Islam and Jerusalem: A city without sacred value at Arafat’s behest

Over the last few days the media’s insistence to any palatable sign that something in these parts can heat up and explode into a bloodbath has been disconcerting.

It’s a passion that has led to exalting any protest, any small episode in which Israeli or American flags or leaders’ portraits are burned as an indication that an imminent revolution is about to engulf the entire world.

The reality, however, is that the number of Palestinians who showed up to protest, apart from those on Friday morning near the Al-Asqa Mosque, have been quite limited, people want to live and work and for now their angry leaders seem out of touch with the sentiment of their people, with their propaganda of incurable outrage and proverbial offenses. But the magical name Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, “Al Quds”, always accompanied by the tireless rhetoric that the city is “sacred to the three religions” has become a passe-partout that guarantees readers and listeners, especially when things “heat up” as they repeat.

And why do they heat up? Even here, the reading seems obvious, but in reality it has little to do with what the reader imagines. It is continually repeated that the city is sacred to the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, this wouldn’t suffice without lighting a political fuse.

Why? Well the reason is plainly political and it lies in the fact that Islam, as Recip Tayyip Erdogan incessantly repeats, can’t accept, bear, or even admit, that Jerusalem doesn’t belong to Muslims. The protesters reiterate this by shouting “we will sacrifice our blood and souls for you Jerusalem”, the slogan that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger is a mantra dear to suicide terrorists who run to save it even if the status quo is assured, and the Mosques out of any danger.

The Dome on the Rock and the Mosque of Al Aqsa are entrusted to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which is controlled by the Jordanian government and the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Qur’an, and even if it undoubtedly holds political significance for the Islam bent on conquest, it’s not as important to religious Islam. That is, until it became political.

The Arab conquest in 638 left its mark on what had been the Jewish capital for 1,000 years, which was conquered by the Romans in 70 A.D., and later managed by the Byzantines. But the city, despite its construction 60 years after the Mosque of Omar, wasn’t a well-tended or glorified city. Neither the Ottomans nor the Jordanians made it a capital; on the contrary, and even under the Ottoman Empire from 1517 up to the British conquest in 1917, it remained a poor, peripheral, and neglected city.

During the period of the Second Temple, the city had 200,000 inhabitants, when the Turks were there it dropped to 10,000. Jews, generally mistreated along with Christians if not in the very first period under Omar, clung to their holy city, which is cited in the Bible more than 600 times, and despite persecution. In fact, by the mid-19th century, the majority of Jerusalem’s residents were Jews. Jerusalem signifies for the Jews what Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam, represent for Muslims.

The philosopher Ibn Taymiya, who lived at the beginning of the 1300s, claimed that the Muslims had to purify Islam of accretions and impieties and he dismissed the sacredness of Jerusalem as a notion deriving from Jews, a “judaization of Islam” which should be rejected. The decision to build the Mosque of Omar on a site that was sacred to an other religion to substitute it, writes the scholar Harold Rhode, as is commonplace throughout Islamic history.

In fact, it has been rebuilt on top of conquered holy sites and it is said that a mosque was placed at the southern side of the Temple Mount so that Muslims could turn toward Mecca while praying.

Some claim that the sanctity of the city for Muslims derives from Prophet Mohammed’s night journey to heaven from Mecca to Jerusalem on the back of the winged horse Al Buraq, which contrasts, writes Rhode, with others who maintain that the city isn’t Jerusalem.

In 680, the Damascus-based Umayyad caliph decided to build the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, at Temple Mount, and encouraged pilgrimages to the site in a political effort to challenge the sanctity of Mecca and Medina, and exalt his own power in Jerusalem.

But Jerusalem remained in the background until all Arab countries, including Jordan who had occupied in 1948 half the city, waged the Six Day War against Israel in June 1967. Following its victory, Israel immediately unified the city. From that moment onwards, Arab disillusionment increased and the Arab world began to distance itself from nationalist and progressive leadership (like Gamal Nasser, the great loser), and along with it, came its outright rejection of Israel, which is emphasized through religious themes.

Ever since then the Palestinian leadership has expanded upon the latter, which later came to be defined around the figure of Arafat, who not only like the Umayyad Caliph used the suggestive and religious power of Jerusalem to gain political consensus, but also called upon the Arab world to help the Palestinians to “free the Mosque” in order to further their own cause.

Arafat began to invoke martyrdom for Jerusalem; he made this city the great Islamic banner in which the Muslim world can all agree upon while opposing Israel and the West. Following closely behind was the communist world, the Third World and the anti-Israel European conformism and anti-Semitism.

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in Italian in Il Giornale (December 12, 2017)


About the Author
Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, former Deputy President of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and member of the Italian delegation at the Council of Europe.