N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
The architects of the Oslo peace accords understood Jerusalem's power. Fearing that even discussing the holy city's future would detonate the fragile truce between Israelis and Palestinians, they tried to defer the issue until everything else had been settled. But it is now all too clear that this approach has failed. Last September, riots met the opening of a new entrance to the ancient Hasmonean tunnel, while the recent building of apartments on an empty plot in eastern Jerusalem has brought the Netanyahu-Arafat dialogue to a bitter and bloody stand-still. And so the international actors must begin to do what they had hoped to postpone: sort through the Jews' and Muslims' conflicting claims on the city that King David entered three millennia ago.
The debate matters. In Jerusalem, the theological and historical arguments matter, serving often as the functional equivalent of legal claims. The strength of these arguments will ultimately help determine who governs the city. Already we hear the ritual and relativistic cliche that Jerusalem is "a city holy to both peoples." But like most cliches, this one is more false than true. Jerusalem stands as the paramount religious city of Judaism, a place so holy that not just its soil but even its air is deemed sacred. Jews pray in its direction, invoke its name at the end of each meal and close the Passover service with the wistful statement "Next year in Jerusalem."
In contrast, Jerusalem is not the place to which Muslims pray. It is not directly connected to any events in Muhammad's life. And it is not even mentioned by name in the Koran. The city never became a cultural center or served as capital of a sovereign Muslim state. Jerusalem has mattered to Muslims only intermittently over the past thirteen centuries, and when it has mattered, as it does today, it has been because of politics.
The story begins in a.d. 622, when the Prophet Muhammad fled his hometown of Mecca for Medina, a city with a substantial Jewish population. He adopted a number of practices friendly to Jews: a Yom Kippur-like fast, a synagogue-like house of prayer, and kosher-style dietary laws. Muhammad also adopted the Judaic practice of facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during prayer; "He chose the Holy House in Jerusalem in order that the People of the Book [i.e., Jews] would be conciliated," notes At-Tabari, an early Muslim commentator on the Koran, "and the Jews were glad." Modern historians agree: W. Montgomery Watt, a leading biographer of Muhammad, interprets the prophet's "far-reaching concessions to Jewish feeling" as part of his "desire for a reconciliation with the Jews."
But Jews criticized the new faith and rejected Muhammad's gestures, leading Muhammad to eventually break with them, probably in early 624. The most dramatic sign of this change came in a Koranic passage (2:142-52) ordering the faithful no longer to pray toward Syria but toward Mecca instead. (The Koran and other sources only mention the direction as "Syria"; other information makes it clear that "Syria" means Jerusalem.) This episode initiated a pattern that would be repeated many times over the succeeding centuries: Muslims have taken serious religious interest in Jerusalem at times when it has most conspicuously served them politically; and when the political climate has changed, the religious interest has flagged.
In the century after Muhammad's death, politics prompted the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty, which controlled Jerusalem, to make this city sacred in Islam. Embroiled in fierce competition with a dissident leader in Mecca, the Umayyad rulers were seeking to diminish Arabia at Jerusalem's expense. They sponsored a genre of literature praising the "virtues of Jerusalem" and circulated accounts of the prophet's sayings or doings (called hadiths) favorable to Jerusalem. In 688-91, they built Islam's first grand structure, the Dome of the Rock, on top of the remains of the Jewish Temple. They even reinterpreted the Koran to make room for Jerusalem. The Koran, describing Muhammad's Night Journey (isra'), reads: "[God] takes His servant [i.e., Muhammad] by night from the Sacred Mosque to the furthest mosque." When this Koranic passage was first revealed, in about 621, a place called the Sacred Mosque already existed in Mecca. In contrast, the "furthest mosque" was a turn of phrase, not a place. Some early Muslims
understood it as metaphorical or as a place in heaven. And if the "furthest mosque" did exist on earth, Palestine would have seemed an unlikely location, for that region elsewhere in the Koran (30:1) was called "the closest land" (adna al-ard).
But in 715, the Umayyads built a mosque in Jerusalem, again right on the Temple Mount, and called it the Furthest Mosque (al-Masjid al-Aqsa, or al-Aqsa Mosque). With this, the Umayyads not only post hoc inserted Jerusalem into the Koran but retroactively gave it a prominent role in Muhammad's life. For if the "furthest mosque" is in Jerusalem, then Muhammad's Night Journey and his subsequent ascension to heaven (mi`raj) also took place on the Temple Mount.
But Jerusalem still mattered theologically only when it mattered politically, and when the Umayyad dynasty collapsed in 750, Jerusalem fell into near-obscurity. For the next three and a half centuries, books praising the city lost favor and the construction of glorious buildings not only stopped, but existing ones fell apart (the Dome over the rock collapsed in 1016). "Learned men are few, and the Christians numerous," bemoaned a tenth-century Muslim native of Jerusalem. The rulers of the new dynasty bled Jerusalem and the surrounding country through what F. E. Peters of New York University calls "their rapacity and their careless indifference."
By the early tenth century, notes Peters, Muslim rule over Jerusalem had an "almost casual" quality with "no particular political significance." In fact, even the Crusade conquest of the city in 1099 initially aroused only a mild Muslim response: "one does not detect either shock or a sense of religious loss and humiliation," notes Emmanuel Sivan of the Hebrew University, a scholar of this era.
Only as the military effort to retake Jerusalem grew serious in about 1150 did Muslim leaders stress Jerusalem's importance to Islam. Once again, hadiths about Jerusalem's sanctity and books about the "virtues of Jerusalem" appeared. One hadith put words into the Prophet Muhammad's mouth saying that, after his own death, Jerusalem's falling to the infidels is the second greatest catastrophe facing Islam.