Do Muslims have a right to claim Jerusalem?
Updated: Dec 30, 2019
Welcome to Jerusalem, the most contested city in the world. Throughout its history, this metropolis has been attacked, conquered, and besieged more than one hundred times. For over one thousand years Jerusalem has been under one or another Muslim regime. Not surprisingly, many Muslims want this city back—some even say that Jewish people have no right over Jerusalem. But do Muslims have a right to demand Jerusalem?
To grasp how big of a deal is this ancient city for Muslims we will start by examining their most important source. Oh! But we forgot; Jerusalem is not mentioned even once in Qur'an. How many times is Jerusalem mentioned in the Bible? 631 times in the Old Testament, plus 141 times in the New Testament—in total 772 times.
The Jewish appraisal of Jerusalem is manifest. It is well known that since ancient times the Israelites have always prayed looking towards this city. But why don’t Muslims kneel down facing Jerusalem? Actually, Muslim tradition tells us that at the beginning of his "ministry" Muhammad had prayed facing Jerusalem. In an attempt to persuade the Jews of Medina, the self-proclaimed prophet even celebrated the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur! But he would soon realize that neither the Jews nor the Christians of Medina were convinced of his prophetic calling. Infuriated by their rejection, Muhammad would end up changing the Biblical Yom Kippur for the newly made-up Ramadan, and the sacred Jerusalem for the pagan city of Mecca. Since then, Muslims have always prayed kneeling down towards some strange black stone located in the center of the capital of Islam.
Now, you might be asking yourself, what about the Muslim claim to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque? Well, according to Muslim tradition, these two buildings are directly connected to the Islamic accounts of the Isra and the Mi'raj. The first one, the Isra, tells us about Muhammad’s night journey on a heavenly steed called Buraq. Traveling at a miraculous speed, Muhammad arrives at Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, or "the farthest mosque", where he prays to Allah. The Mi'raj continues by telling us how Muhammad is taken up to the seventh heaven, surpassing all of the prophets that he encounters in each heaven. Being admonished by Moses, Muhammad bargains with Allah the fifty daily prayers imposed on Muslims. Finally, the Arabian prophet manages to reduce the burden to five daily prayers.
So, according to tradition, the current Al-Aqsa mosque corresponds with the one where Muhammad performed his prayers, while the Dome of the Rock is the place from where the “prophet” ascended to heaven. However, there is a small problem with this story: the Qur'an does not tell us what and where the "farthest mosque" is—let alone the Dome of the Rock. Not surprisingly, some Muslims claimed that the Qur'an is talking about the mosque in Medina and not the one in Jerusalem. So, when was Al-Aqsa built?
In 637 AD, five years after the death of Muhammad, the Umayyads invaded Jerusalem. Still, with a strong Christian presence, the Muslims began the Islamization of the city by building first, the Dome of the Rock (c.691 AD), and some years later, the Al-Aqsa mosque (c.705 AD). Over time, Muslims somehow managed to link the two buildings with the Isra and Mi'raj account. But, there is just another small problem: Mohammed's night journey took place at a time when the Al-Aqsa mosque did not yet exist!
Despite the Umayyads’ efforts to Islamize Jerusalem, Muslims soon lost interest in it: the city ended up becoming just one of the many provincial towns of the Middle East. Ironically, it was only after the Crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem that the Muslims remembered the city. Jealousy paid off and one hundred years later Jerusalem fell back into Muslim hands. As a result, the former Jewish capital relapsed to its former provincial status. In 1267 AD, Rabbi Nachmanides, arriving at Jerusalem from Spain, stated the following:
“What can I tell you about the Land of Israel? From all places, Jerusalem is most desolate. We found the ruins of a house built with marble columns and a beautiful dome, and we took them to build a synagogue.”
With the arrival of the Ottoman emperor Suleiman, Jerusalem’s ill omen seemed to have reached an end with the rebuilding of the walls and the improvement of the water supply. But, unlike Suleiman, his Ottoman successors showed no interest in the city, and once again the situation reverted to its usual course. A few centuries later (1867 AD), the American writer Mark Twain, visiting the Ottoman-controlled Palestine, remarked the following concerning Jerusalem:
“Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt, those signs and symbols that indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent-flag itself, abound. [...] Jerusalem is mournful and dreary, and lifeless. I would not desire to live here.”
Just a few decades after these descriptive words (1917), the Ottomans were finally defeated by the British. The conditions of the Jerusalem improved rapidly and the city blossomed. And so, once again, the Muslims remembered the city that Islam had long ago forgotten.
Following Israel's independence (1948), Syria, Jordan, and Egypt attacked Israel. The Arab allies lost the war; nevertheless, they managed to occupy few strategic areas, like the West Bank and Jerusalem, which came to be part of Jordan. In their attempt to Islamize the city, the Jordanians destroyed or desecrated more than 50 synagogues. The Jews lost the right to enter the city, while, the Christians, said goodbye to their religious freedom. Once more, Jerusalem fell into Allah’s hands. But this situation took an unexpected turn with the Arab's defeat of the 1967's Six Day War. Israel recovered the lost land and Jerusalem, more than two thousand years later, was again part of Israel.
Since then, despite all conflicts and setbacks, the Jewish capital has grown exponentially. Each passing day, the Old City keeps growing in beauty, while, the new one, continues to play with modernity. Millions of tourists and pilgrims come to visit the Holy City, meanwhile, the wealthy continue to invest in it. Ironically, this transformation has also benefited the Muslims of Jerusalem, whom, despite their religious freedom and economic progress, still believe that the city should be in their hands. The question then arises, "what possible explanation will they give us when Jerusalem is once again forgotten?"