Issues in Islam: Dispute over Jerusalem Holy Places Disrupts Arab Camp

By Noakes, Greg | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 31, 1994 | Go to article overview

Issues in Islam: Dispute over Jerusalem Holy Places Disrupts Arab Camp


Noakes, Greg, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Issues in Islam: Dispute Over Jerusalem Holy Places Disrupts Arab Camp

By Greg Noakes

The July 25 Washington Declaration between Israel and Jordan, apparently a symbolic confirmation of the existing state of non-belligerency between Tel Aviv and Amman, contains one clause that has caused a furor among Arab parties. Israel's acknowledgment of "the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim holy shrines in Jerusalem" and its pledge that "[w]hen negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role" has touched off a bitter debate between Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian National Authority on administration of the holy places. The dispute has a history that stretches back more than a half-century.

At stake is administration of the Muslim sites in the Old City, principally the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque, both located in the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), known to Israelis as Temple Mount. Muslim attachment to the sites rests on three principal bases. First, because Islam recognizes biblical prophets as Muslim messengers, the location of Solomon's temple is considered an important Islamic site. Jerusalem is intimately linked to important events in the lives of other Islamic prophets, including Abraham, Lot, David, Moses and Jesus.

Jerusalem was also the first qibla, or direction of prayer, for the Muslim community of Prophet Muhammad. Some 16 months after his hijra, or flight to Medina, the Prophet received a revelation instructing him to turn toward the Ka'ba at Mecca instead, but Jerusalem, or Beit al-Maqdis ("The Holy House," from Solomon's temple) as it was called, is still revered as "the first qibla."

Finally, Masjid Al Aqsa ("the Furthest Mosque") was where the Prophet was taken by a winged steed, Buraq, before ascending to and returning from Paradise during the Night Journey, or Isra' walMi'raj. The incident is related in the Qur'an, which refers to "the Furthest Mosque, whose precincts We have blessed."

Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 637, five years after the death of the Prophet, when the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab came to the city to arrange a pact with the city's Christian inhabitants. Umar constructed a mosque near the site of the Rock, which had been covered with debris. The great Dome of the Rock was built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691-92, with the mosque known as Al Aqsa completed shortly afterward at the southern edge of the Haram. A voluminous body of medieval Islamic literature was produced on the fada'il ("blessings") of Jerusalem, discussing the Muslim history of the holy city, the benefits of prayer at Al Aqsa and the events associated with the Day of Judgment that are to take place at the Rock.

The holy sites have remained in Muslim hands since the time of Umar with the exception of the years 1099-1187, when all of Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders and the Dome of the Rock was converted into a church. Al-Quds, as the city came to be called, passed from one Muslim dynasty to another until 1917, when Britsh troops conquered Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks during World War I.

The Supreme Muslim Council

With the end of Muslim state authority over the city, administration of the Haram Al-Sharif fell to the Supreme Muslim Council, the body which still manages the daily affairs of the sites. Under the British Mandate the council was led by Palestinian religious notables, chief among them the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The council's relative autonomy came to an end with the 1948 war, when East Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan's Arab Legion and the western half of the city was occupied by the Jewish Haganah forces.

Jordan's "special" and "historic role" in Jerusalem began in 1948, when Amman took over control of the city's holy places. Administrators and religious functionaries at the Haram Al-Sharif became Jordanian civil servants, with Amman paying their salaries and assuming responsibility for maintenance of the sites. …

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