Muhammad, the Jews and Jerusalem

Jerusalem does not hold the same significance to Muslims as it does for Jews. They say it is the third holiest city in Islam, but as this essay moves forward you will see that it is no more holy than say Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, or any other ancient capital that has made it into modern times. These are fabrications to convince an otherwise ignorant world population that today’s Palestinian Arabs have a legitimate claim to Jerusalem as their capital of a future Palestinian state.

In the seventh century, before Muhammad became the prophet and invented Islam he was a spice trader, and as such he traveled the route to Syria many times, by way of Palestine. His contacts with Judaism from Yathrib to Damascus must have been powerful.  Interaction with the Jews would later influence the formation of Islam.

His observations had such an effect that Islam mirrors many of the same rituals as Judaism. That’s why today, Halal is similar to Kosher, Muslims keep their heads covered in reverence to Allah, and males are circumcised at birth. Many of these customs come right from Muhammad’s Jewish influence before he became the Prophet Muhammad in 622CE.

By 620 Muhammad had a fairly large following and had already by that time had established many of the precepts for Islam. He wanted desperately the endorsement of the Jews whose ritual and observance he admired so much.  The Bani Kuriza, the Jewish tribe in Yathrib, rejected Muhammad’s call to recognize his prophetic license. There’s

Painting of Yathrib around 600 ce

some literature that suggests they even ridiculed him for the suggestion. Not out of the realm of possibilities, Jewish history is replete with false messiahs coming and demanding Jewish allegiance, Muhammad in Jewish history is part of a long line of these people.

Karen Armstrong in her book “Islam” sums up Muhammad’s rejection by the Jews as “hurtful.” “Muhammad had been greatly excited by the prospect of working closely with the Jewish tribes…his disappointment, when the Jews of Medina (Yathrib) refused to accept him as an authentic prophet, was one of the greatest of his life.”

The “disappointment” Armstrong refers to turned into a vengeful anger. Although the Jews of Yathrib were well armed and for hundreds of years had been successful fighting off enemies, Muhammad’s forces were just too great. After a fairly long siege, Yathrib surrendered.

The story of what actually happened after that is not well documented. Since all fighters were executed, some say beheaded, and  women and children were taken off to slavery and used as booty to the victorious Muhammad’s army, there was no one left to write down  what happened from the Jewish side.

Islamic literature is intentionally vague. It’s hard to determine exactly how it turned into a Muslim settlement when it had been largely Jewish for centuries.  Other than describing it in texts as a victory known as “the battle of the trench,” not much is mentioned what happened to the Jews after that time. Muhammad’s successor Abu Bakr, renamed Yathrib, Medina, which became the Muslims’ second holiest city after Mecca.

Up to 624 Muslims had been praying toward Jerusalem, but Muhammad’s now bad feeling of being so rejected by the people he had once so admired he ordered his flock to turn away from Jerusalem and to face toward Mecca.

Jerusalem from that time on was out of it.

The Muslims captured Jerusalem in 638, and it was 52 years later when the Caliph of Damascus Abd al Malik  built the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This bears the hypothetical question, if Jerusalem was so holy to

The temple mount before the Dome of the Rock was constructed

Muslims then why did they wait 52 years?  If it had the same significance as Yathrib/Medina, then they would have named it sooner.

Even after the construction of the Dome of the Rock, only the mosque was holy, the city was still just a city.

Ibn Ishak, the earliest known chronicler of Muhammad’s life in the early

eighth century  refers to Jerusalem as “Aelia,” in his writings for the Roman name Aelia Capatolina. That raises further questions as to why Ibn Ishak wouldn’t be referring to it as al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem, in the early 700s decades after the Dome of the Rock was completed in 691ce.

Mordecai Kedar, scholar in Arabic literature at Bar Ilan University, in his book “The myth of al-Aksa” argues that political disputes between the caliph of Damascus, Abd al Malik, and the rulers in Mecca in the 680s, barring Abd al Malik from Mecca, preventing his haj every year,  caused him to look for somewhere else to pray. Since Jerusalem was already holy to Christians and Jews, and Islam was related to those religions Abd al Malik chose to build a shrine to Islam in Jerusalem. Constructed between 689 and 691 the Dome of the Rock was built on top of the Temple mount.

We do know from shi’ite historian al-Ya`qubi there was a dispute between  Abd al Malik, and his court, and the rulers in Mecca and he was prevented after about 685 from making his Haj each year.

Kadar argues that It was another century in the late 700s before Muslims began to write about Jerusalem’s significance in the Hadith. That is also when the story of Muhammad ascending to heaven first appears giving

After Dome of the Rock was built. Photo circa 1875

Muslims a reason to call Jerusalem holy.

Today, it is worthy to note that two of the three holiest cities in Islam have historically been Jewish in culture. Yathrib/Medina which was defeated and the Jewish presence exterminated and Jerusalem which is still Jewish today, but the Muslims would like to change that.

Palestinians want Jerusalem because the Jews have Jerusalem, and they don’t want us to have a holy city. Like al Malik building his shrine on top of the temple mount, was at that time the ultimate humiliation for the Jewish people. Palestinian rejecting Jerusalem as a Hebrew city is based on that same seventh century world view.

Keep Jerusalem Jewish.

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About the Author
Larry Hart has been writing and commenting on Jewish issues since 1985. His body is in the U.S., but his heart is in Israel.