On the Holiness of Jerusalem in Judaism and in Islam

For 3,000 years, the eternal city of Jerusalem has held the most exalted position in the Jewish religion and a place of unparalleled importance in Jewish life and history.

First and foremost, King Solomon built the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem between the years 965 and 928 BCE.  The people of Israel would come to the Holy Temple to pray and to give thanks, but especially to perform sacrifices on the three festivals of pilgrimage: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  But in the year 586, the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple, carried off its implements made of precious metals, and exiled the Jews of Jerusalem to Babylon.

Although Nebuchadnezzar had laid waste to the Holy Temple, its holiness remained, and it was then the Jewish exiles swore: "If I forget you Jerusalem, may I forget my right hand and may my tongue adhere to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember, if I do not hold Jerusalem above my greatest joy."  Generations of Jews have kept this vow to the present day.  The nation of Israel longingly remembered the holiness of Jerusalem throughout thousands of years of exile.

When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem from Babylon around 536 with the first group of exiles, the city was rebuilt, and the Holy Temple and Jerusalem were again the principle focus of national religious life until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE.  Following the suppression of Bar Kochva's revolt, the Roman Legions burned all of Jerusalem to ashes and in its place built a pagan city they called Aelia Capitolina, which Jews were forbidden from entering for generations.

The strong, heartfelt desire every Jew has to see Jerusalem rebuilt in his lifetime and the centuries-deep Jewish affection for the city King David founded are embodied in many important customs and prayers from Judaism's great sages.  For example, this prayer -- "And to Jerusalem, your city mercifully return, and dwell within it as you said.  And build in it soon in our lifetimes, the building for eternity, and may it hold a place for King David's throne" -- is repeated by every praying Jew several times a day.

In brief, those are the religious fundamentals on which Jerusalem's holiness stands in the Jewish faith.  In other words, the reason why Jerusalem is the holiest city in Judaism is because in the 5,000-year span of Jewish religious life, the nation's devotion to God has intersected more with this city and more intensely than it has with any other.

Various factors make Jerusalem holy to Muslims.

At first glance, the holiness of Jerusalem in the Muslim tradition is also religious at heart, stemming from the belief that Muhammad, the prophet and founder of Islam, rose to heaven from the site of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

After the prophet died in June 632, a series of successors, or caliphs, assumed authority as Islam's leaders.  Between 661 and 750 the Umayyad Dynasty held the caliphate and ruled from Damascus.  During the time they ruled, on account of various internal and external pressures, the Umayyads exerted enormous effort to elevate Jerusalem's status, perhaps even to the level of Mecca.

Daniel Pipes wrote in the Middle East Quarterly:

The first Umayyad ruler, Mu'awiya, chose Jerusalem as the place where he ascended to the caliphate; he and his successors engaged in a construction program - religious edifices, a palace, and roads - in the city. The Umayyads possibly had plans to make Jerusalem their political and administrative capital[.] ... But Jerusalem is primarily a city of faith. As the Israeli scholar Izhak Hasson explains, the "Umayyad regime was interested in ascribing an Islamic aura to its stronghold and center."

Toward this end (as well as to assert Islam's presence in its competition with Christianity), the Umayyad caliph built Islam's first grand structure, the Dome of the Rock, right on the spot of the Jewish Temple, in 688-91.  The next step the Umayyads took to make Jerusalem holy to Islam relates to a passage in the Quran (17:1) that describes Muhammad's Night Journey to heaven: "Glory to He who took His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the furthest mosque [al masjidi al aqsa]."

Pipes explains that when this Koranic passage was first revealed, in about 621, a place called the "Sacred Mosque" already existed in Mecca.  "In contrast," he goes on, "the 'furthest mosque' was a turn of phrase, not a place.  Some early Muslims understood it as metaphorical or as a place in heaven."

In other words, the line about the furthest mosque in the Koran is just a figure of speech.  This means that there is no basis for associating the furthest mosque -- the Koranic location of the start of Muhammad's Night Journey -- with the city of Jerusalem.

In 715, Pipes writes, the Umayyads did something very clever.  To build up the prestige of their domain, they built a second mosque in Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and named this one the "Furthest Mosque" (i.e., al-masjidi al-aqsa), the exact same name written in the holy Koran.  And in so doing, the Umayyads forced the city of Jerusalem to assume a role in the life of the prophet Muhammad -- a role which it never had.  This is how the Muslim belief in the holiness of Jerusalem, which persists to this day, originated.

As Pipes points out, moreover, "it had the hugely important effect of giving Jerusalem a place in the Koran post hoc which naturally imbued the city with a higher status in Islam."  This is another way of saying, that before the Umayyads built the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa, Jerusalem had no status at all in Islam.

Israeli scholar Izhak Hasson writes that "construction of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, the rituals instituted by the Umayyads on the Temple Mount and the dissemination of Islamic-oriented Traditions regarding sanctity of the site, all point to the political motives which underlay the glorification of Jerusalem among the Muslims."  In other words, the sanctification of Jerusalem in Islam is based on the Umayyad building program.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of Islam's very loose and insignificant bond with Jerusalem is how the Muslims related to the city after the caliphate passed from the Umayyads to the Abbisid's in 750. Daniel Pipes writes:

Jerusalem fell into near-obscurity. For the next three and a half centuries, books praising this city lost favor and the construction of glorious buildings not only came to an end but existing ones fell apart (the dome over the rock collapsed in 1016.)

These days, the never-ending cry for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital surely contains a trace of the claim that the city is holy in Islam.  But, essentially, the historic record shows that the actions and circumstances on which the claim is based aren't very holy at all.  In fact, by any standard of religious values in any society in the world, artificially imbuing a place with holiness, through wordplay and administrative sleight of hand, constitutes the very opposite of holiness.

Yonatan Silverman is the author of For The World To See: The Life Of Margaret Bourke-White (New York, 1983).  He works as a professional Hebrew-to-English translator.

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