Jihad over Jerusalem (1)

Some of Muhammad's theology and policies  have ambiguities or seeds —— not found in other religions —— which later followers have difficulty interpreting and applying to their own life and historical context.

Muhammad's conquest of Mecca also plants ambiguities or seeds in the Qur'an and his sunna ('path' or customs and praxis). The consequences have been far—reaching, affecting today's Jihadists and their views of Israel. Parts One and Two of this series examine the problematic aspects of the conquest of Mecca, and their consequences for Muslims' view of Jerusalem.

(1) Muhammad takes over the Arab custom of pilgrimage to the Ka'bah in Mecca and elevates it to the fifth Pillar of Islam.

In Islam the qiblah is the direction towards which one prays, which is now always towards Mecca and the Ka'bah, the holiest shrine, just outside the city, where today hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims go every year. However, when Muhammad lived in Mecca, he prayed toward Jerusalem. After he arrived in Medina at the end of his Emigration in September, 622, he still prayed towards Jerusalem. Sixteen months later, he changed directions toward the Ka'bah. How did this come about? Three historical factors:

First, after Muhammad settled in Medina, he found a powerful Jewish presence in his new city. As I earlier noted, he saw himself as a prophet in the Biblical tradition. But tension simmered between him and the Jews of Medina. So he changed his qiblah towards the Ka'bah in Mecca. 

Then, the Jews challenged the prophet: if Muhammad were the new representative of Judaism and monotheism, why is he praying toward the Ka'bah, which is dedicated to polytheism?

The second historical factor concerns the established Arab custom of raids. After one year of fruitless raids on Meccan caravans in 623, finally in January, 624 Muhammad's jihadists got a lucky strike, capturing a caravan south of Mecca. But they spilled blood. When they brought the spoils back to Medina, the non—Muslim Medinans were understandably upset because they knew the Meccans could not let that defeat stand. Conflict would have to escalate in order to restore the Meccans' honor. What was his justification?

Third, it must not be overlooked that the Ka'bah was a popular site of pilgrimage in the Arabian Peninsula, so it generated a lot of income. As I demonstrated elsewhere, since early Islam was expansionist, Muhammad could not leave the Ka'bah alone until religion is only for Allah (2:193). It had to become a site of pilgrimage for Muslims.

So it is in the historical context of the tension with the Jews in Medina, the raids on Meccan caravans, and the Ka'bah's popularity that Muhammad turned his face to Allah in prayer and received two revelations (2:122—129 and 2:142—147). We examine only key verses in the first revelation, using the translation of Maulana Muhammad Ali, an apologist* and commentator on his own translation:

2:124: And when his Lord tried Abraham with certain commands, he fulfilled them. He said: surely I will make thee a leader of men. (Abraham) said: And of my offspring? My covenant does not include the wrongdoers, said He. 125 . . .  And: [Muhammad,] Take ye the Place [Ka'bah] of Abraham for a place of prayer. And we enjoined Abraham and Ishmael, saying: Purify My House for those who visit (it) and those who abide (in it) for devotion and those who bow down and prostrate themselves . . . 127 And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House: Our Lord, accept from us . . . . 129 Our Lord, and raise up in them a Messenger [Muhammad] from among them who shall recite to them Thy passages and teach them the Book [Qur'an] and the Wisdom and purify them.

These verses reveal five ideas: (1) Allah does not include the wrongdoers in a covenant, which affects the Jews, according to the rest of chapter 2. (2) Verse 125 conforms to the folk belief circulating before Muhammad's time that Abraham visited the Ka'bah. (3) Allah told Muhammad that Abraham and his son Ishmael had rebuilt and purified the shrine centuries ago. Since Muhammad's new religion supercedes Judaism (and Christianity), only it truly and fully represents Abraham. It is now a place of prayer for those who bow down and prostrate themselves (v. 125), referring to Muslims, since only they prayed that way. (4) Abraham prophesies the existence of Muhammad and his Book, the Qur'an. (5) Therefore, the Jews should not challenge him about the sacred place of Abraham, nor should the Medinans, for the Ka'bah belongs to Muhammad the new prophet. This answers the first two reason for pursuing the Ka'bah.

Tradition says this passage, the second revelation, was received in February, 624, soon after the jihadists got their lucky strike in January, 624:

2:142 The fools among the people will say: 'What has turned them from their qiblah which they had?'  Say: the East and the West belong to Allah; He guides whom he pleases to the right path . . . 144 Indeed We [Allah] see the turning of thy face to heaven, so We shall surely make thee master of the qiblah which thou likest; turn then thy face towards the Sacred Mosque [the Ka'bah].

The meaning is clear: (1) Maulana comments that the words 'East and West belong to Allah' in verse 142 mean 'conquest' of Mecca. (2) In verse 144 Allah tells Muhammad that he will soon be the master of the Ka'bah, a word that can also mean 'governor.' (3) Muhammad was already referring to it as the Sacred Mosque, before it actually became such, as we also saw in 2:190—193. This bold claim has an impact on Jerusalem, for later followers will say it belongs to them even before it is captured.

These revelations answer the first and second reasons for pursuing the Ka'bah. The Jews (who are probably the "fools" in v. 142) questioned Muhammad's claim to be a Biblical prophet, as well as his prayer toward the polytheistic Ka'bah, and the non—Muslim Medinans questioned Muhammad's attack on the Meccan caravan, which spilled blood. With the kind of divine endorsement claimed by Muhammad, anyone would have to conclude that the Ka'bah belonged to Muhammad and that he was justified in raiding the Meccan caravans and praying toward a polytheistic shrine. The fact that Muhammad got revelations to endorse his political and religious goal of control over Mecca and the Ka'bah has implications for his own times and therefore for us today.

As to his own times, the Meccans may have never heard of these new revelations that the Muslims, the true caretakers of Abraham's religion, have a precedent claim on the Ka'bah. But from the Meccan point of view the Meccans surely had every right to reject these revelations. Certainly, Muhammad never worked this out historically.

However, from Muhammad's new point of view (much earlier he seems to have endorsed a Meccan tribe's control over it, in Qur'an 106:3) the Meccans who oversaw the Ka'bah were now deemed unfit, due to their polytheism. Also, Abraham had a prior claim on it, and Islam is the true religion of Abraham, so Muslims have a claim on it.

From the Meccan point of view, it is one thing for Muhammad to attack Meccan caravans out of revenge for persecuting  him and his followers. But it is quite another to take over the Ka'bah, which never rightfully belonged to him, historically considered.

So Muhammad needed a divine reason to be the master (2:144) of it and to break the deadlock in their conflicting points of his view, and he got one.

Thus, we have two competing claims of truth and ownership, one based on historical precedent, which favors the Meccans, and the other based on revelation, which favors Muhammad. Even if we concede the highly debatable belief that Abraham purified and rebuilt the Ka'bah (neither reputable historical evidence nor the Bible says this), how does one settle the truth claim and the historical ownership claim? By revelation only? Or by warfare and conquest?

Apparently, it is settled by warfare and conquest. As noted, in January 630 Muhammad and 10,000 of his fellow jihadists entered Mecca. The Meccans were too weak to fight, so they capitulated with only minor bloodshed. Muhammad took over the Ka'bah, turning it into the central holy site for his Fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam: Pilgrimage to Mecca. And that answers the third of the three reasons for going after the Ka'bah. Thus, Arab custom has now become enshrined in the Qur'an.

Comparing religions can shed light on another religion's belief and practices. Muhammad's search for control over a holy site differs from the goal of Jesus. Jesus, or his later disciples who wrote the rest of the New Testament, never instituted a pilgrimage for Christianity. It is true that Jesus went to Jerusalem during the Week of Passover, but he did so in order to die as the Lamb of God, the Passover Lamb. That spiritual truth and new application simply could not be overlooked by Jesus.

Certainly neither he nor his apostles ever called on the early Christian community to attack a city like Jerusalem in order to make it their own holy site, so that all Christians would be required to take a pilgrimage, if only once in their lifetime. Jesus never bothered with pursuing highly charged political goals, or with transforming them into religious goals.

True, Medieval Christians embarked on their own pilgrimages to places like Lourdes, France, and sometimes even Jerusalem, but they did so out of their own free will, not because Christ their Founder, the only one who sets the genetic code for Christianity, instituted it.

Personally, I do not fault Christians who follow their hearts to the Holy Land in order to derive spiritual benefit from it (I have done so). But Christians who are educated in the Bible —— the very ones of whom many in the Jewish community are most wary! —— know that Christ does not command them to do so. Pilgrimage to an earthly place is not a central tenet in Christianity. They know that to follow their Founder, they need only look up to the City of God (as St. Augustine calls it) or the Heavenly Jerusalem, (as John the Revelator calls it), not earthly Jerusalem. Their spiritual pilgrimage is to a heavenly place.

Thus, the refusal from Jesus and the early Church to pursue political goals (later followers are another matter) implies that the soil in which to plant the seeds of conflict does not exist, as it does in early Islam.

This fertile soil and its crop will be reaped by a later interpreter, as we will see in Part Two.

*In theological usage 'apologist' means 'defender.'

Jim Arlandson (Ph.D.) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).

Some of Muhammad's theology and policies  have ambiguities or seeds —— not found in other religions —— which later followers have difficulty interpreting and applying to their own life and historical context.

Muhammad's conquest of Mecca also plants ambiguities or seeds in the Qur'an and his sunna ('path' or customs and praxis). The consequences have been far—reaching, affecting today's Jihadists and their views of Israel. Parts One and Two of this series examine the problematic aspects of the conquest of Mecca, and their consequences for Muslims' view of Jerusalem.

(1) Muhammad takes over the Arab custom of pilgrimage to the Ka'bah in Mecca and elevates it to the fifth Pillar of Islam.

In Islam the qiblah is the direction towards which one prays, which is now always towards Mecca and the Ka'bah, the holiest shrine, just outside the city, where today hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims go every year. However, when Muhammad lived in Mecca, he prayed toward Jerusalem. After he arrived in Medina at the end of his Emigration in September, 622, he still prayed towards Jerusalem. Sixteen months later, he changed directions toward the Ka'bah. How did this come about? Three historical factors:

First, after Muhammad settled in Medina, he found a powerful Jewish presence in his new city. As I earlier noted, he saw himself as a prophet in the Biblical tradition. But tension simmered between him and the Jews of Medina. So he changed his qiblah towards the Ka'bah in Mecca. 

Then, the Jews challenged the prophet: if Muhammad were the new representative of Judaism and monotheism, why is he praying toward the Ka'bah, which is dedicated to polytheism?

The second historical factor concerns the established Arab custom of raids. After one year of fruitless raids on Meccan caravans in 623, finally in January, 624 Muhammad's jihadists got a lucky strike, capturing a caravan south of Mecca. But they spilled blood. When they brought the spoils back to Medina, the non—Muslim Medinans were understandably upset because they knew the Meccans could not let that defeat stand. Conflict would have to escalate in order to restore the Meccans' honor. What was his justification?

Third, it must not be overlooked that the Ka'bah was a popular site of pilgrimage in the Arabian Peninsula, so it generated a lot of income. As I demonstrated elsewhere, since early Islam was expansionist, Muhammad could not leave the Ka'bah alone until religion is only for Allah (2:193). It had to become a site of pilgrimage for Muslims.

So it is in the historical context of the tension with the Jews in Medina, the raids on Meccan caravans, and the Ka'bah's popularity that Muhammad turned his face to Allah in prayer and received two revelations (2:122—129 and 2:142—147). We examine only key verses in the first revelation, using the translation of Maulana Muhammad Ali, an apologist* and commentator on his own translation:

2:124: And when his Lord tried Abraham with certain commands, he fulfilled them. He said: surely I will make thee a leader of men. (Abraham) said: And of my offspring? My covenant does not include the wrongdoers, said He. 125 . . .  And: [Muhammad,] Take ye the Place [Ka'bah] of Abraham for a place of prayer. And we enjoined Abraham and Ishmael, saying: Purify My House for those who visit (it) and those who abide (in it) for devotion and those who bow down and prostrate themselves . . . 127 And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House: Our Lord, accept from us . . . . 129 Our Lord, and raise up in them a Messenger [Muhammad] from among them who shall recite to them Thy passages and teach them the Book [Qur'an] and the Wisdom and purify them.

These verses reveal five ideas: (1) Allah does not include the wrongdoers in a covenant, which affects the Jews, according to the rest of chapter 2. (2) Verse 125 conforms to the folk belief circulating before Muhammad's time that Abraham visited the Ka'bah. (3) Allah told Muhammad that Abraham and his son Ishmael had rebuilt and purified the shrine centuries ago. Since Muhammad's new religion supercedes Judaism (and Christianity), only it truly and fully represents Abraham. It is now a place of prayer for those who bow down and prostrate themselves (v. 125), referring to Muslims, since only they prayed that way. (4) Abraham prophesies the existence of Muhammad and his Book, the Qur'an. (5) Therefore, the Jews should not challenge him about the sacred place of Abraham, nor should the Medinans, for the Ka'bah belongs to Muhammad the new prophet. This answers the first two reason for pursuing the Ka'bah.

Tradition says this passage, the second revelation, was received in February, 624, soon after the jihadists got their lucky strike in January, 624:

2:142 The fools among the people will say: 'What has turned them from their qiblah which they had?'  Say: the East and the West belong to Allah; He guides whom he pleases to the right path . . . 144 Indeed We [Allah] see the turning of thy face to heaven, so We shall surely make thee master of the qiblah which thou likest; turn then thy face towards the Sacred Mosque [the Ka'bah].

The meaning is clear: (1) Maulana comments that the words 'East and West belong to Allah' in verse 142 mean 'conquest' of Mecca. (2) In verse 144 Allah tells Muhammad that he will soon be the master of the Ka'bah, a word that can also mean 'governor.' (3) Muhammad was already referring to it as the Sacred Mosque, before it actually became such, as we also saw in 2:190—193. This bold claim has an impact on Jerusalem, for later followers will say it belongs to them even before it is captured.

These revelations answer the first and second reasons for pursuing the Ka'bah. The Jews (who are probably the "fools" in v. 142) questioned Muhammad's claim to be a Biblical prophet, as well as his prayer toward the polytheistic Ka'bah, and the non—Muslim Medinans questioned Muhammad's attack on the Meccan caravan, which spilled blood. With the kind of divine endorsement claimed by Muhammad, anyone would have to conclude that the Ka'bah belonged to Muhammad and that he was justified in raiding the Meccan caravans and praying toward a polytheistic shrine. The fact that Muhammad got revelations to endorse his political and religious goal of control over Mecca and the Ka'bah has implications for his own times and therefore for us today.

As to his own times, the Meccans may have never heard of these new revelations that the Muslims, the true caretakers of Abraham's religion, have a precedent claim on the Ka'bah. But from the Meccan point of view the Meccans surely had every right to reject these revelations. Certainly, Muhammad never worked this out historically.

However, from Muhammad's new point of view (much earlier he seems to have endorsed a Meccan tribe's control over it, in Qur'an 106:3) the Meccans who oversaw the Ka'bah were now deemed unfit, due to their polytheism. Also, Abraham had a prior claim on it, and Islam is the true religion of Abraham, so Muslims have a claim on it.

From the Meccan point of view, it is one thing for Muhammad to attack Meccan caravans out of revenge for persecuting  him and his followers. But it is quite another to take over the Ka'bah, which never rightfully belonged to him, historically considered.

So Muhammad needed a divine reason to be the master (2:144) of it and to break the deadlock in their conflicting points of his view, and he got one.

Thus, we have two competing claims of truth and ownership, one based on historical precedent, which favors the Meccans, and the other based on revelation, which favors Muhammad. Even if we concede the highly debatable belief that Abraham purified and rebuilt the Ka'bah (neither reputable historical evidence nor the Bible says this), how does one settle the truth claim and the historical ownership claim? By revelation only? Or by warfare and conquest?

Apparently, it is settled by warfare and conquest. As noted, in January 630 Muhammad and 10,000 of his fellow jihadists entered Mecca. The Meccans were too weak to fight, so they capitulated with only minor bloodshed. Muhammad took over the Ka'bah, turning it into the central holy site for his Fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam: Pilgrimage to Mecca. And that answers the third of the three reasons for going after the Ka'bah. Thus, Arab custom has now become enshrined in the Qur'an.

Comparing religions can shed light on another religion's belief and practices. Muhammad's search for control over a holy site differs from the goal of Jesus. Jesus, or his later disciples who wrote the rest of the New Testament, never instituted a pilgrimage for Christianity. It is true that Jesus went to Jerusalem during the Week of Passover, but he did so in order to die as the Lamb of God, the Passover Lamb. That spiritual truth and new application simply could not be overlooked by Jesus.

Certainly neither he nor his apostles ever called on the early Christian community to attack a city like Jerusalem in order to make it their own holy site, so that all Christians would be required to take a pilgrimage, if only once in their lifetime. Jesus never bothered with pursuing highly charged political goals, or with transforming them into religious goals.

True, Medieval Christians embarked on their own pilgrimages to places like Lourdes, France, and sometimes even Jerusalem, but they did so out of their own free will, not because Christ their Founder, the only one who sets the genetic code for Christianity, instituted it.

Personally, I do not fault Christians who follow their hearts to the Holy Land in order to derive spiritual benefit from it (I have done so). But Christians who are educated in the Bible —— the very ones of whom many in the Jewish community are most wary! —— know that Christ does not command them to do so. Pilgrimage to an earthly place is not a central tenet in Christianity. They know that to follow their Founder, they need only look up to the City of God (as St. Augustine calls it) or the Heavenly Jerusalem, (as John the Revelator calls it), not earthly Jerusalem. Their spiritual pilgrimage is to a heavenly place.

Thus, the refusal from Jesus and the early Church to pursue political goals (later followers are another matter) implies that the soil in which to plant the seeds of conflict does not exist, as it does in early Islam.

This fertile soil and its crop will be reaped by a later interpreter, as we will see in Part Two.

*In theological usage 'apologist' means 'defender.'

Jim Arlandson (Ph.D.) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book, Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).