Panel: J'lem of incidental importance in Islam

Holy city's importance in Islam varies through history according to political circumstances, Jewish scholars say at panel.

dome of the rock 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
dome of the rock 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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 services.
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 spiritual longing.
In Islam, Jerusalem plays a far more subordinate role, Pipes said.
“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.
After 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 identified.
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.”
When the 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 Begin.
“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 Jerusalem.”
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 predicament.
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 book.
“Jerusalem belongs to the Jews, period,” Kedar says in the clip, which has been viewed over 350,000 times on YouTube.
Wednesday’s 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.”