There is perhaps no other city in the world that has drawn the
continued attention of the world community as much as the city of
Jerusalem, espe¬cially among the adherents of the three
monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The city's
religious centrality has generated its his¬torical and
political importance, as well as its symbolic impact, but its
reli¬gious position has also been at the root of a
This controversy focuses on who has the greater attachment and
enti¬tlement to the city, and for whom Jerusalem has the
greatest religious, cul¬tural, historical and political
importance: "In all probability one would never be able to gauge
the degree of attachment that an individual com¬munity feels
toward the city, for attachment is psychological and thus highly
subjective."1 While the Muslims, for example, especially
Palestinian and Arab Islamists, recognize the religious
significance of Jerusalem to Christians and Jews, they stress the
Muslim character of the city and Muslim entitlement to it, and
their attachment to Jerusalem constitutes part of their doctrinal
views of the city.
Indeed, Jerusalem's multifaceted meaning stands behind the interest
of Muslims all over the world in the land of Palestine as a whole.
The city has strong evocative and emotional associations and has
its own place in the hearts of Muslims. It is considered the
third-holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
It derives its religious prominence from being the first
Qibla, the initial direction toward which the Prophet
Muhammad and the early Muslim community turned their faces in
prayer. The direction was changed a year and a half later to Mecca
by "divine command."
Jerusalem also derives significance from its association with
Prophet Muhammad's miraculous nocturnal journey to the city and
then his ascen¬sion to Heaven. This event is mentioned in the
Koran in the first verse of chapter 17, "Glory be to Him, who
carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further
Mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqsa), the precincts of which We have
blessed, that we might show him some of our signs."2
In the nocturnal journey (al-lsra'wal Mi'raj) , according to
Muslim tra¬dition, Muhammad was transported one night on a
winged horse from Mecca to Jerusalem where he led Abraham, Moses,
and Jesus in a prayer. Afterwards, Muhammad ascended to heaven
accompanied by the archangel Gabriel. In this journey of ascension,
Muhammad passed through the seven heavens where he encountered
earlier prophets. The Dome of the Rock is the site from which
Although some critics argue that Muhammad's journey was spiritual
and not physical, this journey has a three-fold significance:
First, it linked the city of Jerusalem with Islam in its very early
days in addition to the sura which refers to Jerusalem as the first
Qibla. Second, it inspired the Muslims with a bulk of lore,
so much so, that Muslims all over the world celebrate that occasion
every year. Third, it ushered in a new era in the life of the city
because, from then on, the Muslims con¬sidered it their holy
duty to protect it from the encroachment of the Byzantines and the
Persians who were non-Semitic people.3
In addition, it is believed that a Koranic verse (v. 44 of chapter
43) was revealed in Jerusalem: "Ask those of our messengers We sent
before thee - Have We appointed apart from the All-Merciful, gods
to be served?"4
Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, accepted in person
the capitulation of Jerusalem which was under Byzantine rule. Omar
had also located the Rock, the place hallowed by the Prophet's
nocturnal journey, and before leaving Jerusalem, he built a mosque
close to the Rock. Furthermore, a number of the Prophet's
companions visited the city and at least one of them resided and
died in it.
From this humble beginning to the rise, some fifty years later, of
great monuments of Muslim architecture, Jerusalem's place as the
third holy city in Islam was finally established. Its Roman name
was dropped and it became al Bait al-Muqaddas (the Holy House), in
apposition to al¬-Bait al-Haram (the Sacred House), the
appellation of Mecca. A variant of the name was Bait
al-Maqdis or simply al-Quds (the Holy City). Later
still it became al-Quds ash-Sharif (the Holy and Noble
The religious significance of Jerusalem and its function as a
source of reli¬gious legitimacy were also highlighted during
both the Umayyad and Abbasid rule. Mu'awiyah, the first Umayyad
caliph, for example, pro¬claimed himself caliph in Jerusalem,
rather than in Damascus, his capital.
Under Mu'awiyah's successor, Jerusalem became virtually the
religious capital, since Mecca and Medina were in the hands of his
rivals. Even when Mecca and Medina came under their control, the
Umayyad caliphs contin¬ued to pay equal respect to Jerusalem.
The Abbasid caliphs paid Jerusalem a similar regard, and the city
remained equally significant to successive Muslim rulers, up to the
Mamelukes and the Ottomans who also accorded. the city religious
status equal to that of Mecca and Medina. But despite its religious
significance, Jerusalem was never the capital of Islam. The
selec¬tion of the seat of the Islamic Caliphate was a matter
of strategy, otherwise Mecca should have been the choice. 6
The Religion of All Prophets
Historically speaking, Jerusalem has generally been the site for
Muslim pil¬grimage, prayer, study or residence. Al-Aqsa Mosque
was a particular seat of learning. Muslim scholars came to
Jerusalem from distant lands. "Just as it is true to say that the
first textbook in Islam was the Koran, so it is true to say that
the first school was the mosque.7
Muslims believe in all the Jewish and Christian prophets and holy
scrip¬tures. The Jewish and Christian legacies are an integral
part of the Muslim legacy. Synagogues and churches are God's
shrines and their adherents are the people of the book, not
heathens or unbelievers. But Muslims, on the other hand, believe
that Islam, more than Judaism or Christianity, afford¬ed the
city the most tolerant period because of Islam's nature being the
reli¬gion of all prophets, from Abraham to Muhammad.8
The Muslims ruled Jerusalem for thirteen centuries from the middle
of the seventh century (638 A.D.) to the beginning of the twentieth
century (1917) with the exception of about 103 years of Crusader
domination. The passage of time, and certain events, served to
enhance Jerusalem's position in the Muslim tradition and history.
One such event is the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099
which interrupted the Muslim rule of the city. Palestinian and Arab
Muslims dwell a great deal on this holy war waged by the Crusaders
against non-Christians, Muslims and Jews. This war, in which all
non-Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem were wiped out, their
property looted, and their houses occupied, is considered one of
the most significant events to have shaped the Muslim outlook
towards the Christian/Western world as a whole. It has yet to be
ascertained if any roots of the current wave of Islamic
fundamentalism actually lie in the Crusader war which marked open
hostility between the Muslim and Christian/Western worlds.
In 1187 Saladdin, a Muslim leader, reconquered and recovered
Jerusalem. This recovery of Jerusalem "figures larger in Islamic
history than its first acquisition by 'Umar five and a half
centuries before." 9 The coincidence of Saladdin's entry into the
city with the anniversary of the Prophet's nocturnal journey was
regarded by Muslims as providential.
The current Israeli occupation of Jerusalem (since 1967) is viewed
by Palestinians and Muslims equal in magnitude to the Crusades: "By
occu¬pying Palestine, the modem Crusaders have earned the
enmity of all Arabs; by seizing Jerusalem, that of all Muslims. Are
the modem Crusaders bent on forcing history to repeat itself?"
Clear focus by Palestinian and Arab Islamists on Jerusalem began to
take place after the Israeli occupation of the eastern part of the
city in 1967. Vocal and repeated Muslim pronouncements on the city
which stress its Arab and Islamic character carne as a reaction to
Israeli measures to Judaize the city and distort or wipe out its
Arab and Islamic identity. They justifiably fear Jewish designs on
East Jerusalem and the holy places in it, especially since Israel
unilaterally annexed it after the 1967 war.
Since the rise of contemporary Arab and Palestinian fundamentalist
movements, primarily as a reaction to certain political or
socioeconomic factors, the holy city of Jerusalem has been a source
of inspiration and mobilization to them. Therefore, the Jewish
occupation of the city reminds the Islamists of Muslim and Arab
weakness and of the need to rise and free Jerusalem from Jewish
hegemony. It is infuriating to Arab and Palestinian fundamentalists
to have their first Qibla and the third-holiest city in
Islam under foreign, especially Jewish, control.
Politically, the city carries the same import to the various
Palestinian political groups, secularists and Islamists alike. This
fact is reflected in their various political discourse although
there is no elaborate mention of Jerusalem in their respective
national and political programs or charters. This stand emanates,
of course, from the assumption that Jerusalem is an integral part
of Palestine. Indeed, Jerusalem is the heart of Palestine. Its loss
to a foreign enemy deprives the Palestinian Islamists of their
unique posi¬tion as the custodians of the holy city, and their
struggle to regain Jerusalem places them at center stage.
While the nationalists stress Jerusalem as the capital of the
Palestinian state as inscribed in the Palestinian Declaration of
Independence of 1988, the Islamists emphasize its religious nature
and the fact that it is an inte¬gral part of Muslim Palestine.
Genuine commitments to Jerusalem aside, there is no doubt that the
various Palestinian political groups also invoke the name of the
city for political reasons.
For example, the name of Jerusalem is frequently evoked in
Palestinian Muslim fundamentalist literature. A leaflet issued by
the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) defines the status of
Jerusalem and Palestine for Muslims in the following way:
Is there a spot after Mecca and Medina over which Muslim hearts
hover more than Jerusalem, the first Muslim Qibla, to which
worshippers come from all corners of the earth. The prayers on the
land of al-Aqsa mosque equals five hundred prayers elsewhere except
for the two holy mosques. Jerusalem is the cradle of religions and
the shelter of prophets ... The nocturnal journey was a blessing
from God to the land of Palestine. This journey did not take place
to any other capital or city in the world, but only to Jerusalem in
order to make it the sister of Mecca in history, and in order for
the Muslims to know that the concession of Jerusalem is just like
conceding Mecca and Medina. 11
Like the Palestinian Islamic groups, Arab Islamic movements do
consider Jerusalem, indeed the whole of Palestine, which derives
its religious sig¬nificance from Jerusalem, a Muslim religious
endowment (waqf). Muhammad Hamid Abu al-Nasr, the Supreme
Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Society which delineates
doctrinal attitudes for the Muslim Brotherhood Societies in Arab
countries, including Hamas, states:
We have never bargained and we shall never bargain over the land of
Palestine. Palestine, all of Palestine, belongs to all the Muslims.
The link between Palestine and the Muslims is derived from their
commitment to the doctrine and the shari'a ... Therefore,
bargaining over Palestine means bargaining over our faith, our
shari'a and our holy shrines. It also means renouncing and
disavowing our history, our martyrs, and our heroes ...
Relinquishing Palestine is an act of treason ... Allah ruled that
we should not relinquish our homelands to our enemies. He made it
imperative for us to seek the means of power and strength, and to
strug¬gle against the enemies in order to regain what was
usurped from us. This is the verdict of Allah and we shall not
violate His verdict... 12
Jerusalem's Centrality to the Palestinians
Islamic scholars and authorities in other Arab states, described as
moderate, reiterate similar positions on Palestine. The
pronouncements of these schol¬ars and authorities playa role
in defining the positions of their governments towards the
Palestinian issue. Sheikh Abd-al-Aziz Bin Baz, the most
promi¬nent religious scholar and authority in Saudi Arabia,
argues that "the Palestinian problem is an Islamic problem first
and last" and that the Muslims "must fight an Islamic jihad against
the Jews until the land returns to its owners."13
Because of its significance to Muslims and Islamists alike,
Jerusalem assumes political significance to rulers and governments
that wish to enhance their religious legitimacy. Reference to
Jerusalem by PLO Chairman, Yasser Arafat, as the "capital of the
Palestinian state," the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the seat of
Muhammad's nocturnal journey is a constant part of Arafat's
discourse on the Palestinian issue. Arafat is fully conscious of
the centrality of Jerusalem to the Palestinian people and to the
Palestinian Islamists in particular whose attitude can be
particularly con¬straining to the PLO leadership. The charter
of Hamas states:
The land of Palestine is an Islamic waqf for Muslim
generations until the day of judgment. It is inadmissible to
abandon it or a part of it, or to con¬cede it all or a part of
it... Who has the right to decide on behalf of the Muslim
generations from now until the day of judgement? 14
As in Arafat's speeches, and even more so, Jerusalem is a fixed
item in King Hussein's speeches and statements, the reason being
the King/s awareness of the place that Jerusalem occupies in the
hearts and minds of his subjects, and his desire to stress his
special link to the city as a descendant of the Prophet. Ever since
Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank were annexed to Jordan in
1950, the Hashemite regime took care of the city and of the holy
places in it. Jordan has continued to administer and service the
holy places in Jerusalem even after the Israeli occupation and
annexation of the city.
Attempts by the Saudi monarch, King Fahd, to service the holy
places in Jerusalem created open Jordanian anxiety. The regime of
King Hussein saw these attempts as an impingement on Jordanian
responsibilities. The competition over Jerusalem emanates from the
historic and deep-seated suspicion between the Hashemites and the
Donations made by King Hassan of Morocco, on the other hand, to
refurbish al-Aqsa Mosque did not arouse Jordanian concern. King
Hassan, the Commander of the Faithful in his country, does not
aspire to challenge the Jordanian special relationship to the city.
His symbolic act was perhaps sufficient to convey a message and a
reminder to his people that Jerusalem is present in his heart and
The late Egyptian president, Anwar al-Sadat, conscious of the
religious and symbolic significance of Jerusalem to Arabs and
Muslims, including those in his country, went to al-Aqsa Mosque for
prayer during his visit to Israel in 1977 in an attempt to mitigate
political opposition to his visit. In fact, his assassina¬tion
at the hands of Muslim militants in 1980 might be attributed to his
failure to save Jerusalem from Jewish control, as the
Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty did not address the issue of
Jerusalem or challenge Israel's annexation of the city.
Israeli measures in the city have acted as cause and catalyst,
inflaming Muslim fundamentalist sentiments. Israel's annexation of
East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, and Israeli statements claim of
the "united" city as the eternal capital of Israel fill Palestinian
and Arab Islamists with anger and resentment.
Immediately after the occupation of the city, Israel destroyed the
Maghariba quarter and evicted its Arab inhabitants. Israel
transformed the quarter into an open square in front of the Wailing
Wall for Jewish prayer. With the destruction of the quarter, two
mosques, al-Buraq and al-Afdali, were also destroyed. In August
1968 a fire was set in the al-Aqsa Mosque, destroying its
furniture, altar and some of its walls. The Muslims held Israel
responsible and condemned it for complicity.
Al-Aqsa Mosque was also the object of repeated attempts of
sabotage. In March 1980, explosives were found there, and in April
1982, an Israeli sol¬dier attacked the Dome of the Rock,
killing two Palestinians and injuring forty-four others. In March
1983, a group of 46 Israelis brought explosives and placed them in
the area underneath al-Aqsa Mosque; they were dis¬covered by
the guards of the Mosque.
Extremist Jewish groups continue their encroachment on Muslim holy
sites. One such extremist group, the Temple Mount Faithful, has
repeated¬ly tried to enter al-Haram ash-Sharif to lay the
cornerstone for building the Third [Jewish] Temple. During one
attempt, on October 8, 1990, five thou¬sand Palestinians were
on the site trying to prevent the group from enter¬ing
al-Haram. A clash ensued between Palestinian and Israeli troops on
the scene resulting in the death of 21 Palestinians and the injury
of 150 others. Israeli excavation activities in the city are not
perceived by Palestinian and Arab Islamists as innocent acts but as
part of Israeli designs on the city.
No Political Solution Without Jerusalem
Jerusalem is part of the struggle for Palestine which ensued in the
wake of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the British Mandate of
1922. When the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 suggested the
internationalization of Jerusalem, both the Jews and the Arabs in
Palestine rejected the proposal, the Muslim rejection emanating
from the view of Jerusalem as a Muslim religious endowment.
Exclusive claims to Jerusalem which are inscribed in holy scripts
make compromise political solu¬tions to the problem of the
city rather difficult. A per¬manent solution to the problem of
Jerusalem is contingent on a solution to the question of Palestine,
and vice versa. But no permanent solution to the Palestinian
question is likely to take place without the resolution of the
issue of Jerusalem. So far, Jerusalem remains one of the main
obstacles to the realization of peace between the Palestinians and
The deliberate dismissal and postponement of the issue of Jerusalem
might have been a primary reason for the strong Islamic opposition
to the peace process. When the Palestinians went to the Madrid
peace conference of October 1991, Jerusalem was not included among
the documents of the conference, and Palestinians from East
Jerusalem were not allowed to be members in the official delegation
to the conference. In opposition to the Madrid peace conference,
Arab and Palestinian Islamists hastened to take part in a
con¬ference that was held in Teheran to condemn the Madrid
conference and Arab and Palestinian participation in it.
Jerusalem was also absent from the Palestinian-Israeli agreement as
illustrated in the Oslo Declaration of Principles, signed in
Washington on September 13, 1993. Jerusalem was once again
postponed to negotiations on the final status of the Occupied
Palestinian Territories. The Oslo agreement was severely criticized
by Arab and Palestinian Islamists. Islamic movements in Egypt,
Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere issued
sep¬arate statements rejecting the agreement particularly
because it failed to address the question of Jerusalem in addition
to other issues. Palestinian Islamists issued statements to the
same effect and vowed to continue the strug¬gle against
Israeli occupation. Both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad attacked PLO
Chairman, Yasser Arafat, personally and accused him of national
Israel's declared insistence on considering "united Jerusalem" as
the eternal capital of Israel is likely to complicate efforts at
finding a common denominator between the Palestinians and the
Israelis regarding an accept¬able agreement on the city. In
this sense, Jerusalem may continue to be an issue of severe
contention between the two sides. The nature of the solu¬tion
of the issue of Jerusalem is bound to condition the attitude of
Palestinian and Arab Islamists toward an Arab-Israeli peace. If
control over Arab Jerusalem, and definitely over Muslim religious
sites, is not granted to the Palestinians, the Arabs, or the
Muslims, the city will remain a source and symbol for Muslim
resentment, indoctrination, mobilization and per¬haps
agitation and struggle.
These ideas were first presented in a paper prepared for the
Tantur Conference, May 29-June 1, 1994.
1 Ibrahim Abu Lughod, "Jerusalem - Islamic Perspective II:' in O.
Kelly Ingram, ed., Jerusalem: Key to Peace in the Middle East
(North Carolina: Triangle Friends of the Middle East, 1977), p.
2 A. L. Tibawi, "Jerusalem: Its Place in Islam and Arab History,"
in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed., The Arab-Israeli Confrontation of June,
1967: An Arab Perspective (Evanston: Northwest University Press,
1970), p. 12.
3 Ishaq Musa Husaini, "Jerusalem in Islamic Perspective:' in O.
Kelly Ingram, Ibid., p. 41.
4 Tibawi,op cit., p. 12.
5 Ibid., p. 14.
6 Husaini, op cit., p. 41.
7 Tibawi,op cit., p. 18.
8 Husaini,op cit., p. 39. 9.
9 Tibawi,op cit., p. 21.
10 Ibid., p. 48.
11 The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), "The Anniversary of the
Nocturnal Journey Is an Escalation to the Blessed Resistance"
(Al-Isra' wal-Mi'raj Tas'id lil-Muqawama al¬Mubaraka), a
leaflet issued on March 13, 1988.
12 Muhammad Hamid Abu-al-Nasr, "Our Stand Toward the Settlement." A
statement from the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt, May 26, 1991.
13 James Piscatori, "Religion and Realpolitik: Islamic Responses to
the Gulf War:' in James Piscatori, Islamic Fundamentalism and the
Gulf Crisis (Chicago: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences,
1991) p. 6, originally quoted from Abd-al-Aziz Bin Baz, Majmu'
Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi'a (Collection of Fatawas and
Miscellaneous Articles) (Riyadh: al-Idara al-' Amma li'l- Tab' wa'l
Tarjama, 1408 A.H./1987), p. 271.
14 Mithaq Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (Hamas) [Charter of the
Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)), August 18, 1988, p.