93. Muslims’ Jerusalems


Like Jews and Christians, there are various Muslim Jerusalems. While Jerusalem’s 900,000 residents are primarily Jewish, the Old City is over 75% Muslim with some 28,000 Muslims. Their shops may be on land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church, but dozens of small souvenir shops or restaurants are Muslim. 


Besides the Muslim merchant geography of Jerusalem, I, along with every other visitor, hear and see the religious side of  Jerusalem.  I hear Muslim Jerusalem at the 4 AM call to prayer; I see Muslim Jerusalem as hundreds of Muslims walk and rush toward Haran al-Shariff for the Friday prayers. As is true of the Jews and Christians, their “sacred geography” also requires a remembering of past religious stories and traditions as well as more recent occurrences.

Because Muslims hold it as the third most important city, they have an honorary way of describing Jerusalem in comparison with Mecca and Medina.

“First of the two directions of prayer,

Second of the two sanctuaries

Third after the two places of Pilgrimage.”

For Muslims, as for Jews and Christians, Jerusalem is more than simply a city.

For many religious Muslims, they explain this saying with a basic narrative. The age of triumph with the conquest of Jerusalem; the period of humiliation when they are defeated by Persians and Crusaders; the reclaiming of Jerusalem by Saladin’s Ayyubids, the Mameluks, and then the Ottomans; and, finally, the painful mixed history of the modern period. As the age of triumph is foundational to this larger narrative, I want to comment more extensively about that memory.

The narrative isn’t complicated. We often begin the narrative with the Muslims captured Jerusalem in 638.  Yet, two understand the saying “first of the two directions of prayer,” we must go back prior to that date. When Mohammad moved to Medina in 622, he adopted some of the Jewish populations’ practices such as kosher, praying in a distinct space like a synagogue, and imitating the Jews in praying to Jerusalem.  However, in Surah 2, the Quran records that Mohammad changed the direction of prayer. Scholars speculate this change occurred for two reasons. On the one hand, Mohammad and the Muslims wanted to separate themselves from the Medina Jews; on the other hand, Mohammad began to recognize that his home town of Mecca was special. Prior to the narrative of Muslims conquering Jerusalem, it was “first of the two directions of prayer.”

The remembering of triumph began when Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem. Most Muslims remember that he respected the Christians’ unparalleled attachment to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  According to tradition, Omar was asked if he wished to pray at the church. He refused: “Had I prayed in your church, the church would have been lost to you forever, for after my death, the Muslims would have taken possession of it arguing that Omar had prayed there.” Rather than praying there, he asked where King David had prayed. He was taken to Haran al-Shariff, or the Temple Mount for Jews. With the capture of Jerusalem and the earlier control of Medina, the Muslims had the “second of two sanctuaries.”


The most iconic sight of Jerusalem is the Dome of the Rock on Haran al-Sharif. Muawiya, the head of the Umayyad Dynasty began constructing the Dome of the Rock in 690. Using architects familiar with Byzantine architecture, he constructed the Dome of the Rock in a way similar to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While both are domed buildings, the Dome of the Rock has a simplicity that the church can’t match. Through the centuries, Muslims described it in various ways. “At the dawn, when the light of the sun first strikes the dome, and the Drum catches the rays, then this edifice is a marvelous sight to behold, and one such that in all Islam I have never seen equal, neither have I heard tell of aught built in pagan times that could rival in grace this Dome of the rock. “ Mujir al Din in the twelfth century wrote that happiness is “eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock.” Eating a Jericho orange would be even better!


Because the building is set on bedrock, it has survived Jerusalem’s earthquakes better than many other buildings. As beautiful as the Dome of the Rock was, and is, Muslims never made Jerusalem important politically. The Ummayads ruled from Damascus; later Suleiman, made Ramla which is approximately twenty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem the center of Palestine. When the Abbasids made Baghdad their capital, most Caliphs didn’t even bother to visit Jerusalem.

The interior of Dome of the Rock is as beautiful as the exterior. There is also a religious point made in the calligraphy which encircles the interior. In 690, the Caliph wanted to assert the difference between Islam and Christianity. While Muslims consider Jesus a prophet, orthodox Christians consider Jesus as the Son of God. The Caliph wanted to make clear that Christians are in err. 

“In the name of God, the beneficent, the Merciful…no God exist but God alone, indivisible, without peer. Say, God is One; God is central- birthing no child nor birthed in turn- nothing and no one is comparable.” “O People of the Book! Don’t be excessive in the name of your faith! Do not say things about God but the truth. The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, is indeed a messenger of God; the Almighty extended a word to Mary, and a spirit, too. So believe in God and all the messengers, and stop talking about a Trinity. Cease in your own best interests. Verily God is a God of unity. Lord Almighty! That God would beget a child? Either in the heavens or on earth?” 

Beyond its beauty and is anti-Christian calligraphy, why do Muslims remember the Dome of the Rock? The Quran has this famous passage: “Glory to [God[ who did take His Servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque  to the Furthest Mosque, whose precincts we did bless,  in order that we might sow him some of Our Signs for He is the One who heareth and seeth [all things].” 

This passage became the source for Mohammad’s Night Journey. Since Jerusalem is not specifically mentioned in the Quran, Muslim identification as the Night Journey involving Jerusalem has been done retrospectively. Later Muslim tradition described the Night Journey Mohammad’s journey to the heavens where he meets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.Although he first departed from Mecca (the Sacred Mosque), he must travel to Jerusalem. It was from Jerusalem (the Furthest Mosque) that he ascends to the heavens. Like other religious traditions which include all sorts of miraculous events, Muslim tradition declared that as Mohammad rose toward heaven, the rock (underneath the later Dome of the Rock) tried to follow him. To keep it from following him, Mohammad had to press it back down; thus, leaving a large indentation on the rock.

Of course, Muslims have different ways of understanding this passage. For some, it is literally a journey. Mohammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem at night. For others, it is symbolic. As one writer says to put it bluntly: There is no direct flight from Mecca to Heaven; one has a stop over in Jerusalem. What is clear is that the Night Journey had crucial importance for Muslim self-understanding. This journey legitimated the heart of Muslim ritual, the ritual of prayer in that Mohammad receives the rule to pray five times a day! In the process, the Muslim tradition claims an important role, secondary still to Mecca, for Jerusalem. When Muawiya built the Dome of the Rock, he deemed it important to place calligraphy extolling the names of Allah as well as the anti-Christian assertions. If the Night Journey was so important, why was it not mentioned anywhere in the calligraphy? 

If this Night Journey tradition was not enough, Muslims located another event in Jerusalem. On Haran al-Shariff, at the Dome of the Rock,  the Day of Judgment will be announced! The announcer is, drum roll, Jesus. Some Muslims believe that a rope as thin of hair will be stretched from Dome of the Chain, a building within feet of the Dome of the Rock, to the Mount of Olives. Beneath this rope are the fires of hell. The faithful will be helped by angels; the evil will fall into those fires. 


This traditional Muslim belief helps explain the proliferation of tombs next to the Old City walls. These tombs date from ‘Ubada Ibn al-Samit, a companion of the Prophet, to contemporary Muslims. Thousands have been buried next to the Old City walls.

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For all these reasons, the age of triumph instilled within Muslim memory a deep appreciation for Jerusalem. It isn’t Mecca. It isn’t Medina. Although Muslims are required to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, they may also make pilgrimages to Medina and Jerusalem. Some Muslims decorate their exteriors with Islamic art work of the Dome of the Rock, Mecca’s Kaaba, or other sites.

If the Kaaba is painted, then a member of that household has made the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite Jerusalem Muslims pride in the Dome of the Rock, they recognize that Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage ranks third. It is “third after the two places of pilgrimage.”  


Muslim pilgrims are like other religious pilgrims. They want a group photo! These pilgrims want the Dome of the Rock as a backdrop. 

Besides the Dome of the Rock on Haran al-Shariff, the Caliph al-Walid, 709-715 built a more substantial Al-Aqsa Mosque. Like all mosques, the interior is spacious in order to hold those coming for prayers. While Muslims remember its importance throughout its history and all the efforts to rebuild it after wars and earthquakes, Muslims often remember more recent history. Since Jordan ruled East Jerusalem after Israel became a state, King Abdullah of Jordan visited the mosque. While he and his son Hussein were visiting the mosque in 1951, King Abdullah was assassinated. His son Hussein survived. Not many years later in August 1969, an Australian Christian Dennis Rohan set a fire which resulted in part of the mosque beings destroyed. He explained in court that he hoped to hasten the Second Coming of Christ. So much for interfaith cooperation! 

In more cursory fashion, I can mention how Muslims have continued to remember Jerusalem. Muslims remember the humiliating defeat first by the Persians and then by the Crusaders. When the Muslims reconquered the city in 1187, Muslims only gradually restored it. The Mamluks in particular built more structures such as madrasas (schools) and water fountains on Haran al-Shariff, They also wanted to make more physical statements to Christians.


Although they didn’t touch the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, they built two mosques with minarets equidistant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in general, and the Edicule in particular. The minaret pictured above is right above the Church of the Holy Sepulchre courtyard. This minaret and mosque, and the other minaret and mosque, were not built accidentally. They wanted Christians to know that the Christian faith was superseded by Islam.

During the humiliating defeat and the Muslim reclaiming of Jerusalem, Muslim writings increasingly praised Jerusalem. One 14th century Muslim writer wrote the following: “The choice of Allah of all his lands is Jerusalem…the dew which descends upon Jerusalem is a remedy from every sickness, because it is from the Gardens of Paradise.” Another  Muslim wrote “Jerusalem is closer by 18 miles to heaven.” In the midst of all these glorifications of Jerusalem, the Mamluk officials also sent disgraced officials there in a “forced retirement.” Muslims were proud of the Ottoman Suleiman the Magnificent rebuilding the walls which still encircle the city in 1538-1541.

As Muslims today remember Jerusalem, their memory is more painful.   Not only did the Ottomans neglect Jerusalem in the 1800’s (one scholar claimed that the Ottomans, at times, only had 150 soldiers in all of Palestine), their defeat in the First World War resulted in the British controlling Palestine. Not only during the later years of the Ottoman Empire, but also the years of the British Mandate, the Zionist movement brought thousands of Jews to Palestine. Palestinians reacted to this growing presence with a Palestinian nationalism. 


Unfulfilled nationalism, considering themselves second-class residents of Israel,  is painful for the Jerusalem Muslims. While walking through Jerusalem’s eastern Lion’s Gate, I got caught between cars trying to enter the old city, dozens of Muslims rushing toward al-Aqsa Mosque, and several Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Since there was no room for me to walk, I paused. “Push. Push. Push.” The man behind me shouted. I replied: “I can’t the soldiers are in my way.”  “Crash into them!” He shouted. I didn’t follow his advice.


His word captured Muslims anger and pain. Some of this pain is simply from being caught “in the middle.” When I traveled to Hebron to the south of Jerusalem, I realized that it is the largest population center of Muslims. However, it is separated not only from Jerusalem but also from Nablus, the other large Muslim city. Muslims in Jerusalem must feel orphaned from other Muslims. Furthermore, when Muslims think of Jerusalem, they must believe that the Israeli government and settlers manipulates the law to acquire land and property. In the Old City, a Jewish Yeshiva has been built in land on the border of the Jewish and Muslim Quarters. Although the Aida Refuge Camp is outside Jerusalem proper as it is close to the Bethlehem checkpoint, Muslims are aware of these refugees who lost their homes over fifty years ago. While Israelis may point to the seventy mosques in Jerusalem and to Muslims own courts which handle family and divorce matters, Muslims are less impressed. They experience pain.

Muslims have several Jerusalems. Some simply want to make a living. To them, Jerusalem is a market with shoppers from all over the world. Some probably remember only the age of triumph with the beauty of the Dome of the Rock and other structures on Haran al-Shariff. Others are caught in the pain of contemporary Muslim life in Jerusalem. Probably most Muslims live in each of these worlds.



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