Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sacred Jerusalem

One of the issues occasionally discussed by students of Islamic history is whether Jerusalem has always been an important holy city for Muslims or whether that importance dates mainly from the Crusades and the propaganda needs of medieval Muslim governments. Although the only solid discussion I can find on-line is this one from Daniel Pipes (who yokes it to a political agenda), the basic outlines of the evidence - or lack thereof - are well known and were introduced to me my very first semester in graduate school. There is, for example, precious little to suggest that the Muslims saw Temple Mount as the "Farthest Mosque" referred to in the Qur'an in the first few centuries of their faith, and when the Crusades began no one really seemed to care about it.

What strikes me as interesting, though, is the way in which many revisionist historians of early Islam take the exact opposite approach, tending to see Jerusalem as the original Muslim holy city which was only gradually overtaken by Mecca. In their Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook argue based on 7th-century Christian sources that Islam began as a Jewish messianic movement centered around the concept of the Children of Ishmael returning to Jerusalem. They later dedicate half a chapter to how an originally obscure Mecca came to occupy its present place in the Muslim religious system. In their Crossroads to Islam, Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren go so far as to suggest that references to Jerusalem fell out of the Qur'anic corpus based on the fact it occurs in inscriptions otherwise based on Qur'anic verses, such as being the place where a herald will call from in 50:41. There are also anomalies in the evidence about the direction of the qibla in early Islam that suggest Muslims may have prayed facing Jerusalem for some decades after the death of the Prophet.

The revisionist historians mentioned above have problems of their own, so I don't mean to suggest they've stumbled across the truth regarding the development of Islam as a whole. (I do think it's gradually becoming undeniable that the core of Islam as practiced by early Muslims was a very basic monotheism with Abraham as the key figure, and that Muhammad as messenger gradually increased in importance during the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods.) While the evidence is very open to different interpretations though, it does seem likely that Jerusalem was seen as a significant holy city for the first few generations of Muslims, regardless of what happened later.


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