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Volume 25, Number 4July/August 1974

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To Pray In Jerusalem

Written and photographed by William Tracy

Earlier this year King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a devout Muslim, protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, and the leading proponent of Islamic unity, made a significant remark that was widely quoted in the world press. "My greatest wish before I die," said the 70-year-old King, "is to pray in Jerusalem."

Muslims everywhere immediately understood and sympathized with King Faisal's wish, but to Westerners unfamiliar with the Middle East the King's statement came as something of a surprise. Undoubtedly, many persons today know that Muslims consider Mecca and Medina, both in Saudi Arabia, as Holy Cities and that the Ka'bah, in Mecca's Sacred Mosque, is the point toward which, five times each day, the world's 600 million Muslims face in prayer. But Jerusalem? From both the Bible's Old and New Testaments Westerners know Jerusalem's deep associations with Judaism and Christianity. But what has Jerusalem to do with Islam?

The answer is: a great deal. Jerusalem is as holy a city to Muslims—and for many of the same reasons—as it is to Jews and Christians, and it also figures importantly in religious traditions particular to Islam. There are also for Muslims some 1,300 years of historical ties.

The historical ties are not completely unknown in the West. Even those with a limited exposure to Middle East history probably know that in the year 637—13 centuries ago—crusading Muslims from Arabia besieged Jerusalem, accepted the surrender of its Byzantine overlords and ruled there almost continually until the Christian Crusaders from Europe came in 1099. They probably recall too that less than a century later Saladin, the gallant Muslim leader famous for his encounters with Richard the Lion Hearted, recaptured Jerusalem from the Europeans and that the subsequent Arab dynasties and later the Ottoman Turks, who controlled the Holy City up to World War I, were Muslim.

What has escaped the casual reader, however, is that Islam's religious ties with the Holy City are equally long and much deeper. How many Western pundits now puzzling over King Faisal's statement realize that the large rock atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, where tradition says Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, is also holy to Muslims because they believe it is the place from which Muhammad began his ascent to Heaven? Or that Arabs too believe they are descended from Abraham, prophet and father of the Jews, that they too revere him as a prophet and that he is mentioned in the Holy Koran as being a Muslim? And how many realize that John the Baptist and Jesus are also both accepted and revered by Muslims as prophets?

This lack of understanding, widespread and of long duration, is due in part to the historic hostility of Western nations toward Islam, a hostility probably originally engendered by Islam's attempts in distant centuries to conquer Europe. As one result, Western religious history rarely mentions that Muslims, Christians and Jews share many nearly identical beliefs—such as the oneness of God, the need for total submission to His will and the clash of good and evil—and that in Islam, the last of the three great monotheistic religions, many of the individuals, events and places sacred to Jews and Christians are equally sacred to Muslims.

The Prophet Muhammad, to whom God revealed His truths, grew up in Mecca, then a center of pagan idolatry although both Judaism and Christianity, being Semitic religions, were known in Arabia. Muhammad was a ready instrument when God, in the year 610, spoke to him through the Archangel Gabriel—himself familiar to many Christians—and entrusted to Muhammad His final revelations, a confirmation of the Abrahamic line of revelations, the message of Islam.

This aspect of Muslim belief is crucial to any understanding of a Muslim presence in Jerusalem. For Muhammad, from the beginning, emphasized that he was only the last in a long line of prophets through whom God has spoken to mankind, and that he was only completing and fulfilling God's often-revealed message. Thus he taught reverence for the prophets of the Old and New Testaments and respect for Jews and Christians as fellow monotheists and "People of the Book." In the Holy Koran, which is God's word as He revealed it to Muhammad, Biblical figures such as Adam, Noah, David and Solomon, and prophets such as Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus, with his mother Mary, all have their place. To put it another way, their ties to Jerusalem are also Islam's ties.

Above all, Muhammad stressed reverence toward Abraham, father of the Jews and Arabs.

According to Muslim belief, Arabs are descendants of Abraham through his son Ishmael, as Jews are descendants of Abraham through Isaac. Indeed, Abraham, according to the Koran, was a Muslim himself. When, on God's command, Abraham took his son to a rocky summit and prepared unflinchingly to sacrifice him to the one God, it could be considered, as the first example of complete submission to God's will—the essence of Muslim belief—a starting point of Islam. As Sura 16, verse 120 of the Koran says, "Abraham was indeed a model, devoutly obedient to God, true in faith, and he joined not gods with God."

Later, as God continued to reveal the message of Islam to Muhammad, the ties to Jerusalem became more direct. One night God, through the Archangel Gabriel, summoned Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on a Nocturnal Journey (Isra'). According to Muslim belief, Muhammad was carried aloft on the back of a winged mare named al-Buraq to Mount Moriah and the Holy Rock. From its summit he ascended (Mi'raj) through the stages of Heaven, meeting and praying with the previous prophets including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. In the Seventh Heaven Muhammad appeared before the throne of God, Who spoke to him. The Prophet then returned to the Holy Rock and, mounting al-Buraq, was back in Mecca by dawn.

As the embarkation point for this journey to God, Jerusalem thus became even more established as a Holy City. As Sura 17, verse 1 of the Koran says, "Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque (Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (Jerusalem), the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs ..." Indeed, for a short time early in their history Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem, and it is called in Arabic Ula al-Qihlatain, "First of the two Qiblas," —"directions"—the second being Mecca. It is also called al-Quds ash-Sharif, "the Holy and Noble City," or simply, al-Quds, "the Holy." In addition to the Koranic blessing, there is a Hadith, or saying attributed to the Prophet, that Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are equally deserving of pilgrimage.

For all those reasons, it was inevitable that the Muslims would want to implement their spiritual rights to Jerusalem. In 637 they did. By that time, the empires of Persia and Byzantium, successor to Rome, were deadlocked after years of exhausting struggle to control what is now the Middle East. And although Muhammad had died, the faith of his followers was such that they had routed the Byzantine forces from every major city between the Tigris and the Mediterranean except Jerusalem. Now, in 637, they approached the city, pitched their tents on the Mount of Olives and prepared to take it.

Inside the walls of Jerusalem, then called by its Roman name, Aelia Capitolina, the Byzantines, nearly defenseless, debated whether to surrender or fight—as they had 20 years before when the Persians were at the gates, resulting in ruthless and indiscriminate slaughter. Those arguing for surrender pointed out that when Damascus fell to the Muslim armies two years before, there had been no slaughter. Furthermore the terms of surrender had been extremely lenient, with Christians being allowed to continue praying in their churches upon the payment of a poll tax which guaranteed for them as well as Muslim citizens, the "Security of Islam."

As news of this had leaked into besieged Jerusalem, the Greek Patriarch, Sophronius, sent word out that he would surrender the city without a struggle, but only to the Caliph Omar personally. Omar, then in Damascus, agreed and in one of the great scenes of Muslim history entered Jerusalem alone, except for a servant. Because his clothes were torn and dusty from the ride from Damascus, and because his manner to his servant was so courteous, the Byzantines, arrayed in pompous splendor to meet him, assumed the servant was Omar and greeted him effusively—to the quiet amusement of the Caliph. Thus did Islam come to Jerusalem.

Omar's behavior on that occasion was symbolic of his later approach to the Christians and to Jerusalem. Once his identity was clarified, Omar asked Sophronius to show him the city's holy places, and Sophronius led him first to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As it was prayer time the Patriarch invited the Caliph to pray there with him. Omar declined, saying that to do so might later encourage his followers to convert the church into a mosque. Instead he prayed outside a little to the south, a place commemorated today by a 10th-century mosque called the Mosque of Omar and built in a small garden across the courtyard from the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre. (Aramco World, March-April, 1965).

As the Caliph Omar was especially eager to see the site of the Prophet's ascendance to Heaven, the Patriarch led him to an ancient, crumbling platform on the eastern edge of the city. Seeing that it was piled with the debris of the Persian destruction and more recent accumulations of municipal refuge, Omar personally began the task of clearing the rocky summit so that the site could be reconsecrated. This area today is in the center of a 34-acre compound in the southeast corner of the Old City called al-Haram ash-Sharif, "the Noble Sanctuary." The whole area in Omar's time was known as al-Aqsa, "the Furthermost," a reference to Muhammad's ultimate journey. The Caliph ordered that a simple wooden mosque be built on the southwestern corner of the platform near the great wall where, tradition held, the Prophet had tethered his mare al-Buraq.

Traveling with the Muslim army was a man named Bilal, who had been the Prophet's own muezzin, or prayer caller. On the first Friday after the discovery of the sacred rock, Omar went to the enclosure to worship and there Bilal himself, for the first time since Muhammad's death six years previously, called the faithful to prayer. Al-Quds, Holy Jerusalem, was in Muslim hands.

Omar's covenant with the Byzantines of Jerusalem followed the pattern of Damascus. With the payment of the poll tax and the acceptance of the "Security of Islam," Christians were given self-government under their ecclesiastical leaders and Christian pilgrimages from the West were permitted. This is part of the text of Omar's treaty:

"In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the covenant which Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the servant of Allah, the Commander of the Faithful, grants to the people of Aelia, the Holy House. He grants them security of their lives, their possessions, their churches and crosses . . . they shall have freedom of religion and none shall be molested unless they rise up in a body. . . They shall pay a tax instead of military service . . . and those who leave the city shall be safeguarded until they reach their destination. . ."

As John Gray, an English historian, puts it, Omar's decree was "less of a treaty imposed by a conqueror than a guarantee by a victorious faith confident in its inherent strength and conscious of its responsibilities."

In the years that followed, Omar's successors set to work on what is possibly Islam's most beautiful shrine: the Dome of the Rock, so called because it encloses the rock from which Muhammad ascended. Built during the reign of the Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, it was finished in 691, and is one of Islam's oldest existing monuments. Despite extensive modifications and repairs throughout the centuries it is today essentially the same: a magnificent structure with a great golden dome that, until the present government began to build high-rise apartment houses on surrounding hilltops, dominated the city's skyline.

Close by the Dome of the Rock is the also famous Aqsa Mosque. Built near the site of Omar's wooden mosque in 715, al-Aqsa has a special place in Muslim affections, because by unspoken tradition it is more a house of prayer than a monument. Five thousand worshipers can pray inside. Remarkably, these two edifices, the main symbols of the Muslim presence in Jerusalem, have survived all the difficult centuries that followed.

The pattern of religious tolerance established in Jerusalem by Omar and maintained by the Umayyad caliphs became uncertain under their Abbasid successors, deteriorated further under the Fatimids and vanished in 1099, when the Crusaders captured the Holy City (Aramco World, May-June, 1970). Not only did the European conquerors massacre all but a handful of Jerusalem's Muslim defenders, but also burned the small Jewish community in its synagogue and slaughtered great numbers of Arab and Orthodox Christians. The Crusaders also converted the Muslim shrines to churches. A gold cross was raised on top of the Dome of the Rock, which the Crusaders then named the Templum Domini. Another was placed on the dome of al-Aqsa Mosque, which was named the Templum Solomonis and became the headquarters of the militant religious order, the Knights Templar.

But if defeated, the Muslims were not conquered. In 1187 under the great Saladin, they decisively defeated the Crusaders at Hattin near Galilee and, on October 2, the anniversary of the Prophet's Nocturnal Journey, rode back into Jerusalem. Then, fulfilling the vow of his predecessor Nur ad-Din, who had dedicated a magnificent cedarwood minbar, or pulpit, made in Aleppo to the capture of the city, Saladin installed the pulpit in al-Aqsa Mosque. Though isolated coastal outposts remained in Christian control up to 1291, al-Quds, the Holy, was again part of the Muslim empire.

Under Saladin, whose chivalry was a legend even among his enemies, the tolerance of Omar was restored. His merciful occupation of the city was in glaring contrast to the policies of the Crusader conquest. He spared all lives, offered the "Security of Islam" to those who sought it and, although removing the crosses and altars from the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, left all other Christian shrines intact.

During the Ayyubid dynasty, which came next, it became traditional that at times the various sultans would clean al-Aqsa with their own hands before dispensing alms. The sultans of the Mameluke dynasty, which came to power in the 13th century, assumed the title "Servants and Guardians" of the holy places in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. They were notable not only for the substantial restorations and redecorations they carried out in both of Jerusalem's two major shrines, but also for the steps they took to provide for their future. The Mamelukes purchased substantial properties in Jerusalem, especially in the Magharibah quarter just west of the Noble Sanctuary, and through the establishment of waqfs, or perpetual sacred trusts (Aramco World, Nov.-Dec, 1973), dedicated their income to finance the upkeep of the holy places and establish, maintain and operate Muslim schools, religious institutes, pilgrim hospices and kitchens for the poor. Those institutions, plus the homes and neighborhood mosques of the devout who settled close to the two great mosques, made up an intimate, if humble, part of the Muslim presence for five centuries.

Today this presence, if weakened, is still obvious, particularly in al-Haram ash-Sharif, "the Noble Sanctuary." On or near this site, to be sure, there occurred some of the great events of Biblical history. It was here that tradition says King Solomon built the Temple. It was here, Christians believe, that the boy Jesus was found by Mary and Joseph preaching to the elders and that he later chased the money changers from the Temple. But it should be remembered that it is a central site for Muslims too, being the holy spot from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven to pray with former prophets and appear before the throne of God.

Within the Dome of the Rock, in a small cave beneath the rocky summit of Mount Moriah are Muslim shrines to Abraham and Elijah. Here, tradition says, is the site of the Last Judgment. Beneath it is the Well of Souls, where spirits await the Day of Judgment in prayer and apprehension. And scattered about the Sanctuary are other shrines which, with quiet eloquence, remind Western visitors of how many more of their own traditions are shared by Muslims: the Dome of Moses, the Dome of Solomon, the Dome of Gabriel—all built by Muslim caliphs through the centuries. In the far corner is a small dome to mark the spot where, Muslim tradition says, Mary and the infant Jesus rested before starting down to Egypt. Across the valley on the Mount of Olives, a small mosque commemorates the site of his ascension to Heaven. Around the edge of the platform are a series of graceful arches, the mawazeen, from which, according to tradition, the balance scales will be hung on the Day of Judgment. Toward the south is the silver dome of al-Aqsa, "the Furthermost," the blessed mosque, now being patiently restored after it was severely damaged by arson in 1969, in which every devout Muslim hopes to pray.

And in the center, towering above all, is the Dome of the Rock, Islam's holy shrine built on a rocky mountain top above which Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad worshiped together and where, before he dies, an aging King hopes some day to pray.

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 24-31 of the July/August 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1974 images.