Jerusalem is of incidental significance to Islam, its importance varying through
history according to political circumstances – that was the message scholars
delivered Wednesday at a panel discussion in the capital on the city’s
significance to Muslim tradition and faith.
The event, titled “Jerusalem:
How Important is it to Muslims?” was organized by the Middle East Forum and held
at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
Daniel Pipes, the founder and
director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, opened the panel by
outlining Jerusalem’s centrality to Judaism – it is mentioned in the Bible more
than 800 times as well as in prayer services, daily blessings and wedding
Since the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE and the subsequent
exile of Jews from the Land of Israel, Jerusalem has been the focus of Jewish
In Islam, Jerusalem plays a far more subordinate role,
“It is not prayed to, not mentioned once in the Koran; there
are no events in Muhammad’s life directly connected to it; it is not a capital
and it is sometimes even seen as a place rejected by God,” he said.
emigrating from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, Muhammad enacted religious laws
allowing Muslim men to eat Jewish-prepared food and marry Jewish women, and
encouraged them to pray in the direction of Jerusalem.
Pipes said that by
624, once it was clear that the Jews had rejected Muhammad’s claim to
prophethood, he changed the direction of prayer to Mecca.
“This set a
precedent of Muslims raising or lowering Jerusalem’s importance in accordance
with political concerns,” said Pipes, who holds a doctorate in medieval Islamic
history from Harvard University and is a visiting fellow at Stanford
University’s Hoover Institution.
Jerusalem’s importance in Islam was
temporarily heightened by the Umayyads, the caliphs who transferred their seat
of power from Mecca to Damascus in 661. To bolster their legitimacy, the
Umayyads deemphasized Muslim sites associated with Muhammad and his successors
in Mecca and Medina in favor of pre-Islamic holy sites in Syria – an area in
which they included Jerusalem, Pipes said.
Muslims believe the Koran was
compiled between 610 and Muhammad’s death in 632. The book describes the Islamic
prophet’s night journey atop a winged steed to the “farthest mosque” – in
Arabic, “al-masjid al-aksa” – but the location of the mosque is not
The Umayyads built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the
ruined Jewish Temple in 692, and what is today known as Al-Aksa Mosque in 705.
“The Umayyads built a mosque and called it ‘al-masjid al-aksa,’” Pipes said.
“Seventy years after Muhammad, the revelation became a mosque.”
caliphate passed from the Umayyads to the Baghdad-based Abbasids six years
later, Jerusalem again fell into obscurity, Pipes said. The idea of Jerusalem as
the third holiest city in Islam came about centuries later in response to the
Crusades, he said.
“Jerusalem became important to Islam when someone else
wanted it,” said Moshe Sharon, an Islamic history scholar at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem and an Arab affairs adviser to prime minister Menachem
“Jerusalem is not on any major trade routes. Only independent or
semi-independent states with biblical cultures have made it a capital: The Jews,
Crusaders and British,” Sharon said.
“Jerusalem was never a capital under
Islam. When the Muslims came here, they created a new capital – Ramle, not
Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University said Islam has
historically viewed itself as superseding or completing all religions that
preceded it. To orthodox Muslims, therefore, the revival of Jewish sovereignty
in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel is first and foremost a theological
Kedar showed a 2008 interview he gave to Al Jazeera in which
he responds to the anchor’s warning against “erasing Jerusalem from the Koran”
by saying that the city is not mentioned by name once in the Muslim holy
“Jerusalem belongs to the Jews, period,” Kedar says in the clip,
which has been viewed over 350,000 times on YouTube.
discussion was notable for its absence of dissenting voices – all its speakers
were Jewish, and all but Pipes live in Israel. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on
the sidelines of the conference, Pipes delivered the same unvarnished message
that typified the evening’s remarks.
“I’ve done a fair amount of research
on this topic, and I can’t say I’ve encountered anything by Muslims on this
subject that is real scholarship,” he said. “I hope one day there will be.”