Friday, October 21, 2011

Reviewing the Islamic Claim to Palestine and its Implications for Peace

The famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam. The Islamic claim to
Jerusalem/Palestine holds important implications for any future Israeli/Palestinian peace deal
By: Alex Trafton

There have been extensive efforts in the Israeli-Arab conflict to degrade and devalue the historical narrative of the “other,” whether it is over the implications of the 1948 War of Independence, the 1967 Six-Day War, historical residency and settlement of Israel/Palestine, or Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank. Irrefutably, a central issue in this conflict is religion. Regardless of one’s degree of religiosity, it is important to understand that the Abrahamic faiths form an integral portion of the Jewish/Arab cultural and political narrative. One of the most important disputes focuses on the religious significance of Jerusalem and, more significantly, a point which I’ve decided to discuss in my column, today.

Although religion is an important component of the Israeli-Arab conflict, we must, as rational observers, note that religion forms an important part of the two people’s respective cultures. Depending on an individual’s personal cultural and religious background, the claims or narrative of the “other,” are often viewed as silly, irrelevant, or disregarded completely. However, these cultural perspectives hold sacred value for those who adhere to them. For an Israeli Jew it may seem utterly pointless to discuss what Islamic historical value is placed on Jerusalem, yet it is important to understand the narrative of the other side and how important that may be when it comes time to negotiate a political settlement.

An integral issue in the debate over the Israel-Palestine issue has been which nation has a more valid historical, cultural, and religious claim to the land of Palestine/Israel. In this never-ending song, the chorus always seems to be the same from the Jewish narrative; that “Muslims have no religious claim to Jerusalem.” However, this is as untrue as it is ubiquitous. There is a clear claim to the land of Palestine and, more specifically, Jerusalem, in Islam’s canonical texts.

The basic claim is founded in the 17th Chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Isra’ (The Night Journey), which is the story of Muhammad and his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The chapter is 111 verses long; however, the first verse gives us the emphasis we need to determine the relationship between Islam and Jerusalem (my translation): “Glory be to He who took his servant (Muhammad), by night, from the Masjid al-Haram to the Masjid al-Aqsa. The surroundings of which We have blessed, to show him from Our signs that verily He is the All Hearing, All Seeing.”

It should be pointed out that neither Mecca nor Jerusalem is mentioned by name here. The Masjid al-Haram is the mosque in Mecca, which stands today as the focal point of Islam and is a site of the Hajj pilgrimage obligatory to all Muslims. Masjid al-Aqsa (The Farthest Mosque) has widely been interpreted for centuries to mean Jerusalem. In the exegesis of the verse (generally based on the Hadith which Muhammad used to explain the revelation) Muhammad is said to have ridden on a magical horse named Buraq, and to have tethered this horse at the Western Wall.

During his time in Jerusalem, Islamic mythopoeia relates that Muhammad approached what today is the Dome of the Rock and ascended directly to heaven. Once in heaven, it is related by Muhammad himself that he led all the former prophets, from Abraham to Jesus, in prayer. This event, which is held to be sacred truth by the majority of observant Muslims, establishes two important concepts: (a) That Jerusalem is a holy city to Muslims, and (b) Islam is the supreme religion on earth whose claims, beliefs and rituals supersede those of its predecessors. Hereby, in the eyes of devout Muslims, the notion of Jewish dominion over Jerusalem was made inferior to Islamic claims

The verse here is important for historical and political reasons. The phrase “The surroundings of which, We have blessed” (“aladhi barakna hawlahu”) has been widely interpreted to mean that all of Palestine, not only Jerusalem, is a waqf, or religious endowment. No Qur’an I have ever come across carries an exegesis that identifies this place as any other location than Jerusalem. It seems that the early Muslims considered it as such, which is why during the early stages of Islam and under the guidance of Muhammad, Muslims prayed towards Jerusalem, not Mecca.

Some scholars have argued that the verse was not the reason for directing the faithful in prayer to Jerusalem. Rather, it was done because Muhammad sought to curry favor with local Jews and Abrahamic peoples in Mecca and Medina at the time. He bet that by placing Jerusalem in a position of honor in the newly found faith of Islam, he could win favor with the Jewish people and, ultimately, facilitate their conversion to Islam.

The dual-religious significance of Jerusalem/Palestine illustrates a serious impasse in negotiating a settlement to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Although the language of the conflict may be political, such as  “dispensation of Jerusalem” and “Right of Return,” many of the underlying issues that guide decision-making are founded in religious historical narratives which are deeply irrational, and thus it makes finding a compromise extremely difficult. While a Palestinian representative may be saying; “Jerusalem is an intrinsic part of our people’s history” what is actually at issue is the cultural significance of a legend where an Arabian merchant was transported on a flying horse to Jerusalem, then magically flew up to heaven.

It would be a very encouraging step if rights and responsibilities in the Arab world would be determined through a system that respected compromise and legal procedure, rather than one that seeks to glorify and promulgate centuries-old religious lore. If Jews and Arabs can manage to respect each others cultural heritage and to remove religious considerations from future frameworks for peace, then compromise will be truly possible. With dialogue, time, education, and a bit of luck, people will eventually realize that such a compromise is the only true way forward for progress and reconciliation. 

So long as archaic religious texts drive two groups to zero-sum game thinking, it seems highly unlikely that the spiral of violence and destruction will cease anytime soon. Without recognition of this fact, the Israeli-Arab conflict will never be solvable, only manageable.


  1. Theoretically all is well and good, but what is the actual situation: In 1948 Jordan captured the old city, kicked all the Jews out, destroyed more than 50 synagogues and did not allow Jews to worship at the Western Wall. In 1967 Israel conquered the old city, let the Wakf keep control over the temple mount and allows freedom of worship to the Moslems. In other words the Jews have every right to distrust Moslem promises of access to religious sites. To prevent both sides as equally guilty is disingenuous.

  2. Getting rid of Sharia and Halakaha would be the best possible developments ever to occur in this conflict. Unfortunately, it will never happen.

  3. Very well said, Alex, with examples galore of quite how the religious division between the two parties shows even today that there is little hope of a land-endowing truce.

    There is really little hope of such a disavowal of religion in favour of a properly democratic understanding. Israel is the only entity that has endevoured to keep up such a secular narrative in the region, but even within its borders lie fanatical judaists of different stripes who cannot live together. As we think of the Arab spring, are we not fearful of the Islamic threat to the countries thinking themselves free of Islamic totaliatarian dictatorship? Can we really rejoice in the notion of a coming democracy to Libya, for example, thereby perhaps lessening the burden of Israel's counter-espionage and protectionist activities, when we hear at Gadaffi's execution, audible throughout his plaintive offering of gold and money in exchange for his life, the repeated and ecstatically shouted 'Allahu akhbar'?

    In practical terms, I'm sorry to have to say that Israel now needs, in the advent of the Arab spring, with each of the countries involved properly unable to renounce Islamism and its integrally, canonically authorised hatred of Israel and Jews, to step up its methods of self-protection. Religion will continue on its all-destructive course, it seems, and warriors endowed with the rationality of those such as Mr. Trafton will need to stand and protect some tough ground for some time to come.

  4. What about the Jewish belief that the mosque should be destroyed and build the Jewish temple instead, do you think this also has some "implications" for peace or is it just the Muslim beliefs that you worry about?

  5. The total rejection of religious dogma would be a great advancement for society. However progress is being made. Today when some religious person wishes to discuss faith, he comes hat in hand wit a lot of pleading tones, 'maybes' and good feelings. Only a few centuries ago religion came with a sword, a torch and an inquisition. The beast is being tamed, and for that fact we can be glad.

  6. How is the beast being "tamed?" With the exception of perhaps Europe, religious faith is growing on the whole throughout the entire world. It still comes with a "sword, torch and inquisition," through suicide belts, plane attacks, price-tag campaigns and religious coercion through political, financial and social pressures.

  7. dear editor i quote you 'If Jews and Arabs can manage to respect each others cultural heritage and to remove religious considerations from future frameworks for peace, then compromise will be truly possible. '. please revise the religious term 'jews' if you want to remove 'religious considerations'. Also, and speaking of my self ; a muslim arab as you may call me; i respect jews and in my religion; i believe that islam is a religion that started by adam peace be upon him and passed by Moses,jacob, jesus and many others but ended by the last messenger mohammed. only the messages were all altered by their people except for the quran which was preserved. And there are versus in quran that challenge anyone who can change or alter it and makes it happen!! Anyway, all i want to say is; jews we have nothing against you; after al you believe in the holy God even if we believe your message was altered; that doesnt mean we should not respect you. Now, the issue of israeli occupation [as we call it in our arab countries] is another thing!! israel is not jews in my belief!! it's just like calling all muslims as terrorists just because some terrorists claim they are muslims! I'm also not saying that you are terrorists but the very existance of your occupation is based on trusts, dominance and foreign empowerment. You know your fathers did not occupy a land they lived in or owned, they were given the land by another occupation [that wasn't even theirs to give]. just thought i'd share with the reasoning amongst jews [and not israelis] my view as an arab of your well written article; even if i dont relate to some of it's content. God bless those who deserve it!

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