by Yitzhak Reiter
and Marwan Abu Khalaf
Jerusalem is unique among the cities of the world, with special, although differing, claims on the religious and cultural sentiments of millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is holy for the three monotheistic religions because of religiously significant events that took place in the city. It is therefore important to set out the nature and meaning of Jewish, Christian and Muslim commitments to Jerusalem and their implications. We hope that such an approach will contribute to the discovery of common ground and lead to constructive policies and programs for the welfare of all the peoples in the region.
The Significance of Jerusalem for Jews
For the Jewish people, Jerusalem is not merely a locus of holy sites or religiously and historically significant memories. The city itself is holy,1 and for at least 3,000 years, Jerusalem has become synonymous with hope and meaning in Jewish life. From biblical times — when God, as tradition teaches, spoke of the place that He would choose for His people — to the return of the Jewish people to Zion in our day (however improbable it seemed until then), the continuous and unwavering centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish life has been unquestioned.2 (The name Zion properly indicates the Temple Mount and later came to signify Jerusalem the capital city and, eventually, the entire Holy Land.)
When, in 1006 B.C., King David unified the tribes of Israel and captured Jerusalem, establishing there the center of his kingdom, Jerusalem became the primary symbol of the tribes’ transition from “peoplehood” to “statehood.” The sacred nature of the city was assured when, during the reign of King David, the Ark of the Covenant was brought up from Kiryat Ye’arim, west of Jerusalem, and later placed by his son Solomon in the First Temple. As a reward for his act, God promised King Solomon that “Your dynasty and your sovereignty will stand firm before Me and your throne forever secure” (2 Samuel 17:16).
The Talmud records that because of three transgressions — immoral sexual behavior, unwarranted bloodshed, and idolatry — Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 B.C.3 The city’s Jewish inhabitants were sent into exile and the First Temple destroyed. In Babylon, the Jews were faced with the challenge of surviving as a people the destruction of their spiritual and political center. Their sense of devastating loss was poignantly expressed in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows there we hung our harps, when our captors demanded of us songs; our tormentors asked of us mirth: “Sing us some of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I ever forget you, O Jerusalem, withered be my right hand! May my tongue cleave to my palate, if ever I think not of you, if ever I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy!
After the Jews had been driven from Zion, it remained in their hearts. The dream of Jerusalem’s restoration also symbolized the awaited messianic era when the Jews would be restored to Zion and Zion to the Jews, with all peoples acknowledging God as Sovereign.4 This sequence is reflected in the standard Amidah prayer, the central part of the daily service recited by observant Jews three times a day, during which they pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and for the flourishing of the Messiah. The traditional significance of being buried on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple Mount, is based in part upon the desire to be ready at hand for the coming of the Messiah.
The Second Temple was built in 515 B.C., after a decree by Coresh, the King of Persia, and was later destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Throughout the reigns of the Hasmonean rulers (leaders of the Jewish community after the revolt against the Greeks in 16 B.C.), and until the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was a center of pilgrimage. It was said that “He who has not seen Sukkot in Jerusalem has not seen life.”5 After the second Jewish revolt was put down (132-135 A.D.) and a 1,800-year period of exile began, the image of Jerusalem in Jewish thought took on three dimensions: that of historical Jerusalem; that of Jerusalem destroyed; and that of heavenly Jerusalem, the object of God’s promises and continuing commitment.
All over the world, Jews pray in the direction of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples on the fast day of the Ninth of Av (a Hebrew month), and recite the solemn promise, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.” Even during the Jewish marriage ceremony, a glass is broken under the wedding canopy, as a reminder, in the midst of the rejoicing, of the destruction of the Temple. Likewise, it is a custom to leave a small section of a new home unplastered or otherwise unfinished in memory of the destruction. And both the Passover ceremony, known as the seder, and the liturgy for the Day of Atonement end with the invocation “Next Year in Jerusalem!”
In Jewish law, Jerusalem is considered the center, or navel, of the world, from which benefits to all nations flow. The beauty of Jerusalem is thought to exceed all other beauties of the world: “Of the ten portions of beauty which came down to the world, Jerusalem took nine.”6 It was in Jerusalem, the tradition teaches, that all great events of history took place or are destined to occur, from the creation of the world, the binding of Isaac, and the establishment of the inner sanctuary of the Temple — the “Holy of Holies” — to the dawn of the messianic era and the resurrection of the dead.
The significance of Jerusalem is also apparent in the proliferation of sources, from the Bible onward, that refer to the city. The Hebrew Bible mentions Jerusalem by that name some 700 times and by the name of Zion some 150 times. The implicit references to Jerusalem and Zion are even more numerous. In the words of Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2, “For out of Zion will come forth Torah, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
The Significance of Jerusalem for Christians
The early Church recognized the primacy of Jerusalem at the center of the Christian message. In the New Testament, Jerusalem symbolizes the new people of God redeemed by the Messiah, Jesus Christ. It is here that Christ will return to fulfill the Word of God and that the Last Judgment will take place (Rev. 21:1-3). It is the center of the world, Jerusalem, that will be the scene of salvation, the focal point of the messianic age.
The significance of Jerusalem for Christians has two inseparable elements: the holy places associated with the life and teachings of Christ — with His crucifixion, burial and ascension — and the community of Christians living in the city. Although it is the “new Jerusalem” (“heavenly Jerusalem”) that symbolizes the city of God for Christians (Rev. 3:12), nevertheless, pilgrims from all over the world encounter God in the earthly city. For many Christians, visiting the holy places associated with the life and preaching of Jesus Christ, and being in an environment where history comes to life, have proven an inspiration to their fulfilling the commandment of taking the Gospel into the world (Mark 16:15). Jerusalem for them is the place where the gift of the Spirit is present; where the Church was established (Acts 2). The first Christian community came to incarnate the ecclesiastical ideal in this city. The Church — the body of Christ, or the community of believers in Christ — is an earthly reflection of the spiritual entity in heavenly Jerusalem.7
Christians envision Jerusalem as the place foretold of salvation in and through Jesus Christ. That is, Christians recognize in their faith the long history of the people of God, with Jerusalem as its center, as the history of salvation that fulfills God’s design in and through Jesus Christ. The one God chose Jerusalem to be the place where His name alone would dwell in the midst of His people, so that they might offer worship that is worthy of Him. The prophets looked up to Jerusalem, especially after the purification of the exile of the Hebrews: Jerusalem was to be called the “City of justice, faithful City” (Isa. 1:26-27), where the Lord dwells in holiness as in Sinai (cf. Psalm 68:18). They prophesied that the Lord would place the city in the middle of the nations (Ez. 5:5), where the Second Temple was to become a house of prayer for all the peoples (Isa. 2:2, 56:6-7). Jerusalem, aglow with the presence of God (Isa. 60:1), is meant to be a city whose gates are always open (Isa.11), with peace as magistrate and justice as government (Isa.17).
Jerusalem is Christianity’s holy land, associated with the most important events in Christianity. Yet there is a remarkable absence of reference to the land in the New Testament. The Apostles were unconcerned with the location of the various appearances of the Risen Lord.8 These occurrences were considered unique in character, unrepeatable, and confined to a limited period, but not geographically located. Indeed, Jesus went to Jerusalem with the aim of creating a community worthy of the name of the people of God. The Book of Revelations proclaims the anticipation of the new, heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12, 21:2, cf. Gal. 4:21-27, Heb. 12:22). The name “Jerusalem” in the New Testament signifies not an earthly city, but a heavenly one, which is the archetype of the Church. It becomes a symbol of the final or ultimate community, where God dwells with His own. Thus, the New Testament itself exhibits a marked tendency towards what might be called a “de-territorialization” of the concept of holiness. Christians see the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise in Jesus Christ, who embodies the temple of God (Rev. 21:22). It is not the temple that is the center, but Christ; it is not the Holy City or Land that constitutes the “area” of holiness, but the new community, the body of Christ.9 According to this view, the Church belongs to an already existing heavenly city.
However, the land retains its physical significance in Christianity. The need to remember Jesus entails the need to remember the Jesus of a particular land. Jesus belongs not only to time, but to space; and the spaces that He occupied take on a significance of their own, so that the realia of Judaism continues as realia in Christianity. History in the tradition demanded geography.10
Earthly Jerusalem, in the Christian tradition, prefigures heavenly Jerusalem. It becomes the image and symbol of the Promised Land — heavenly Jerusalem. Jerusalem is no longer only a land and an earthly heritage, it is in a special way the spiritual heritage of humankind in need of salvation.11 Paul shares in the apocalyptic view that heavenly Jerusalem already exists on high. “But those who live by faith in Christ already live the life of the New Jerusalem and are citizens of Heaven” (Gal. 2:19-21, Phil. 3:20). Christians on earth already share the glories of the heavenly city, which belongs to that realm “where eye hath not seen nor ear heard”: a vision that emphasizes the transcendental meaning of the land. Therefore, the New Testament finds holy space wherever Christ is or has been and it personalizes “Holy Space” in Christ, who, as a figure of history, is rooted in the land.
The Significance of Jerusalem for Muslims
The spiritual importance of Beit al-Maqdis12 (Jerusalem) and Masjid al-Aqsa (the al-Aqsa Mosque) derives from the fact that for sixteen months,13 the mosque was the first qibla (direction of prayer) for Muslims. It is Islam’s second most holy mosque, after Mecca. Furthermore, Jerusalem is commonly associated with the “night journey” (isra’) of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to the Masjid al-Aqsa, as recorded in the Quran (17:1), as well as his ascension (mi’raj) to Heaven to receive the principles of Islam from Allah (God). Both events happened one year before the hijra, Mohammad’s move from Mecca to Medina, in 622 A.D.14
Accounts of these famous events record that, on his way to Beit al-Maqdis, the Prophet Mohammad visited the tomb of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) in Hebron (al-Khalil), where he performed two prostrations (rak’a).15 He also visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the Prophet Jesus (‘Isa) was born, and performed two rak’as there as well. Hence, the holiness of Jerusalem to Islam has very strong roots, since Islam respects all the prophets before the time of Mohammad, though granting him primacy over and above those of Judaism and Christianity.
Jerusalem became an Islamic city in the first half of the seventh century A.D. when the Muslims entered the Holy City (in 15 A.H./636 A.D.), during the reign of the second Muslim caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab). According to historical sources, “Umar came in person for the purpose of receiving the surrender of the city from its patriarch, Sophronius, who refused to give it up to anyone else. The sources also state that the caliph declared a special covenant (sulh, ‘ahd) to the Christians living in the city; its text developed over time into the form known as the Covenant of ‘Umar (al-‘uhda al-‘umariyya). In this covenant, the caliph guaranteed religious freedom and the safety of the churches and secured the lives, fortunes and properties of the people living in Jerusalem.
The Muslims recognized the area of Mount Moriah, with the Rock where the al-Aqsa Mosque stands, as the most holy spot in Beit al-Maqdis for the Islamic religion. The significance of Jerusalem for Muslims is documented in the Quran, in verses that mention it using the name of al-Masjid al-Aqsa, and in the prophetic traditions (hadith) of Mohammad, which give several accounts relating the importance of Jerusalem. Among them is the tradition, “Whoever wants to see a part of Paradise, let him look to Beit al-Maqdis.”16 According to another tradition, recounted by the last Orthodox caliph, ‘Ali ibn Abi Taleb, “The most exalted spot is Beit al-Maqdis and the most exalted rock is the Rock of Beit al-Maqdis.”17
The importance lent to Jerusalem led the Umayyads to strengthen their political and religious relationship with Beit al-Maqdis. This first becomes apparent with the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya, who took his oath of allegiance (bay’a) in Jerusalem and was known as the “Prince of the Holy Land” (Amir al-Ard al-Muqaddasa). There can be no doubt that Abd al-Malik regarded Jerusalem as a holy place, in particular, the site of Mount Moriah, where he laid out the plan of Haram al-Sharif as it exists to this day. The connection with Jerusalem was also strongly developed by Abd al-Malik, no stranger to such ideas, since he had resided for a long time in Syria-Palestine and was the governor of the province of Filastin during the caliphate of Mu’awiya, which ended in 750 A.D.
In order to understand further the Islamic significance of Jerusalem, we have to turn to the fada’il literature, the elegies about the religious merits of Jerusalem.18 The fada’il literature may have existed from the time of the Prophet and continued to be transmitted in the Umayyad and later Islamic periods. The earliest fada’il books by Abu Bakr al-Wasiti and Ibn al-Murajja were compiled before the Crusades. But this type of literature was produced principally in response to the Crusades, to draw the attention of Muslims to Jerusalem and to reach jihad (holy war) to free Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Crusaders. The fada’il literature is vital to understanding the Islamic meaning of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Islamization of Jerusalem occurred in the first year A.H. (620 A.D.), the year when Allah ordered Muslims to face the city as their first qibla as they performed their daily prostrations, and when the night journey and ascension to heaven took place. Because Jerusalem was greatly revered before Islam, Allah made it the site of reverence for Muslims as well, just as the ka’ba in Mecca had been built by the Prophet Ibrahim and his son Isma’il (Ishmael)19 and then turned into the first holy place of Islam.
The reason, therefore, that Allah had Muslims pray toward Jerusalem (al-Masjid al-Aqsa) for sixteen months and then ordered them to pray toward the ka’ba, and the reason that the night journey occurred between the two mosques — al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — is in fact to confirm the link between Islam and the pre-Islamic religions.
Extracted from Jerusalem: Points of Friction and Beyond. Edited by Moshe Ma’oz and Sari Nusseibeh. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 2000. Reprinted by permission.
1. Mishnah Kelin 1, 6-9.
2. R.J. Werblowsky, The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians and Muslims (Jerusalem: Israeli Universities Study Group for Middle Eastern Affairs, 1983), p. 14.
3. Tosefta Mehunot 13:22.
4. Raphael Jospe, “The Significance of Jerusalem: A Jewish Perspective,” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture, 2:2 (1995), p. 37.
5. Sukkah 51b.
6. Esther Rabbah (Vilna), 1:17.
7. Werblowsky, The Meaning of Jerusalem, p. 9.
8. This may be attributed to the fact that, during the first two centuries, the early Christians expected a speedy end to the age they lived in, and therefore had little interest in preserving the memory of the holy sites. Moreover, as members of a persecuted religion, they were unable to make public pilgrimages or erect shrines. J.W. Parkes/R.P./S.P.C., in Encyclopaedia Judaica (New York: Macmillan, 1971), s.v. “Holy Places.”
9. Werblowsky, The Meaning of Jerusalem, p. 7.
10. Marc H. Tanenbaum and R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, eds., The Jerusalem Colloquium on Religion, Peoplehood, Nation, and Land. Proceedings, Truman Research Institute Publication No. 7 (Jerusalem: The Truman Institute, the American Jewish Committee, and the Israel Interfaith Committee, 1972), p. 152.
11. Msgr. Michel Sabbah, Reading the Bible Today in the Land of the Bible. In pulchritudine pacis. Pastoral Letter 4 (Jerusalem: Latin Patriarchate Printing Press, 1993), p. 53.
12. Encyclopedia of Islam (1971), s.v. “Bayt al-Maqdis.”
13. Al-Suyuti, in A. Ramadan, ed., Ithaf al-Akhissa fi Fada’il al-Masjid al-Aqsa (Cairo, 1984), pp. 183-184.
14. The Quranic verse that confirmed the night journey (al-Isra’ wa-al-Mi’raj) is the first verse of Surah 17, which was given the name al-Isra’. The verse reads: “Glory to Allah who did take His Servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of our Signs, for He is the one who heareth and seeth [all things],” ‘Abd Allah Yusuf ‘Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Quran (Brentwood: Amana, 1991). The most significant hadith concerning the religious status of the al-Aqsa Mosque is “You shall journey to but three masjids (mosques): al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca), al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem), and my Masjid (Medina).” Mentioned in Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 2 (1981), p. 58, and Muslim, Sahih Muslim, vol. 2 (1978), pp. 975-76.
15. Mujir al-Din al-Hanbali, Al-Uns al-Jalil fi-Tarikh al-Quds wa’al-Khalil, vol. 1 (Amman, 1973), pp. 238-239.
17. M. Dabbagh, Biladuna Filastin, vol. 3 (Beirut, 1988), pp. 82-83.
18. Abu Bakr al-Wasiti, Fada’il al-Bayt al-Muqaddas, in I. Hasson, ed. (Jerusalem, 1979); Ibn al-Jawzi in Jibra’il Jabbur, ed., Fada’il al-Quds (Beirut, 1980); al-Hanbali, Al-Uns al-Jalil; Ibn al-Murajja, Abu al-Ma’ali al-Musharraf, in Ofer Livne-Kafri Shafram, ed., Fada’il al-Bayt al-Maqdis wa al-Khalil wa Fada’il al-Sham (1995); and others.
19. Al-Hamawi, Mu’jan al-Buldan, vol. 5 (Beirut, 1979), pp. 464-465.