Dr. Ahmad Shafaat (1987)
THE ORIGINS OF JERUSALEM AND ITS PLACE IN HISTORY
According to ancient tradition, Jerusalem was at first a small village known as Salem and inhabited by Canaanites, the ancestors of the Palestinians. A great and righteous Canaanite king turned his village into a city and called it Jerusalem. He also built a temple there. The tradition is recorded by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his book, The Great Roman-Jewish War. Josephus writes:
According to the Bible, Melchizedek was a contemporary of the Prophet Abraham (upon whom be peace) who lived around 1800 BC. It can thus be said that Jerusalem was originally a Canaanite city built, along with its temple, by a Canaanite king some 3800 years ago.
From 1600 to 1300 BC the city came under Egyptian suzerainty, but continued to be governed by Canaanite rulers who paid tribute to the Pharaohs. During this period the city increasingly came under attacks from a people known as Hapiru or Habiru, probably the same as Hebrews who are presented in the Bible as the ancestors of Jews. In ancient Egyptian writings on tablet discovered in 1897 and known as the Tell El-Amarna Tablets, we find a correspondence exchanged between a Pharaoh in the fourteenth century BC and Abdi-Kheba, the Canaanite ruler of Urasalim (Jerusalem), in which the later appeals to his Egyptian overlord for help against the pestering incursions of the Habiru.
Egyptians and Canaanites had by now been seriously weakened by moral degeneration, magic and superstition and it seems that the Habiru were able to get a strong foothold in Northern Canaan or Palestine. In the meantime, among the Israelite group of the Hebrews, who were living as slaves in Egypt, there arose a great leader, the Prophet Moses (upon whom be peace). Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and after him Aaron and Joshua led them to Northern Canaan, where they joined other Hebrews and shared their prosperity and freedom.
Despite their numerous divisions and frequent lapses into idolatrous and immoral practices, something of the tradition left by Moses lived on among them and helped in the occasional rising of great men. Two such men were King David and his illustrious son, Solomon. It was under King David that the Israelites were first able to establish a strong kingdom in the whole of Canaan. It was also then (about 1000 BC) that Jerusalem first became a Jewish city, which King David proclaimed as the capital of the kingdom of Judah. Later, King Solomon built a Jewish temple on the site of the earlier Canaanite shrine built by Melchizedek.
After Solomon's death, Jewish rule continued in Jerusalem under precarious conditions for about four centuries, during which time it was periodically besieged and taken by the Assyrians, the Philistines, the Arabs, the Syrians and the Egyptians.
The Kingdom of Judah itself became a vassal State and for long periods of time paid tribute to Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia. In 587 BC, when the Kingdom of Judah was under Babylonian suzerainty, Jews became extremely seditious and the Babylonians were left with no choice but to move against them in full force. They destroyed the Kingdom and its capital, the city of Jerusalem, burned Solomon's temple and carried the Jews into captivity. Regarding this the Qur'an says:
About fifty years later, in 538 BC, the Persian emperor Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and took control of Palestine. He adopted a favorable policy towards the Jews and allowed them to return them to Palestine and to rebuild the temple, which they did in 515 BC. Under the able leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah the Jews reformed and reorganized their religious and political life and prospered for awhile. The Babylonians meanwhile were absorbed by the Persians. Referring to these developments the Qur'an says:
From Persians, Palestine and Jerusalem passed on to Alexander the Great and stayed under Greek rule from 332 BC onwards. The beginning of the end of Greek rule came when in 167 BC they started placing idols in the temple. This unwise action by the generally enlightened Greeks enabled the Jews to organize a vigorous revolt under the Maccabees family and in 164 BC they recovered Jerusalem. This Jewish rule over the city lasted for about a hundred years, after which the Romans came in and stayed in control, first as pagans and then as Christians, until the time of the second Khalifa, "Umar ibn al-Khattab".
Their successors under the Maccabees had made the Jews very arrogant. They had by now also developed a destructive tendency to live in the past. Their reaction to Roman rule was blind resistance and arrogant defiance. They produced such blind and violent rebel movements as that of the Zealots who, without proper assessment of the situation, wanted to take on the vastly superior Roman power. The Jews also showed a stiff-necked attitude to the Messenger of God who arose among them in about 30 CE in the person of Jesus Christ in order to teach them humility, peacefulness, patience, faith, love and inward purity. So God punished the Jews again, this time at the hands of the Romans. In 70 CE, under Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and won a victory. They then completely razed the city and its temple. Together with the massacre, a famine occurred in which many of the 200,000 to 600,000 inhabitants perished. Later, the Romans, built a new city in place of Jerusalem and called it Aelia Capitulina and they forbade Jews, upon pain of death, to enter it. Referring to this defeat and destruction of the Jews and their capital, the Qur'an says:
During all these changes in the fortunes of the ancient city and its temple and changes in the political rule over them, a religious development connected with them was also taking place. A whole set of religious sentiments and ideas, some revealed and some produced by the minds of men, was being woven around the city and the temple. One of the most significant of the revealed ideas is the prophecy that Jerusalem and the Temple, which had remained until then of only regional significance, will one day become holy places for the entire world. This prophecy is recorded in many forms in several books of the Bible - Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, etc. (i.e. Isa 56:7 and Isa 2:3)
THE IMPACT OF THE PROPHETIC MISSION ON JERUSALEM
The Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, started his mission in the early years of the seventh century, when Jerusalem was still under the control of the Romans, as it had been for more than six centuries. The prophetic mission had a profound influence on the history of Jerusalem and its temple, as it had on so many other aspects of life. In particular, it resulted in the fulfillment of the prophecy that one day Jerusalem will become a holy city 'for many nations' and its temple, which lay in ruins in those days, will become 'a house of prayer for all people'.
An important part of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, was to reform and unify all the religious traditions of the world, especially the two Abrahamic traditions — the Ishmaelite tradition, which developed among the Arabs, and the Israelite tradition, which developed among the Jews. Since the Ka'bah in Makkah and 'Solomon's temple' in Jerusalem were important institutions and symbols of these two branches of the Abrahamic tradition, Islam, from the very beginning, showed a very keen interest in them. Both houses of worship were at one time or another qiblas, towards which Muslims faced when they stood for prayers. In Makkah, the Prophet used to pray on the south side of the Ka'bah facing north and thus facing both the Ka'bah and the Jerusalem temple. But, clearly, no such orientation was possible when he migrated to Medina, since Medina was between Makkah and Jerusalem. One could not face both of them at one and the same time. At first, in Medina, the Prophet continued facing north towards Jerusalem, but about a year and a half after the hijra (migration to Medina), the Qur'an finally fixed the Ka'bah as the qibla. The reason for this preference was that the Ka'bah was older (3:96), since it was built by the Prophets Abraham and Ishmael, upon them both be peace. The Jerusalem temple, at least as a house of worship in the monotheistic Abrahamic tradition, is connected with the much later figure of King Solomon.
The two houses of worship also appear in the all-important Nocturnal Journey of the Prophet to Heaven. In a reference to this journey, the Qur'an says:
'The Inviolable House of Worship' (Masjid al-Haram) is the Ka'bah in Makkah while 'the Remote House of Worship' (Masjid al-Aqsa) is the temple hundreds of miles north, in Jerusalem, or rather its site, since the temple itself had been destroyed by the pagan Romans. In a most profound mystic experience which took place about a year before the hijra, the Prophet found himself spiritually or, as many Muslims believe, physically transported from one house of worship to the other and, from there, taken to heaven. According to several well-documented traditions, at the site of the Jerusalem temple, the Prophet met all the earlier prophets and led them in congregational prayers. This vision or experience has several profound meanings. Firstly, it means that the mission of Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, was a continuation of, and in essential harmony with, the work of all the prophets. Secondly, it means that Muhammad, upon whom be peace, is the chief of all the prophets who confirms, completes and perfects their work in turn supports and helps him. In this sense, the vision or experience is a representation and renewal of the 'Covenant of the Prophets' mentioned in the Qur'an:
Earlier prophets, by ranging themselves in prayer behind the Prophet Muhammad, reaffirmed this covenant, taken from them before the dawn of history.
Finally, it means that, with the coming of the Prophet, the time had come for the Jerusalem temple to become a house of prayer for all nations, as had been predicted in earlier revelations. For the various prophets are representatives of the nations in which they were raised and their praying together behind the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, at the Jerusalem temple means that, under Islam, people from all these nations will come to the temple and pray there. This meaning of the vision began to be actualized on the plane of history within a few decades after the vision took place. But, in the meantime, Jerusalem was once again the scene of war and destruction.
JERUSALEM'S PLACE IN ISLAMIC HISTORY
Nearly five years after the death of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, Jerusalem surrendered to Muslims. Many neighboring cities had already fallen to them and, in 637 C.E., they laid siege to Jerusalem itself.
Considering the holy character of Jerusalem, Muslims were especially keen to avoid fighting, and the city's defenders, the Christians, also soon realized that they did not stand a chance against the Muslim forces. This resulted in a peaceful conquest of Jerusalem by the Muslims.
One of the conditions that the Christians put before the Muslims for a peaceful surrender was that the commander-in-chief of the Muslims, Khalifah 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, should come in person to take possession of the city. The reason for this unusual request, which would have been scornfully rejected by almost any other army, was probably that the people of Jerusalem had not forgotten what the Persians had done when they took the city two decades earlier — massacres, pillage and desecration of holy places. They must have known that Muslims were different, but still some fears about their security existed in their minds. Sensing that Muslims were keen to avoid bloodshed, the city's Christian defenders tried to exploit the situation in an attempt to extract maximum guarantees for their security. A treaty of peace signed in person by the commander-in-chief, rather than the local commander, would provide such guarantee.
'Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him, would, in any case, have wanted, sooner or later, to visit the city. It was after all connected with so many prophets, including David, Solomon and Jesus, may peace be upon them all, and with the isra and mir'aj of Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace. So, without much difficulty, he decided to accept the Christian condition and went to Jerusalem, thus combining a visit to the holy city with gaining the goodwill and trust of its people.
Khalifah 'Umar arrived in Jerusalem with the simplicity and humility of appearance and manner which were so characteristic of early Muslims. A treaty giving the vanquished Christians every possible guarantee of security and religious freedom was signed. In fulfillment of a request by the Christians, the treaty also affirmed a ban on Jews (in force since 135 C.E.) preventing them from living in Jerusalem. The ban gradually lifted as Jerusalem changed from a Christian to a Muslim city by conversions and Muslim settlements.
After the city formally came under Muslim control, Khalifah 'Umar went to the site of Solomon's temple. The Christian Patriarch Sophronious accompanied him to identify the site. The place had been reduced to a garbage dump. The last building that stood there was a temple of one of the Roman gods, Jupiter, built by Aelius Hadrianus (who also changed the name of the city to his own, in honour of Aelia) as a reaction to the brief Jewish rebellion resulting in the Jewish takeover of Jerusalem from 132 to 135 C.E. This pagan temple was either destroyed or gradually reduced to rubble by centuries of neglect, resulting from the fact that the Romans had converted to Christianity and thus abandoned such earlier gods as Jupiter.
The Christians showed no interest in restoring Solomon's temple, for in their minds the temple was a Jewish institution which had little relevance for Christianity. They were more interested in places where the crucifixion and burial Jesus, upon whom be peace, supposedly took place. On these sites, they built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the fourth century C.E. If they showed any interest in Solomon's temple, it was only out of an expectation that the temple will be restored by Jesus, upon whom be peace, on his second coming.
The Jews also did not do anything to restore the temple first because they were denied access to the site by the Romans, but also because they too had come to expect that the temple would be restored by the Messiah when he returned to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
As a result, the site of the sacred shrine lay neglected and garbage piled up on it. 'Umar ibn al-Khattab joined other Muslims in cleaning the place and then in erecting a wooden mosque. This makeshift mosque later became the Masjid al-Aqsa, the same name which the Qur'an uses for Solomon's temple. The boundary of the area in which Solomon's temple once stood was not known exactly at the time. 'Umar ibn al-Khattab therefore did not attempt to cover the whole area with the mosque but only a sure part of it. About sixty years later, in the reign of 'Abd al-Malik, another mosque was constructed on a different part of the sacred area. 'Abd al-Malik also rebuilt the mosque erected by Khalifah 'Umar. The area enclosed by the two mosques is called the Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and constitutes the third holiest place in Islam.
The fact that Solomon's temple and the mosque built by Muslims have been given in Islam the same name — Masjid al-Aqsa — points to a continuity, even identity, between the two houses of worship. This is the same type of continuity of identity that exists in Muslim understanding between the religion of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, and of all the earlier prophets, including Solomon, a continuity or identity which is often expressed in Islamic tradition by saying that the religion of all the prophets was Islam.
THE QUR'ANIC PROPHECY
In 603 C.E., a war broke out between the Christian Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the pagan Persian Empire which was to continue for about a quarter century. At first, the Persians won sweeping victories, conquering, by 613 C.E., Aleppo Antioch and the chief Syrian cities, including Damascus. In 614, they took Jerusalem. A year or two later, Egypt fell to them and, at about the same time, they laid siege to the very seat of the Byzantine Empire — Constantinople or Byzantium.
When the Persians took Jerusalem, burning, pillage and massacre followed. The churches were reduced to ashes, the 'burial place' of Jesus, upon whom be peace, was desecrated, and many relics, including what Christians believe to be the 'true Cross' (i.e. the cross on which they believed Jesus, upon whom be peace, to have been crucified by the pagan Romans at the recommendation of the Jews), were carried away to Persia.
When the news of these events reached Makkah, it was received with much more than usual interest and curiosity. The Makkans identified themselves with the Persians, while the Muslims, who numbered a few hundred at that time, sympathized with the Christians, because the Prophet had recognized Jesus, upon whom be peace, as a true prophet of God, the Gospel as originally based on divine revelation and Jerusalem as a holy city. At the news of Persian victories, the pagan Makkans exulted in delight and ridiculed the Muslims because they were on the losing side. The Qur'an reacted to this situation and prophesied that both the Christian defeats at the hands of the Persians and pagan jubilations at those defeats will be short-lived:
When these verses were revealed in 615 or 616, the total collapse of the Byzantine Empire seemed imminent. Not only had the Empire lost many of its parts — Syria, Anatolia, Egypt and its holiest city Jerusalem, and its very capital was under threat — but it also had to deal with other enemies: Avars were pressing toward Constantinople from the other side at the same time as the Persians were knocking at its doors from the east. There were also internal enemies. Jews who were discontent with centuries-old Roman domination and a number of Christian sects who were persecuted as heretics by the Romans joined the fray and sided with the Persians. There was also famine and pestilence. When, therefore, the Qur'an predicted that the Byzantines would be victorious within a period of three to nine years, it is not surprising that the pagan Arabs received this with derision.
Pressed and blocked on land, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius transported his army by sea and took the Persians in the rear. The plan worked and, in 622, six or seven years after the Qur'anic prediction, he succeeded in defeating the Persians at Issus, south of the Taurus Mountains. Subsequently, he drove them out of Asia Minor. By 625, he penetrated into Persia and was in a position to strike at the very heart of the Persian Empire. In a decisive battle on the Tigris near the city of Mosul in December 627, the Persians were completely routed. All that the Persians had conquered, including Jerusalem, was back in Christian hands.
Four months later, in March 628, Heraclius celebrated his triumph. In pursuance of a vow that he had made, he went south to Emessa and, from there, marched on foot to Jerusalem to restore in its place the 'true Cross' that had been carried away by the Persians and was now returned to the emperor as a condition of peace.
Heraclius's route was strewn with costly carpets on which he walked in purple robes at the head of his general courtiers. He probably believed that the final deliverance had come for his people and his empire, but, only ten years later, when Heraclius was still in power, another conqueror walked on foot to Jerusalem, this one not on costly carpets, in purple robes or at the head of his generals and courtiers, but on sand, in simple patched-up clothes and leading a horse on which a Black Abyssinian slave (Bilal) of the Prophet was riding.
Heraclius's victory over paganism, to the extent that it was a victory, was partial and temporary. It was no more than a preparation for a more decisive and lasting victory by a pure and perfect light that was shining in Arabia in the south at the same time that Heraclius was battling with the Persians. A ray of that light had, in fact, already reached Heraclius. Either during his march to Jerusalem or after his arrival there, he met a messenger carrying a letter from the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, in which the Christian emperor was invited to the divine light as manifested in its fullness in the Islamic revelation. Heraclius did not realize the full import of the letter but he sensed the truth in it and was greatly impressed by the story of the Prophet. It is said that the Christian emperor would have declared himself a Muslim were he not afraid of the unfavorable reaction of his people and the priests around him.
It is noteworthy that the Christian recovery of Jerusalem proceeds almost parallel to the developments leading to the Muslim conquest of Makkah. The year 622, when Heraclius won his first decisive victory over the Persians at Issus, was also the year of the hijrah when Muslims found significant support in Medina and their persecution at the hands of the Makkan pagans ended. The year 624, when Heraclius carried his counteroffensive to Persian territory, was also the year of the Battle of Badr, when the Muslims decisively defeated a very much superior force of Makkan pagans. In 630, about two years after Heraclius's march to Jerusalem, the struggle of the Muslims against the pagans ended with the conquest of Makkah. There is thus a double meaning in the Qur'anic prophecy 'On that day shall the believers rejoice' (30:4). 'That day' or 'that time' is the period from 622 to 630 when paganism received two decisive blows simultaneously and, consequently, the believers had cause for celebration.
MASJID AL-AQSA: THE FULFILLMENT OF GOD'S PROMISE
The continuity between Solomon's temple and the mosque constructed on its site is established by some expectations found in Judeo-Christian tradition and fulfilled by the construction of the mosque. Thus, both the Jews and Christians believed that Solomon's temple would be rebuilt by the Messiah. The term messiah has many varied meanings attached to it in Judeo-Christian tradition, but the common denominator of all these is 'a God-sent figure who would establish God's kingdom on earth'. In this sense, the term can be applied to the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, with greater justification than to any other figure. For he did more than anyone else to establish the principle that God alone is the real Lord and King of mankind. He also created a just and moral social order on the basis of that principle in the world. The construction of Masjid al-Aqsa on the site of Solomon's temple by the companions of the prophet is thus a fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian expectation that Solomon's temple will be restored not by ordinary men, but by the Messiah, i.e. a figure sent by God to establish His kingdom on earth.
It is interesting that early Muslims found the site of Solomon's temple without any structure. Had there been on it a Jewish or Christian place of worship, Islamic principles of tolerance for other religions would have prevented Muslims from demolishing such a place of worship and erecting a mosque in its place. It is as if Providence had ensured that the site of Solomon's temple would remain unbuilt for centuries until the Muslims arrived on the scene.
Another Judeo-Christian expectation about Solomon's temple, which is also found in the Bible, is that one day it will become a house of prayer for all mankind. This happened with the advent of Islam. Before Islam, Masjid al-Aqsa was primarily a shrine for the Canaanite or Jewish people with some other neighboring people occasionally joining them in its veneration. But with the advent of Islam, it became a holy house of God and an object of pilgrimage for an ever-increasing number of peoples — Arabs, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Syrians, Persians, Afghans, Indians, Malays, Indonesians, Filipinos, Turks, Yugoslavs, etc.
The Muslim construction of Masjid al-Aqsa also links up with the Prophet's isra, his miraculous journey from Masjid al-Haram to Masjid al-Aqsa and his leading all earlier prophets in prayer in the latter masjid. For the Prophet's journey to Masjid al-Aqsa foreshadowed in a prophetic way the journey of Islam from the city of its origin — Makkah — to Jerusalem, and beyond, while his praying there as the imam of all the prophets foreshadowed the joining in Islam of the followers of earlier religions and their coming to Masjid al-Aqsa to offer prayers as pilgrims. Thus, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637 C.E. and the construction of Masjid al-Aqsa was an event of great religious and spiritual significance which is both a symbol and proof of Islam's continuity of the message of all the earlier prophets and of its destiny as a movement to unite all mankind in a brotherhood under God.
From 637 to 1917, a period of about 13 centuries, Jerusalem remained under Muslim control except for two relatively short periods. During all these centuries of Muslim control, Jerusalem enjoyed peace and security. There were no massacres, no burning and looting, no desecration of holy places. The only conflict that marred the peace of the city was the conflict between the various Christian sects for control of the Christian holy sites, but Muslims were generally successful in keeping them from violent confrontations.
The two periods during which Muslims lost control of Jerusalem were 1099 to 1187 and 1229 to 1238(39) C.E. During the first of these two periods, the crusaders took control of the city, bringing back to it the death and destruction which had so often been the city's lot in pre-Islamic times. The second period of non-Muslim control was the nine- or ten-year period starting in 1229 when the German emperor, Frederick II, managed, by diplomacy and intrigue, to conclude a treaty with Sultan Malik al-Kamil which conceded Jerusalem and some other neighboring cities to the emperor. With the death of Malik in 1238(39), the treaty expired, and despite Christian attempts to retain control over the city, Jerusalem returned to Muslim hands. And it then remained in Muslim hands until December 9, 1917, when the British occupied it during the First World War.
The British mandate over Palestine and Jerusalem ended on May 15, 1948 without making any provision for a successor administration. This enabled the Zionists, who had been migrating to Palestine in increasing numbers, in connivance with the British, from the Middle East and Europe, to proclaim the Zionist state of Israel. In the conflict which erupted between the Arab nationalists and Zionists, the latter extended their control over four-fifths of Palestine, including most of Jerusalem, and then moved, by massacres and other terrorist acts, to expel the Muslim inhabitants of the captured territory. The small part of Jerusalem that was left in Muslim hands and that contained most of the holy places fell to the Zionists in the June, 1967 war. Since that time, some small but determined Jewish terrorist groups with the support of a few equally small and determined Christian groups have made several attempts to destroy the Masjid al-Aqsa.
The history of Jerusalem is, therefore, no ordinary history. In this history, the purpose of God is manifested in a very special way. The events that have taken place in Jerusalem in recent years or are now taking place also have divine purpose. They are meant, it seems, to remind us that we have not been living up to our responsibility as Muslims to strive to make supreme the word of God. They are also meant, it seems, to prepare for yet another decisive battle, both of arms and of ideas, between tawhid and shirk, between the worship of the one true universal God and the worship of the three idols of Zionism: nation, race and land.
First published in Al-Ummah, Montreal, Canada. Copyright © Dr. Ahmad Shafaat. The article may be reproduced for Da'wah purpose with proper references.