Jerusalem and Islam

By Patrick Sookhdeo, Director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity and International Director of the Barnabas Fund.

‘A prayer in Jerusalem is worth 500 prayers elsewhere’ according to an Islamic tradition. Jerusalem is the third most sacred city in Islam, following Mecca (where a prayer is valued two thousand times as much as elsewhere) and Medina (where a prayer is one thousand times more valuable).

Jerusalem has great significance in Islam, being closely associated with two much prized traditions about Muhammad’s life, and also with Abraham and Ishmael. It was so special that it was originally the direction in which Muslims had to face for prayer.

The word ‘Jerusalem’ does not appear in the Qur’an but the city is referred to as Iliya’, an Arabicisation of its Roman name, Aelia, and as Bayt al-maqdis ‘(the holy house’). The most usual Muslim name for Jerusalem is Al-Quds, which simply means ‘the holy.’

The vital importance to Muslims of praying towards Mecca is well known. However, in the early days of Islam, Muhammad instructed his followers to pray towards Jerusalem, following Jewish custom. Indeed, it would not at this stage, have been possible for them to pray towards Mecca since they were all in Mecca anyway. It was not until 624, two years after Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina, that the direction of prayer changed, perhaps because of Muhammad’s conflict with the Jews.

Another important link between Muhammad and Jerusalem concerns the tradition of his night journey (isra’). One night, says the tradition, as Muhammad slept near the Ka’aba in Mecca, the angel Gabriel woke him and led him to a winged horse, which flew him to al-masjid al-aqsa (the furthest mosque) i.e. Jerusalem. There he met Abraham, Moses and Jesus, whom he led as together they all recited Muslim ritual prayers. A further tradition says that from Jerusalem Muhammad made a journey to heaven.

The history of Islamic Jerusalem begins with the conquest of the city by Arab Muslims under Caliph Umar in AD 638. ‘Umar was a relatively magnanimous conqueror and allowed the Christians a measure of religious freedom, in return for the traditional jizya tax levied by Muslims from non-Muslims. He ensured that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was safeguarded for Christian worship, and, despite the subsequent influx of Muslims from Medina, the city retained a largely Christian character.

It was ‘Umar who first instituted Muslim prayers on the site of the Jewish Temple, where the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque now stand. The Dome of the Rock was completed in 691 AD and al-Aqsa in 715 AD. The rock over which the dome has been raised is the one on which Muslims believe Muhammad stood and left a footprint before he began his heavenly journey. A later Muslim tradition says that the rock was also the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son Ishmael. (The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is paralleled in Islam by a similar story about Abraham and his older son Ishmael.)

The Dome of the Rock was clearly intended to celebrate the triumph of Islam over Christianity, and therefore had to exceed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in beauty. By its very location it also sent a message to Jews of the victory of Islam over Judaism. Despite the disapproval of some Islamic theologians, many Muslims began to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, performing a circumambulation around the Dome of the Rock instead of the more arduous journey to distant Mecca to walk around the Ka’aba.

The First Crusade was successful in reclaiming Jerusalem from the Muslims, which it accomplished in 1099. The Dome of the Rock was turned into a church, and al-Aqsa mosque became the headquarters of the Templars. In 1187, after less than a century, Jerusalem was reconquered by Saladin, an event which greatly increased its significance to Muslims. The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa were converted back to mosques, and many Christian buildings were used for Islamic purposes. The city quickly took on a Muslim character.

After the final defeat of the Crusaders in 1291, Jerusalem was ruled by a series of different Muslim dynasties until the British Mandate (1920-1948). A significant interlude occurred during the period 1831 to 1840, when the city was occupied by Muhammad ‘Ali, the founder of the Egyptian royal house. The reforms initiated under his adopted son, Ibrahim Pasha, included an easing of restrictions on non-Muslims. Even when the Ottoman Turks re-conquered the city the reforms continued.

Today, Jerusalem is still of huge significance to Muslims. A telephone survey of a thousand American Muslims conducted in January 2000 found that the status of Jerusalem was the second most important concern of the Muslims polled, out of a list of twenty issues. ‘The holy’ remains central to the Islamic faith.