Three faiths have claimed ownership over Jerusalem: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet plain and ancient history favors Jewish ownership over the holy city.
So should Christians claim control of it? If the longest history favors the Jews, then why do Muslims claim Jerusalem as theirs? Why did they build, for example, the Dome of the Rock or the al-Aqsa or “farthest” Mosque on top of the Temple Mount?
Islam’s claim on Jerusalem can be questioned because of two reasons that come too late in history.
Islam’s late militant claim on Jerusalem
In AD 630, Muhammad led an army of about 30,000 jihadists northward to fight the Byzantines. He stopped in Tabuk, in northern Arabia today, but in the seventh century it sat in a kind of no-man’s land, where northern Arab tribes lived. He had heard a rumor that the Byzantines had assembled a massive army. But the rumor was false because they never showed up. Yet, the prophet’s northward march must have deeply impressed the northern tribes. He was able to extract agreements from them, saying, in effect, that they would be safe from aggression (read: aggression from Muhammad himself) if they paid a tax for the “privilege” of living under his “protection.”
It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of the Tabuk Crusade. Muhammad showed his followers how to treat peoples that Muslim armies confronted after his death (Sura 9:29). (1) The attacked region or city may fight and die; (2) they may become Muslims and pay a forced charity tax, the zakat; or (3) the Jews and Christians may keep their faith and pay a jizya tax. There was little hope for polytheists and their religious “freedom” under Islam.
Muhammad died of a fever in 632. Later Muslims learned well from the example of their founder. To wit—
In 634, Muslim armies stormed out of the Arabian Peninsula and began their conquests, which reached Palestine and other nearby regions soon after. In 638, Muslims conquered Jerusalem. Fifty years later, in 688, they began the construction of the Dome of the Rock. In 692, they finished the building project.
After Islam took control of Jerusalem, armies have fought over it, but surprisingly, it has been Muslim armies and self-proclaimed leaders of Islam who have battled each other over the city (and Palestine) more often, so it seems, than non-Muslims. For example, Moshe Gil in A History of Palestine: 634-1099 says that the Fatimids, a North African Shi’ite dynasty named after Muhammad’s daughter since the rulers claimed descent from her, invaded Palestine in 970 and destroyed it after a century of unceasing war, especially devastating its Jewish population.
The Fatimid army . . . turned toward Palestine . . . Theoretically, this was the outset of about a century of Fatimid rule in Palestine. In fact, the Fatimids were compelled to join battle with not a few of the enemies who stood in their way: the Arabs . . . the Qarmatis; a Turkish army . . . Arab tribes in Syria . . . and in the background the Byzantines were lurking . . . [A]ll in all, it was an almost unceasing war which destroyed Palestine, and especially its Jewish population, even before the Crusaders’ eventuality. (p. 336)
To take other examples, in 1071, the Turks besieged Jerusalem, which surrendered in 1073. Thus, Jerusalem came under the control of the Sunnis and out from under the Shi’ite Fatimids. Next, the European Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099, but then in 1187 Saladin took it back.
But how strong is a militant claim? What happens when a more powerful army claims Jerusalem as the Jews did in 1967 in response to Arab aggression? A military foundation is strong only for a moment. So what are the right reasons for owning a city or land?
Taking a step back to view the big picture clarifies matters. If Islam had not stormed out of the Arabian Peninsula after Muhammad’s death to wage wars of conquest, then no trouble would have emerged. But Islam is imperialistic and is bent on world domination.
For a timeline of the Islamic Crusades and for explanations on why Muslims launched their Crusades in the first place and on why people converted to this late religion, go to The Truth about Islamic Jihad and Imperialism: A Timeline.
So besides following Muhammad’s warpath that culminated in the Tabuk Crusade and engaging in sheer conquest, why else do Muslims assert their ownership over Jerusalem?
Islam’s late mystical claim on Jerusalem
It is a fact that Muhammad never entered Jerusalem in a down-to-earth way, with boots on the ground, as it were. It is also a fact that the Quran never mentions Jerusalem once.
However, according to the prolific Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, Muhammad transforms Jerusalem into a holy site for Muslims primarily in three ways (“The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem: The Islamic Vision. The Islamic Quarterly. 4 (1998): pp.233-242).
First, while in Mecca the prophet used Syria (i.e. Jerusalem) as his first qiblah (prayer direction); then, after Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina, Allah permitted his prophet to turn towards Mecca in prayer sixteen months after he arrived (Sura 2:144, 149-150). For Nasr, this permission therefore provides a “mystical” link between Mecca and Jerusalem.
Second, while Muhammad was still living in Mecca, he reports that he took a Night Journey to a farther location in a vision, even though Jerusalem is never mentioned by name. According to MAS Abdel Haleem’s translation for Oxford University Press (2004), the two passages in the sura (or chapter), itself entitled Night Journey, read:
17:1 Glory to Him who made His servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship [Mecca] to the furthest place of worship [Jerusalem], whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him some of Our signs . . . .
17:59 . . . We send signs only to give warning. 60 Prophet, We have told you that your Lord knows all human beings. The vision We showed you was only a test for people . . . .
This non-empirical revelation contains two basic ideas: First, as the context around verses 59 and 60 show, Muhammad was undergoing some persecution in Mecca; the polytheists were asking for a sign of Muhammad’s prophethood. He replies that he is only an ordinary man, so he cannot perform them. The only sign Allah gives him is a vision. Second, this revelation parallels the one in 2:144, which permits Muhammad to take over the Kabah shrine before he actually does. The two passages are mutually supportive. Sura 17:1 reads: . . . “whose surroundings We have blessed” . . . . Allah blesses the location (Jerusalem, though the Quran never says this), as He will bless Mecca a few years later. It should be noted that later tradition says that while in Jerusalem Muhammad was taken up to the seventh heaven from the Temple Mount, giving the vision extra significance for Muslims today.
This is why the al-Aqsa or “farthest” Mosque has been built on top of the Jewish Temple—not near the Temple. But is a non-historical revelation that does not mention Jerusalem by name sufficient justification for building the prime symbol of Islamic imperialism on the historically Jewish holy site? So it seems that in the first and second reasons Allah grants a spiritual link to Mecca and (unnamed) Jerusalem—how much better can religious revelations become for Allah’s favorite prophet?
The third factor, says Nasr, is the Muslim belief in the Second Coming of Christ to Jerusalem. Therefore the city is sacred to Muslims and to Christians—according to Nasr. But this is misleading, for Muslim theology erroneously says that Jesus will return as a leader of Muslims and break the cross to show how wrong Christians have been, in following their Lord Also, these hadiths say nothing about Jerusalem. Rather, traditional belief says that he is supposed to return to Damascus, as this Islamic website asserts. But let us assume, only for the sake of argument, that Nasr is correct about Jerusalem. Then his assertion still fails, for the reasons explained now.
The empirical and political implications of these three non-empirical factors (the qiblah, the Night Vision, and the Second Coming) are enormous: Muslim ownership over Jerusalem. With these three factors combined, Jerusalem is now the third holiest site for Muslims and therefore a place of pilgrimage and alleged ownership.
According to this dubious epistemology (a term that means the study of how we acquire our knowledge), revelation takes priority over historical facts; indeed, revelation makes or creates history. Even Nasr accepts this disembodied, ephemeral epistemology:
Not all the Palestinians nor all the Arabs nor even all the over one billion two hundred million Muslims now living in the world could give Jerusalem away for no matter what amount of wealth, power, land, or any other worldly compensation. The attachment to Jerusalem is permanent and will last as long as human history itself. (p. 234)
His inference makes three controversial claims.
First, the words “Muslims living all over the world now living could not give Jerusalem away” assume that Jerusalem should naturally be owned by the Muslims. Could it be that Nasr is following the path or sunna of Muhammad as the prophet claimed Mecca before he actually owned it?
Second, those same words assume that “Muslims living all over the world” actually worry about Jerusalem and control of it. However, more evidence of this worry needs to be offered. It is doubtful whether the millions in Indonesia or Malaysia, for example, care about not giving it away for any “amount of wealth, power, and, or any other worldly compensation.” Nasr speaks for too many people.
Third, Nasr brings up “human history” in the last sentence, but it is precisely this element that is missing in his three factors. Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims supposedly all over the world mainly due to non-empirical revelations that not everyone agrees on and that cannot be verified in history. And military conquest, which is embedded in history, is fleeting because another army may take over.
Accordingly, Waleed El-Ansary draws this conclusion about Jerusalem:
Perhaps the only ways to achieve peace in the Middle East would be for Jerusalem to be depoliticized. It should not be a political capital of either Israel or Palestine, but be given a unique status as a spiritually sovereign entity under a theocracy of the traditional representatives of the Abrahamic religions . . . . (“The Economics of Terrorism,” in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, ed. J.E.B Lumbard, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004, p. 216).
However noble and lofty his conclusion may sound, it has never crossed my mind, as a Christian, that the Jews should relinquish control of Jerusalem and let a representative theocracy rule over it. Why not?
A Christian perspective on Jerusalem
No evidence shows Jesus transforming Jerusalem (or any other city) into a holy site, and certainly not in the way Muhammad did to Mecca in AD 630—by the sword—nor did Jesus institute a required pilgrimage to a holy site.
It is true that Jesus wept over Jerusalem because as a whole she did not accept his comfort (Luke 19:38-44); and that he cleansed the temple there with a whip (Luke 19:45-46), but he did this by himself, which shows he was making only a theological statement, not a military one. If his intentions were military, then he had enough disciples and crowds to call them to a holy war to try to conquer Jerusalem. It is also true that he foretold her destruction (Luke 21:20); that he instituted the first Eucharist there (Luke 22:7-23); that he died there (Luke 23:26-49); and that he was resurrected there (Luke 24:1-12).
All of these events are historically and empirically verifiable, as opposed to non-empirical revelations; they are rooted in earth and not floating in the air.
Further, in chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. He asks her for a drink, and she complies. Then he asks her to call her husband. She replies that she does not have one. In order to heal her heart, he reads it and informs her that she has had five husbands, and the one she is living with now is not her husband. Surprised by truth, she changes the subject to a political, religious dispute over the right mountain on which to worship. His response:
4:21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem . . . 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth . . . .”
The key phrase is in spirit and truth, which transcends time and place. In these verses Jesus remains consistent to his mission only to change people’s hearts and not to get involved in geopolitical matters. In no passage in the entire New Testament does an author command the early Christians, say, to take up arms to conquer a holy site or Jerusalem. In fact, they transform the physical temple into people—the community of believers, the church, is now the temple of the Holy Spirit, says St. Paul (1 Cor. 3:16). This sets the genetic code for Christianity in the future.
Thus, Nasr misses the mark widely when he writes:
. . . [B]y virtue of accepting Christianity, Christians are duty bound to have a special attachment to Jerusalem as did their forefathers who even fought bloody wars known as the Crusades for over a century with the declared intention of regaining control of the holy city, who oriented their churches in Europe in its direction and who have made pilgrimage to the holy city during the past two millennia. (p. 234)
The key words are “duty bound.” Why does Nasr impose that duty? Bloody wars? Oriented European Medieval churches? Free-will pilgrimages? These are not nearly sufficient for the average Evangelical Christian anywhere in the world. It is difficult to imagine that Thai or Korean evangelicals, for example, ever feel duty bound for those reasons, and certainly not for non-existent New Testament reasons. Most American Christians do not feel duty bound.
It is one thing for a devout Christian to follow his heart on a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to derive spiritual benefit, but it is quite another to follow one’s alleged bound duty or command to go on one and to insist that Jerusalem should come under the political control of Christians, especially to the point of bloodshed.
And as to the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming (Nasr’s third factor in the previous section), Christians believe that Christ will return when the Father pleases. Whoever is squabbling over Jerusalem at that time will have to submit to his reign. True, professional Bible prophecy teachers believe that the Bible teaches Jews own Jerusalem, but they do so for a simpler reason than reading current events and matching them up with the Bible.
American Evangelicals, including Bible prophecy teachers, are faced with two grounds of epistemology on which to make some choices: (1) history, which says that the Jews own Jerusalem; (2) the non-evidence in the New Testament that says Christians should own Jerusalem. What later followers like the Crusaders did is another matter, for they do not set the genetic code for Christianity; only Christ and the New Testament authors do.
The vast majority of Evangelicals in America choose the first epistemological option simply because the Bible and history outside the Bible agree that Jews have lived there long before Christians and Muslims arrived on the scene.
It is true that King David took Jerusalem to unite the nation religiously (2 Samuel 5:1-9; 1 Chronicles 11:1-9), but what happened when the great empires marched over little Israel as a footpath when they were waging war on each other and other opponents? Assyria, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Romans treated Israel as a side issue on the world stage, as they fought for global domination. In all that time, Jews remained in the land, and for a short while under Roman occupation the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem. But back they came. Why do not the northern Iraqis (ancient Assyrians) wish to immigrate to Israel today, in order to “reclaim” an ancient land? Why do not the Egyptians today immigrate to Israel? Why not southern Iraqis (ancient Babylonians)? Greeks? Italians? During all the long history of the holy city and land, Jews alone returned, while others remained—the remnant. If any people have a “mystical” claim on Jerusalem, it is Jews. Regardless, clear and simple history favors them, which is always easier to analyze and quantify than mysticism.
Next, after an assortment of Islamic dynasties fought with each other and the Byzantines, eventually Israel became a mere outlying province (not an independent state or nation) of Turkey for centuries, until this Islamic country fought on the wrong side in World War I. They forfeited their ownership to the victors—Great Britain, in this case. Then in 1948 the ancient land of Israel became an independent Jewish nation with UN approval, thus restoring the land to its historical owners. Again the Jews returned to their land and city, though some had never left—the remnant.
Moreover, the vast majority of Evangelicals in America also choose the second epistemological option. The Founder of Christianity never said it belonged to the Christians, for he lifted our sights higher than mere geography.
However, even though Muhammad never set foot in Jerusalem in a verifiable way and even though the Quran never mentions this city by name, Christians and Jews should respect later Islamic revelation—respecting is different from agreeing on it—that says Jerusalem is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Fulfilling a pledge to take a non-violent pilgrimage to the Jews’ sacred city harms no one materially or politically.
Yet, Muslims should understand why Bible-educated and Bible-believing Christians claim that the ownership of Jerusalem belongs to the Jews. History trumps revelation, which is always better epistemologically when a revelation and its inferences can become politically charged and are not believed by everyone. The history of Jerusalem cries out that the Jews owned the sacred city long before Islam came on the scene and waged wars of conquest during Muhammad’s lifetime and afterwards. Thus, Muslim scholars should understand our position thoroughly before imposing a mythical and mystical duty on us, like Nasr does.
Islam’s militant and mystical claim on Jerusalem falls short. This religion comes way too late in history to assert ownership over the sacred city. Military victories are fleeting, so they are insufficient by themselves. And non-empirical revelations that lay claim over a city, but never mention the city by name, are also shaky and suspect—and they would be such even if they did name the city. Muhammad never set foot in Jerusalem in a down-to-earth way. Revelations should not trump verifiable and ancient historical facts. So Islam is on the wrong side of history.
As for New Testament Christianity, even though Jesus did indeed walk through Jerusalem in a down-to-earth way and was himself a Jew, we Christians are looking for a New Jerusalem in heaven (Revelation 21), instead of an earthly Jerusalem. We are on a pilgrimage to the City of God (as Augustine calls it), not to a mundane city. Therefore, it is not hard for us, following Jesus, to let plain old history take priority over earth-bound and geopolitical “revelations.”
Christianity and Islam—two latecomers on the world stage—should therefore back off from any claim over Jerusalem (and the holy land, for that matter). Longstanding history does not favor them.
However, unvarnished, unembellished history says that Jews should be able to live in and govern their holy city in peace.