Is Jerusalem Sacred for Muslims?
by Harold Rhode
Israel and the Palestinians are once again negotiating their future relationship. One of the most difficult issues they confront is the status of Jerusalem.
On September 22, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton congratulated Saudi King Abdullah on the occasion of his country's national day. She reserved special praise for Abdullah's support of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which calls for an Israeli withdrawal from all territories gained in 1967 and for East Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state. She suggested that this plan would serve as a philosophical basis for the ongoing talks. "As we continue working to support direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the principles enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative are more important than ever," Clinton wrote.
Jews and Christians know that Israel's claim to Jerusalem is rooted in the ancient Jewish connection to that city. Israel's declaration of independence speaks of both "natural and historic right." Jerusalem is the centerpiece of that historic right.
What about the Muslim claim?
For Muslims, Jerusalem is thought to be sacred for two reasons: First, Muslims were initially commanded to pray toward Jerusalem. But when the Jews refused to convert to Islam, Muhammad changed the prayer direction toward Mecca. Second, Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven and back from "the Rock" which much later after his death was interpreted to mean what is today the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Interestingly, Islamic sources from the first 50 years or so after Muhammad's death make clear that Jerusalem had absolutely no holy status for Muslims.
Some centuries later, Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) another important Muslim cleric with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Koran and Hadith, wrote extensively about Jerusalem, and how there were only two holy cities in Islam – Mecca and Medina. He eventually became the intellectual godfather of Wahhabism, the dominant Islamic doctrine of the Saudi government. He claimed that Muslims must rid themselves of all non-Muslim innovations and return to the early Islam of Muhammad and the first four caliphs. The rulers of Ibn Taymiyya's time saw him as a threat and imprisoned him. Even so, he did not recant.
Ibn Taymiyya went to great lengths to explain that the veneration of Jerusalem in nothing more than the "Judaization" of Islam. He wrote that after the second caliph 'Umar conquered Jerusalem in 637 he and his aide Ka'b al-Aḥbār [a Jewish convert to Islam], went up to view the Temple Mount. 'Umar asked his aide: "Where do you think I should build a place of prayer for Muslims?" Ka'b replied: "Build it behind (i.e., north of) the Rock." Angrily, Umar said to Ka'b: "Oh you son of a Jew, is your Jewishness dominating your view?" 'Umar was accusing Ka'b of Judaizing Islam by saying that they should build a place to pray north of the Rock where the Jewish Temple had once stood. If they had done so, they would have been bowing down both towards the Rock and Mecca. That is why 'Umar decided to build the place to pray on the southern part of the Temple Mount – the place today known as the Aqsa Mosque. 'Umar's choice of location meant that the Muslims bowed down only to Mecca and that their backs (rear ends) were facing the Rock.
Ibn Taymiyya wondered how Muslim clerics could have accepted Ka'b's attempts to incorporate Jewish traditions into Islam, because Ka'b did not cite any of Muhammad's companions as the source of his claim.
Ibn Taymiyya also accused Ka'b of fabricating Muslim traditions and incorporating Jewish writings, i.e., the Bible, Talmud, etc., into Islam. Ibn Taymiyya admitted that the original prayer direction was Jerusalem but he emphasized that Muhammad and the Muslims abandoned that tradition in order to differentiate themselves from the Jews.
Later, Ibn Taymiyya discussed the first caliphs and showed that when they ruled over today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, neither they nor any of the early governors nor any clerics made any attempt to build any structure over the Rock on the Temple Mount. This demonstrated, according to Ibn Taymiyya, that they did not attach any importance to it; as the early rulers and companions of Muhammad knew his views and his religion better than later generations of Muslims, no later scholar could disagree with them nor with the traditions they observed. They clearly did not attach any Islamic significance to today's Aqsa Mosque nor to the Temple Mount in general. How then, Ibn Taymiyya reasoned, could we who never knew them nor Muhammad have the right to disagree? There is no way we could know more about Islam than they. We therefore have no right to sanctity al-Aqsa because they did not do so.
In order to further strengthen his argument against Jerusalem's sanctity, Ibn Taymiyya wrote that during Muhammad's night journey to heaven from Jerusalem, there is no mention of the (Temple) Rock in the story. Therefore, since the Rock is not even mentioned, it has no importance in Islamic tradition.
So we see that according to the intellectual godfather of the Saudis, the Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Rock have absolutely no Islamic religious significance. As he proved, these are nothing more than Judaic traditions that have penetrated Islam, and, as non-Muslim innovations, must be expunged from Islam.
So how did Jerusalem become holy in Islam? In the 680s, a civil war erupted among the Muslims. The caliph who ruled from Damascus wanted to put down a revolt by the people who controlled Mecca, the place of pilgrimage. In order to weaken them, he decided to build a counter-pilgrimage site and at the very least siphon off people who during the pilgrimage might have decided to take up the rebel's cause. He therefore chose to build a dome over the Rock in Jerusalem and to encourage people to make pilgrimages there instead of to Mecca. That is when Jerusalem became holy in Islam. So in essence, Jerusalem's sanctity to Muslims stems from a local revolt which occurred some 50-plus years after Muhammad's death.
The Saudi regime follows Ibn Taymiyya to a tee. Those who disagree with his philosophy do so at their own peril. When a Saudi editor published an article questioning something that Ibn Taymiyya had written, he was quickly fired on the orders of the information minister. So it is rather curious that the Saudis have included, as one of the basic principles of their plan for peace between Israel and the Arabs, the idea that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a Palestinian state. Why have they rejected their godfather's stance on Jerusalem? Ibn Taymiyya must be turning over in the grave.