Jerusalem or al-Quds is one of the three holiest sites in Islam, the reference of which has been found both in ambiguous and in unambiguous terms; both in The Holy Quran and in the Hadith literature. The city has been in the centre of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I would attempt to see the ‘Holy Land’ as a contested space amongst the three mentioned religions. However, I would challenge the modern-day narrative of ever-hostile Jerusalem, since early Islamic history first by explaining the importance of Jerusalem in the Islamic traditions then I would delve deeper into the religio-political tension built up since the crusades, and finally, I would try to explore certain fallouts of such deep-lying tensions in the modern world and its political crises.
Prior to the change in the Qibla (the direction of prayer) by Prophet (peace be upon him), Muslims prostrated towards The Holy Lands of Al Quds. It was until the revelations about the change of Qibla came about, where Prophet (peace be upon him) was directed to change it towards the Ka’ba in Mecca. This was the first reference made about Jerusalem in the Qu’ran, as El-Khatib elaborates that this reference is rather undisputed amongst the various exegesis and jurists that the direction change was from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Second, but the more unambiguous reference of Jerusalem comes in the description of the Prophet’s night journey and ascension to the heavens from the Bayt al-Muqadas. Although initially according to some sources this revelation by the Prophet was questioned by some Quraysh people, the verses in the Qu’ran regarding the Miraj is clear where the al-Masjid al-Aqsa (the furthest mosque) has been referred. This event is mentioned in the various Hadith literature. Now, there have been debates regarding the authenticity of the Hadith literature but there is no doubt that the Hadith literature plays an important role in shaping the Islamic imagination and attachment to Jerusalem.
Isaac Hasson, in this context, has come up with interesting intervention on the roles and motives of Hadith literature on the Islamic community of the early and medieval world. Hasson addressed the questions about the late arrival of the Hadith literature on Jerusalem until the fifth century of Hijrat, he points to a political need of this literature in order to establish an Islamic connection to the city, which the Ummayads needed as they ruled from that region.
Goldziher expresses a similar line of thought in his works where he tries to find political motives behind the celebration of Jerusalem as a holy site and questions the authenticity of the Hadith Literature. Coming back to Hasson, he points out to a specific Shi’ite tradition where the holiness of Jerusalem and Al-Kufa is contested; where some Shi’ias believe that Al-Kufa comes ahead of Jerusalem in the pecking order. This debate around the sanctity of Jerusalem attains another strand of argument which was echoed in the works of al-Yaqubi while El-Khatib says that, ‘during the struggle of the Umayyads with Ibn al-Zubayr, ‘Abd al-Malik attempted to create in Jerusalem a shrine which could compete with the Ka’ba and the pilgrimage to Mecca’. This line of thought has been heavily criticized and rejected by El-Khatib, where he draws upon several exegetes and jurists to argue that after examining al-Ya’qubi’s text, it suffices to say here that his views should not be accepted for the following reasons:
Firstly, as Goitein put it: None of the great Muslim historians of the 3rd/9th century, who describe the conflict between Abd al-Malik and Ibn al-Zubayr in utmost detail, nor any of the older geographers, including al-Maqaddasi, a native of Jerusalem, make the slightest allusion to such an intention of the Umayyad Caliph. Moreover, it is obvious that ‘Abd al-Malik would not have strengthened but endangered his position by trying to divert the Hajj from the holy sites expressly mentioned in the Qur’an, and this after the qiblah had been emphatically turned away from Jerusalem, he would have made himself a kafir against whom the jihad was obligatory.
Secondly, al-Ya’qubi contradicted himself in his report about ‘Abd al-Malik’s obligatory diversion of the hajj from Mecca to Jerusalem. He said that this diversion continued throughout the Umayyad era. This is not true because al-Ya’qubi himself reports after a few pages, that in the year, ‘The soldiers of ‘Abd al-Malik’s expedition force participated in the hajj. They wished to do so even during the very siege of Mecca; a request which Ibn al-Zubayr naturally had to refuse’. Besides, al-Ya’qubi, as well as many historians, expressly reported that many Umayyad Caliphs made the pilgrimage to Mecca, including ‘Abd al-Malik who made his hajj in the year (75/694).
El-Khatib continues: For all the above reasons the views of al-Yacquibi should not be accepted especially when we know that he was a violently anti-Umayyad polemicist…However, as M. Lecker put it, ‘There may have been other motives behind Abd al-Malik’s project …’, and therefore, the debate over the real reason behind building the Dome is not yet closed and the exact original purpose of this spectacular work is still a matter of controversy.
This draws me to the next point that is Abd al-Malik’s impact on the Islamic imagination of Jerusalem. The Umayyads conquered Jerusalem in the late 7th century and made it a seat of the expanding Islamic empire. After he decided to build the monument around the Dome of Rock and thus planted the first Islamic architecture in the city, which until then was under the Byzantine rule with magnificent Churches built in it.
Obviously, after becoming important under Ummayads, Jerusalem remains an important place in Islamic piety. According to Livne-Kaffri (1998), the Hadith literature surrounding Jerusalem has been heavily influenced by the Jewish and Christian converts.
Jerusalem holds a special place even in the eschatological traditions of Islam. From the blowing of the trumpet on the Day of Judgment to everyone lining up for judgment, Jerusalem has been mentioned directly or indirectly both in Qur’an and in Hadith. (Surah Az-Zumar: 68, Surah Al-Kahf:99 among other verses). Livne-Kaffri argues that the apocalyptic descriptions in the Hadith literature have been influenced by the little apocalypse mentioned in the Gospel. However, he opines that even though the traditions have Jewish and Christian legacies but he continues: Traditions related to the end of days and Jerusalem should not be studied separately from other diverse features of the sanctification of Jerusalem in early Islam, such as the place of the city in cosmology, the debate over its place as a centre of pilgrimage, or the character of the circles that contributed to the shaping of the idea of its sanctity.
The speech made by Pope Urban II at Clermont in November 1095:
If neither the words of Scripture arouse you, nor our admonitions penetrate your minds, at least let the great suffering of those who desired to go to the Holy Places stir you up. Think of those who made the pilgrimage across the sea! Even if they were more wealthy, consider what taxes, what violence they underwent, since they were forced to make payments… They not only demanded money of them, which is not an unendurable punishment but also examined the callouses of their heels, cutting them open and cutting the skin back, lest, perchance, they had sewed something there. Their unspeakable cruelty was carried on even to the point of giving them scammony to drink until they vomited, or even burst their bowels, because they thought the wretches had swallowed gold or silver; or, horrible to say, they cut open their bowels with a sword and, spreading out the folds of the intestines, with frightful mutilation disclosed whatever nature held there in secret. . . . (Krey 1921: 39-40 in Peters 1985 p.252)
The above speech made by Peter before the crusades began opines that the motive behind the crusades was wrestling back the control of Jerusalem with a myopic view of Islam and the Islamic empire. The charging of taxes, however, echoes in accounts of other European travellers, but a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christian in the city of Jerusalem is chronicled. As Bernard writes: The Christians and pagans have this kind of peace between them, such that if I were travelling, and the camel or donkey which bore my poor luggage were to die on the way, and I left all my belongings there without any guardian, and went off to the city for another animal, I would find everything unharmed when I came back. Such is the peace there. (Bernard in Peters 1985 p.223)
In reply to the skewed vision of the crusader and with heavy attacks in a span of hundred and eighty years, according to Hasson the praise of Jerusalem got stimulated and the literature on it expanded. In addition to this, Hasson also suggests another reason, for the accentuation of the praise of Jerusalem in the fifth century, the Dome over the Rock had collapsed and the preacher at the al-Aqsa mosques had compiled the praise of Jerusalem and sold it for crowdfunding the rebuilding project. Incidentally, in that same year, the southern corners of the Ka’ba had developed fissures and one of the outer walls of the tomb of the Prophet in Medina had collapsed. The coincidence of the events had further strengthened the belief of Muslims as Jerusalem is intrinsic to Islam.
Taking a cue from the skewed vision of Christian Europe, I would argue that the failed attempts of the Crusades inspired the modern-day colonial masters of inviting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Giving into Herzl’s claim of a Jewish homeland in the Palestinian territory, instead of the Uganda plan, which was prior in the pipeline, was one of the prime outcomes of the Balfour agreement. Prior (2001), in this regard, is critical to my argument, he points out the nexus between the Holy See, Zionism, and the Western European states. In his words, ‘a Christian power in the political life of Palestine came with England’s capture of Palestine in 1917’. Moreover, the Second World War made Political Zionism ever more powerful that the Holy See even with despair had to witness the handover of British Palestine to make way for Israel. Even though, in the interwar period, the Vatican using ‘indigenous rights’ as a shield tried to eke out complete Jewish dominance over the land. Nevertheless, after the devastation of another World War, the moral (in terms of a community having faced the Holocaust), as well as political (as an influential community in the USA) upper hand of the Zionists, helped them occupy the territory of Palestine. In the post-war period, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory has deepened the conflict over Jerusalem. The hyper-religiosity of Israel in the name of secularism, obliteration of the Muslim Palestinians has made Israel the unholy occupiers of the Holy Land.
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Subhajit Pal is a Masters students of Global Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. He has previously worked with the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, Kashmir.