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Jerusalem and Islam

Jimmy Bitton

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To the Muslim extremist, termed Islamists by most scholars, there are several theological problems associated with the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine. One such problem concerns Jerusalem.

For some time now, it has come to be generally accepted by Muslims that Jerusalem is a holy city; indeed, most rank it third after Mecca and Medina. This was, however, by no means always the accepted position, and in earlier times there was strong resistance among many theologians and jurists who regarded this notion as a Judaizing error--as one more among many attempts by Jewish converts to infiltrate Jewish ideas or practices into Islam. A story told by the great ninth-century historian Tabari, describing a visit by the caliph Umar to the newly conquered city of Jerusalem, illustrates this point:

When Umar came...to Aelia...he said "Bring me Ka'b."

Ka'b was brought to him, and Umar asked him, "Where do you think we should put the place of prayer?"

"By the Rock" answered Ka'b.

"By God, Ka'b," said Umar, "you are following after Judaism. I saw you take off your sandals."

"I wanted to feel the touch of it with my bare feet," said Ka'b.

"I saw you," said Umar. "But no...we were not commanded concerning the Rock, but we were commanded concerning the Ka'ba [in Mecca]."

What remains true is that many Muslims today believe that Jerusalem does have significant religious meaning to Islam. (All of Palestine is essentially a waaf--a holy endowment) This mass popularity of Jerusalem in the Muslim world only began at the end of the 1920's by stanch Wahhabist, Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, the then mufti of Jerusalem. For al-Hasaini, Jerusalem was a convenient tool to mobilize for the "Palestinian cause." Muslims everywhere could now be moved against the Zionists by taking Jerusalem, a religious symbol, and making it the focus of what is fundamentally a national secular conflict. Now, the Arab-Israeli conflict commanded the attention of Muslims worldwide, rather than just Palestinians and those Arabs in the immediate neighbourhood. In the words of Alexander Flores in his article Islamic Themes in Palestinian Political Thought: "When Palestinian Muslims want to mobilize people against the Zionist project with Islamic arguments, there were primarily two complexes they could use: the statements of Islamic tradition pertaining to Judaism and Jews, and the special place of Jerusalem in Islam."

Jimmy Bitton is a teacher of Jewish history in Toronto and a graduate student.

Posted: 02-Nov-05



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