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Throughout all of history, Jerusalem has been the capital of only one nation: Israel. From the time of Kings David and Solomon, late 11th – 10th centuries BCE, to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, almost 1,100 years, Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish nation.
From the onset of Islamic rule in 638 CE to its end 1917, except for Crusader rule from 1099 to 1187, Jerusalem was never the capital of any Muslim state, nor even a provincial capital, until late Ottoman times (19th c. CE) when it became a special provincial religious site (vilayet) separate from its larger provincial area [sanjak].
Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Qur’an. “The Night Journey,” in chapter 17:1, recounts Mohammed’s magical flight on the back of the winged horse, el-Buraq, and his landing in “al-Aqsa” (literally, the faraway mosque), which is interpreted by later Muslim scholars to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; but Jerusalem is not mentioned in the text. The Temple Mount, however, is acknowledged in Muslim tradition to date back to Solomonic times. In A Brief Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif,[ [i]] published by the Supreme Moslem Council in Jerusalem in1925, Muslim scholars expounded upon the antiquity and sanctity of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, stating that it dates to earliest times, certainly to the time of the Israelite kingdom, and is identified beyond dispute with the site of Solomon’s Temple.
In a description of the Temple Mount area known as “Solomon’s Stables,” which Islamic Waqf officials in Jerusalem converted into a mosque in 1996, the guide states: “…little is known for certain about the early history of the chamber itself. It dates probably as far back as the construction of Solomon’s Temple… According to Josephus, it was in existence and was used as a place of refuge by the Jews at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus in the year 70 A.D.”[ [ii]]
And the above is consistent with Muslim tradition. Islamic post-Qur’anic texts recount that originally Muhammed prayed toward Jerusalem (and not Mecca), making Jerusalem Islam’s first Qibla (direction toward which Muslims should pray). This tradition is based upon the account on the Qur’an’s chapter 2, verses 144 &149-150, where we read that Mohammed changed the direction of prayer to Mecca. The Qur’an does not state where the first Qibla was, and Jerusalem is not mentioned in the text; but later tradition preserved in biographies of Mohammed and in some Hadith collections (especially Sahih al-Bukhari) indicates that the original direction was toward Jerusalem. However, today there is some rather acrimonious debate among Muslim scholars of Islamic history about when and why the change came about, and if it came about at all; but what is important for this study is that the change, if it did happen, effectively nullified any religious significance that Jerusalem might have had for Islam. If it did not happen, then Jerusalem had no religious significance for Islam, ever.
For centuries thereafter, Jerusalem played little or no role in the religious affairs and development of Islam. In the 13th century, Ibn-Taymiyya, a major Muslim cleric and ideological godfather to later Saudi Wahhabism, wrote extensively about Jerusalem, demonstrating from Muslim sources that there were only two holy cities in Islam – Mecca and Medina. Ibn Taymiyya went to great lengths to explain that the veneration of Jerusalem was nothing more than the “Judaization” of Islam.
So how did Jerusalem become Islam’s third most sacred place? — By subterfuge.
In the late 680’s, just 50 years after Mohammed’s death, a civil war erupted among the Muslims. The Umayyad caliph, Abd al-Malik, who at that time ruled from Damascus, wanted to put down a revolt by his Muslim enemies who controlled Mecca, the place of pilgrimage. In order to weaken them, he created a counter-pilgrimage site in Jerusalem in 691, to compete with Mecca and to which to redirect pilgrims who might have decided, once in Mecca, to take up the rebels’ cause. He therefore built a mosque, the “dome of the rock,” on the site where Solomon’s Temple had been build in Jerusalem, and declared Jerusalem “al-Quds” (the sacred place). So Jerusalem’s sanctity to Muslims originates with a political and propagandistic ploy.
Under centuries of Muslim and Crusader rule, Jews were prohibited from, or limited in their access to, the city’s holy sites. Even the sacred precinct of the Temple Mount fell in to neglect and disrepair and disuse, due to the Muslim world’s lack of interest in Jerusalem.
With Zionist immigration to Israel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jerusalem again blossomed; and with the growth of the Jewish population in the city, the non-Jewish population grew too. Under British control (British Mandatory Palestine, 1917-1948), the city expanded even more, growing to a population of almost 300,000, more than half of whom were Jews.
The UN Partition Plan, UNGAR #181, Nov. 29, 1947, declared Jerusalem to be an international city under a special mandate. Israel accepted the plan, but the Arab world rejected it and declared a genocidal war against Israel. Against all odds, the Jews won, but Jerusalem was divided by the 1949 UN Armistice lines. West Jerusalem, in Israel, flourished, and became again, for the first time in almost 2,000 years, the capital of the Jewish state. East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, under an uncaring and illegal Jordanian sovereignty, languished, impoverished and neglected, much as it had during the centuries of Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid and Ottoman rule.
After the 6-day war (June 5-10, 1967), Jerusalem was re-united, under legal Israeli sovereignty [ [iii]], and East Jerusalem was annexed to the State of Israel. The West Bank was not annexed, as the Israeli government had offered, at the UN, to cede back to Jordan all of the West Bank except for Jerusalem. Jordan spurned the offer.
But Arafat recognized the PR value of al-Haram ash-Sharif in Jewish hands, and he milked it for all it was worth. “The Dome of the Rock turned up in pictures everywhere, from Yasir Arafat’s office to the corner grocery. Slogans about Jerusalem proliferated and the city quickly became the single most emotional issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The PLO began to specifically mention Jerusalem in its 1968 constitution as “the seat of the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Other Muslim leaders followed Arafat, and the importance of Jerusalem for Islam spread suddenly throughout the Muslim world. “….the Islamic Republic of Iran has made Jerusalem a central issue, following the dictate of its founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, who remarked that Jerusalem is the property of Muslims and must return to them.”
So today there can be no “Palestine” without Jerusalem, thanks in large part to Arafat’s adroit machinations.
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