14 June 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood and Jerusalem: A Muslim Refutation
It's important to restate the origin of the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif, the “Noble Sanctuary,” known also to Muslims as “Al-Aqsa,” the “Farthest Mosque,” as it has been interpreted over time in the Islamic world to counter the claims of the Muslim Brotherhood. Recognizing the dynamism of Islamic history will enable us to view the Dome of the Rock in the context of its complex and fascinating history. We will see how Muslims appropriated Jerusalem to develop, legitimize, interpret, and contest ideas about political legitimacy in the Holy Land. However, a secular interpretation will not convince Muslims who are wondering about this from a Muslim perspective. Although there are few challengers to the Muslim Brotherhood's position on Jerusalem and Israel, Abdul-Hadi Palazzi, Secretary-General of the Italian Muslim Association and Director of the Institute of the Italian Islamic Community has gone on the record, repudiating the Salafi interpretation of the Quran by turning to classical Sunni legal sources.
Imam Palazzi responded to Ikramah Sabri, then the chief Muslim official in the Palestinian Authority, the mufti of Jerusalem, on the eve of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, who claimed:
“‘There is no evidence that Solomon’s Temple was in Jerusalem; probably it was in Bethlehem or in some other place.’”
Palazzi wrote that this claim is representative of those who repudiate “... the Jewish heritage [of Islam] as a whole, with the clear attempt even to remove it from historical memory.”
Palazzi asserts that the Mufti's statement points to the sad fact that Muslims are so ignorant of their own history that they are “really inclined to take these words for granted, notwithstanding the fact that they contradict both historical evidence and Islamic sources.” How is it possible that in the twenty-first century, Muslims are so uninformed about their own religion?
Few people realize that the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire left not only a political void, but an intellectual and cultural void as well. In the late nineteenth century, Europeans and Arab intellectuals came to think the Ottomans barbarous, their treatment of religious minorities criminal, and their economic resources ripe for the picking.
In the Arab world, Sunni legal authorities lost their legal preeminence as the result of the modernizing reforms in the nineteenth century reorganization (Tanzimat) of the Ottoman political system. These reforms brought them under the direct control of the Porte, ending their independence as a check and balance against the Sultan's power. At the time, these reforms aimed at reforming the legal bureaucracy in a way that complemented Islamic legal principles, derived from the Shariah, but not based upon a literal reading of the Quran. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the new Turkish government established its power on a secular basis, and the newly independent Arab states followed suit, articulating their political philosophy in nationalist terms. The modern Arab states repudiated Ottoman rule. Arabs repudiated the Ottomans as foreign rulers. Arab nationalism led to a form of willful historical amnesia, the result of their rejection of the Ottoman Empire as a legitimate form of Islamic government. Islamic fundamentalists, heirs to the Salafi movement that broke out against the Ottomans in the 18th century castigated the Ottomans and put forward a modernist answer inspired by the Wahhabis of Arabia. Hassan al-Banna, the Islamic political philosopher who articulated the Salafi position, established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1922. The Salafis characterized Muslim liberals as those, “who are interested in developing the spiritual, ethic and gnostic dimension of the Islamic faith,” and accused them of being “deviated sufis”--the same criticism of the Ottomans voiced by the Wahhabis two centuries earlier.
The Ottoman Empire, until the late nineteenth century, was the most highly articulated expression of Sunni Islam in world history. Adherents to the Hanafi legal school, the Ottomans established their government on the foundation of the rule of law, with even the Sultan required to rule with justice. In 1839, as the Ottomans began to reform their government, its Christian and Jewish subjects sought a shared identity with Muslims as Ottoman citizens. As progress was made toward the creation of Ottoman citizenship, at the same time the power of the sultan became more and more absolute. No longer was he controlled by religious constraints. With the Islamic officials bureaucratized as servants of the Sultan, and no checks on his autocratic powers, Sultan Abdul Hamid II aborted the nascent Ottoman constitutional movement in 1878. Under this cruel tyrant, the situation of Muslims and Jews in the Empire deteriorated, and Christians in Anatolia, the Balkans, and Armenia were massacred. We are still dealing with the world that Abdul Hamid left behind.
The Albanian Muhammad Ali not only famously defeated Napoleon in Egypt, but also defeated the Wahhabis in Arabia for the Ottoman Empire. However, despairing of the Sultan’s ability to stand up against European pressures, he mutinied against the Ottomans after the disastrous Battle of Navarino, on October 20, 1827. Muhammad Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha invaded and occupied the entire Levant (today's Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan) until a European coalition beat him back into Egypt at the behest of the Ottomans. He also did the most to destroy the preeminence of Sunni Islam in Egypt and the other Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. He destroyed the autonomy of the Sunni religious authorities, bureaucratizing them and extending his personal control over them. He is considered the first modern leader of the Arab world for several reasons: he militarized the Egyptian state, monopolizing all of its production and markets for his personal profit; he created a modern army and navy; he brought all agricultural land into his personal control, wiping out the previous religious and private landholders; he shifted the administration of religious institutions and endowments under his own control, and massacred all of his political rivals. His was the first totalitarian state in the Middle East, mobilized for war in an age of colonialism and imperialism.
When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the First World War, the political organization of the Middle East rapidly underwent massive change. New ideas about national self-determinism, secularization, progress, and modernization mixed with disgust at the Ottomans, who were characterized by their Islamic and nationalist critics as corrupt, venal, and un-Islamic. The assault against the memory of the Ottoman Empire in the Arab provinces by the fundamentalist, ahistorical Salafiyyah movement on the one hand, and the secularized socialism of the Baath party on the other, has robbed the Arabs of their appreciation of the Sunni legal tradition and its political philosophy. Now "Sunnism" has come to signify an ethnic group, rather than intellectual one.
Neither the nationalists nor the Islamists consider the historical development of Muslim law, social, and polity as meaningful. Instead, Islamists aim at returning to a mystified Golden Age of their Ancestors the "Salafis", the heroes of the earliest phase of Islamic history.
Great Britain sided with these critics of the Ottoman Empire, supporting the idea of Muslim Arab nationalism. The British nurtured monarchies ruled by scions of two rival clans. They supported the claims of the former ruler of Mecca and Medina, the Hashemite clan. At the same time, attracted by what they perceived as the austerity and purity of the Wahhabi sect, the British established the Saudis as the rulers of the Hijaz, forcing the Hashemites out of Arabia.
Taking root in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the Salafiyyah movement remains at the heart of radical Islamic fundamentalism. The Ottomans deployed Muhammad Ali to suppress the Wahhabis, the original Salafi movement which arose in eighteenth century Arabia. Muhammad Ali successfully suppressed them for the Ottomans in 1813. The claim of descent from Ali undergirded the legitimacy of the Hashemite dynasty in Iraq, Jordan, and Syria where the British sent them; of these, only the Jordanian monarchy survived the storm of socialist military coups that racked the Arab world following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In nearby Egypt, the British supported the monarchy established by the descendants of Muhammad Ali until the Free Officers in the Egyptian army deposed King Farouk.
The Wahhabi movement is based upon the thought of Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah (1263- 1328), a Sunni who lived in the aftermath of the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. Ibn Taymiyyah, a Hanbali judge who fled to Damascus, was explicitly anti- Shi’ite, anti-Sufi, and anti-Christian. His polemics antedate the Crusades, but his polemics called for the restoration of Islamic rule as it was practiced in Mecca in the days of the Prophet and the first four Caliphs, the Rashidun—“the Rightly Guided Ones,” Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. Only by recreating the Muslim community (ummah) of Medina and Mecca, thought Ibn Taymiyyah, could the deteriorating condition of the Muslim polity be rectified. His modern heirs include the Wahhabis and the Muslim Brotherhood. The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, took these ideas to shape an anti-British and anti-Zionist movement in 1922.
Like other moderate Muslims, Palazzi seeks the redemption of Sunni theological orthodoxy and has condemned the Salafi and Arab nationalist movements as twisted ideologies. He laments that Mecca and Medina, whence spread Islam, no longer serve as centers for the transmission of the Sunni Islamic sciences. Rather, Saudi Arabia has marginalized Sunni Islam by emphasizing what he refers to as “a primitive and literalist cult” propagated “through violence and coercion.” The Saudis established a “world center of Wahhabi propaganda in Mecca...the final result of a project whose goal was replacing orthodox Islam” with the heretical “Salafi school.” “From the second half of the nineteenth century CE, Salafis identified the opponent to be silenced with the University of al-Azhar al-Sharif in Egypt and with other traditional center[s] of ... Sunni teaching, always alert ...[to] new theories and individual theological interpretations.”
Palazzi singles out the Muslim Brotherhood as the “main instrument for the "Wahhabisation of the Arab milieu." Its founder, Hassan al-Banna, was, “from a religious point of view...a ‘reformer’... (but [one] no[t] so advanced in Islamic sciences), ...from a political point of view he...was radically anti-Ottoman. Members of the Brotherhood, the basic militants of Islamism " are – from a religious point of view–laypersons who generally [lack training in] the basic... Islamic sciences, but [who are still] appointed as “imams" of important mosques, especially in democratic countries, [where] there is no "Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs" to check their orientation and where imams having a regular ijazah shar’i (sic) [diploma in Islamic law] are rare exception[s].
He explains,
"From a theological point of view, [Salafi] beliefs were refuted by Sunni scholars of the Ottoman period but, after World War II, King Faysal of Saudi Arabia was in need of allies against secular Nasserianism, and the Egyptian leader of the Brotherhood, Sayyed Qutb, received ... worldwide financial support. From that time on, the vast majority of the Muslim Brotherhood adopted the Wahhabi belief. Thus, Saudi Arabian clerics have propagated Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings throughout the Islamic world today. The Saudis have bulldozed Islamic architecture from the later Islamic dynasties because they judge them to be un-Islamic."
Sunni Islam, particularly in its Ottoman expression, rejected the exclusivist teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah. This does not mean that the Ottoman Empire had not been committed to Holy War. There had been room in Ottoman political philosophy for peaceful, diplomatic relations with non-Muslim powers, and for non-Muslims to have legal rights protected by the precepts developed by the three other great schools of Islamic law: the Maliki, Shaafi, and Hanafi schools. The writings of great Sunni thinkers, like the famed jurist Abu Yusuf (d. circa 866-873), the great theologian and mystic al-Ghazzali (1005-1111), and the renowned philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), were the sources of Ottoman Islam. Like al-Ghazzali, Palazzi is calling for a revivification of the Islamic sciences.
Antidote: A Dose of History
So, what is the Dome of the Rock? Why is Jerusalem holy to Muslims? What is the conflict over the holy place about? Today, opposing claims to the right to control the Dome of the Rock threaten to perpetuate conflict in the Levant for years to come. For many Christians, its destruction will be the undeniable, apocalyptic, eschatological sign of the end of this age. No other single building in the world is as powerful a symbol as the Dome of the Rock. Why is this so? The beginnings of Islamic Jerusalem lie in the ruins of the Jewish Temple, itself built upon the pre-Israelite sanctuary of Melchizedek, whom Abraham honored when he first came to the Promised Land. After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D., the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE), built the new Roman city of Aelia Capitolina centered upon a temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva on ruins of Temple constructed sometime after 129. Hadrian forbade Jews to live inside the walls of the city by imperial decree, a restriction that lasted throughout the Byzantine period. During that time the Church of the Holy Sepulcher replaced the Temple Mount as the most sanctified site in Jerusalem. According to Byzantine tradition, Helena, mother of Constantine, discovered Christ’s burial place and dedicated church in 335, at the former site of Hadrian’s temple to Aphrodite.
Before the rise of Islam, there was one attempt to rebuild the Temple--during the reign of Julian the Apostate in 363. Julian, opposed to Christianity, invited the Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. They returned to the city and began to undertake the reconstruction. Workmen gathered building materials, but as soon as construction began, frighteningly strong winds began to buffet the crews, tremblors shook the ground, and balls of lightning flashed all around the mount. Terrified, the workmen scattered, and the project was completely abandoned.
Two great powers had dominated the Middle East in the fourth through the first part of the seventh century. The Sassanians in Persia threatened the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. Between them stretched the Fertile Crescent. 570, the Year of the Elephant, so-called after an important battle, is the traditional year of Muhammad’s birth. Islam was thus born in a power struggle between Byzantium and the Sassanian Empire. The Sassanians stole the “true Cross” from Jerusalem in 614, and the Byzantines regained it only in 629, seven years after Muhammad’s flight to Medina and only three years before his triumphant return to Mecca.
Arab tribes allied with one or the other of the two superpowers. Some Christians, resenting Byzantine control and taxes, supported the Arab invasion, along with recently converted Zoroastrians from Persia. Jews in Arabia and Persia viewed Islam as means to overthrow the Byzantines, and apocalyptic expectations relating to Islam led Jews to convert to Islam or to support the Muslim conquest of Holy Land. When the Muslim armies moved west towards Byzantium, Jews rode with them. Arab Christian mercenaries in the Byzantine armies turned against their rulers. The Persian Empire collapsed under the Muslim assault. But the Byzantine Empire stood, although it lost its Syrian provinces in 636.
The Dome of the Rock and the Conquest of Jerusalem
When the Muslims arrived in Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the finest monument in the city. The Temple Mount lay buried in garbage. The Muslim relationship to the Rock is based upon the Qur’anic chapter entitled “Isra, The Night Journey, Children of Israel,” Chapter 17: 17--
"Glory to God (Allah) Who did take His servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our signs: for He is the One Who Heareth and Seeth."
Who is this Allah, whom the Muslims regard as their God? As documented by Irfan Shahid, Georgetown University Professor Emeritus of Arabic Language, Christian Arabs in the Byzantine Period used the world “Allah” to translate the word “God” in inscriptions and texts in the Byzanine era.7 It nearly goes without saying that Muslims, Jews, and Christians do not agree about the nature and character of God. Until only recently, the differences among the People of the Book (as Jews and Christians are known in Islam) are not about who Allah is, but rather about how He has acted in history.
The People of the Book agree that God is the creator of the universe, the sovereign ruler of the universe. While Muslims and Jews see God as completely transcendent, totally unlike man, Christians understand Him as personally involved in history, so involved that He condescended to become a man to better communicate His love for His creatures.
The Umayyad Dynasty, which established its first capital in Jerusalem, built the Dome of the Rock. They built a highly symbolic building, utizilizing the architectural vocabulary of the Byzantines to convey important messages about the new ruling religion. The Dome of the Rock is an octagon, an eight-sided structure known as a "martyrium." Byzantine Christians used this kind of building to witness the location of important sites in the history of the Church. The eight sides represent the eight days representing the seven days of creation and the eighth day of the eschatalogical kingdom. The Dome of the Rock was built to resanctify the place where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven. It creates a model of the heavenly kingdom on Earth.
The interior of the Dome of the Rock is well-preserved, with its original decorations still intact. These decorations include beautiful mosaic epigraphy and iconography. The poetry featured in these epigraphs captures the polemical assertions of the newly triumphant religion. The following verses, translated by Palestinian photographer Said Nuseibeh, contain both Quranic material and pious phrases, prayers, and comments which rebuke heretical Christian teachings circulating in the region during the seventh century.
When we consider these verses, we must remember that in those days most biblical teachings were delivered orally. People did not have a handy pocket bible to check Scripture. The mosaic epigraphy inside the Dome of the Rock attests to the differing interpretations of God circulating in the seventh century. They emphatically proclaiming His sovereignty, power, and unity. These verses especially repudiate ideas about Jesus that imply a carnal understanding of his birth.
"In the name of God. The Beneficent, the Merciful... No god exists but God alone, Indivisible without peer. Say, God is One, God is central— Birthing no child, nor birthed in turn— Nothing and no one is comparable. Praise be to God who never fathered a child. No peer exists in all of creation, Nor has God need of counsel." "In every way elevate and magnify God! The Lord giveth life, giveth death— the power of all things made possible. When God ordains a matter God merely says to it, “BE,” and it is. God is indeed my Lord as well as your Lord." "So serve and worship your Lord: this is the straight path of righteousness. Verily God witnessed: there is no God but God!" "The angels and those endowed with knowledge of fairness declare: No god exists but God alone, all-cherished, all-wise! Lord of two worlds— All praise goes to God." "The religion before God is Surrender: the people who were given the Books did not argue about this until after receiving knowledge and they became envious of one another."
The verses regarding Jesus are pointed:
"So believe in God and all the messengers, and stop talking about a Trinity. Cease in your own best interests! Verily God is the God of unity. Lord Almighty! that God would beget a child? either in the Heavens or on the Earth? God alone is the best protector." "O People of the Book! Don’t be excessive in the name of your faith! Do not say things about God but the truth" "The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, is indeed a messenger of God: The Almighty extended a word to Mary, and a spirit too." "Neither Christ nor the angels in heaven scorn servitude and worship of God. Whosoever looks upon worship, considering it something beneath him... they will be swept unto God in the end." "O God, bless your messenger and servant, Jesus son of Mary. Peace be upon him the day he was born the day he dies, and the day he is raised again." "Say only the truth about Jesus over whom you dispute: he is the son of Mary! It is not fitting that God should beget or father a child. Glory be to God!" Muhammad’s centrality in the Islamic faith is attested, too, putting him in the continuous line of prophets from Adam on... "Whoever denies the signs of God... God is swift in judgment." "Muhammad is a messenger of God, The Lord God bless him, And God’s angels and all the messengers bless and invoke peace upon him, by the grace of God."
"Angels and God, all praise the Prophet. So you who consider yourself a believer, go ahead, honor and pray for him too."
Muhammad is a messenger of God. May the Lord God bless him and, come the Day of Resurrection, accept his intercession on behalf of his own community.
"Muhammad is a servant and messenger too! Angels and God, all praise the Prophet. So you who consider yourself a believer, go ahead, honor and pray for him too. God has prayed for the Prophet Muhammad, so peace and God’s blessings be upon him, by the grace of God."
The decorations inside the Dome of the Rock are highly significant. Lavish mosaics are primarily gold, and are original to the seventh century structure. Depictions of pearl and gem drenched crowns, lush gardens, flowing water, stately palms and trees of all kinds, and radiant cities combine to convey a heavenly garden. The absolute sovereignty of God, His majesty, and His goodness are signaled through the richness of these shimmering mosaics. The verses date from the earliest years of Islamic rule in Jerusalem. The polemical nature of these epigraphical ornamentations makes the purpose of the building unmistakable. Just as the architecture of the monument trumpets the triumph of Islam over Christianity, its mosaic embellishments admonish mankind to serve a completely transcendent God. Jerusalem’s connection to Islam is profound, though it has become common to undermine that idea by asserting that because the Holy City is not named in the Qur’an, it cannot have been important in early Islam. Yet Jerusalem was the first direction of prayer designated by the Prophet, and in the earliest phase of his teachings, Muhammad directed his community to follow Jewish traditions and only later differentiated the two communities by changing them. Jerusalem’s significance to Islam was cemented by al-Isra, the Night Journey of Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and al-Miraj, the Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven, where he met with Moses and other Jewish prophets. Muhammad rode on the back of al-Buraq—the winged creature which transported him to the Farthest Mosque—from where he was sleeping next to the Kaaba in Mecca.9 It was during his ascension that Moses and Muhammad agreed that Muslims should pray five times a day. Islamic sources agree on the point that this ascension started from the Rock, mostly identified with the Stone of Foundation (Evn Shetiyah, in Hebrew) dealt with in Jewish sources. Sufis claim that this Rock is a living being. This is proved by the fact that, after al-Isra and before al-Miraj, the Prophet Muhammad...greeted it by saying, "Peace be upon you, o Rock of Allah.”
According to al-Tabari, the tenth century Abbasid chronicler,
On the authority of Raja ibn Hiwan, on the authority of an eyewitness: When Umar came from al-Jabiya to Aelia...he said, “Bring me Kaab!10 And he was brought to him, and Umar asked him, “Where do you think we should put the place of prayer?” “By the rock,” answered Kaab. “By God, Kaab, 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 Kaab. “I saw you,” said Umar. “But no. We shall make the forepart a qibla, as the Prophet of God, may God bless and save him, made the forepart of our mosques their qibla. Go along! We were not commanded concerning the rock, but we were commanded concerning the Kaaba!” So Umar made the forepart the qibla. Then Umar went up from the place where he had prayed to the heap of garbage in which the Romans had hidden the temple in the time of the children of Israel. And when this place came into their hands, they uncovered part of it and left the remainder. Umar said, “O people, do as I do.” And he knelt by the heap and knelt on a fold of his cloak.
11 Palazzi asserts the traditional Muslim view, that Umar’s “first desire in entering Aelia [Jerusalem] was to find the place of al-Miraj, whose features he had learned directly from Prophet Muhammad’s telling, and to build a mosque there....” And what of this rock? The Muslims considered the rock (al-Sakhra), the site of the Jewish Temple, which Umar had learned “directly from the Prophet Muhammad” was on Mount Moriah, which towered over the city.
Indeed, even the Supreme Muslim Council of Palestine, headed at the time by the notorious pro-Nazi Mufti Al-Hajj Amin Al-Husayni, published a pamphlet in 1935 which stated that the site of the Dome of the Rock
"... is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest (perhaps from pre-historic) times. Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which “David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.”
12 Accordingly, Umar ordered that a mosque be built on the southern side of the Temple Mount, the result being that Muslims face toward Mecca with their backs toward the Rock. Umar and Kaab’s points of view regarding the significance of the Rock reflect two attitudes, each of which emphasizes – respectively – “break or continuity” between Islam and the Bible. Both positions "have more or less influenced the development of Islamic canonical expertise,” wrote Palazzi. The one tradition emphasizes Islam’s continuity with the revelation of the Jewish prophets, while the other tradition emphasizes Islam’s unique claim to the Rock. Thus, the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) was built in 691 by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik for two reasons. The first is that Umar, according to Islamic tradition, had identified the rock as the site of Solomon’s Temple and also as the place whence Muhammad had ascended into heaven during the Night Journey. The second was polemical. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, known in Arabic as Kanisat al-Qiyama, the Church of the Resurrection, was juxtaposed with the ruined site of the Temple, covered in refuse, and named “Al-Qumama” or “The Dump.” The Muslims called the church “Al-Qumama” to denigrate the former rulers of the city who had so denigrated the Judaic origins of the Christian faith. Restoring the sanctity of the traditional site of Solomon’s Temple, the Umayyad dynasty protected the Rock from further abuse.
Umar (Omar) al-Khattab, the Third Caliph, went to Jerusalem in 638 to accept the surrender of Sophronius, the Byzantine Bishop. Historian Steve Runciman recounts the conquest of Jerusalem:
On a February day in the year A.D. 638 the Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem, riding upon a white camel. He was dressed in worn, filthy robes, and the army that followed him was rough and unkempt; but its discipline was perfect. At his side was the Patriarch Sophronius, as chief magistrate of the surrendered city. Omar rode straight to the site of the Temple of Solomon, whence his friend Mahomet had ascended into heaven. Watching him stand there, the Patriarch remembered the words of Christ and murmured through his tears: 'Behold the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet.' Umar refused Sophronius’ conditions for surrender, which involved continuing the prohibition for Jews to reside in Jerusalem. As a result of his encouragement, the Jews of Tiberias returned to live in the Holy City.
Thus it was that the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik hired Greek Orthodox masons and artisans to construct the monument as a mashhad, or “place of witness.” Only one structure of this type is still visible, in the Galilean village of Capernaum. There, the octagonal foundation of a Byzantium martyrium marks the location of the house of Peter’s mother, with whom Jesus stayed, and whom He healed. The house itself was preserved inside a domus ecclesias, or house church, where Jewish- Christians worshipped until the time of the Council of Nicea, when the Byzantines took over the site, and built the octagonal church of The Prince of the Apostles, preserving the house, as reported by Egeria in the late fourth century. In 382, Theodosius built an octagonal martyrium called the Church of the Apostles, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.13 Theodosius probably built the monument in Capernaum at about the same time, part of the process of the destruction of Jewish-Christian culture and the assertion of Byzantine supercessionism in Palestine. The Church of the Apostles may have still stood in Jerusalem at the time of the Islamic conquest, though it may have been damaged in the Persian-Byzantine war of the sixth century.
Strictly speaking, then, the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque. A mosque is a building designed for congregational prayer, modeled on the first mosque Muhammad built in Medina. Literally, a mosque is simply any place for prayer, or “masjid” in Arabic. Instead, it “witnesses” the miracle of Muhammad’s Night Journey and Ascension. The mashhad was built to embody the Islamic triumph over the Byzantines, using the Byzantine’s own architectural vocabulary. The Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline, the crown of the first capital of the first Sunni dynasty, the Umayyads. Like the Byzantines, who had demonstrated their supercession of Judaism, the Umayyads extended their power over Christianity by reasserting the sanctity of the site of the Jewish Temple.
The importance of the site was so great that the Umayyads built palaces adjacent to the Temple Mount. This Sunni dynasty was engaged in an ongoing jihad against Byzantium. The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, declared his caliphate in Gethsamane, according to Irfan Shahid. When the Umayyads lost control of Mecca and Medina, Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock to emphasize Ummayad control over the Holy Land, and that, as an alternative to the now inaccessible Mecca, Jerusalem was now a Sunni pilgrimage center. He transferred the Umayyad capital to the more important city of Damascus in 661.When Walid al-Malik reasserted control over Mecca, to eclipse Jerusalem’s position as a pilgrimage site, he built the Al-Aqsa Friday, or congregational Mosque in 705 to emphasize the Night Journey instead of the Rock, diminishing the importance of the Abrahamic legacy in Islam.
Thus, Jerusalem is "thalith al-Haramayn," the Third Sanctuary" after the Two Holy Places”—Mecca and Medina—to Muslims. The term “Haramayn,” meaning “The Two Sanctuaries” has been applied to Jerusalem alone, because it was administered as a part of the Haramayn. In later years, when different rulers governed Jerusalem and the two Hijazi cities, the term came to be used for Jerusalem and Hebron, and lately even for the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa.
Thus,on the model of Mecca and Medina, the entire city of Jerusalem has been sanctified by the location of the Haram al-Sharif within its walls. Palazzi explained,
To remember the historical milieu compels every sincere observer to admit that there is no necessary connection between al-Miraj and sovereign rights over Jerusalem since, in the time when the Prophet... consecrated the place with his footprints on the Stone, the City was not a part of the Islamic State – whose borders were then limited to the Arabian Peninsula – but under Byzantine administration. Moreover, although radical preachers try to remove this from exegesis, the Glorious Quran expressly recognizes that Jerusalem plays for the Jewish people the same role that Mecca has for Muslims. We read in Surah al-Baqarah: “...They would not follow thy direction of prayer (qiblah), nor art thou to follow their direction of prayer; nor indeed will they follow each other’s direction of prayer....”
All Quranic annotators explain that "thy qiblah" is obviously the Kaabah of Mecca, while "their qiblah" refers to the Temple Site in Jerusalem. To quote just one of the most important of them, we read in Qadi Baydawi’s Commentary: “Verily, in their prayers Jews orientate themselves toward the Rock (al-Sakhrah), while Christians orientate themselves eastwards....”
Palazzi concludes,
As opposed to what sectarian radicals continuously claim, the Book that is a guide for those who abide by Islam—as we have just now shown—recognizes Jerusalem as Jewish direction of prayer.... After...deep reflection about the implications of this approach, it is not difficult to understand that separation in directions of prayer is a mean[s] to decrease possible rivalries in [the] management of [the] Holy Places. For those who receive from Allah the gift of equilibrium and the attitude to reconciliation, it should not be difficult to conclude that, as no one is willing to deny Muslims...complete sovereignty over Mecca, from an Islamic point of view... there is not any sound theological reason to deny an equal right of Jews over Jerusalem. In these troubled times it is difficult to imagine that the majority of Muslims could concede this point. At the very least, however, Muslims should be proud of their contribution to world civilization. Those Muslims who seek to deny the historic legacy of Islam distort the character and nature of their faith. Those who resist Salafi Islam risk their very lives as they take a stand for historical truth. Telling the truth about history will be the strongest antidote to the politicized historical amnesia poisoning the modern Middle East.
An earlier version of this essay was published in Sacred History January 2006.
Notes: Abdul-Hadi Palazzi, “Antizionism and Antisemitism in the Contemporary Islamic Milieu,” downloaded March 30, 2003. All quotations of Palazzi come from this article. Traditionally, a mufti is a religious authority, or jurisconsult, who issues decisions relating to Islamic law. Under their League of Nations Mandate to administer Palestine between 1922 and 1948, the British created the office of the Grand Mufti to represent the voice of the Muslim population. They appointed Amin al-Husseini, who was a minor officer in the Ottoman army with no training in Islamic law, to became the highest Muslim official in Palestine.
I have examined the themes in this article more deeply in the following, “The Beginning of the End of Sunni Preeminence: Muhammad Ali and Jerusalem,” Arab Studies Journal, Spring 1996, 86-95; “The Palestine National Authority and the Death Sentence,” The Cultural Lives of Capital Punishment, edited by Austin Sarat, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005; “Mehmed Ali as Mutinous Khedive: The Roots of Rebellion,” International Journal of Turkish Studies, 2002, 8: Sacred Law in the Holy City: The Khedival Challenge to the Ottomans as seen from Jerusalem, 1829-1841, Leiden: Brill, 2004.
On the Saudi destruction of the Ottoman legacy in Arabia and the Balkans, see Andras J. Riedlmayer, "The Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project," In: Markus Koller and Kemal Karpat (eds.) Ottoman Bosnia: A History in Peril (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004): 27-38; Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Bosnia- Herzegovina, 1992-1996: A Post-war Survey of Selected Municipalities. Expert report commissioned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (The Hague, 2002); "From the Ashes: The Past and Future of Bosnia's Cultural Heritage," In: Maya Shatzmiller (ed.) Islam and Bosnia: Conflict Resolution and Foreign Policy in Multi-Ethnic States (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2002): 98-135; "Convivencia under Fire: Genocide and Book-Burning in Bosnia," In: Jonathan Rose (ed.) The Holocaust and the Book: Preservation and Loss (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001): 266-291;(with A. Herscher)"Monument and Crime: The Destruction of Historic Architecture in Kosovo," Grey Room 1 (2000): 108-122.
“Two Pre-Islamic Arabic Inscriptions from Hira (Iraq)” Lecture at Claremont Graduate University, March 11, 2003. See also Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002).
These translations of the Arabic inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock are from Oleg Grabar and Said Nuseibeh’s magnificent The Dome of the Rock (New York: Rizzoli, 1996). I have changed the word “Allah” to “God” for emphasis in some places.
In Palazzi’s words: Kaab al-Ashraf, “was a rabbi converted to Islam who, because of his learning...was regarded as the Caliph’s special counselor for all matters connected to the history of Israel.”
Bernard Lewis, Islam: Religion and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 3, excerpted from Al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rasul w’al Muluk, ed. M.J. de Groeje et al (Leiden: Brill, 1879-1901). Palazzi notes in his footnote 14: Cf. Muhammad Ibn Jarir al- Tabari, Akhbar al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (History of Messengers and Kings), especially the chapter dealing with al-Miraj of "Bab Sayyidna Muhammad" and "Bab ‘Omar.” See also Jalal al-din as-Suyuti, Tarikh al-Khulafa (History of the Caliphs) and Mujir al-Ayn al- Muqaddasi, Al-Uns al-jalil fi tarikh al-Quds wa al-Khalil (The Noble Society in the History of Jerusalem and Hebron, manuscript, al-Azhar Library)
We won't delve into the archeological studies of the location of the Jewish Temple. Here we are concerned only with the traditional Muslim understanding of the significance of the site, based upon the reports of Jews present in Jerusalem at the time of the Islamic conquest.