Would you be surprised to learn that the first Muslims, during the lifetime of Mohammed — before they ever prayed toward Mecca — were instructed by the Prophet to face in the direction of Jerusalem? Or that they referred to the place as the “City of the Temple”?
This short article, which appeared in TIME magazine, is a dozen years old now, but well worth a read. In the prevailing Jerusalem paradigm of trying to deny the historical attachments of “the other” to this place (and, yes, “they” do it too), the Muslim connections to the city are sometimes represented as less genuine than others’ — as somehow a late invention or even “fake”. This is not only perversely dismissive but demonstrably false.
One thing humbling to me as a Christian is the fact that Christian control over the Holy City, historically, has never been kind to the Jews — this was true throughout most of the 300-year Byzantine reign over Jerusalem as well as during the 88 years of Crusader possession. Given the upper hand, Islam, it turns out, was much more of a benign presence here than Christianity ever was.
Islam’s Stake: Why Jerusalem Was Central To Muhammad
By Karen Armstrong / Monday, Apr. 16, 2001
Jerusalem was central to the spiritual identity of Muslims from the very beginning of their faith. When the Prophet Muhammad first began to preach in Mecca in about 612, according to the earliest biographies, which are our primary source of information about him, he had his converts prostrate themselves in prayer in the direction of Jerusalem. They were symbolically reaching out toward the Jewish and Christian God, whom they were committed to worshipping, and turning their back on the paganism of Arabia. Muhammad never believed that he was founding a new religion that canceled out the previous faiths. He was convinced that he was simply bringing the old religion of the One God to the Arabs, who had never been sent a prophet before.
Consequently, the Koran, the inspired scripture that Muhammad brought to the Arabs, venerates the great prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It speaks of Solomon’s “great place of prayer” in Jerusalem, which the first Muslims called City of the Temple. Only after the Jews of Medina rejected Muhammad did he switch orientation and instruct his adherents to pray facing Mecca, whose ancient shrine, the Kabah, was thought by locals to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, the father of the Arabs.
The centrality of Jerusalem in Muslim spirituality is apparent in the story of Muhammad’s mystical Night Journey to Jerusalem. Muslim texts make it clear that this was not a physical experience but a visionary one (not dissimilar to the heavenly visions of the Jewish Throne Mystics at this time). One night Muhammad was conveyed miraculously from the Kabah to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. There he was welcomed by all the great prophets of the past before ascending through the seven heavens. On his way up he sought the advice of Moses, Aaron, Enoch, Jesus, John the Baptist and Abraham before entering the presence of God. The story shows the yearning of the Muslims to come from far-off Arabia right into the heart of the monotheistic family, symbolized by Jerusalem.
Respect for other faiths was manifest in Islamic Jerusalem. When Caliph Umar, one of Muhammad’s successors, conquered the Jerusalem of the Christian Byzantines in 638, he insisted that the three faiths of Abraham coexist. He refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher when he was escorted around the city by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. Had he done so, he explained, the Muslims would have wanted to build a mosque there to commemorate the first Islamic prayer in Jerusalem.
The Jews found their new Muslim rulers far more congenial than the Byzantines. The Christians had never allowed the Jews to reside permanently in the city, whereas Umar invited 70 Jewish families back. The Byzantines had left the Jewish Temple in ruins and had even begun to use the Temple Mount as a garbage dump. Umar, according to a variety of accounts, was horrified to see this desecration. He helped clear it with his own hands, reconsecrated the platform and built a simple wooden mosque on the southern end, site of al-Aqsa Mosque today.
Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691, was the first great building to be constructed in the Islamic world. It symbolizes the ascent that all Muslims must make to God, whose perfection and eternity are represented by the circle of the great golden dome. Other Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount, which Muslims call al-Haram al-Sharif, the Most Noble Sanctuary, were devoted to David, Solomon and Jesus.
After the bloodbath of the Crusades, when Saladin reconquered Jerusalem for Islam in 1187, the Jews (barred from the city by the Crusaders) were invited to return, and even the Western Christians, who had supported the crusading atrocities, were allowed back. In the 16th century, Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent permitted the Jews to make the Western Wall their official holy place and had his court architect Sinan build an oratory for them there.
So why the rejectionism that some Muslims in Jerusalem display today? In history, a holy city has always become more precious to a people after they have lost it. In the struggle for survival, the more compassionate traditions tend to get lost. As Muslims the world over feel that Jerusalem is slipping from their grasp, some espouse an intolerance that is far from the Koranic spirit. In an age in which religious atrocity occurs in nearly all faiths, it would be tragic if the Muslim tradition of inclusion and respect were lost to the world.
Find this article at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,999674,00.html
Karen Armstrong is a British writer and commentator on religion and spirituality, and a former Catholic nun. She is the author of (among others) Islam: A Short History; Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time; St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate; Buddha; A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.
UPDATE: View an excerpt from Ms. Armstrong’s 2019 television interview with Christane Amanpour on PBS, HERE. A sample quote: “All our traditions are flawed, all our traditions are violent.”
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EXTRA (2013): A Conference Well Worth Missing
Some Muslims, for their own reasons, choose to engage in “Temple denial“. It is a purely modern phenomenon which runs counter to the historic ethos of Islam, and a stance they are practically forced into. In evidence, consider this item from “the other side”. (You don’t have to decide whether or not to attend this meeting — it was actually held back in 2012!) Sadly, this is the sort of thing that sometimes passes for public discourse in this country of dueling narratives. Where I come from, it’s called “preachin’ to the choir”.
You know, some things just “smell funny” the moment you encounter them, and this event fell very much into that category. See what you get a whiff of…
If nothing there resonates with you particularly, bear with me while I unpack this for you a bit…
First of all, note the impressive list of Muslim clerics and scholars they lined up… er, oops. OK, well, there weren’t any. Maybe they were all busy. Or did someone forget to invite them? So it was a bunch of Jews talking to themselves about what Jerusalem means to Muslims. This probably did not produce anything vaguely resembling The Truth, but just the published program is plenty enlightening, or at least revealing… (Disclosure: If you hadn’t guessed yet, I did not attend this event.)
Lets see, the keynote address… Well, it’s by the Jewish-American neocon and Islamophobe Daniel Pipes. If you don’t know Pipes, he is worth knowing about (but not listening to, necessarily), since he is frequently in the public eye via the media. Critical assessments have called Pipes “a bigot disguised as a scholar“. The same article goes on:
Regardless of how many columns Pipes wrote on Islam and Muslims, his writings lack an empathetic understanding of Muslims. He never explores Muslim or Arab feelings and perceptions. He writes from a position far away, looking down in disgust at them and obsessively looking for dirt to smear their image in public discourse. The tone is always accusatory, hostile and blaming, destroying any possibility of discussion, communication or dialogue. In his own words, “the Palestinians are a miserable people — and they deserve to be.”
Elsewhere, Pipes is said to be “one of the linchpins of the Islamophobia network” (SourceWatch). He pops up everywhere. A Jerusalem Post article which ran a few weeks before the conference, touting “Islam’s very loose and insignificant bond with Jerusalem”, follows Pipes’ line slavishly and quotes him at length. Anyway, it’s not hard to imagine which paths Pipes’ keynote talk went down.
Later in the seminar, Dore Gold was slated to speak. Dore Gold, the right-wing protege of both Sharon and Netanyahu and Israel’s former ambassador to the UN. Do you suppose he was able to break through his well-known obsession with radical Islam to give a balanced view of what Jerusalem means to ordinary Muslims? No, to him it’s all about a “fight”.
Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Gold’s 2007 book The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, The West, and The Future of the Holy City:
Radical Islam has long desired to seize Jerusalem and cut it off to Christian and Jewish believers. In his revealing new book … Gold explains why the battle for Jerusalem is intensifying today. Gold shows why only Israel can preserve its holy places for Christians, Jews, and even Muslims, and why uncovering Jerusalem’s past – and the truth of biblical history – can be the key to saving its future.
(On the same page, see a review by Publishers Weekly)
And on the second panel, let’s see… Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch: By the way, Palestinian Media Watch is referred to by Counterpunch as “a well-known right-wing propaganda site”. And, it will come as no surprise that the PMW founder-director, Mr. Marcus, is a resident of the ever-expanding illegal settlement of Efrat in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
But you can forget all that, because the title of Mr. Marcus’ talk says it all: “Erasing Jewish Jerusalem and fabricating Muslim Jerusalem”. So, there it is: Muslim connections to Jerusalem are “fabricated”. Muslim Jerusalem is “fabricated” despite the fact that the city was ruled over by Muslim dynasties and empires — and that Arab language and culture (not exclusively Muslim) predominated here — for most of the last 1,400 years. That counts for nothing. What monumental arrogance, Mr. Marcus.
Well, thank goodness I wasn’t exposed to any of this blatant propaganda. As I mentioned, I wasn’t there.
Again, it’s all about erasing the narrative and denying the attachments of “the other”, in order to enhance and advance your own claims — a zero-sum game. I have written about this before, especially in its graphic/visual expressions, HERE.
Do the Palestinian Muslims engage in something similar? Of course they do. Their paradigm of “Temple denial” as I call it, is well-known — I run into it all the time. Is it any more lamentable than what I’ve highlighted above? No. It’s a 100% modern phenomenon and 100% political rhetoric. To call it revisionist history or indeed to become incensed by it is quite ridiculous. So, is it also ridiculous for me to be incensed by Mr. Marcus’ arrogance? Perhaps.
In the end, it’s a game, but a serious one — a struggle over narrative, over rights and “ownership”. Sadly, in the present state of Israeli-Palestinian discourse — actually there is no real discourse, only ‘talking past’ each other — this is simply how the game is played, and everyone engaged in it knows exactly what’s going on.
They represent flip sides of the same phenomenon. Do some Muslims engage in hate speech and incitement? Yup, just like some Israelis do. At least I’ve never known the Muslims to hold “Temple denial” seminars, but maybe they do…