Jerusalem, a holy site for three religions, teeters on the precipice of religious strife

by Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Perhaps no piece of real estate on Earth holds so much potential for both interfaith harmony and religious strife as Jerusalem. Last week, Jerusalem teetered on the edge of the latter.

Following on the heels of "the biggest settler takeover since Jews began buying up properties [in East Jerusalem two] decades ago," last week's point of potential conflagration was Israel's one-day closure to Muslim worshippers of the religious shrine sacred to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

Jerusalem is unique among the other issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in that it is not only a bilateral issue between the Palestinians and Israelis. While the world is well informed of the centrality of Jerusalem to Judaism, little is known or understood about the meaning of Jerusalem to the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

Jerusalem is thrice holy to Islam. It is holy because it is the City of David and Solomon and other Hebrew prophets, all mentioned reverentially in the Quran. It is holy because it is the City of Jesus, the Messiah born of the Virgin Mary (the most revered woman in Islam), who spoke in his cradle and raised the dead. And Jerusalem is holy because of its Muslim associations. This threefold holiness of Jerusalem is unique to Islam because Islam is very much within the monotheistic tradition of Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, Islam's very self-image is as the culmination of God's revelation through these two earlier religions. To Muslims, Jerusalem is known to this day as the first of the two qiblas (direction of prayer.) The second qibla is Mecca. This is because the early Muslims first turned to Jerusalem to pray.

One of the two miracles the Muslim prophet Muhammad is credited with is his miraculous nocturnal journey to heaven from Jerusalem, which made canonical the five Muslim daily prayers. (Muhammad's first miracle was the Quran.) In addition, there is a vast corpus of Muslim devotional literature focusing on the virtues and the excellences of Jerusalem.

Historically, there was no conflict between Judaism and Islam over Jerusalem. The conflict over Jerusalem was first between Byzantine Greek Orthodox Christianity and Judaism, followed by the European Crusaders, who butchered Muslim and Jew alike.

Jews were permitted residence in Jerusalem in the wake of the Muslim capture of the city, first by the Caliph Omar in A.D. 638 and second by Saladin in A.D. 1187. Maimonides, the greatest Jewish sage of medieval times, was the personal physician of Saladin. The Ottoman Sultan Selim, who entered Jerusalem in 1516, followed in the footsteps of Omar and Saladin. The tolerance of these Muslim conquerors stands in sharp contrast with the conduct of the city's other conquerors, both before and after. There were mass expulsions of Jews throughout medieval times from one country of European Christendom after the other, but never from a Muslim country.

When expelled, Jews took refuge in Muslim lands. The Spanish Inquisition targeted Muslims and Jews alike, with fleeing Jews finding protection under Islam in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

Conflicts between Judaism and Islam over Jerusalem began only after the advent of political Zionism approximately 100 years ago. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War resulted in the expulsion and dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians never allowed to return to their homes and lands in what became Israel, while Jews in Arab countries were similarly hounded into emigration to Israel.

Between 1948 and 1967, while true that Jews were forbidden from accessing their Temple Mount, this was as much a consequence of the existing state of hostilities between Israel and the Arab states as was the prevention of West Jerusalem's Palestinians, and indeed all of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees of the 1948 war, from returning to their rightful homes and properties in West Jerusalem and across Israel.

This continues today, with Palestinians unable to return to properties confiscated by Israel's use of the "Absentee Property Law," a law that confiscated the property of Palestinians deemed "absent" but who in reality were not allowed back by Israel to claim their properties.

There is no doubt that Jerusalem is a city centrally holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims and is a city politically critical as the capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state. Unless this shared devotion and importance is used as a uniting and not as an excluding tool, then Jerusalem will remain the source of potential worldwide conflict that will consume Muslim and Jew alike.

[Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian political commentator, writer and businessman.]

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