It would be wonderful if Muslims remembered Jerusalem’s significance to Jews

How the Islamic story of Jerusalem edited out Jews


Muslims walk towards the Dome of the Rock shrine at Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the old city of Jerusalem on June 11, 2023. (Photo by Jewel SAMAD / AFP) (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

March 22, 2024 12:50

In Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, which portrays the events leading to the Third Crusade, Saladin is asked about Jerusalem’s value. He answers: “Nothing.” Then, reflecting deeper, he adds: “Everything.”

This duality captures Jerusalem’s oscillating significance in Islam, evolving from apparent insignificance to supreme importance.

Understanding Jerusalem’s intricate history in Islam is vital for comprehending the Arab-Israeli conflict’s complexities. The evidence of a Jewish connection to Jerusalem, corroborated by Islamic traditions, challenges prevailing narratives in the Muslim world. It raises a crucial question: what holds greater value, the pursuit of truth or the maintenance of a narrative that has evolved from “nothing” to “everything”?

At the inception of Islam around 610AD, Jerusalem was not acknowledged by its contemporary name. Instead, the region was known as Aelia Capitolina, or simply Aelia. This persisted into the Abbasid caliphate era, with early Islamic texts referring to the city as “مدينة إيلياء” or “the City of Aelia”. The term Jerusalem, or “Al Quds”, derived from the Hebrew “Ir Hakodesh” (the Holy City), had not yet been introduced to the Islamic world.

Initially, Prophet Muhammad directed his prayers towards Aelia, aligning with the Jewish prophets believed to have hailed from the area. This gesture was aimed at tracing their spiritual lineage. However, feeling disconnected, he sought divine guidance for a change in prayer direction towards Mecca, home to the Kaaba, built by Abraham and Ishmael. The Quran articulates this pivotal moment: “Verily! We have seen the turning of your (Muhammad’s) face towards heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (prayer direction) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid-al-Haram (at Makkah). And wherever you people are, turn your faces (in prayer) in that direction.” (Chapter 2: 144.) Post-revelation, Muhammad ceased attributing further significance to Jerusalem, focusing religious observance solely on Mecca and Medina.

The transformation of Jerusalem from “nothing” to “everything” within Islamic consciousness was precipitated by a power struggle between two Muslim leaders: Al Zubair ibn Al Awwam, ruler of Mecca, and Abdul Malik ibn Marwan, controller of the Levant. In a strategic move to counter Al Zubair’s blockade of Mecca, Abdul Malik proposed constructing a mosque atop the rock believed by Jews to be where Abraham had sacrificed Isaac, a site also revered as Solomon’s Temple’s Holy of Holies. This mosque, initially referred to as Abdul Malik ibn Marwan’s mosque and later known as the Dome of the Rock, symbolised Jerusalem’s newfound sacred status. This scenario mirrored the northern Israelites’ construction of temples during their Assyrian exile in captivity, which gave birth to the Samaritan sect.

This rivalry between Abdul Malik and Al Zubair catalysed a re-evaluation of Jerusalem’s importance within Islam. Previously, Muhammad, feeling no strong connection to the Israelite prophets’ prayer direction, yearned for a spiritual lineage more closely tied to his ancestors, Abraham and Ishmael. The conflict between Abdul Malik and Al Zubair ignited a transformation in how Muslims perceived Jerusalem.

The Crusades, commencing on 15 August, 1096AD, further cemented Jerusalem’s sanctity in Islamic consciousness. Muslim caliphs mobilised the Islamic world to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders, elevating it to the status of the third holiest site in Islam. Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem and his subsequent treaty with Richard the Lionheart in 1192AD underscored the city’s enduring sacredness.

By the early 20th century, documentation within the Al Haram Al Sharif (Temple Mount) guidebooks unequivocally identified the area as the site of Solomon’s Temple, contradicting the then-Palestinian president Yasser Arafat’s claims during peace negotiations with Bill Clinton. The acknowledgment of Jerusalem’s historical significance for Jews, affirmed by Islamic sources, presents a dilemma for the Palestinian cause, which has to reconcile a narrative essential for its legitimacy with historical truths.

This reflection on Jerusalem’s fluctuating significance encapsulates the city’s unique position at the heart of religious, historical and political discourses. Its transformation in the Islamic faith — from an initially peripheral site to a central pillar of spiritual identity — illustrates the dynamic interplay between faith, politics and historical memory. As such, Jerusalem remains a symbol of profound religious and cultural significance, its value transcending mere geography to encompass the very essence of faith and identity in the Middle East.

Jerusalem’s journey from “nothing” to “everything” within Islam mirrors the broader human quest for meaning, belonging and sanctity in the physical and spiritual landscapes we inhabit. This narrative not only enriches our understanding of Jerusalem’s place in Islamic tradition but also offers insights into the ways in which sacred spaces are constructed, contested and revered across cultures and epochs.

Jerusalem stands at the crossroads of history and faith. It would be wonderful if more Muslims remembered its significance to Jews.

Loay Alshareef is an Abu Dhabi-based writer

March 22, 2024 12:50

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive