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Why was Jerusalem important to the first Muslims?

With the completion of the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount in the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik (685-705), Muslims demonstrated the importance of Jerusalem to the world. But why should Islam have had any interest in this city? Mecca is 1500 kilometers from Jerusalem and Muhammad’s career took place in central and northwest Arabia.

Jews and Christians inevitably connected Muslim building activities on the Temple Mount with the restoration of the ancient Jewish temple. The renowned seventh-century monk Anastasius of Sinai recounts to us how clearing work on the Temple Mount had given rise to rumors that the “Temple of God” was about to be rebuilt, an action that had eschatological significance for Christians in the light of Jesus’ prediction that the Temple would be cast down and “not one stone left upon another” before going on to discuss the signs of the end of the world (Mark 13:2). Whereas the Muslims’ construction work evoked fear among many Christians, it elicited joy from some Jewish groups. The Muslims had defeated their persecutors, the Byzantines, and had allowed them to worship once more in the Holy City, so could it be that they were to be the liberators of the Jews?

Some found support for this idea in the Bible, in such verses as Isaiah 60:6: “The caravans of camels shall cover (protect and redeem) you,” and Isaiah 21:7, which speaks of a rider on a camel and a rider on a donkey. Readers could interpret this as a reference to the Arabs coming first as warriors then as redeemers. The sight of the Muslims raising a place of prayer on the Temple Mount by the Muslims appears to have raised this speculation to fever pitch. The residue of these early expectations survives in a number of Jewish apocalyptic texts attribute to some revered authority the prediction that “the Almighty will bring forth the kingdom of Ishmael (the Arabs) in order to deliver you (Jews) from this wicked one (Edom/Byzantium)” and that “the second Ishmaelite king will be a lover of Israel…who will build a place of worship on the Temple rock” (Secrets of Rabbi Simon ben Yohay).

Medieval Muslim historians offered two main explanations for ‘Abd al-Malik’s actions in Jerusalem. Either, they said, he sought to outdo their enemy, the Byzantines, by building something more magnificent than they had ever managed, in particular seeking to surpass the grandeur of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or he sought to divert the Muslim pilgrimage away from Mecca, which his political rival, ‘Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr, had captured in 683. But these theories do not explain the value of Jerusalem in the Muslim imagination – it is either a site for ‘Abd al-Malik’s artistic display or an alternative to Mecca, but no indication is given that it was chosen for its own intrinsic significance to Muslim belief.

One possible sign as to why Jerusalem was important to the first Muslims is found in the episode of the change in the direction of prayer (qibla) of the early Muslims in the second year of their move to Medina. Muslims famously face Mecca when at prayer. But it wasn’t always so.

The Qur’an alludes to this when it tells us that Muhammad’s detractors asked: “What made them turn away from the qibla that they used to face?” (2:142). The original qibla is not specified in the Qur’an, but biographers of Muhammad give us a second clue when they make the claim that “Jerusalem was the first qibla of the Muslims.” They do not discuss why Jerusalem served this function, but it is in any case an unambiguous declaration of the high status of the city in the eyes of Muhammad and his first followers.

The fist qibla was called “the qibla of Abraham.” The Qur’an’s account of the career of Abraham details how God allocated to him a house of worship, “the first House of mankind,” where he and his people could pray and do pilgrimage (2:125-26, 3:96-97, 14:35-41, 22:26-27). Later Muslim commentators would say that all of this account refers to Mecca, but it seems unlikely that Muhammad thought of Mecca as the “first House of mankind.” Jerusalem was the older sanctuary, but Muhammad was now arguing that the time had come for Mecca, the sanctuary of his people, to be added to the list of monotheist cult sites, just as he himself was to be added to the list of divine messengers and the Qur’an to the list of sacred scriptures.

It seems very likely, then, that Jerusalem was important to the first Muslims because Muhammad felt that he was following in the footsteps of Abraham: just as Abraham had founded a place for his people to worship the one true God in Jerusalem, so too was Muhammad founding a place of worship in Mecca. Both cast down the idols of their fathers and elaborated the rites for prayer and pilgrimage at their respective sanctuaries.

Featured Image: “Architecture” by Mauricio Artieda. CC0 via Pexels.

Recent Comments

  1. Philip Stewart

    The story of Muhammad’s Night Ride to Jerusalem is surely the root of Muslim reverence for Jerusalem. It is alluded to in Quran 17:1.

  2. Martin Smith

    This needs copy-editing. Some words repeated, at least one missing.

  3. Vive LeRoy

    Muhammad’s Night Ride was “to the farthest place” (no mention of Jerusalem.) It does make sense, however, since his first venture was to persuade the Jews that he was their savior or some such. When they rejected him, as not meeting the requirements, he rejected them, as far as I know. But the article raises a good point: why did the Jews in Jerusalem welcome and abide amicably with the Arabs.

  4. Ahmad

    The foremost house (of worship) that was sat fourth for mankind is the one BiBakkah (in Mecca), blessed, (provding help and) guidance for everyone. (Qur’an 3:96)

    Prophet Abraham and his son built the Kabba then. Since the godly peoples submit to God, by definition, a Muslim is who frequently submits to God. Prophet Muhammad said that Muslims should honor the three houses. That is why the one in Jerusalem was rebuilt, so its lights be always on. I can tell that you are still insisting in questioning the prophecy just as your ancestors questioned Prophets Moses and Joseph. We try to help you in grasping the fact. The Almighty is sending Prophet Jesus, whose natural death marks the beginning of the end of humanity, and who is going to fight the disobedient Christians and Jews once every Jew is astray.

  5. […] by Robert G. Hoyland, a Professor of Early Islamic Middle Eastern History at New York University, this thorough article discusses why Jerusalem became so important to Islam in the beginning of the religion. The author […]

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