Seeking the Peace of Jerusalem—or a Piece of Jerusalem?

By Moshe Sokolow
Thursday, January 17, 2013

There is no end of controversy about Jerusalem, old and new.  Archeology has become a full-fledged battlefield in the dispute over who has the superior claim to the city, Jews or Muslims.  The Israeli government has just created new controversy with the largest construction surge in decades in East Jerusalem.  Jews often dismiss Muslim claims to Jerusalem by noting that there is no explicit reference to Jerusalem in the Qur'an—but that is not surprising, since Muhammad died in 632 C.E., while Muslims conquered Jerusalem only in 636.  There is, similarly, no explicit reference to Jerusalem in the Torah, and this absence hardly undermines Jewish claims to the city, as it would be illogical to expect a reference to Jerusalem in a Jewish text written long before Jerusalem was settled by Jews.  It is true that there are hundreds of references to Jerusalem in post-Torah canonical Jewish literature, such as Prophets and Scriptures; but there are also innumerable references to the city in later Islamic canonical literature, such as the Qur'anic commentaries and Hadith. 

Thus, the history of the Muslim association with Jerusalem deserves a serious account. 

Popular Muslim convention—at least of Sunni Muslims—accords Jerusalem the status of the third holiest site of Islam.  (In Shi’ite tradition, this status is conferred on the Great Mosque of Kufa in Iraq.)  Though Jerusalem is not mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an, it is believed to be the place described in the following passage: 

Glory to Him who did take His servant [Muhammad] . . . from the sacred mosque to the farthest mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs . . . .(Sura 17:1)

Since there was no mosque in Jerusalem in Muhammad’s lifetime, the verse has been traditionally interpreted to allude to the Temple on Mount Moriah.  This interpretation inspired the name of the mosque later built atop the southern portion of the Temple Mount: Masjid al-Aqsa’, the “farthest mosque.”  It should be remembered that according to the Talmud (BT Hullin 91b), the patriarch Jacob took a similar journey, being miraculously transported from Haran to Beit-el—implicitly, the site of the future Temple on Mount Moriah—where, according to a Midrashic source (Sifrei Korah 119), he saw the Temple and a service there. 

It was the presence of the Al-Aqsa’ mosque in Jerusalem, along with the older Qubbat al-Sakhra, or Dome of the Rock, that conferred on Jerusalem a stature in Islam similar to that of Mecca and Medinah.  The timing and circumstances of its elevation, however, are contested.  The great 19th century Islamist Ignacz (Yitzhak) Goldziher maintained that the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705) erected the Dome in order to divert the haj, the pilgrimage, to Jerusalem and away from Mecca, which was governed by his arch-rival, Abdullah bin Zubayr.  The modern doyen of Genizah studies, Shelomo Dov Goitein, wrote that there is no contemporary evidence for Goldziher’s claim; but there is evidence that the Dome was built to rival Christian churches—hence its atypical domed roof.  Goitein also noted that the Qur'anic verses adorning the Dome conduct an anti-Christian polemic. 

Goitein argued that the earliest Muslim enthusiasts of Jerusalem were the Sufi mystics; many Sufi masters took up residence in the city, where they may be presumed to “have been in close contact with congenial Jewish circles.”  In contrast, Orthodox Islam was not patently supportive of Jerusalem until later, when the Crusaders threatened and then conquered the city.  They killed many of its inhabitants, forbade Muslim residence therein, and interrupted pilgrimages to Mecca.  It was this provocation that led to a declaration of jihad against Christendom.  The rulers of Syria and, later, Saladin, made the sanctity of Jerusalem the center of their propaganda. 

Regardless of whether Muhammad was ever in Jerusalem, physically or spiritually, he was well aware of the city’s importance to Jews and Christians.  Consistent with his avowed desire to convert them to Islam, Muhammad named Jerusalem the qiblah, the direction to be faced by Muslims in prayer.  This designation lasted some 17 months, until, after a subsequent avowed revelation—perhaps prompted by continuing Jewish resistance to his initial message—he replaced it with Mecca.  But Muslim tradition still refers to Jerusalem as ’awwal al-qiblatayn, the “first of the two directions” in prayer. 

In 636 C.E., Jerusalem—then known as Aelia Capitolina, for the temple of Jupiter reportedly constructed on the Temple Mount by the Emperor Hadrian in 131 C.E.—was conquered by the Muslims under the leadership of the second Calpih, ’Umar Ibn al-Khatab.  ’Umar celebrated his victory with a prayer service on the Temple Mount, thus announcing that its prior Jewish and Christian associations had been superseded.   

’Umar then invited the Jewish community to reestablish a presence in the city.  Two Genizah texts reflect this invitation. One, a letter from the time of the Gaonate of Daniel ben Azaryah (1051-62), relates the events: 

. . . God granted us favor in the eyes of the Ishmaelite kingdom when they conquered the Holy Land from the Christians and came to Jerusalem.  There were among them Jews who showed them the site of the Temple.  They have dwelt there among them until this day.  They imposed on them conditions: to respect the Temple from any contamination, and to pray at its gates without interference.  They also purchased the Mount of Olives on which the Presence stood. . . .

The second Genizah source on the subject describes the arrangement engineered by ’Umar under which 70 Jewish families relocated to Jerusalem from Tiberias, where there had been continuous Jewish settlement throughout the Byzantine period. 

’Umar’s invitation did not mark the first time (nor would it be the last) when Jews were invited to reestablish their presence in Jerusalem.  The first ruler to make such an offer was Cyrus, King of Persia, with this proclamation: 

All kingdoms of the earth did the Lord, god of heaven, give to me and he has commanded me to build him a house in Jerusalem of Judea.  Whosoever among you, his people, may the Lord his god be with him and may he ascend. . . .” (the very last verse in the Bible: 2 Chronicles 36:23)

When Jews were allowed a presence in Jerusalem, it was always accompanied by the aspiration to rebuild the Temple and renew its service.  The Roman Emperor Julian (361-363 C.E.), known as the Apostate because of his opposition to Christianity, invited the Jews to rebuild the Temple in order to recognize the significance they attached to it—and to counter the importance that Christianity attached to its ruin.  In a style reminiscent of Cyrus, he wrote a letter to the “Community of Jews:”

This you ought to do, in order that, when I have successfully concluded the war in Persia, I may rebuild by my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem, which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and may bring settlers there, and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.

After ’Umar’s invitation, the theme of rebuilding recurs, yet again, nearly a millennium later.  Sultan Suleiman “the Magnificent,” who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 until his death in 1566, oversaw the restoration of the present walls and gates of the Old City of Jerusalem and particularly of the Dome of the Rock.  A local folktale describes his relation to the site in terms that are borrowed—shamelessly—from the narrative of ’Umar.  Unquestionably, the coincidence of the Sultan’s proper name with that of Solomon, builder of the original temple, lent credence to the legend and contributed to its propagation. 

This theme of rebuilding is not difficult to trace to a more modern and even contemporary period and to extend it, first, to the Balfour Declaration and, later, the activities of the Ne’emanei Har Ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount Faithful, as well. 

While Islam acknowledges Jerusalem’s singularity, as does Christianity in its own way, only Judaism has lamented its decline as well as celebrating its renovation.  The customary shattering of a glass under the Jewish wedding canopy in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem (zekher lahurban)—accompanied by shouts of mazal tov!—epitomizes our unique attachment to this city and embodies the prophet Isaiah’s charge: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all that love her; all that mourn for her, rejoice for joy with her.” (Isaiah 66:10)

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).


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