How Jerusalem Became Islam’s So-Called ‘Third Holiest City’

Recent Muslim Arab attacks on Jews in Jerusalem have focused attention on the status of Israel’s capital – and in particular the Old City, home to Judaism’s sacred Temple Mount – and the Islamic shrine and mosque that currently sit atop it (respectively the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque).   As reported by the mainstream press, “militant” Jews provoked [so-called] “Palestinian” Arab violence by protesting the ban on prayer by Jews and Christians atop the Temple Mount.  The Waqf (the Muslim authority that oversees the area at the sufferance of the Israeli government) is responsible for the ban.

The fact that this ban is even tolerated by the Israeli government is remarkable.  That the ban it is either openly or tacitly supported by Western governments, the mainstream Western press, and Euro-American intelligentsia is due to historical ignorance, cowardice, and hypocrisy.

Typically, the Temple Mount is referred to as the “third holiest site” in Islam, behind the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  Sometimes, that formulation is balanced by reference to the Mount’s status as Judaism’s holiest site (and also of immense importance to Christians), sometimes not at all, and sometimes with bogus formulations like CNN’s “one of the holiest sites in Judaism and Islam.”

But just how “holy” is the Temple Mount to Muslims historically?  The answer is that its “third holiest” status is more a matter of political calculation and circumstance than an accurate statement of theology.

Today, in the highly charged contest between Arabs and Israelis over the land of Israel, it behooves the Arab/Islamic side to maximize the “historic status” of “Palestine” to the Islamic world.  The usual basis asserted by Muslims for the claim of Jerusalem as the religion’s tertiary sacred city is the Quran’s account of Mohammed’s night journey, during which Allah allowed Islam’s prophet to visit heaven.  Mohammed’s ascension, according to the Quran, occurred from Islam’s “furthest precinct.”  Perhaps that was a location known to Mohammed’s followers nearly 1,500 years ago, but it has been lost to actual history.  Today, Muslims claim the reference is to Jerusalem, and specifically to the site of the Dome of the Rock.

In fact, the reference to the “furthest precinct” almost certainly did not mean Jerusalem, which seems not to have figured at all in Mohammed’s limited and provincial knowledge of Jewish and Christian tradition.  This limitation is well-known, as any objective reader of the Quran can attest, and a limitation that quickly soured relations between the fledgling Muslim community and established Jewish and Christian populations in Medina (after Mohammed’s flight to that city in 622).  It is quite likely, in fact, that Mohammed did not even know of Jerusalem – at least there is no positive historical evidence that he did.

Jerusalem’s actual arrival in Islamic history would have to await the great Arab conquests that occurred after Mohammed’s death under the first caliphs.  Jerusalem fell early in the violent and remarkably successful military campaigns that erupted from Arabia, its Byzantine defenders weakened from centuries of conflict with the rival Sassanid Empire of Persia (which was itself enfeebled by the same conflict).

Islam’s second and arguably greatest caliph, Umar, arrived in Jerusalem in 637 at the head of powerful Arab armies, far from the Arab authorities in Mecca and Medina that controlled Islam’s central pilgrimage site, the Ka’aba, and Mohammed’s burial place in Medina.  It wasn’t long before Umar found himself in active dispute with the local rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, a dispute that threatened Umar’s hold over the rapidly expanding Muslim-Arab umma (community of the faithful).  A shrewd and resourceful leader, Umar quickly saw the value of Jerusalem as a counter-weight to the Muslim authorities in Mecca and Medina.  The city was clearly important to local Christians and Jews (to whom according to Islamic tradition Umar was tolerant).  Meanwhile, Islam itself was still in an early stage of development, with the Quran not yet in final written form.

The holiest site in Jerusalem, at least according to the city’s Jews, was the Temple Mount, which in this period was mostly a rubble-strewn remnant of Israel’s Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century.  Arising from this rubble were both foundation stones from the temple itself and the bedrock upon which it had been originally constructed.  According to local legend, one of these stony outcroppings was the very stone upon which Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, as recounted in the Old Testament.

Abraham is well-represented in the Quran, perhaps the most favorably among the forgoing Jewish and Christian prophets of Allah (e.g., Jesus, Moses, Daniel, and so on, all of whom, according to the Quran, were Muslims) before the arrival of Mohammed (the “Seal of the Prophets”).  Umar, scholarly as well as politically and militarily astute, was certainly acquainted with the Old Testament biblical story of Isaac’s near sacrifice and Abraham’s status in Islam.

Umar saw an opportunity to kill several problematic birds with a single well-placed stone, by building an Islamic shrine over the rocky outcrop on the Temple Mount.  The Dome of the Rock (which was begun under Umar but finished decades later) became the first example of monumental Islamic architecture (its form borrowed from the Byzantines, but now largely associated with Islam).  Its location in Jerusalem, a city holy to Christians and Jews, but until that time essentially meaningless to Muslims, established for all to see the new Islamic suzerainty over the Levant, while also tying to the dynamic new religion to Jewish and Christian roots, thus helping to bolster its legitimacy in the eyes of recently conquered populations.

The new myth of Mohammed’s ascension from the Rock was invented by one of Umar’s close associates (a Jewish rabbi recently converted to Islam).  This story neatly closed the questionable theological circle.  Finally, the establishment of a shrine containing a “holy rock” was a direct challenge to Umar’s rivals in Mecca, the guardians of the pagan “holy stone” of Islam.  That bowling ball-sized rock resides in the Ka’aba, Islam’s holiest shrine, and helped in its own way to legitimize the new religion among Arabia’s pagan Arabs.  Now the Dome of the Rock would do the same thing for Islam’s new dominions, and perhaps even supplant the Mecca if the authorities there refused to come to heel.

In this very practical if cynical manner did Jerusalem become “Islam’s third holiest site.”  Umar won his contest with the Meccan authorities (though was later murdered by other rivals), and Jerusalem quickly sank back into relative obscurity within Islam.  Damascus and then Bagdad became the central cities respectively of the two great Arab dynasties (the Umayyad and Abbasid).  In the following centuries there are many accounts extolling the glories of these cities to dar al Islam, while Jerusalem became a backwater.  Only with the Crusades did Jerusalem regain status and importance within the Islamic world,  again to be discarded as a significant sacred site until the Zionist movement once again centered Arab/Islamic attention on the city.

Thus, Jerusalem is important to Arabs and Islam only in direct proportion to its importance to Christians and Jews.  Were it not for Jewish interest in what is legitimately their holiest site, Muslims would hardly notice the city, as was the case for centuries before and after the Crusades.  That the mostly Christian West elevates this cynical game of power politics to the level of holy status, co-equal or superior to Jewish (and even Christian) concerns, is but another example of the growing tendency toward subservient dhimmi status regarding Islam in the West.  Which is of course is largely what Umar had in mind when he set out to build the Dome of the Rock in the first place.

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