Years ago, a group of archaeology students from Bar-Ilan University went to Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, hoping to save archaeological remnants from earth the Waqf [Muslim religious trust] had dug up on the Temple Mount and dumped in the riverbed. A Waqf official who noticed the students began yelling at them. One sentence struck them in particular: “You have nothing to look for here, just as the Crusaders had nothing to look for here. Jerusalem is Muslim.”
In the past, such comments could be seen as the exception. All of that changed at the Camp David Conference of June 2002: it was then that senior Israeli officials became aware that the claim that the Jews have no real connection to Jerusalem and the holy sites had not only been disseminated and become entrenched in Arab and Muslim communities and part of the public discourse, but was also been adopted by the Palestinian leadership.
Indeed, a new study by Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, conducted for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies states: “In the last generation, the Islamic and Arab history of Jerusalem has gradually been rewritten. At the heart of this new version is the Arabs’ historic right to Jerusalem and Palestine. The main argument is that the Arabs ruled Jerusalem thousands of years before the children of Israel. In addition to building the Arab-Muslim case, the Muslim thinkers are formulating a denial and negation of the Jewish-Zionist narrative. Included in that effort is the de-Judaizing of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and Jerusalem as a whole.
All Palestine is Al-Aqsa
Reiter, of the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, is a long-time specialist in the modern history of the Middle East. He reviewed a collection of religious rulings by key muftis in the Muslim world and Internet sites of Islamic movements; he pored over many of the popular theoretical books in Arabic that deal with Jerusalem and sifted through reports and articles on the issue, dating back to 1967; and he says: “New myths, some of them fictitious and some of them based on facts on the ground, transform the stories about Al-Aqsa into furious struggle”; Yasser Arafat and Sheikh Raed Salah, like the grand mufti of Jerusalem at the turn of the previous century, Sheikh Haj Amin al-Husseini, along with many others “are using the religious symbols of Jerusalem to enlist the entire Muslim world in its struggle,” and this is being done in several ways.
The Muslims are slowly dropping use of the name given to the Temple Mount complex – Haram al-Sharif, which gave it its status as the third holiest site in Islam and reverting to exclusive use of the earlier name, Al-Aqsa, which appears in the Koran.
“Al-Aqsa” now refers to the entire Temple Mount complex, including the Western Wall, and not just the mosque. The tradition connecting the three mosques in Mecca, Medina and Al-Aqsa is being used by the Palestinians to exert pressure on Muslim states by saying that “making a mockery of Al-Aqsa will lead to a mockery of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, because there is a connection between that must not be broken” (the Palestinian minister of Waqf affairs, Sheikh Yusef Salameh, in November 2002).
At the same time there is growing use of the term “Al-Aqsa” as a symbol and a name for different institutions and organizations, be it a Jordanian army journal, a Palestinian police unit established by the Palestinian Authority in Jericho, the Fatah terrorist cells known as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade or Internet sites of the northern and southern branches of the Islamic Movement and organizations they have set up and, of course, in the current intifada and the Arab summit convened in its wake.
Contrary to the standard history whereby the Al-Aqsa mosque was built in the seventh century, in recent years an ancient tradition from the beginning of Islam has been gaining ground. According to it, the Al-Aqsa mosque was built 40 years after the construction of the mosque in Mecca by Adam (i.e., close to the seven days of creation). Other traditions that appear in the Waqf administration offices in Jerusalem attribute the building of the mosque to Abraham and Solomon, as Islamic figures, with no connection to Judaism. The former Jordanian minister of Waqf affairs, Abed al-Salaam al-Abadi, Sheikh Raed Salah and Islamic Internet sites refer to Abraham as the builder of the Al-Aqsa mosque 4,000 years ago.
For hundreds of years, Jerusalem has been known in Islam as a sanctified place first and foremost for having been designated as the place where prayers should be directed (kabila) before Mohammed adopted the Kaaba in Mecca as the kabila. In general, Jerusalem was the direction of prayers for 16 months. However, now the view that Jerusalem served this purpose for some four years and four months is experiencing a revival. The Palestinian Authority-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Akram Sabri and Sheikh Yusef Kardawi, the most popular mufti in the Muslim world, who currently lives in Qatar, are only two heralds of this message. The verse in the Koran that mentions Al-Aqsa mosque and goes on to explain “whose surroundings we have blessed” is meriting an expanded interpretation. The surroundings of Al-Aqsa mosque are not narrowly defined, as was the case in the past, and they are now providing an opening for the interpretation that Al-Aqsa refers to all of Jerusalem, and most recently, it refers to all of Palestine.
Members of the Saudi royal family, Palestinian archaeologists (such as Dr. Dimitri Baramki), Sheikh Kardawi, Syrian clerics and others all identify the Jebusites as an ancient Arab tribe that wandered from the Arabian peninsula, together with the Canaanites, around 3,000 years B.C.E. and therefore predated the children of Israel in the land.
The “fabricated” Temple
The new history most jarring to Jewish hearers is that the First and Second Temple are lies fabricated by the Jews. In public discourse among Arabs, participants regularly add the word “al-maz’um” – that is, the presumptive or fabricated – when referring to the Jewish Temple. Mufti Sabri says that there are no remnants proving the Jews’ claim that there was a temple on the site.
The current Jordanian minister of Waqf affairs, Ahmed Khalil, said last year that Israel is trying to intervene in Al-Aqsa affairs and conduct excavations beneath the mosque in order to build the fabricated temple there. Arafat Hajazi, a member of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, asks in an article published in 2002 on the movement’s Web site why the Jews did not build their Temple during the longer than 500-year period between the time it was destroyed a second time by Titus and Abed el-Malik built Al-Aqsa mosque; he also notes that hundreds of archaeological delegations have conducted excavations in the vicinity of Al-Aqsa and not one of them has found remnants of the Temple.
In another article, which recently appeared on the Internet site of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, Egyptian archaeologist Abed al-Rahim Rihan Barakat, the manager of the archaeological site at Dahab in Sinai, writes, “The myth of the fabricated Temple is the greatest crime of historical forgery.”
A fatwa on the Internet site of the Waqf in Jerusalem states that David, Solomon and Herod did not build the Temple, rather they repaired something that had been there since the time of Adam.
There is a similar campaign of denial with regard to the Western Wall and it has two aspects: one is the identification of the Western Wall as a sacred place for Muslims because the prophet Mohammed tethered his horse Al-Buraq there and that it is part of the Al-Aqsa mosque; and the other is the argument that the Jews fabricated the Western Wall as a place that is sacred to them, and they have no historical connection to it. Palestinian and Egyptian religious authorities have issued fatwas to that effect.
“Al-Aqsa is in danger” continues to be the motto of articles by Muslim figures and the focus of mass rallies organized each year by the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. “The most far-flung Muslim communities hear the stories about the Palestinian struggle over their sacred site and through the political tale the revised religious traditions are also internalized,” says Reiter. The fact that Israel’s official policy – as embodied in the decisions of the Chief Rabbinate Council, the government and the High Court of Justice – leaves the administration of the Temple Mount in the hands of the Muslim Waqf is not recognized in the contemporary Muslim world. On the contrary, “the activities of extremist Jewish entities, some of them minuscule, to revive the [First] Temple ritual, is perceived and disseminated by Palestinian sources as if it is a reflection of official policy,” says Reiter.
Reiter’s work was delivered as a position paper to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was discussed yesterday at a seminar at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Two main conclusions emerged from the discussion. One is that Jerusalem, today, more than in the past, is a pan-Muslim Arab issue and therefore a decision regarding it cannot be made by the Palestinians alone. Secondly, any Arab official seeking to work out an arrangement for Jerusalem and the holy sites is constrained by the Islamic religious world and thus as a negotiator has little room to maneuver.