The city of Jerusalem is very sacred to Muslims. It is one of the three most sacred cities in Islam. Jerusalem is called al-Quds al-Sharif (the Noble Sacred Place). In order to understand the sacredness of this city in Islam, one has to understand the faith structure of Islam. There are three basic principles of faith in Islam:
1. Belief in the oneness of Allah (Tawhid).
2. Belief in the divine guidance through His chosen Prophets and Messengers (Risalah).
3. Belief in the life after death, divine judgment and heaven and hell (Akhirah).
It is the second principle of faith in Islam in Islam that is directly related to our love and devotion to Jerusalem.
Place of Jerusalem in the Islamic Faith
Islam recognizes all the Prophets and Messengers of Allah. The Quran has mentioned many Prophets by name. Their stories and teachings are told at varying length throughout the Quran. Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Zechariah, John the Baptist (Yahya) and Jesus – peace be upon them all – are among the honored Prophets and Messengers of Allah according to Islam.
Jews and Christians also recognize Prophets David and Solomon as great kings and patriarchs of ancient Israel.
However, in Islam they are honored as Allah’s great Prophets. The Quran not only narrated their stories, but also restored their honor by removing some of the charges and allegations that were made against their characters by earlier communities.
Prophet David (peace be upon him) was accused in the Bible o f committing adultery (2 Samuel 11 – 12) and Prophet Solomon (peace be upon him) was accused of idolatry. (1 Kings 11). The Quran absolved them from all these charges. (28:21 – 25; 38:30). This shows that David and Solomon (peace be upon them) are more revered and respected in Islam than in Jewish and Christian traditions.
Since the city of Jerusalem is historically associated with these Prophets of Allah, it naturally becomes a city sacred to Muslims.
Islam considers itself a continuation of the same spiritual and ethical movement that began with the earlier Prophets.
Historically and theologically it believes itself to be the true inheritor of the earlier traditions of the Prophets and Messengers of Allah. It is for this reason that the Quran called for Palestine – the land associated with the lives of many of God’s Prophets – al-ard al-Muqaddasah (the Sacred Land; 5:21) and called its surroundings barakna hawlaha (God’s Blessed Precincts; 17:1).
The sacredness of the city of Jerusalem, according to Islam, is in its historical religious reality. This is the city that witnessed the life and works of the greatest Prophets and Messengers of Allah. Here the Divine Grace touched the earth repeatedly. Allah’s great Prophets and Messengers lived and moved in its valleys and its streets. Makkah and Madinah are blessed cities in Islam because of their association with the Prophets Abraham, Ishmael and Mohammed. In a similar way Jerusalem is blessed and important in Islam because of its association with other Prophets of Allah, namely David, Solomon and Jesus.
Jews and Christians do not recognize Ishmael and Mohammad as God’s Prophets and Messengers, so they do not consider Makkah and Madinah as sacred cities.
However, Muslims believe in Prophets Moses, David, Solomon and Jesus, and so they must recognize the sacredness and importance of Jerusalem in Islam.
Jerusalem in the life of Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings be upon him)
Due to its theological and religious status, Jerusalem had a very important place in the life of the Prophet Mohammad himself.
In the year 620 almost one-and-a-half years before his Hijra (migration) from Makkah to Madinah the famous event of Isra and Miraj (Night Journey and Ascension) occurred. One night, in a miraculous way, the Prophet was taken on a momentous journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and then from there to the heavenly celestial abodes.
The Night Journey was a great miracle that Muslims believe was given to Prophet Mohammad as an honor and as a confirmation of Makkah’s spiritual link with Jerusalem.
Both of these events took place on the same night. The angel Gabriel took the Prophet from Makkah to Jerusalem. There it is reported that the Prophet stood at the Sacred Rock (al-Sakhrah al-Musharrafah), went to the heavens, returned to Jerusalem and met with many Prophets and Messengers who were gathered together for him on that occasion and he led them in prayers.
After these experiences the Prophet was taken back to Makkah. The story of Isra and Miraj is full of wonderful signs and symbols. Muslim thinkers, mystics and poets have interpreted it in deep an meaningful ways. There is, however, one essential point and that is it serves as an example of every Muslim’s deep devotion and spiritual connection with Jerusalem.
During the Miraj, the Prophet is reported to have received from Allah the command of five daily prayers (Salah) that all Muslims must perform. Upon his return to Makkah, the Prophet instituted these prayers. It is significant to note that he made Jerusalem the direction (al-Qiblah) which Muslims must face while doing their prayers. Jerusalem is thus called Ula al-Qiblatain (the First Qiblah).
The Prophet and the early community of Islam worshipped towards the direction of Jerusalem during their stay in Makkah. After the Hijra (migration), Muslims in Madinah also continued to pray facing Jerusalem for almost seventeen months. Then came Allah?s command to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah (2:142 – 150).
Muslim commentators of the Quran and historians have explained the meaning and purpose of this change.
It is a lengthy subject that we cannot discuss in detail here. Suffice it to say that the change of the Qiblah in no way diminished the status of Jerusalem in Islam.
The Kaba in Makkah was meant to be the Qiblah from the beginning, because the Quran said that it was the First House (Awwal Bait 3:96) established for mankind to worship the One God.
The Kaba, however, was full of idols when the Prophet Mohammad began preaching his message to Tawhid (the Oneness and Transcendence of Allah).
A separation had to be made between the people and the pagan worship that they used to perform at the Kaba. Jerusalem served that purpose very well by distancing the people from their pagan and idolatrous associations.
Once monotheism was fully established in the minds and hearts of the believers and once the Kaba’s position with Abraham and with monotheism was made clear, the way was open to restore the Kaba as the direction of prayers.
There are many instances of this type of change or abrogation (“naskh”) in Islamic legislation. As one example, visiting graves was forbidden in the beginning of Mohammad (peace and blessings be upon him)’s messengership.
Later it was permitted because Muslims had learned the difference between a grave visit and ancestor worship. At first, the Prophet forbade his people to write down his words except when he told them that what he was saying was revelation – the Quran, the Word of Allah.
Later when people learned the difference between the Quran and Hadith (sayings and deeds of the Prophet), he gave them permission to write Hadith as well.
It is interesting to note that the Kaba in Makkah was the original direction of prayers for all the Prophets of Allah.
According to a Hadith, the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad) had been in Makkah at the place of Kaba since the time of Adam. It was the Prophets Abraham and Ishmael who built the Kaba under Allah’s command and direction (2:125 – 127).
The city of Jerusalem was established as a religious center for the Israelite people by the Prophets David and Solomon around the year 900 BC.
This was almost 1,000 years after the time of Prophet Abraham and the building of the Kaba. Thus one can say that the Kaba had a historical primacy over Jerusalem.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the Bible says that the early Israelites in Jerusalem used to turn to the southern direction when making their most sacred prayers and offerings (Exodus 27:9; 40:24). The Kaba is in the southern direction of Jerusalem. Thus we can say that the Kaba was also a Qiblah for the earlier Israelite communities as well.
Jerusalem in the early history of Islam
Jerusalem came under Islamic rule during the reign of the second Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) in the year 638.
It was a peaceful conquest. The ruling patriarch of the city, whose name was Sophronius, offered the keys of the city to the Caliph himself.
Upon entering the blessed city, the Caliph asked about the location of the mosque of David (al-Masjid al-Aqsa) and the blessed Rock from where the Prophet went in Miraj.
The site was a desolate place at that time. Romans had destroyed the so-called Second Temple in the year 70 CE and no non-Christian or Christian ruler of that city after that ever tried to build any place of worship there.
According to historians, it was a garbage dump, a dunghill for the people of Jerusalem. Umar, upon learning this was the site of the Masjid of Jerusalem and the place from where the Miraj took place, cleaned the place with his own hands and put his forehead in payer on that ground.
The Masjid al-Aqsa was later built in that area.
In 691 CE the Dome of Rock and a more elaborate mosque were constructed. Those were, perhaps, the first most expensive and expansive sacred monuments built in the history of Islam.
Jerusalem was always held in great esteem by Muslims. The Prophet said, “Journeys should not be taken (with the intention of worship) except to three mosques: the Sacred Mosque in Makkah, my Mosque in Madinah and Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.”
On the basis of this Hadith, Muslims always considered it as a religious deed to visit the city of Jerusalem, its mosque and its sacred and blessed precincts. Often pilgrims made it a point to visit Jerusalem on their way to Makkah and Madinah.
Muslim rulers and philanthropists built many hospitals, schools, and religious centers in and around the city. They purchased land in and around the city and dedicated it as a Waqf (endowment) for religious purposes. The whole city is virtually Waqf land that is non-salable and nontransferable.
Many Muslim scholars also migrated and settled in the city. The Al-Aqsa Masjid was a great seat of learning. Thousands of pious people and scholars included provisions in their wills to be buried in Jerusalem. There are thousands, perhaps millions of Muslims’ graves in the city of Jerusalem.
Muslims also recognized the rights of Christians and Jews who hold the city dear to their hearts and sacred in their faiths.
Under Islamic rule they were given permission to settle there. When the Caliph Umar made the treaty with the Christian Patriarch Sophronius it was agreed, at the request of the Christian patriarch, that “No Jews will live with them in Aelia (Jerusalem).”
But later, due to Muslim tolerance, this rule was relaxed and Jews were allowed to come and settle in the city.
After the re-conquest of Jerusalem by Salahuddin in the time of the Crusades, Jews were again permitted by Muslims to come back and live in the city. The Crusaders during their 90-year rule (1099 – 1187) had banned both Jews and Muslims from that city.
The city of Jerusalem is very important to Muslims. Muslims have a right to this city religiously, historically and legally. I have mentioned only the religious aspects in this paper. There are three important points to remember about Islam and the city of Jerusalem:
1. In the whole history of Jerusalem, form the time of Prophet David until now, the longest rule of this city belonged to Muslims.
2. Muslims maintained the sacredness of this city in the full sense of the word.
3. Muslims established and practiced the most tolerant multi-religious and multi-faith character of Jerusalem.