allegiance in Jerusalem, he also prayed at Golgotha and the Garden
of Gesthemane, as well as other Christian holy sites.
But to claim, as the Orientalist scholar I. Goldziher did, that
Abd al-Malik commissioned the building of a magnificent shrine in Jerusalem in
order to direct the pilgrimage away from Makkah, is tantamount to calling the
Umayyad caliph a non-believer, since performing the pilgrimage to Makkah is one
of the five pillars of Islam.10
Politically motivated writers have never accepted the Muslim
reverence for Jerusalem in the context of the Muslim faith.
Reports by the Shiite historian Yaqubi
(ninth century) and the pro-Shiite geographer Al-Muhallabi (eleventh century)
that the pilgrimage to Makkah was stopped altogether under Abd al-Malik's son,
Al-Walid, were clearly in the nature of political propaganda.
They both claimed that the Umayyads did not
wish to enhance the Makkahn rebels' call for venerating the House of the
Prophet. This drastic step was later
reported by the Christian historian Eutychius (940) and made its way into the
works of modern historians such as Goldziher and K.A.C. Creswell, despite the
contrary testimony of Muslim historians of that period.11
Israeli writers, however, emphasize in particular the
determination of the city's early Muslim rulers not to convert Jerusalem into a
seat of government. They also emphasize
that Jews were initially excluded from Jerusalem under the terms of Umar's
covenant with Bishop Sophronius. The
text of the covenant -- which, according to some modern Muslim authorities, is
still housed at the Wadi al-Qilt monastry in Palestine -- granted special
privileges and dispensations to the city in recognition of its holiness to
Christians. According to the same
Muslim historians who rely on al-Tabari's account, the covenant forbade Jews to
live with Christians in the city because of the conditions of the peace imposed
by the Christians of Jerusalem.12
The modern Iraqi historian Abdul Aziz al-Duri provides a
careful provenance of Umar's covenant that refutes these claims.
Duri asserts that details pertaining to
prohibiting a certain population from living in a conquered city were unusual and
never appear in the texts of similar sulh (covenant) in the Syrian
region. Reference to Jews in the
covenant was apparently absent from most Arab sources.
It is believed today that this information
first appeared in Michael the Syrian's Chronique.
Another historian, Al-Himyari, attributed
this condition to a specific demand by the Christians of Jerusalem.
The author of a well-known work extolling
the virtues of Jerusalem, Ibn al-Jawzi,
does not even make reference to the Jews in regard to Umar's covenant in his Fadhail
Geniza records indicate that 70 Jewish families from Tiberias relocated to
Jerusalem with Umar's approval. It was
also during this early Muslim period that Jerusalem was divided into different
quarters for each religious community.14
When Israeli writers allude to the political status of
Jerusalem under Muslim rule, there is never an adequate explanation.
Moshe Gil has written that the Byzantine
administrative structure of the new conquest was retained, with the coastal
Palestinian area, along with Judaea and Samaria, constituting one division and
the Jordan Valley and the Galilee region another.
The two parts were called Jund (military unit) Filastin and Jund
al-Urdun. Jerusalem, being within Jund
Filastin, was not made a capital.
Neither did the Muslims maintain their seat of government in Ceasaria,
the former provincial capital of the Byzantines.
Instead, the Muslims first based their administration in Lod
(Lyddah), then transferred it to the city of Ramla, newly built by the Caliph
Suleiman ibn Abd al-Malik. The Muslim
judge of Jerusalem was also subordinated to the Ramla judge.15
But it is clear that the Muslims had two major reasons for
basing their administration at Ramla.
First, it should be remembered that Jerusalem remained a predominantly
Christian city throughout the period.
According to the testimony of Bishop Arculf, which dates to Muawiyah's
rule, pilgrims and visitors of various nationalities continued to flood the
city and attend its annual fair. The
other reason was that military troops were normally based in administrative
centers. Troops would have made
excessive demands on the local population.
But Jerusalem did receive a great deal of attention from its Muslim
rulers, who assigned it a separate governor and judge.
These governors were usually Umayyad
princes, such as Abd al-Malik and Suleiman ibn Abd al-Malik.
The first judge to be appointed for the city
by Umar was Ubada ibn al-Samit, one of the Prophet's companions.
Several other companions visited Jerusalem
and were buried there. Also, Abu Ubayda
ibn al-Jarrah, the head of the Muslim troops, was on his way to pray at
Jerusalem when he died.16
The sanctity of Jerusalem was recognized by Muslims in several
other ways. As a city dominated by
various houses of worship and inhabited by religious figures, Jerusalem needed
a steady source of income. Muslim rule
witnessed the development of the oldest charitable endowments and trusts in the
region. The third Muslim caliph, Uthman
-- who succeeded Umar -- began this tradition by acquiring the Silwan spring as
a waqf (religious endowment) for people of the city.17
richest endowment dedicated to the needs of Muslim Jerusalem and its poor was
the Khasseki Waqf. This bequest
benefited a large tekiyya (charitable establishment) that included a
mosque, an inn, a religious school, a soup kitchen and a hospice.
Khasseki Sultan established a vast and
far-flung pious foundation to support these services, numbering many villages
and farms located in Syria and Palestine.
The founder of this endowment was Roxelana (otherwise known as
Khasseki Sultan or Khurrem Sultan) the wife of the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the
Magnificent, who built the present walls of Jerusalem.
When she died, the sultan added four
villages and farms near Sidon to the waqf.
Both the Ayyubid and Mamluk dynasties preceded the Ottomans in
establishing this particular brand of philanthropy in Jerusalem.
The Ayyubid period, beginning with Saladin,
witnessed a steady effort to re-Islamize the city following the violence of the
Crusader period. Many awqaf were
created in order to support the newly opened religious schools, the Sufi
centers, the hospitals and the mosques.
These institutions restored the city's Islamic culture and were later
maintained and increased during the Ottoman centuries.18
The holiness of Jerusalem was related to the rise and expansion
of a certain type of literary genre, known as al-Fadhail or history of
cities. The Fadhail of Jerusalem
preserved the traditions of the Prophet regarding Jerusalem, the statements of
various holy personages, and the city's popular lore.
All of these inspired Muslims to embellish the sanctity of the
city beyond its status in the holy texts.
The greatest source of information for al-Fadhail was the hadith,
the Prophet's traditions, which were beginning to be quoted extensively in the
last third of the first Muslim century (the seventh century of the Christian
era). The traditions were used to enumerate the values of visiting the city and
al-Aqsa Mosque. Circulating widely
during the Umayyad period, these traditions were often a reflection of the
Umayyad policy of enhancing the religious status of Jerusalem.
The exegetic literature (tafsir) of
the Quran, as well as the tales repeated by popular preachers, also emphasized
the religious merit of Jerusalem. Some
of these tales were drawn from a body of literature known as Israiliyyat,
or the statements of newly converted Jews.
Among the most famous authors of the Israiliyyat were Abu Kaab al-Ahbar
(rumored to have accompanied Umar on his first visit to the Temple area) and
Abu Rihana (said to be related to the Prophet by marriage).
These two often delivered sermons at al-Aqsa
Mosque elaborating on the merits of Jerusalem.
The literature of al-Fadhail reached its zenith during the
eleventh century (the fifth century of the Hijira).
Histories and descriptions of cities were first written during
the ninth and tenth centuries and focused initially on prominent centers of
administration such as Damascus, Madinah, Baghdad and Wasit.
Soon the literature extended to Jerusalem,
drawing on a history of the city since Muslim rule written by Ishak ibn
Bishr. Another source circulating
during the same period was al-Ramli's biographies of the Prophet's companions
who had moved to Palestine. The
descriptions of Jerusalem, known as Fadhail Bait al-Maqdis, developed
specifically during the eleventh century.
These include the earliest examples of this genre: Wasiti's Fadhail
al-Bait al-Muqqadas and al-Maqdisi's Fadhail al-Quds wa al-Sham (The
Merits of Jerusalem and Damascus).19
Al-Maqdisi, for instance, devotes a great deal of space in his
book to the merits of the Aqsa Mosque and the holiness of Jerusalem and its
saints. The author also explains the
religious advantages of visiting the city.
It is in this regard that al-Maqdisi and others after him began to make
the claim that Jerusalem is the site of the resurrection, and that all the
pious of the earth will gather there on Judgment Day.
The rock from which Muhammad rose to heaven will serve as a
refuge for those seeking to escape the anti-Christ, or al-Dajjal.
Virtuous Muslims will then witness the
appearance of al-Mahdi (the Messiah) and the beginning of the golden age.
Al-Maqdisi, a Jerusalemite himself, makes
the claim that Jerusalem combines the merits of this life and the hereafter and
is definitely superior to Makkah and Madinah, which will be brought to
Jerusalem on the Day of Judgment.20
The popular mind absorbed these ideas readily, and prominent
government officials began to ask to be buried in Bait al-Maqdis.
Muslims began to perform some of the rituals
of the pilgrimage at Jerusalem, such as circling the sacred sanctuary (the
Haram) and offering animal sacrifices on its grounds.
Some commentators who witnessed the quasi-pilgrimage of Jerusalem
reported that large throngs chanted the refrain Lubayka allahumma lubayk,
usually chanted at Jabal Arafat in Makkah.21
The controversy surrounding al-fadhail literature extends
beyond the authenticity of its prophetic traditions.
According to Emmanual Sivan, an Israeli writer, the date of
Jerusalem's al-Fadhail indicates that Muslims had very little veneration for
the city during the early Muslim period.22
In his view, the merits of Jerusalem were
only recognized beginning in the second Muslim century, the date of the
earliest Fadhail Bait al-Maqdis.
Muslims respond to this argument by saying that, had this been the case,
Makkah's sanctity is also in doubt since Fadhail Makkah did not appear
in print until the same period.23
Sivan's comments were directed specifically
at al-Maqdisi's Fadhail Bait al-Maqdis wa al-Khalil wa Fadhail al-Sham,
which was written during the eleventh century, and at the earliest of this
genre, al-Wasiti's Fadhail al-Bait al-Muqqadas.
Sivan advances the claim that both were written after the
persecutions directed at Christians and Jews by the Fatimid caliph,
al-Hakim. It should be noted, however,
that both al-Wasiti and al-Maqdisi mention in their books an earlier work by
another Palestinian writer, al-Ramli, who wrote Fadhail Bait al-Maqdis.
Al-Ramli, who was born in al-Ramla, was also
mentioned in some fifteenth-century biographical dictionaries, the date of his
death given as 912 CE. Thus, al-Fadhail
of Jerusalem literature must now be dated two centuries earlier than has been
the case. Apparently the literature of
al-Fadhail was well developed and well known before the Crusader occupation of
Jerusalem and could not have developed as a result of the Crusader assault on
the Holy Land.24
Despite the confirmation of the eminence of Jerusalem under the
Umayyads, the city remained open to Christians and Jews.
This tradition of accommodation and
tolerance continued under the Abbasids, even though the distance between
Baghdad, the seat of the new empire, and Jerusalem limited the caliph's visits
to the third qiblah. However,
the additions the Abbasids made to Jerusalem's Islamic monuments were also
notable, particularly after major earthquakes.
Caliph al-Mahdi ordered the reconstruction of al-Aqsa Mosque, and
al-Maamun commissioned the building of two gates to the east and north of the
Haram area. The mother of Caliph
al-Muqtadir undertook the major repair of the cupola of the Dome of the Rock.25
Moshe Gil and others continue to repeat that Jerusalem and Palestine did not
receive much attention from the Abbasids.26
The expansion of Christian influence in Jerusalem under the
Abbasids was not, it is now believed, the result of the exchange of embassies
between Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne.
Instead, it should be apparent that Charlemagne's desire to enhance his
Christian credentials as the head of the Latin Church in the year of his
coronation as holy roman emperor drove him to seek relations with Jerusalem's
rulers. This explains the construction
of a hostel for Christian pilgrims and a library, as well as a number of
Some years after the mysterious death of al-Hakim, the Fatimids
exhibited unusual tolerance towards the people of the book.
Jewish historical records indicate that a
Karaite Jew (the Karaites migrated from Khurasan in the ninth century) by the
name of Abu Saad Isaac ben Aharon ben Ali became the governor of Jerusalem
under Fatimid rule in 1060. A Christian
governor by the name of Ibn Muammar succeeded him in that position.28
According to Islamic
documents of the Haram, members of Jerusalem's small Jewish community enjoyed
full commercial rights, such as the ownership of property and the freedom to
transact business under both the Ayyubids and the Mamluks.29
We then learn that during the early Ottoman period, the Jewish
community of Jerusalem often opted to seek justice in the Sharia courts even
though their dhimmi status allowed them a great measure of legal
autonomy. They often filed complaints
against coreligionists at the Muslim courts.
Jews and Christians were able to purchase houses in the midst of the
Muslim area. Jews, Christians and
Muslims were freely represented in the city's trade guilds.30
never subjected to Muslim proselytizing, but would sometimes convert to Islam
voluntarily. Jewish oath-taking in the
Sharia courts was usually accepted. The
dayyan (rabbi) of a Jewish congregation often referred disputes between
fellow Jews to the Muslim courts. An
understanding existed between the Jewish and Muslim religious authorities, and
each bolstered the authority of the other.31
The decline of the Ottomans, beginning in the eighteenth
century, resulted in the rising power of European consuls throughout the
empire, particularly in Jerusalem.
Jewish minorities and some of the Christian communities became dependent
on the power and protection of the consuls.
This aroused the animosity of the Muslims, who lost their position as
the community of dominance and influence.
Increased Jewish immigration to Palestine also became noticeable.
Jews began to settle increasingly outside of
Jerusalem's walls. This development
began to manifest itself after the Egyptian takeover of Syria during the second
quarter of the nineteenth century, when Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian governor,
began to overturn Ottoman restrictions on land sales and other
transactions. Sir Moses Montefiore, the
British Jewish philanthropist, financed the building of the first Jewish
settlement outside Jerusalem's walls in 1860.
European Zionists, however, did not hold Jerusalem in high
regard. Much of the Zionist settlement
was concentrated in the coastal area and in the kibbutzim outside of the
cities. It is also known that Theodore
Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, did not wish to make Jerusalem the
center of his plan. After visiting the
city, Herzl described it in disparaging remarks, alluding to its lack of
cleanliness and meager tolerant spirit.
Jerusalem was saturated, in his words, with a 2000-year legacy of
unpleasant history. Indeed, Herzl
suggested that the capital of the Jewish state be built on Mount Carmel in
Haifa. Chaim Weizeman, Israel's first
president and the architect of the Balfour Declaration, was not anxious to
include the old walled city of Jerusalem within the first partition plan
offered by the British government. The
early Zionists, who were mostly socialists, gloried in acquiring and redeeming
the land and did not see fit to concentrate their land purchasing around
Jerusalem. The Old City was a place of
settlement for a trickle of religious Jews.
Safad was settled by followers of a Jewish mystical movement, and
Tiberias was always an important religious center.32
Thus, while the Ashkenazi (European) Jews championed the
Zionist ideology and looked to settling the land of Palestine, the Sephardic
(Eastern) Jews settled in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The latter group firmly believed in the imminent appearance of
the Messiah. Descended from the house
of David, the Messiah was believed capable of returning Jerusalem to the Jews,
uniting Jewish exiles in the land of Israel, and also restoring the
Temple. Although scandalized by the
secularism of the European Zionists, the religious Jews soon realized that
their spiritual aspirations could best be served by the nationalist policies of
the Zionists. It did not take long
before the religious Jews understood that building a Jewish homeland in
Palestine also led to the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.
The secularists, for their part, were unable
to separate nationalism from Judaism.
Religious acquiescence in the Zionist plan led eventually to the
founding of the Mizrahi party in 1902, which later became the National
Religious party. When all of Palestine
fell to the Israelis following the June 1967 war, the haredim, or
religious Jews, began to feel that their spiritual vision of restoring a divine
people to their original land was finally being realized.33
In 1947, a year before the declaration of the Israeli state,
Jewish policy on Jerusalem was much more cautious than today.
The Jewish Agency for Palestine, the quasi-government
of the Yishuv (Jewish settlement), voted to accept the U.N. resolution calling
for the creation of a corpus separatum in Palestine.
Jerusalem and Bethlehem were to be under
neither Arab nor Jewish control. This
was a pragmatic decision based on the Israelis' fear of antagonizing the
Catholic states in the United Nations and their commitment to the Vatican
solution. The Israelis were determined
to see the passage of the U.N. Partition Resolution through, even with its clause
on the internationalization of Jerusalem.
The Jewish Agency did not unveil its plans for Jerusalem even
after the adoption of the Partition Plan on November 29, 1947.
Recognizing that the United States was
wavering in its commitment to the partition of Palestine, the Jewish Agency
decided to locate the future capital of Israel just outside of Tel Aviv.
Another explanation for the exclusion of
Jerusalem from the Agency's plans was the need to maintain good relations with
Transjordan and keep it out of the war.
Transjordan had already made plans for acquiring control over eastern
Palestine (the West Bank) and Jerusalem and revealed them in its secret talks
with the Agency. These plans were in
defiance of the U.N. commitment to allow a Palestinian government in the Arab
part of Palestine.34
After the Jewish government conquered West Jerusalem in 1948
and the Jordanians seized East Jerusalem, the diplomatic battle lines
changed. The Israelis declared West
Jerusalem to be their capital, in defiance of U.N. Resolution 181, and the
Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem (along with the Old City), but without
relocating their capital to it. The
Israelis, recognizing that they faced the condemnation of the majority of U.N.
members, shifted their strategy to a call for the internationalization of the
holy sites of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth instead of the whole city of
Jerusalem. This policy appeared to be
very attractive to the Israelis since most of the holy sites to be internationalized
were within Jordanian-held territory.
The call for internationalizing the holy sites rather than the city of
Jerusalem, therefore, did not entail any territorial sacrifices on the part of
the Israelis. The new Israeli policy
not only blocked international censure of the new state, it also succeeded in
neutralizing U.N. animus over the inflammatory issue of Jerusalem.
The call for the internationalization of the
Jordanian-held sites was aimed at gaining unrestricted Jewish access to the
But not all of this campaign translated into a benign Israeli
policy towards their own Islamic and other religious foundations.
Unfortunately, the Israelis considered these
awqaf to be enemy property and placed them under the jurisdiction of the non-Islamic
Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Fully 15-20 percent of cultivable land in the new Israeli state belonged
to the waqf, as did up to 70 percent of businesses and shops in major
Palestinian cities under Israeli control.
By placing these properties under the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the
Israeli authorities were able to use the Absentee Property Law to confiscate
most of the waqf lands and properties.
Because the waqf situation in the West Bank and Gaza was radically
different in 1967, the Israelis were prevented from duplicating their earlier
tactics. The West Bank and Gaza were
not annexed to Israel and could not be made subject to Israel's laws.
Instead, Israeli military laws were brought
into play, and land would often be closed for military reasons, to be lost to
the waqf forever. The military
governors were given collective control.
Jordanian control of the waqf in Gaza was deliberately promoted in order
to limit the independence of this institution in the previously Egyptian-held
The Israeli military takeover of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967
radically altered Israel's previous call for the functional
internationalization of Jerusalem and the placing of its holy sites under U.N.
control. The annexation of Jerusalem
quickly created a new reality and became an insurmountable obstacle to
peace. Immediate measures were taken to
bring East Jerusalem and all of its holy sites within the Old City under
Israeli control. On June 25, 1967, the
Israeli authorities extended Israeli law to Arab Jerusalem.
By June 27, a significant step was taken by
which the Knesset added Article 11B to the Authority and Judicial System
Regulations of 1948. This amendment had
the effect of extending state law, the Israeli judicial system and Israeli
administration to every area in "the land of Israel."
A day later, an appendix to these regulations was published that
included the municipality of Arab Jerusalem.
Thus, the Israeli minister of the interior was now empowered to override
the municipal laws of Arab Jerusalem by applying the Israeli municipalities
law. This step-by-step legislation, the
Israelis claimed, did not amount to annexation.
The Israeli government continued to present all these measures
as simply an effort to integrate the administration and judicial system of Arab
Jerusalem with the rest of Israel. But
by July 30, 1980, political annexation finally became a reality, when the
government approved the so-called Jerusalem Law as part of a number of other
Basic Laws. It is well known that
Israel has no written constitution and considers its Basic Laws its
constitution. The first article of the
Jerusalem law reads, "the whole and unified Jerusalem is the capital of Israel."37
"administrative integration" of Arab Jerusalem, thus, would now require an act
of the Knesset.
Although initially the Israeli military authorities who invaded
Arab Jerusalem were prevented from annexing the administration of the shrines
of the Haram area to the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Israelis
succeeded in annexing a major waqf property.38
It should be recalled that zealous Jewish
groups have made several attempts to take control of the Wailing Wall and its
environs since the nineteenth century.
Jewish groups first offered to buy the Wall when Jerusalem was under the
Egyptian administration of Ibrahim Pasha.
But the Muslim families of the city reminded the Egyptian ruler that the
Wall, consecrated as a waqf because it was the place where Muhammad tethered
his horse, cannot be sold. The wall was
always known as the al-Buraq Wall.
Under the British administration, riots broke out between the
city's Arabs and the followers of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist
leader, in 1922, when he tried to expand Jewish rights of worship around the
Wall. The Mandate government concluded,
following the recommendations of a committee of inquiry, that the Wall indeed
was a Muslim property but that Jewish rights of worship should also be
international law, as well as the status quo law dating back to the 1852
firman of Sultan Abd al-Majid, which regulated the rights of the various
religious communities in the city, were reinstated.40
Clearly, as we are reminded today by a Palestinian
scholar, the international community has always recognized that International
Law is, by its very nature, secular law.
Religious claims, unless regulated by treaty or state edicts, as in the
case of the status quo law, have no legal basis.41
Ever since the Israeli adoption in the spring of 1949 of the
policy of the functional internationalization of Jerusalem by limiting
international control to the holy places only, Israeli propaganda has focused
on lack of access to the Wailing Wall.
The Israelis were hoping to see the implementation of Article 8 of the
Israeli-Jordanian Armistice Agreement, signed at Rhodes on April 3, 1949, which
called for a Special Commission to deal with the issues left over at the end of
the fighting. The Special Commission
included two representatives from each country and was expected to deal with
the issue of free access to the holy sites, as well as guaranteeing freedom of
movement on major roadways. But
complications ensued, and the commission ceased to exist as of November, 1950.
The desire to placate Western opinion about Christian rights
led to an informal agreement between Israel and Jordan to permit the passage of
Israel's Arab Christians to Jerusalem for purposes of pilgrimage.
The Muslim Arab citizens of Israel, however,
were not granted that privilege. Israel
attempted to address the issue of Jewish access to the Wall through secret
negotiations with the Jordanians. But
these talks were terminated by March 1950.
The Jordanians, hoping to reach a permanent peace with the Israelis,
proposed several solutions. The most
serious suggestion involved free access to the wall in exchange for Jordan's
control over the Arab sections of West Jerusalem.
The Israelis adamantly refused.42
The Israelis continued to call West Jerusalem Israel's capital
and proceeded to forcibly alter the status of the Wall following the 1967
War. The entire area surrounding the
Wall -- the Maghribi Quarter, heavily populated by Muslim families and once a
hostel for North African pilgrims -- was
demolished. This operation
involved not only the forced removal of 135 Arab families but also the
destruction of two Muslim shrines, al-Buraq Mosque and the Tomb of the Sheikh
(the latter being the head of a religious school, al-Afdhaliyyah, named after
its builder, al-Afdhal, Saladin's son).
The reason for this gross disregard for human rights and the status quo
law was to create a wide plaza facing the wall in order to accommodate 200,000
The Wailing Wall was included in the status quo law later in
the nineteenth century through regulations expanding the list of four shrines
mentioned initially in the Ottoman firman.
The original 1852 law regulated the rights of various Christian
denominations in major holy sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and
the Church of the Nativity. The
expanded list regulated rights to Muslim and Jewish shrines as well.
What gave the 1852 firman international
status was its inclusion in the Paris Peace Convention Treaty (1856), the
Treaty of Berlin (1878), the Versailles Peace Treaty (1919) and the 1922
Palestine Order in Council of the British Mandate Government.44
The onslaught on the Muslim heritage of Jerusalem continues
today with the full knowledge of the Israeli government.
Jerusalem is fast becoming the Jewish
capital of Israel through the activities of zealot Jewish groups, as well as
through the efforts of liberal, nationalist Israeli politicians.
As soon as East Jerusalem was conquered in
June 1967, Israeli officials of the ruling Labor party were also converted to
the idea that Jerusalem was holy and should never be given up. More important,
talk of rebuilding the Temple on the grounds of Haram al-Sharif became more
acceptable than ever before. It should
be recalled that the idea of rebuilding the Temple was discouraged strongly by
the rabbis. This attitude had been
adopted following Bar Kochba's revolt in 135 CE, which cost the Jewish people
an enormous number of lives. Only the
Messiah, it was believed, was capable of rebuilding the Temple.
In the 1970s, however, the ideas of Rabbi Kook and his son,
Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, came into vogue.
Emphasis on rebuilding the Temple was now reinforced by the teachings of
Rabbi Kook's Gush Emunim Movement (Block of the Faithful), which called for the
building of settlements within the West Bank and Gaza, commonly referred to as
Eretz Yisrael. Redeeming the land of
historic Israel was considered a prerequisite for the return of the
Messiah. Some members of this movement
were accused in 1984 of planning to dynamite the Dome of the Rock in order to
facilitate the rebuilding of the Temple.
Another group, the Temple Mount Faithful, headed by Gershon Salomon,
openly calls for Jewish control of the Haram area and the rebuilding of the
Temple on the site of the Dome of the Rock.
Not only is Salomon's movement popular with more than 30
percent of Israeli voters, his views are also embraced by former Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu. Furthermore, the
idea of rebuilding the Temple on Muslim grounds was quickly accepted by the
Israeli government. A group calling
itself the Temple Institute, located in the Jewish quarter, has mounted a
permanent exhibit of vessels, religious vestments and musical instruments that
will be used in the rebuilt Temple. The
Institute receives funding from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry
of Religious Affairs, the Ministry of Education and the Municipality of
Today, religious Israelis are actively settling not only the
Old City but also the suburbs of Jerusalem, which are considered holy, as well.
Religious Jews believe that the Messianic
era is at hand, since more Jews are gathered in Jerusalem.
The Messiah will appear riding a white horse
only when Arabs have departed the holy city and its surroundings.
To these groups, the June 1967 War was
divinely inspired, a war that should have been used to seize the Temple area
right then and there. The municipality
of Jerusalem, through bureaucratic cleansing and the confiscation of the Arab
Jerusalemites' residency cards, contributes to the dream of an Arab-free
Jerusalem. This goal is also furthered
through the denial of housing permits to the Arabs and the demolition of their
The Arabs face ingenious types of confiscations and
expulsions. The municipal government
frequently declares certain areas "green" zones in order to prevent the
overurbanization of the city and its surroundings.
These green belts are supposed to be closed to all people.
But in a recent episode related by Arnon
Yekutieli, a city council member belonging to the leftist Ratz party, liberal
Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek appeared to be willing to engage in any scheme in
order to thin out the Arab population of the city.
When the mayor revealed plans in the late 1980s to construct
4,500 housing units in conjunction with expanding the city limits to Har Homa
(Jebel Abu Ghaneem), the same council member pointed out that these units would
be built in a "green" zone. The mayor
quickly answered "green for the Arabs" only.
When Yekutieli inquired further, Kollek explained that in certain areas
planting forests was intended to close the land to the Arabs.
Apparently, the Jewish National Fund engages
in this scheme knowingly by contributing to the forestation of Jerusalem.
The fund considers the trees stand-ins for
Jews who have not arrived in Israel yet.
The trees will hold the land for future immigrants.46
This official and popular collusion to cleanse Jerusalem of its
Arabs and establish it as the capital of Israel is shared across party
lines. The current mayor, Ehud Olmert
of the Likud party, states openly that "our preference" is that Jerusalem not
even be mentioned in conjunction with the final-status talks of the Oslo
agreements. He is only willing to
discuss the administration of the holy sites, not the official status of
Jerusalem. The political question "was
resolved long ago," he claims.47
Thus, the Islamic legacy in Jerusalem is being dismantled piece
by piece. The Israeli government and
Jerusalem's municipal government are changing the status of the city without
respect for traditional rights or international public opinion.
Unlike the Muslims, who mostly practiced a
policy of tolerance towards the other communities, the Israelis are practicing
a policy of exclusion and extreme nationalism.
What is also disturbing is the revision of the city's history with a
view to minimizing its Islamic heritage and centrality to the Muslim
faith. Coupled with the efforts of
religious groups to settle the Old City in preparation for the imminent return
of the Messiah, this poses great danger to the ecumenical heritage of
1 Abdul Rahman Abbad, "The Theology of
the Land: An Islamic Viewpoint," Al-Liqa Journal, Vol. 9, No. 10,
June-December, 197, pp. 77-8.
2 Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One
City, Three Faiths (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), pp. 220-5.
3 Izhak Hasson, "The Muslim View of
Jerusalem: The Quran and Hadith," in Joshua Prawer and Haggai Ben-Shammai,
eds., The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period, 638-1099 (New
York and Jerusalem: New York University Press and Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1996), pp.
352-3, 352, N11, pp. 354-7.
4 Kamil J. Asali, "Jerusalem in
History: Notes on the Origins of the City and Its Tradition of Tolerance," Arab
Studies Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 37-8.
5 Karen Armstrong, "The Holiness of
Jerusalem: Asset or Burden," The Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol.
XXVII, No. 3, Spring, 1998, pp. 15-6.
6 Quoted in: Armstrong, Jerusalem,
7 Ibid., p. 225.
8 Moshe Gil, "The Political History of Jerusalem during
the early Muslim Period," in Prawer and Ben-Shammai, eds., The History of
Jerusalem, p. 13.
9 Armstrong, Jerusalem, pp.
10 S. D. Goitein, "Al-Kuds," Encyclopedia
of Islam, New Edition, Vol. V (Leiden: S. J. Brill, 1986), pp. 324-7.
11 Abdul Aziz Duri, "Jerusalem in the
Early Islamic Period, 7th-11th Centuries AD," in Kamil J. Asali, Jerusalem
in History (Brooklyn, NY: Olive Branch Press, 1990), pp. 110-1.
12 Sheikh Mohammed Najeeb al-Ja'bari, "The
Covenant of Omar," Al-Liqa Journal, a special issue on Jerusalem, Vol.
7/8, June/December, 196, pp. 83-6.
13 Duri, p. 107.
14 Dan Bahat, "The Physical
Infrastructure," in Prawer and Ben-Shammai, eds., The History of Jerusalem,
15 Gil, pp. 9-10.
16 Duri, pp. 108-110.
17 Ibid., p. 108.
18 Kamil J. Asali, "Jerusalem under the
Ottomans, 1516-1831 AD," in Asali, ed., Jerusalem in History, pp. 201-2.
19 Duri, pp. 113-5.
20 Ibid., p. 116.
21 Ibid., pp. 116-7.
22 Emmanuel Sivan, "The Beginning of the
Fadhail in al-Quds Literature," Israel Oriental Studies, vol. I (Tel
Aviv University, 1971), pp. 263-71, and M. Sharon, ed., "The Sanctity of
Jerusalem in Islam, " Notes and Studies on the History of the Holy Land
under Islamic Rule (Jerusalem: 1976), pp. 35-41.
23 Khalil Athamneh, "Al-wajh al-siyasi
li-madinat al-Quds fi sadr al-Islam wa dawlat Bani Umayyah," (The political
facets of the city of Jerusalem at the beginning of Islam and under the
Umayyads) Al-Abhath, Vol. 45, 1997, p. 63.
24 Suleiman A. Mourad, "A Note on the
Origin of Fadail Bayt al-Maqdis Compilations, Al-Abhath, Vol. 44,
1996, pp. 31-5, 4-1.
25 Duri, pp. 112-3.
26 Gil, p. 14.
27 Duri, p. 113; Gil, p. 14.
28 Gil, p. 32.
29 Donald P. Little, "Jerusalem under
the Ayyubids and Mamluks," in Asali, ed., Jerusalem in History, p. 195.
30 Dror Zeevi, An Ottoman Century:
The District of Jerusalem in the 1600s (Albany: State University of New
York Press, 1996), pp. 4, 23, 33.
31 Amnon Cohen, Jewish Life under
Islam: Jerusalem in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1984), pp. 74, 127.
32 Roger Friedland and Richard Hacked, To
Rule Jerusalem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 49-50,
33 Ibid., pp. 59, 81.
34 Ibid., pp. 27-8.
35 Alisa Rubin Peled, "The
Crystallization of an Israeli Policy towards Muslim and Christian Holy Places,
1948-1955," The Muslim World, special issue "Palestine and the
Arab-Israeli Conflict," Vol. LXXXIV, Nos. 1-2, January-April, 1994, pp. 94-7,
36 For a full treatment of Israel's
takeover of the Awqaf administration in 1948 and the confiscation of the
properties of pious foundations, see Michael Dumper, Islam and Israel:
Muslim Religious Endowments and the Jewish State (London: I. B. Tauris,
37 Ibrahim Mohammad Shaban, "Arab Rights
in Jerusalem," Al-Liqa Journal, a special issue on Jerusalem, Vol. 7/8,
June/December, 1996, pp. 96-9.
38 For the full record of the
Muslim-Israeli confrontation over the Haram al-Sharif in 1967, see Meron
Benvenisti, Jerusalem, the Torn City (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1976).
39 A.L. Tibawi, "Special Report: The
Destruction of an Islamic Heritage in Jerusalem," Arab Studies Quarterly,
Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring, 1980, p. 182.
40 Chad F. Emmett, "The Status Quo
Solution for Jerusalem," The Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XXVI,
No. 2, Winter, 1997, p. 19.
41 Shaban, p. 103.
42 Gabriel Padon, "The Divided City:
1948-1967," in Msgr. John M. Osterreicher and Anne Sinai, eds.,
Jerusalem (New York, NY: The John Day
Company, 1974), pp. 87, 91-2, 97. Free
Israeli access was part of an agreement which also called for the repatriation
of Arab refugees. When Israel
consistently refused to abide by this, the Jordanians refused to implement the
Wailing Wall agreement. See Tibawi, p.
43 Ibid., pp. 181, 183, 183, N15, 186.
44 Emmett, p. 20.
45 Armstrong, "The Holiness of Jerusalem,"
46 Friedland and Hecht, pp. 173, 211.
47 "Interview with the Honorable Ehud Olmert -- Fighting
for the Status of Jerusalem," Middle East Insight, January-February,
1999, p. 29.