Muslim Attachment to Jerusalem is Genetic
Dr. Hisham Khatib
*Published in Saliba Sarsar and Carole Monica Burnett, What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (North Bethesda, Md: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Inc., 2021).
** Member of Majlis Al-Ayan, the Jordanian Senate
Although I was born in Acre, Palestine, I lived all the years of my youth in Jerusalem. As I became the city’s (electrical) engineer, I had a close integration and interaction with the city and its inhabitants.
As is well known in Islam, Jerusalem is the first Kiblah (direction of prayer), as well as the third Sanctuary (after Mecca and Madina in Saudi Arabia). Correspondingly, it has a very significant value in Islam. Pilgrimage is made first to Mecca, second to Madina, and third to Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has a special meaning to the entire city’s inhabitants, particularly the Muslims. It is more than a casual relationship or a sentimental attachment. It is so intense as to become genetic. The Muslim inhabitants are proud to belong to the city. The Holy Sanctuary (Al-Aqsa Mosque) is part of the cultural identity of the city’s Muslim inhabitants. It is more than a place of prayer; it has important cultural and social functions and significance. If you want to meet somebody, you would tell him to come and meet you at Al-Aqsa Mosque. As a young man, I used to go and study in the gardens and yards of Al-Aqsa.
This relationship with the city is so deep that it is an integral part of the residents’ mentality and livelihood. There is no greater honor to a Muslim than being born in Jerusalem. In spite of the Occupation and its hardships, most of Jerusalem’s residents have insisted on remaining in the city. Belonging to the city compensated for a lot of lost income and material belongings.
A special event in Jerusalem is the weekly Friday prayers. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims converge on the Al-Aqsa. During prayer times, you can hardly see a Muslim Jerusalemite outside Al-Aqsa. However, the worshippers are not only the city residents; Muslims from all of former Palestine converge on the Al-Aqsa from early morning. Over one quarter of a million Muslims converging on one place. They endure the cold winters and hot summers in order, not only to do their prayers as Muslims, but also to continue belonging to the city.
Things are more intense during the holy month of Ramadan. Tens of thousands of Muslims continue their presence in the Holy Sanctuary to undertake the late night el-Taraweh prayers. There is no more honor to a Jerusalemite Muslim than doing this. It also demonstrates what Jerusalem means to Muslims and how they interact with the city.
The most important monument in Islam is the Kaaba in Mecca, and then immediately following it comes the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock has become a symbol for Jerusalem, as much as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris, or the Colosseum for Rome. You can identify Jerusalem in pictures by the presence of the Dome of the Rock in the picture’s center.
However, Jerusalem to us Muslims is not only its religious significance. It is also the historic, social, and cultural aspects. Jerusalem is full of history; wherever you go, you are faced with its historical heritage and narrative. Almost every past Muslim dynasty had a connection with the city and contributed to its heritage, most notably the Mamluks, Ayyubids, and Ottomans. In the past, most records and books about Jerusalem were focused on its Biblical background and narrative. However, most of the new, recent contributions are more balanced and written not only by Western scholars, but also by local Muslim and Christian Arabs.
When talking of Jerusalem, we do not only mean the Old City inside the walls, but also the communities that surround the Old City, including Silwan, El Tur, Ras el-Amoud, Al-Thawri, and so forth. Members of all these communities converge on the Old City almost daily, particularly during Fridays. It is the center of their lives.
Photography plays a central role in documenting the Holy City. One of the finest historical photographic records is that of Jerusalem through the last two centuries. Since photography was invented in 1839, hundreds of photographers have visited the city and recorded its historic sites and people. These were mostly Western photographers, but during the past century, local photographers (Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Armenians) have made their contributions. Many modern books document their valuable photographic contributions and records of the city.
Not only is Jerusalem history; it is also civilization and cultural heritage – the schools, the charity institutions, and the sabils (avenues). Almost every building inside the Old City had a history of its own. That history was perpetuated through the ages and is kept alive by the present generation.
The Israeli occupation of the Old City in 1967 was a blow to the Islamic narrative of the city. It caused a derailing of the past historic perspective. However, the Arab Jerusalemites are now regaining their stamina and cultural initiatives. They are now repairing their institutions and contributing to its Islamic cultural perspective.
Whoever controls Jerusalem, it will remain one of the most historically important cities in the world, particularly for its Muslim inhabitants and Muslims all over the world. In Amman, Jordan, for instance, there are at least ten cultural societies and charitable funds that have “Jerusalem” as part of their titles, and so also banks. They were established not only by former Jerusalemites who, since the Occupation, have immigrated to Jordan, but also by culturally conscious Arabs living in Jordan. The same applies, to a lesser degree, in almost every Muslim country.
Jerusalem means a lot to Muslim perspectives and reflections. You have to be Jerusalemite to appreciate this phenomenon fully. This attachment prompted me to devote most of my energies to preserving the heritage of the city. With my limited means, I have collected, over many years, documentation, books, photography, lithography, and other items connected with the city. My collection is one of the largest about Jerusalem still in private hands. I am leaving all this for public records and ownership.
The Muslim Holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem is not only the center of admiration to Muslims, but also to the inhabitants of and visitors to the Holy City. I am now editing a manuscript, dated to the year 1901, in which is found the travel journal of a young English lady in the Holy Land. The following is what she recorded about her visit to the Holy Sanctuary in January of that year:
“We entered by a long covered passage then through a large gate, then the beauty of the buildings before us burst suddenly upon our sight, around us was a large paved court, it was bounded to our left at the far end by some very picturesque buildings, a tall tower among them being the tower of Antonia. Before us, in all the beauty of the sunlight was the Dome of the Rock itself, the form may be seen in photographs but the colours of the magnificent dome are past description – the blue and the white and the gold – sufficient it is for me to say that a visit to the Dome of the Rock alone, amply repaid me for any fatigue, trouble, or expense, which I had had in the long voyage out from England.
“Wandering round the enclosure we passed through a gateway of arches which were very beautiful but were not improved with having been “done up”, for the Emperor of Germany’s visit. The scales of judgement are said to be going to hang from these arches on the last day.
“Then to the north of the Mosque we were shewn a little building – Kubbbet el Miraj [Qubbat al-Miraj] – erected to the memory of Mohammed’s ascension into heaven.
“Just before entering the Mosque we passed the Dome of the Chain – David’s judgement place.
“We then turned into the Dome of the Rock itself, we were obliged to remove our shoes before we were allowed to enter, how lovely it was, the beautiful marble pillars, and the bright mosaics above. The rock is in an enclosure, in the centre; it is here Abraham is said to have been going to offer up Isaac.
“We now turned our steps towards the Mosque of El Aksa [Al-Aqsa] still within the temple enclosure – outside of it on the large praying ground was a man swaying backwards and forwards at prayer. Later on, we saw thirty or forty of them all praying at once.
“Passing through a beautiful archway, we entered a large open space with beautiful pillars forming aisles up the middle; the floor was covered with matting and carpets and there were curious wooden troughs about which were for the use of visitors so that they could leave their shoes there while they were engaged in praying.
“At the far end we saw what is said to be the footprint of Christ, also a very beautifully carved old pulpit, but the interior of the dome itself is the most lovely combination of colour I have ever seen . . .”
Jerusalem with its Islamic and Christian monuments and heritage means a lot to Muslims, particularly to Jerusalemites. Since the seventh century, it has been, and still is, in the worthy custody of Muslims. Now, the Hashemite Royal Family of Jordan – which is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali bin Abu Talib, who was also the Prophet’s paternal first cousin and the fourth Rightly-Guided Caliph – is the custodian of these holy sites.