August 5, 2004
Two Muslims, an Evangelical, and JerusalemBy James Arlandson
After I read two articles by moderate Muslims living in the West, one born here, the other in Iran, I wondered how they reached the conclusion that Jerusalem is holy for the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I can see how it is holy for Jews, since they have historical claims on it that later Christians and Muslims do not.
As an American Evangelical Christian, I do not believe that Jerusalem belongs to me, nor is it particularly holy; it may be historically unique, but I do not yearn for it in the same way as some Muslims do, apparently. Where does this gap between their Islam and my Christianity come from?
It comes from the practice and theology of the two Founders of Islam and Christianity.
Rational logic is used because emotions can run high and the language can become shrill.
(1) If A, then B. If Muhammad transforms any location into a holy site, then his later followers are justified in claiming ownership over it.
These premises can be explained easily.
(1) If Muhammad transforms any location into a holy site . . .
Muhammad prayed toward Jerusalem while living in Mecca and for sixteen months after his Emigration (Hijrah) to Medina in 622. For reasons that are explained in this article, he then changed his prayer direction—known as the qiblah—to the Ka'bah shrine in Mecca.
Finally in January 630 Muhammad conquered Mecca after a long struggle of raids and diplomacy and open warfare. Mecca was too weak to fight, so they capitulated with only minor bloodshed. Thus, he transforms the Arab custom of pilgrimage to the Ka'bah shrine near Mecca into a Muslim pilgrimage to Allah, the God of monotheism, which supercedes the Meccans' gods of polytheism. He elevates the holy site to the central location for the Fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam: pilgrimage at least once.
. . . Then his later followers are justified in claiming ownership over it.
Muslims take Muhammad's prayer direction or qiblah seriously today in their imitatio Muhammadi (imitation of Muhammad in every detail), for they too pray toward Mecca and its sacred shrine; they have claimed political and spiritual ownership over Mecca.
Moreover, in claiming ownership the Muslims are only following their Prophet. Even before Muhammad conquered Mecca, Allah and he claim it as their own and become 'master' or 'governor' over it. Qur'an 2:144 reads:
144 Indeed We [Allah] see the turning of thy [Muhammad's] 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].
This non—empirical spiritual prophecy has three empirical and political implications for Muhammad's own times. First, Allah by special revelation gives permission to his true and final prophet to own a location even before he actually does. Second, it is apparent that Allah does not concern himself with historical precedent, namely the ownership of the Ka'bah, by the large Meccan Quraysh tribe. Thus, once Allah and his prophet transform a location into (their) holy site, they and their later followers can claim it as their own. Third, revelation trumps history, even though the Quraysh do not agree with the revelation but cite mere history as their proof of ownership.
This non—empirical spiritual prophecy has empirical and political implications for Jerusalem today, as well. If by revelation alone Muhammad transforms it into a holy site, then his followers are justified in claiming ownership over it as they did over Mecca. Historical precedent takes a back seat to revelation.
(2) Muhammad transforms Jerusalem into a holy site.
According to prolific and prominent Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr,* professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, and the first scholar I read who prompted this article, Muhammad transforms Jerusalem into a holy site for Muslims primarily in three ways.
First, the prophet used Jerusalem as his first qiblah (prayer direction), which therefore provides a 'spiritual' or 'mystical' link between Mecca and Jerusalem.
Second, while Muhammad was still living in Mecca, he reports that he took a Night Journey to Jerusalem in a vision, even though Jerusalem is never mentioned by name. According to Haleem's new translation for Oxford University Press (2004), the two passages in the surah (or chapter) itself entitled Night Journey, read:
17:1 Glory to Him who made His servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship [Mecca] to the furthest place of worship [Jerusalem], whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him some of Our signs . . . .
17:59 . . . We send signs only to give warning. 60 Prophet, We have told you that your Lord knows all human beings. The vision We showed you was only a test for people . . . .
This non—empirical revelation contains two basic ideas: First, as the context around verses 59 and 60 show, Muhammad was undergoing some persecution in Mecca; the polytheists were asking for a sign of Muhammad's prophethood. He replies that he is only an ordinary man, so he cannot perform them. The only sign Allah gives him is a vision. Second, this revelation parallels the one in 2:144, which permits Muhammad to take over the Ka'bah shrine. The two passages are mutually supportive. Verse 1 reads: . . . whose surroundings We have blessed . . . . Allah blesses Jerusalem as He will bless Mecca a few years later.
It should be noted that later tradition says that while in Jerusalem Muhammad was taken up to the seventh heaven, giving the vision extra significance for Muslims today.
The third factor is this: Muslims, says Nasr, believe in the Second Coming of Christ to Jerusalem. Therefore, the city is sacred to Muslims (and to Christians).
The empirical and political implications of these three factors (the qiblah, the Night Vision, and the Second Coming) are enormous: ownership over Jerusalem.
(3) Therefore, his later followers are justified in claiming ownership over Jerusalem.
This conclusion follows necessarily.
With these three factors combined, Jerusalem is now the third holiest site for Muslims and therefore a place of pilgrimage.
Usama bin Laden believes he is justified in claiming ownership over Jerusalem:
[W]hile millions of Americans are homeless and destitute and live in abject poverty, their government is busy occupying our land and building new settlements and helping Israel build new settlements in the point of departure for our Prophet's midnight journey to the seventh heavens.**
He also notes that his (wealthy) father was pleased to be able to visit all three sites, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, in one day by helicopter.
In this excerpt, bin Laden says 'our land' and links it to his Prophet's Night Journey. In this he is following the sunna or path of Muhammad, who claimed ownership over Mecca and the Ka'bah even before he actually owned it.
According to this dubious epistemology, revelation takes priority over history; indeed, revelation makes or creates history. Even a modern scholar accepts this epistemology. Nasr himself says:
Not all the Palestinians nor all the Arabs nor even all the over one billion two hundred million Muslims now living in the world could give Jerusalem away for no matter what amount of wealth, power, land, or any other worldly compensation. The attachment to Jerusalem is permanent and will last as long as human history itself. (p. 234)
His inference makes three controversial claims.
First, the words Muslims living all over the world now living could not give Jerusalem away assume that Jerusalem is owned by the Muslims already. Could it be that Nasr is following the path or sunna of Muhammad, as his Prophet claimed Mecca before he actually owned it?
Second, those same words assume that Muslims living all over the world actually worry about Jerusalem and controlling it. However, more evidence of this needs to be offered. It is doubtful whether the millions in Indonesia care about not giving it away for any amount of wealth, power, and, or any other worldly compensation.
Third, Nasr brings up 'human history' in the last sentence, but it is precisely this element that is missing in his three factors under premise (2). Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims all over the world mainly due to non—empirical revelations that not everyone agrees with and that cannot be verified in history.
Waleed El—Ansary,*** the second scholar I read who prompted this article, agrees with Nasr and also draws this conclusion about Jerusalem:
Perhaps the only ways to achieve peace in the Middle East would be for Jerusalem to be depoliticized. It should not be a political capital of either Israel or Palestine, but be given a unique status as a spiritually sovereign entity under a theocracy of the traditional representatives of the Abrahamic religions . . . .
However noble and lofty his conclusion may sound, it has never crossed my mind that the Jews should relinquish control of Jerusalem and let a representative theocracy rule over it. Why not?
The answer can be found in simple logic too:
(1) If A, then B. If Jesus never transformed a location into a holy site, then neither should his followers.
We do not need to answer each premise one by one, since that would involve multiplying words about non—existent evidence. The Gospels are silent on Jesus transforming Jerusalem (or any other city) into a holy site, and certainly not in the way Muhammad did to Mecca—by the sword—and on Jesus instituting a required pilgrimage to a holy site.
It is true that Jesus wept over Jerusalem, because as a whole she did not accept his comfort (Luke 19:38—44); and that he cleansed a corner of the temple there with a whip (Luke 19:45—46), but he did this by himself, which shows he was making only a theological statement, not a military one. If his intentions were military, then he had enough disciples and crowds to call them to a jihad to try to conquer Jerusalem.
It is also true that he foretold her destruction (Luke 21:20); that he instituted the first Eucharist there (Luke 22:7—23); that he died there (Luke 23:26—49); and that, as Christians believe, he was resurrected there (Luke 24:1—12).
All of these events are historically and empirically verifiable (except perhaps the Resurrection, though volumes have been written on its verifiability), as opposed to non—empirical revelations. Despite all of these events that are rooted in earth and not floating in the air, Jesus never once turned Jerusalem into a place of pilgrimage or declared that it should belong forever to his followers, the Christians.
Thus, Nasr misses the mark widely when he writes:
. . . [B]y virtue of accepting Christianity, Christians are duty bound to have a special attachment to Jerusalem as did their forefathers who even fought bloody wars known as the Crusades for over a century with the declared intention of regaining control of the holy city, who oriented their churches in Europe in its direction and who have made pilgrimage to the holy city during the past two millennia. (p. 234)
The key words are duty bound. Why does he impose that duty on me? Bloody wars? Oriented European Medieval churches? Pilgrimages? It is no wonder Nasr does not quote from the Gospels. His reasons, not found in the Gospels, are not nearly sufficient for the average Evangelical Christian in America or anywhere in the world. In fact, they are sufficient reasons not to be duty—bound to them. It is difficult to imagine that Thai or Korean Evangelicals, for example, ever feel duty bound for those reasons. The American Evangelicals I know do not feel these requirements. It is almost as if Nasr would like to stir up this duty, by imposing it.
It is one thing for an American Evangelical to follow his heart on a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to derive spiritual benefit (I have done that), but it is quite another to follow one's alleged duty to go on one and to insist that Jerusalem should come under the political control of Christians, especially to the point of bloodshed.
And as to the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming (Nasr's third factor), Christians believe that Christ will return when the Father pleases. Whoever is squabbling over Jerusalem at that time will have to submit to his reign. True, professional Bible prophecy teachers believe that the Bible teaches Jews own Jerusalem, but these teachers believe this for a simpler reason than reading current events and matching them up with the Bible.
American Evangelicals (including Bible prophecy teachers) are faced with three grounds of epistemology on which to make some choices: (1) history, which says the Jews own Jerusalem; (2) the non—existence of evidence that says Christians should own Jerusalem (what Christ's later followers like the Crusaders did is another matter, but they do not set the genetic code for Christianity); and (3) Islamic revelation that says Muhammad transformed Jerusalem into a holy site.
The vast majority of Evangelicals in America choose the first epistemological option simply because the Bible and history outside the Bible agree that Jews have lived there long before Christians and Muslims arrived on the scene, and they choose the second option—their Founder never said Jerusalem belongs to them.
However, Christians (and Jews) should respect later Islamic revelation (the third option)—respecting is different from agreeing with—that says Jerusalem is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Fulfilling a pledge to take a non—violent pilgrimage to their sacred city harms no one materially or politically.
Yet, moderate Muslim scholars should understand why Bible—educated Christians claim that political and material ownership of Jerusalem belongs to the Jews. History trumps revelation, which is always better epistemologically when a revelation and its inferences can become politically charged and are not believed by everyone. Thus, moderate Muslim scholars should also understand the American Evangelical position thoroughly before imposing a non—existent, mystical duty on Christians, pulled from earlier practices which are not found in the New Testament.
Instead of an earthly Jerusalem, all Christians are looking for a New Jerusalem in heaven (Revelation 21). They are on a pilgrimage to the City of God (as St. Augustine calls it), not to a mundane city. Therefore, it is not (or should not be) hard for us to let plain ole history take priority over earthward and political revelations.
And plain ole history says Jews should be able to live in and govern their holy city in peace.
*S.H. Nasr, 'The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem: The Islamic Vision." The Islamic Quarterly. 4 (1998): 233—242.
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).