There is one main reference in the Koran that is used by some to specifically validate the Muslim view that Jerusalem is, and always has been central to Islam. A chapter recounts the story of a dream Mohammed has where he takes a midnight ride (al-Isra) on his flying horse al-Buraq. The narrative of the Koran in Sura 17 describes it as follows:
" Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque (in Mecca) to the furthest away mosque (al-masjid al-Aqsa), the precincts of which we have blessed."
Depending on the source one reads, the mosque that is referred to as the â€œfurthest away mosqueâ€ either very clearly refers to Jerusalem, or this vague passage could not refer to Jerusalem. Others believe that while this passage does refer to Jerusalem, it is no longer valid as a holy place to Muslims. The majority of Muslims today seem to think that this passage does refer to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem is very holy to Islam.
We know that Muhammad never visited Jerusalem in the flesh, and Jerusalem is never mentioned by name in the Koran. Some early Muslims are said to have considered Al-Aqsa as a metaphorical place, or a place in heaven. Others also specifically rejected the notion that Jerusalem could be the furthest away mosque, if the passage did in fact refer to an earthly destination, because Palestine is referred to in 30:1 of the Koran as being the â€œclosest regionâ€ (adna al-ard).
In the days of Muhammed, around the 7th century, Jerusalem was a Christian city of the Byzantine Empire. In this time, there were only churches in Jerusalem, and the church of St-Mary of Justine stood atop the temple mount.
According to Dr. Manfred R. Lehmann:
The Aksa Mosque was built 20 years after the Dome of the Rock, which was built in 691-692 by Khalif Abd El Malik. The name "Omar Mosque" is therefore false. In or around 711, or about 80 years after Mohammed died, Malik's son, Abd El-Wahd - who ruled from 705-715 - reconstructed the Christian- Byzantine Church of St. Mary and converted it into a mosque. He left the structure, as it was, a typical Byzantine â€œbasilica â€œstructure with a row of pillars on either side of the rectangularâ€ ship in the center. All he added was an onion-like dome on top of the building to make it look like a mosque. He then named it El-Aksa, so it would sound like the one mentioned in the Koran.
It is therefore said by some scholars that while the Holy Mosque refers to the mosque in Mecca, the mosque furthest away refers to the mosque in Medina, and the notion that there is a third holy site in Islam is false.
Bernard Lewis points out that these mosques had a political as well as religious reason for their construction.
â€œ First of all the new faith had to compete with the beauty of the Christion churches in Jerusalem, such as the Holy Sepulchre, which it seemed to imitate. Also he had a rival caliph Ibn al-Zubayr in Mecca. For this reason he wanted to prevent pilgrims from visiting Mecca.â€
Another opinion about Jerusalem which Islam has is that although it was initially important to Muhammad, approximately one and a half-years before he went to Medina, it came to lose its significance when Muhammad saw that he could not in large part sway the Jews away from their religion. When he realized this, he became very embittered towards the Jews, and made several changes in his practices, to specifically differentiate Islam from Judaism. He no longer tried to convert Jews, he changed the Muslim Sabbath from Saturday to Friday, and he did not celebrate the Day of Atonement in his second year at Medina, as he had done in the previous year of 622. He substituted this with the fast of Ramadan. He eased many dietary restrictions. Perhaps the biggest change he made of all however, was he changed the qibla, the place where g-d emanates, from Jerusalem to Mecca.
Professor Bernard Lewis, an expert on Islam and Arabism relates a story told by the late-ninth-early-tenth-century Arab historian Mohammed ibn al-Tabari about a visit of Caliph Omar to Jerusalem, just conquered by the invaders from Arabia:
â€˜When Omar came to Ilya (Jerusalem), al-Tabari wrote, "he ordered his servants to summon Kab al-Ahbar, a prominent Jewish convert to Islam. When he arrived, Omar asked him: 'Where do you think we should put the place of prayer?'"
Al-Ahbar replied: "By the Rock" - that is, the so-called Even Hashetiah/Rock of the Foundation, believed to mark the site of the altar Patriarch Abraham built on which to sacrifice his son Isaac, later the site of the Temples Holy of Holies, and eventually the site of the Arab-Moslem Dome of the Rock, which is erroneously called Mosque of Omar.
Omar said to Al-Ahbar: "By God, you are still following Judaism! I saw you take off your sandals [in accordance with Jewish practice and later Moslem practice at this site]... But we were not commanded concerning the Rock, but we were commanded concerning the Kaaba."â€™
Lewis says it was probably considered wrong to pray towards Jerusalem in the early days of Islam, as this was the Jewish custom, and they didnâ€™t want the Jewish converts to Islam to keep their old ways of Judaism. They wanted to firmly establish the difference of Judaism and Islam, and that meant separating the Judaism holiness of Jerusalem from Islam.
A Koranic passage which indicates that Jerusalem might not be so holy to Muslims, and is passed on to the Jews is in "(Koran, Sura 2:145, "The Cow")
"...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..." (2)
Commentators explain that "thy qiblah" (direction of prayer for Muslims) clearly refers the Ka'bah of Mecca, while "their qiblah" (direction of prayer for Jews) refers to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
This Koranic passage appears to show that the holiness of Jerusalem a Jewish concept, and should not be confused with an Islamic concept.
The 13th-century Arab biographer and geographer Yakut noted:
"Mecca is holy to Muslims, and Jerusalem to the Jews."
The argument that although Jerusalem was important, but then lost its importance is turned aside by some Muslims. They argue that although the direction of prayer changed from Jerusalem to Mecca, it in no way diminished the importance of Jerusalem in Islam. In his article The Islamic Perspective of Jerusalem Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi President, Islamic Society of North America (A talk presented at the first meeting of American Muslims for Jerusalem in Washington, DC on April 17, 1999) says that Mecca was originally intended to be the direction of the qiblah, and Jerusalem was merely the temporary direction used because when Muhammad originally started preaching, there was a lot of paganism associated with Mecca, and Muhammad didnâ€™t want his people to associate praying towards Mecca with paganism. Once Muhammad felt that monotheism was firmly established in the minds of his followers, he could change the direction of prayer from its temporary spot of Jerusalem to its intended spot of Mecca. Jerusalem was always intended to be a temporary destination of prayer, because it was holy enough to suffice as a temporary prayer direction.
In addition to this, most of those who believe that the night vision of Muhammad refers to Jerusalem believe that this forever assured the importance of Jerusalem in Islam, because it shows Muhammadâ€™s direct connection with g-d in Islam. In the same way Judaism views Moses as being particularly sacred because he personally went up at Sinai to speak with g-d, and Christianity holds Jesus particularly sacred because he is personally the son of g-d, Islam considers Muhammad to be particularly sacred because it is in his ascension to heaven that he made his direct contact with divinity.
The history of the importance of Jerusalem seems to be equally confusing. A common argument made by those who feel that Jerusalem is not so important to Islam is that Muslims only care about Jerusalem in times of crisis, or when it serves them politically.
The New York Post journalist and Middle East expert Daniel Pipes cites the following examples of the role of Jerusalem and its mainly lack importance to Muslims and Arabia throughout the centuries:
â€œ-The Crusader conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 evinced little Moslem reaction at first. Then, as a Moslem counter-crusade developed, so did a whole literature extolling the virtues of Jerusalem. As a result, at about this time Jerusalem came to be seen as Islam's third most holy city.
Then, safely back in Moslem hands in 1187, the city lapsed into its usual obscurity. The population declined, even the defensive walls fell.â€
He then goes on to examine more recent events, and in particular, says about the British conquest:
â€œOnly when British troops reached Jerusalem in 1917, did Moslems reawaken to the city's importance. Palestinian leaders made Jerusalem a centerpiece of their campaign against Zionism.
â€¦When the Jordanians won the old city in 1948, Moslems predictably lost interest again in Jerusalem. It reverted to a provincial backwater, deliberately degraded by the Jordanians in favor of Amman, their capital.
â€¦The Israeli conquest. When Israel captured the city in June 1967, Moslem interest in Jerusalem again surged. The 1968 PLO covenant mentioned Jerusalem by name. Revolutionary Iran created a Jerusalem Day and placed the city on bank notes. Money flooded into the city to build it up.â€