Why Jerusalem is holy for MuslimsMordechai Kedar explains why the Sunni Muslims consider Jerusalem to be holy.
Jerusalem, at least the Old City and the Temple Mount, has been a Palestinian political demand ever since it was liberated from the illegitimate Jordanian occupation in June 1967, despite the fact that it was never the capital of anything throughout Islamic history, and was not even the regional capital of Palestine after the Muslim Conquest in 627 CE. The capital was Ramle, 30 kilometers to the west from Jerusalem. And so, we ask: Why is Jerusalem holy to a religion that was established and developed in the Arabian desert, today's Saudi Arabia? How did Jerusalem win the status of "the third holiest site in Islam" despite the fact that it does not appear even once in the Qur'an? Why, did only Sunni Muslims, traditionally, consider Jerusalem as a holy city while Shi'is do not?There's more. Read the whole thing.
To understand why this is so, we must trace the evolution of the idea of the holiness of Jerusalem in Islam. According to the Qur'an (Chapter 25, Verse 5) the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, was harshly criticized by the members of his tribe in Mecca for bringing them a religion which was nothing but "Asatir al-Awwalin" (the legends of the precursors), meaning the religious narrative of the Jews and the Christians, because many of the stories that appear in the Qur'an are copies of stories from the Bible. Apparently Muhammad learned these stories from his very close friend, a Jewish Rabbi from Yemen named Ka'b. The criticism of Islam, as a copy of other religions made Islam appear illegitimate, so in order to get a "seal of approval" Muhammad tried to convert three Jewish tribes who lived in a desert oasis called "Khaybar", which was situated near the city of al-Medina. To please them, Muhammad legislated that the direction of prayer for Muslims was determined to be Northward, towards Jerusalem, for some 16 months. But the Jews remained loyal to Judaism and did not embrace Islam and therefore Muhammad waged war against them, slaughtered the men and took the women, including Safiyya, the daughter of one of the tribal heads, whom he took as a wife. After he eliminated these Jewish tribes, he was no longer interested in their direction of prayer, so he abandoned Jerusalem and turned the direction of prayer Southward, towards the city of Mecca. He later conquered Mecca, burned the idols that were within, and consecrated the city.
In those days Muhammad had a group of supporters in the city of al-Ta'if, which was located at a distance of a two-day walk from Mecca. When Muhammad walked to Ta'if and back he would spend the night in the village of "al-Gi'irrana", and Islamic tradition has it that near the village were two mosques, "The Nearby Mosque" ("al-Masjid al-adna") and the "Distant Mosque", ("al-Masjid al-Aqsa"), and that he would pray in one of them before setting out on his day-long journey, either to Ta'if or back to Mecca. The Qur'an (Chapter 17, Verse 1) tells a story that one night a miracle occurred to Muhammad; the Creator took him to the Distant Mosque in order to show him His miracles. The people of that generation understood this passage literally, because they knew that "al-Masjid al-Aqsa" was near the village on the way to Ta'if. Muhammad died in the year 632, without ever having visited Jerusalem.
Five years after Muhammad's death, Jerusalem was conquered without a battle, when Bishop Sophronius opened its gates to the formidable army of the second Caliph, 'Umar bin al-Khattab. Sophronius took the caliph and his entourage for a tour of the city, and included in his entourage was Ka'b, Muhammad's Jewish companion. When they arrived at the entrance to the Temple Mount Ka'b removed his shoes, apparently because of the passage "remove your shoes from your feet" because the place was holy. Caliph 'Umar saw this and asked him the meaning of his actions, and Ka'b answered that it was because of the holiness of the place. Caliph 'Umar became angry with him, scolded him and accused Ka'b for trying to insert Jewish concepts into Islam, and insisted that he put his shoes back on immediately because the place was not holy at all. The great Islamic historian, al-Tabari, tells this anecdote and we can derive from it the interpretation that Jerusalem in the year 627 CE - even though it was under Muslim occupation - was not considered by them to be a holy place.
Thirty years after the death of Muhammad, the Umayyad Caliphs transferred the capital of the Muslim Empire from the Hijaz to Damascus, incurring the wrath of the Meccans who were loyal to Muhammad and his legacy. In the following generation, because of the looting, plundering and booty that the Muslims perpetrated upon the empires of Persia, Byzantium and many other places, Damascus became a city of wealth, permissiveness, gala celebrations, debauchery and drunkenness, and there was no abomination that the people of Damascus left untouched. It's low moral status caused the people of Mecca who were faithful to the legacy of Muhammad, to declare the residents of Damascus to be heretics. Finally, in the year 682, under the command of Abdallah bin al-Zubayr, the Meccans organized and rebelled against the Caliph, and prevented the residents of Damascus from coming to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage.
There are those who see a relationship between the rebellion of Abdallah bin al-Zubayr and the disturbing events that occurred two years earlier, in the year 680, when the army of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid bin Mu'awiya eliminated the greatest of the rebels, Husein bin 'Ali, in the city of Karbala', which is in the south of Iraq. Husein bin 'Ali was the grandson of Muhammad; his mother was Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, and his father was 'Ali, Muhammad's cousin and the fourth Caliph, whose supporters are the Shi'ites, even today. However, the fact that Husein was a member of the Prophet's family didn't help him to escape an awful fate: he was decapitated and his head was brought to Damascus in order to show the Caliph that the leader of the Shi'ite opposition had been eliminated. The Caliph put the head on his desk for a month, so that everyone who came to his office would "see and fear". It is thought that Abdallah bin al-Zubayr, the rebel from Mecca, was one of the Shi'ite supporters, and that this is the real reason that the people of Damascus, who lived in the shadow of the Caliph, Husein bin 'Ali's murderer, were prevented from taking part in the Hajj pilgrimage.
Whether because of the debauchery of the residents of Damascus, or because of the cruelty of the Caliph towards the grandson of Muhammad, the people of Mecca, armed Bedouins well versed in the ways of war, blocked off the routes of the Hajj pilgrimage from the people of Damascus and its surroundings. But while Mecca's political and military rebellion continued for eight years, it was still necessary to make the yearly Hajj pilgrimage, a basic commandment of Islam, and so Caliph Yazid bin Mu'awiya searched for an alternative location for the Hajj. The alternative place to do the Hajj had to have an aura of holiness, one that would allow the Caliph to declare it as a place of pilgrimage instead of Mecca.
At that time, many Jews and Christians converted to Islam, at least outwardly, in order to escape the burden of the heavy tax that was imposed upon them. Because of their conversion to Islam they carried in their hearts and in their mouths the exaltation of Jerusalem, the Holy City, and this is how the idea of Jerusalem as a holy city entered into Islam. The Caliph decided that Jerusalem will be the place for pilgrimage, but he needed support from the Islamic writings to enable him to paint his decision in an Islamic color. That is why that passage in the Qur'an that speaks of the miracle of Muhammad's night journey to the "Distant Mosque" was taken, and a new exegesis was attached to it: that the al-Aqsa mosque is located in Jerusalem, and that Muhammad was brought to Jerusalem during the night and ascended to the seventh heaven. During his ascent, the prophets of the previous religions - Judaism and Christianity - joined him: Adam, Jesus, Johannes, Seth, Joseph, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham. In heaven, next to Allah' throne, they prayed behind Muhammad, and this indicates that they accepted his sovereignty over themselves and that Judaism and Christianity pass the baton of leadership on to Islam. All of this is under the Throne of Glory, that is, that the coronation of Islam over Judaism and Christianity is a matter of Allah's magisterial decision. Islam, according to this story, came to the world not to live side by side with Judaism and Christianity but rather to replace them.
In order to better establish the validity of the transfer of the Hajj to Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock was built in the center of the Temple Mount, so that the circumambulation can take place around it. It was built with eight walls, apparently to signify that it is double the holiness of the Ka'ba in Mecca, which has only four walls. In addition, many "Hadith" (oral tradition) pieces had been forged, attributed to Muhammad, which implies that the sanctity of Jerusalem is greater than the sanctity of Mecca.
Then, after eight years of Abdallah bin al-Zubayr's rebellion, the Umayyads succeeded to transfer the Hajj back to Mecca, at which point the tales about Jerusalem were dropped. Salah al-Din (Saladin) brought them up again in the 12th century, when the Muslim commander wanted to rouse up his fighters in preparation for the battle with the Crusaders. After Jerusalem was liberated, it's high status was again abandoned, mainly to avoid undermining the hegemony of Mecca and Medina.
Kedar makes clear that Jerusalem has no significance to Shia's and that its significance to Sunni's is invented. But of course, since Islam views itself as a replacement for Judaism (and Christianity), it can never admit that.
Kedar also makes clear that there can never be peace between Muslims and a Jewish state.