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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2404

The Jerusalem Question – Part 2

By Habib Siddiqui

In 636 CE, at the battle of Yarmouk, the Byzantines were decisively defeated by the Muslim Army, led by Amr ibn al-‘As (R). Within months in 637 CE, the Muslim army under the leadership of Abu Ubayda ibn Jarrah (R) lay a bloodless siege on Jerusalem, which lasted for four months. Patriarch Sophoronius offered to surrender the city if Khalifa Umar ibn al-Khattab (R) himself would come in person to ratify the terms of the surrender.

Muslim Period

The encounter between these two men was very dramatic. In the words of a Christian historian, Anthony Nutting, "Umar taught the caparisoned throng of Christian commanders and bishops a lesson in humility by accepting their surrender in a patched and ragged robe and seated on a donkey." [The Arabs, New American Library, N.Y. (1964)]

The terms of the surrender were: "Bismillahir Rahmaneer Raheem (In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful). This is a covenant which Umar, the servant of Allah, the Amir (Leader) of the faithful believers, granted the people of Aelia [Ilya’]. He granted them safety for their lives, their possessions, their churches and their crosses. They shall not be constrained in the matter of their religion, nor shall any of them be molested. Whoever leaves the city shall be safe in his person and his property until he reaches his destination." [11]

Umar (R) thus pledged security of the lives, properties, churches and freedom of worship of the city’s Christian inhabitants. These pledges came to be known as the Covenant of Umar, which established the standard of conduct vis-a-vis the non-Muslim population of Jerusalem for subsequent generations and specifically for the two Muslim rulers of Jerusalem: Sultan Salah al-Din Ayyubi (1187) and the Ottoman Sultan Selim (1516). [It is worth noting that the Covenant was one of the most progressive treaties in history. For comparison, just 23 years earlier when Jerusalem was conquered by the Persians from the Byzantines, a general massacre was ordered. Another massacre ensued when Jerusalem was conquered by the Christian Crusaders from the Muslims in 1099 CE. The Treaty of Umar (R) allowed the Christians of Jerusalem religious freedom, as is dictated in the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad (S). This was one of the first and most significant guarantees of religious freedom in history. Umar (R) further allowed Jews to worship on the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall, while the Byzantines had banned them from all such activities.]

When Umar (R) entered Jerusalem, (what is now known in the West as) the Temple Mount lay vacant. The Christian Byzantines had used it as a garbage dump [to offend the Jews]. But to the Muslims it contained the Rock hallowed by the Prophet Muhammad’s (S) Isra’ and Mi’raj (the Prophet’s nightly journey to Jerusalem and ascension to heaven with Angel Jibril (AS)).

After accepting the city’s surrender from Sophronius, Umar (R) was shown around the church during which the time for mid-day (Zuhr) prayer came. The Patriarch offered a place for him to pray inside the church and laid out a straw mat but Umar (R) refused, explaining to the Patriarch, “Had I prayed inside the church, the Muslims coming after me would take possession of it, saying that I had prayed in it.” He (R) prayed outside the Church.

According to the Muslim chroniclers, Umar’s (R) next concern was to identify that Rock. Sophoronius guided him to a spot, which by then had no traces of its Jewish past. Because of high reverence for the place, Umar (R), the Amirul Mu’meneen, himself started cleaning it in person, carrying dirt in his own robe. His entourage and army followed suit until the whole area was cleaned. He directed that no prayers be held on or near it until the place has been washed by rain three times. His entourage then sprinkled the place with scent. Umar (R) then led the Muslims in prayer on a clean spot to the south. Foundation of a mosque was erected on the spot and this is the Al-Aqsa mosque, revered by Muslims as one of the three most sacred mosques on earth.

In the Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time, Umar’s (R) capture of Jerusalem was seen as an act of redemption from the Byzantines. It is worthwhile mentioning here (as has also been recognized by Jewish historian Moshe Gil) that it was not until 638 CE that a Jewish quarter would be assigned in the city – since the days of the second Jewish Revolt some five hundred years ago – when Muslims invited Jewish families to reside therein.

The most obvious reflection of Islam’s reverence for Jerusalem is in its architecture. During the Umayyad rule (660-750 CE) Jerusalem flourished to become a major city, and from this period, important buildings survive. The Umayyad Khalifa Al Walid later completed the construction of the al-Aqsa mosque in 715 CE. His father Caliph Abdul Malik bin-Marwan constructed the "Dome of the Rock” Masjid al Quba as-Sakhra (visible with gold dome) on the Haram al-Sharif earlier in 688-691 CE (68-71 AH). These two mosques became essentially the most visited mosques in the entire Muslim world outside the Ka’ba and Masjid an-Nabi in Arabia, and grace the city of Jerusalem to this very day.

In 728 CE, the cupola over the Al-Aqsa Mosque was erected, the same being restored in 758-75 by the Abbasid Khalifa Al-Mahdi. In 831 Khalifa Al-Ma’mun restored the Dome of the Rock and built the octagonal wall. In 1016 CE the Dome was partly destroyed by earthquakes; but it was repaired in 1022.

As part of historical revisionism, some Orientalists, such as John Wansbrough, and Likudnik/Zionist historians have opined that Muhammad’s (S) night journey to Jerusalem – the Isra’ and Mi’raj, one of the principal foundations of Jerusalem’s sanctity in Islam – was a later invention aimed at accounting for the Qur’anic verse 17:1. [17] Others, such as Patricia Crone, have proposed that Jerusalem was in fact the original Islamic holy city, and that the sanctity of Makkah and Madinah was a later innovation. Neither of these ludicrous theories enjoys much acceptance (outside die-hard Zionists), least of all among Muslims. [18]

During the Abbasid rule (750-969 CE) Jerusalem became a religious focal point for Christian and Jewish pilgrims and Sufi Muslims. The vast majority of its inhabitants were Muslims. It remained under Muslim control until the first Crusade (1099). Excepting a brief period during Fatimid caliph (insane) al-Hakim’s rule (996-1021), there was no religious persecution of minorities. [19]

In November 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a speech at Claremont, France, which can only be described as the vilest and most spiteful speech of the Middle Ages, responsible for initiating the never-ending Crusade. He said: “O race of Franks! race beloved and chosen by God! … From the confines of Jerusalem and from Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has violently invaded the lands of these Christians, and depopulated them by pillage and fire. … The kingdom of Greeks is now dismembered by them, and has been deprived of territory so vast in extent that it could not be traversed in two months’ time.

On whom, then, rests the labor of avenging these wrongs, and of recovering this territory, if not upon you – you upon whom, above all others, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great bravery, and strength to humble the heads of those whom resist you? … Let none of your possessions keep you back, nor anxiety for your family affairs. For this land which you now inhabit, shut in all sides by the sea and the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; it scarcely furnishes food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage wars, and that many among you perish in civil strife.

Let hatred, therefore, depart from among you; let your quarrels end. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves.

Jerusalem is a land fruitful above all others, a paradise of delights. That royal city, situated at the center of the earth, implores you to come to her aid. Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of Heaven.”

With that deleterious speech, the Pope aroused Christians to recapture Jerusalem from Muslims. On 1099 CE the Crusaders entered the city and began one of the bloodiest and crudest massacres in history. According to Ibn al-Athir some 70,000 Muslims were slaughtered in Masjid al-Aqsa alone, all of them non-combatants, some of them Imams and professors of theology.

Raymond d’Aguiliers, chaplain to Raymond de Saint-Gilles, Count of Toulouse, wrote: “Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious ceremonies were ordinarily chanted. What happened there? If I tell the truth, it will exceed your powers of belief. So, let it suffice to say this much, at least, that in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle-reins. Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies. The city was filled with corpses and blood.” [20]

Jerusalem became the capital of the Latin Kingdom under Godfrey, Count of Bouillon, who changed the Al-Aqsa mosque into a church and erected a big cross on top of the Dome of Rock. Muslims and Jews were banned from living in the city.

In 1187 CE Sultan Salahuddin (Saladin) Ayyubi (RA) liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders and restored the al-Aqsa mosque to its previous condition. Before liberating Jerusalem, Saladin wrote a letter to King Richard which sums up Muslim position vis-a-vis the status of the city. He wrote: “Jerusalem is our heritage as much as it is yours. It was from Jerusalem that our Prophet ascended to heaven and it is in Jerusalem that the angels assemble. Do not imagine that we can ever abandon it. Nor can we possibly renounce our rights to it as a Muslim community. As for the land, your occupation of it was accidental and came about because the Muslims who lived in the land at that time were weak. God will not enable you to build a single stone in the land so long as the war lasts."

Comparing Saladin’s behavior with those Christian Crusaders, the historian Anthony Nutting writes: "Apart from restoring the holy places of Islam, Saladin allowed not a single building to be touched. As Christian historians have attested, strict orders were issued to all Muslim troops to protect Christian life and property and not a single Christian was molested on account of his religion – a remarkable contrast to the atrocities perpetrated by the Franks eighty-eight years before." It is worth mentioning here that while the Crusaders, when they entered Jerusalem, burned Jews in their synagogue Salahuddin, after recovering the city, had allowed Jews to return.

Excepting brief periods between 1229-1239 and 1243-1244 when Jerusalem again fell in the hands of the Crusaders (because of Muslim in-fighting), it remained a Muslim City through all its life. Religious freedom and rights of worship by Christians and Jews were respected. In 1267 Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman (Nahmanides) arrived from Spain, revived the Jewish congregation and established a synagogue and center of learning bearing his name. In 1448, Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro settled in Jerusalem and led the community. After the Spanish Inquisition (1492), Jews found shelter among the Muslims of North Africa and (what is now called) the Middle East.

The Mamluks (1248-1517), who came after the Ayyubids, left their mark in architecture with beautiful buildings, schools and hospices throughout the Old City. They added markets, repaired water supplies and constructed city’s fountain system.

In 1517 the Ottomans took over Jerusalem peacefully. Sultan Suleiman "the magnificent" (1537-41) rebuilt the city walls (un-walled since 1219) including the present day 7 gates (what is now known as the Old City) and the "Tower of David." He further improved the city’s water system, installed drinking fountains still visible in many parts of the Old City. He also patronized religious centers and educational institutions. A Jewish colony “Safaradieh” was formed in 1522 in Palestine. The Ottomans granted religious freedom to all and it was possible to find (something that was unthinkable in Europe) a synagogue, a church and a mosque in the same street.

The Damascus gate was erected in 1542. It was Sultan Selim, the Ottoman ruler, who dug out the Wailing Wall from under the rubble in the 16th century and permitted Jews to visit it. All the Ottoman Sultans -” from Suleiman “the magnificent” to Sultan Abdul-Hamid (RA) -” were great patrons of Jerusalem, making surrounding territories of the mosques as their Waqf properties.

Throughout the Ottoman era, the city remained open to all religions, although the empire’s faulty management after Sultan Suleiman meant slow economic stagnation. When Jewish people faced extermination across Europe, the Ottoman Sultans allowed them to take refuge in the Empire. Some of them settled in Palestine. In 1562 there were 1,200 (mostly religious) Jews and 11,450 Arabs living in Jerusalem. [21]

By mid-19th century, with the weakening of the Ottoman Empire (to the extent of being ridiculed as the “Sick Man of Europe”) the European colonial powers vied with each other to gain a foothold in Palestine. New areas with names like the German Colony and the Russian Compound sprouted the city. According to Zionist historiography, residential building outside the walls of the Old City began around 1860 with the Jewish settlement – Mishkenot Shaananim. However, such scholarship overlooks the much earlier construction and continued use of numerous indigenous residential buildings outside the walls such as khans, residences for religious persons, and summer homes with orchards and olive presses, belonging mostly to non-Jews, especially the Arab Muslims. [22] In time, as the communities grew and connected geographically, this became known as the New City. [23]

This was also an age of Christian religious revival, and many churches sent missionaries to proselytize among the Muslim and especially the Jewish populations, believing passionately that this would expedite the Second Coming of Christ. These outside missionaries settled in and around places like Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

In 1846 there were only 12,000 Jews in Palestine out of a population of 350,000. In 1880, shortly before the Russian Pogroms, there were only 25,000 Jews in Palestine out of a population of half a million. [24]

The last half of the 19th century witnessed the pontification of Pope Pius IX (1846-78), the publication of Wilhelm Marr’s "Jewry’s Victory over Teutonism" (1873), the assassination of Czar Alexander II (1881) and the Alfred Dreyfus case (1894). [25] These events led to pogroms and anti-Semitism (actually Jew-hatred) across Europe, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. Jews again found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. [Ironically, the demise of the Ottoman regime can partly be blamed on the Jewish enclave in Salonika (now Thessalonica or Thessaloniki in Greece) – home of the Donme [26] and the birthplace of the (Jacobin) Young Turk movement.] [27]

The last decade of the 19th century saw the emergence of political Zionism calling for the establishment of a Jewish state. Sultan Abdul-Hamid, the last of the Ottoman Sultans, was approached by Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, who offered to buy up and then turn over the Ottoman Debt to the Sultan’s government in return for an Imperial Charter for the Colonization of Palestine by the Jewish people. In his Diary, Herzl writes, “Let the Sultan give us that parcel of land [Palestine] and in return we would set his house in order, regulate his finances, and influence world opinion in his favour…” The Sultan rejected the offer, but reiterated that as the Caliph he remained a guardian of the Jewish people.

Herzl personally met the Sultan in May 1901. The American Jewish Yearbook [5663, October 2, 1902, to September 21, 1903, ed. Cyrus Adler, Philadelphia, the Jewish Publication Society of America (1902)] at the time summarized Herzl's meeting this way:

[Note: The Jewish Yearbook cited above also shows that at the Fifth International Congress (of Zionists), held at Basel, Switzerland, from Dec. 26 to 29, 1901, a system was designed to uniting the various Zionistic societies under one umbrella, the Congress, and the Congress was to establish a National Fund of 200,000 British Pound to be used for the purchase of land in Palestine.]

In his letter to a Sufi Shaykh - Shadhili Sheikh Abu'Shamat Mahmud (dated Sept. 22, 1911), Sultan Abdul-Hamid mentions this episode: “I left the post of the ruler of Caliphate only because of the obstacles and threats on the side of people who call them ‘Young Turks’. The Committee of Unity and Progress obsessively insist on my agreement to form a national Jewish state in the sacred land of Palestine. But in spite of their obstinacy I strongly refused them. In the end, they offered me 150 million English pounds in gold, but again I refused and said the following to them: ‘If you offer me gold of the world adding it to your 150 man, I won’t agree to give you the land. I have served Islam and the people of Muhammad (S) for more than 30 years, and I won’t cloud the Islamic history, the history of my fathers and grandfathers - Ottoman Sultans and caliphs.’ After my definite refusal, they decided to remove me from power, and after that they told me that they would transport me to Salonika and I had to resign. I praise my benefactor who didn’t let me bring shame on the Ottoman state and the Islamic world. I want to stop at this. I praise the Almighty once again and finish my letter.” [28]

The Sultan, to the last of his days, resisted bartering Jerusalem for his reign.

So, what we notice from historical accounts is a remarkable Muslim reverence for the city of Jerusalem, much in contrast to the disingenuous claims made by Zionist apologists like Daniel Pipes and others. Down the centuries, from the time of Umar (R) to the subsequent Muslim dynasties ruling from Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul, Jerusalem was always important to Muslims. They constructed a wide variety of buildings and institutions in Jerusalem: mosques, theological college convents for Sufi mystics, abodes for holy men, schools of the Hadith and the Qur’an, orphanages, hospitals, hospices for pilgrims, fountains, baths, pools, inns, soup kitchens, places for ritual ablution, mausoleums, and shrines to commemorate the Prophet’s (S) Mi’raj. These buildings were maintained through a system of endowment in perpetuity (awkaf), sometimes involving the dedication of the revenues of entire villages in Palestine, Syria, or Egypt. The patrons were caliphs and sultans, military commanders and scholars, merchants and officials, including a number of women. Their philanthropy bears witness to the importance of Jerusalem as a Muslim center of residence, pilgrimages, retreat, prayer, study and burial. [29]

- Asian Tribune -

The Jerusalem Question – Part 2
The Jerusalem Question – Part 2
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