By Albert Afeso Akanbi
“He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it, saying, ‘if you only knew today what is needed for peace!”
–Jesus Christ, Luke: 19 vs. 41 & 42B
ACCORDING to some Christian leaders Jesus wept because, being God himself, he knew that the fickle minded Jews of Jerusalem who were shouting “Hosanna!” as he entered the city would almost immediately make a full 360 degree turn in conspiracy with the religious elite and cry “Crucify Him!”
For me, I believe Jesus wept because, as a great moral teacher, he may have calculated from what he observed about the hot headedness of his people, that if they did not slow down, the Romans would end up inflicting a dire fate on them.
He warned and they did not listen and around 70AD the Romans sacked the city.
The same issues that may have prompted the tears of the Saviour then, namely religion and politics, are still very much at play today; only that this time they may have far reaching consequences not only for Jerusalem but for the entire world.
As write these words, Israelis and Palestinians, both of them cousins and today living in the same land over which our Lord wept, are slaughtering each other again, the reason being religion mixed with politics.
The cause of the latest conflict is the decision of the Israeli government to set up metal detectors, after gunmen smuggled weapons inside the al-Aqsa mosque complex and used them to kill two Israeli police officers in the streets of Eastern Jerusalem.
Some people believe the final war between the forces of evil and good will be fought in Jerusalem. Others believe the crisis there may one day engulf the entire world. Yet, both parties are unyielding and continue to lay claim to the city prompting the question of whether there will ever be peace in that region?
In 1947, the United Nations voted on a partition plan to divide what was then British-Mandate Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Under the plan, Jerusalem and Bethlehem were designated corpus separatum, and placed under international rule, because of the city’s importance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Israel accepted this plan but Arab leaders rejected it. When Israel declared independence the following year, Arab leaders declared war on them. Israeli forces fought their way to a 78 percent control of the territory.
Years later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited Abraham’s biblical connection to Hebron as one reason his government wanted to maintain a Jewish presence in the predominantly Muslim West Bank city. In response, Palestinians began to promote the notion that the Palestinians are the modern-day successors to the Canaanites, who lived there, long before Abraham’s appearance.
Some say Israel’s stand is predicated on the ancient Jewish connection to Jerusalem and that for over three thousand years; Judaism has made Jerusalem a holy city and has remained steadfast to it. That in addition to countless other rituals that the Jews pray in its direction, mentions its name constantly in prayers, closes the Passover service with the longing statement “Next year in Jerusalem,” and recall the city in the blessing at the end of each meal.
They add that throughout Bible times Jerusalem was the only capital of a Jewish state, and is the only city with a Jewish majority during the whole of the past century. A mayor of Jerusalem was quoted as saying the city represents “the purist expression of all that Jews prayed for, dreamed of, cried for, and died for in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple.”
They say the same cannot be said of the Islamic world where Jerusalem is not a place to which they pray, not once mentioned by name in their prayers, and is connected to any mundane events in their narrative nor did it ever serve as capital of a sovereign Muslim state?
They say Jerusalem appears in the Jewish Bible 669 times, Christian Bible, 154 times but zero time in the Qur’an.
They say although history tells us that in its early stage, Islam adopted the Judaic practice of facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during prayer as its first qibla (direction of prayer), this did not last long due to Jewish rejection of the new religion around 624AD. They say the Qur’an at 2:142-52 later explained why in the following words;
The Fools among the people will say: “What has turned them [the Muslims] from the qibla to which they were always used?” “We appointed the qibla that to which you was used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels [on Islam]’.
That Mecca became the direction of prayer from then on that the Qur’an added;
‘Even if you were to bring all the signs to the people of the Book [i.e., Jews], they would not follow your qibla.’
They say Tabari, an early Muslim commentator on the Qur’an noted that, “and the Jews were glad.” for this change.
They say after this incident, no significant Islamic connection to the city was mentioned again until the rule of the Damascus-based Umayyad dynasty in 661-750AD.
Of all the various powers that controlled the city throughout her history, the Umayyad, had more influence on the city. They constructed a number of religious edifices, palaces, and roads. The Israeli scholar Izhak Hasson explained that, the “Umayyad regime was interested in ascribing an Islamic aura to its stronghold and centre” as well as to assert Islam’s presence in its competition with Christianity. They built Islam’s first grand structure, the Dome of the Rock, right on the spot of the Jewish Temple, in 688-91AD. Their actions according to experts were partly inspired by a passage in Qur’an 17:1 describing the Prophet’s Night Journey to heaven (isra’):
‘Glory to He who took His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the furthest mosque.’ But Daniel Pipe, a scholar in religious matters, in his essay on the subject noted that; ‘When this passage was first revealed in about 621AD,…”furthest mosque” was a turn of phrase, not a place. Some early Muslims understood it as metaphorical…place in heaven…and Palestine would seem an unlikely location, for many reasons… being that elsewhere in the Qur’an (30:1) Palestine is called “the closest land” (adna al-ard)…and had not yet been conquered by the Muslims and contained not a single mosque…’
In 715AD, the Umayyad built a second mosque in Jerusalem, again on the Temple Mount, and called this one the Furthest Mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa, Al-Aqsa Mosque). Many experts believe this marked the point where the city was given a role in the Islamic narrative.
Palestinian historian A. L. Tibawi explained in his work that by building the mosque, the Umayyad, “gave reality to the figurative name used in the Koran.” That Jerusalem came to be seen as the site of the Last Judgment, after they cast aside the non-religious Roman name for the city, Aelia Capitolina and replaced it with Jewish Al-Quds (The Holy) or Bayt al-Maqdis (The Temple). They say the Umayyad sponsored a form of literature praising the “virtues of Jerusalem,” some of them equating the city with Mecca. There was even an effort to move the pilgrimage (hajj) from Mecca to Jerusalem.
They argue that the construction of the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, the rituals instituted by the Umayyad on the Temple Mount and the dissemination of Islamic-oriented Traditions regarding the sanctity of the site, all pointed to the political motives which underlay the glorification of Jerusalem among the Umayyad.
Jerusalem fell into near-obscurity after the demise of the Umayyad. The dome over the rock even collapsed in 1016AD.
When the Crusaders took the city in 1099AD, initially this did not arouse Muslim response that much. The calls to Jihad inside the city then even got no response at the time. But by now, there were already hadiths that stressed the virtues of Jerusalem. New ones were written to inspire the Muslim world to Jihad to retake the city, even though not a single volume appeared in the period between 1100 and 50AD.
In 1187AD, Saladin took the city and wrote to his Crusaders opponent that the city “is to us as it is to you. It is even more important to us.” Thereafter, a great building and restoration programme quickly followed. It was during Saladin that the Dome of the Rock came to be seen as the exact place where the prophet ascended to heaven (mi’raj) on his Night Journey, the very rock from which Jesus was thought to have ascended to heaven. It is worthy of note that one of Saladin’s grandsons al-Kamil, during his own rule, offered to trade Jerusalem to the Europeans if they would leave Egypt, but they turned him down, but he became successful with German Emperor Friedrich II in 1229AD.
In 1244AD, troops from Asia, the Ayyibids took the city again after it had exchanged hands back and forth, and this time it remained safely under Muslim rule for nearly seven centuries.
The psychology at work in those times according to experts is that, the Ayyibids felt that if Christians could travel from distant Europe to make Jerusalem their capital, it must be important thus accounting for why the city became the third most holy city of Islam (thalith al-masajid).
The Mamluk under whose rule the city witnessed decline, came between 1250-1516AD. Then the Ottoman 1516-1917AD, got off on an excellent start when Süleyman the Magnificent rebuilt the city walls in 1537-41AD and lavished money on it. However, taxes soon sent the city reverting back to her state of decline, so much so that, an historian reported that even the standards dropped so low that even the preacher at Al-Aqsa Mosque spoke a low standard of literary Arabic.
Britain recognised the minimal Muslim interest in Jerusalem during World War I. In negotiations with Sharif Husayn of Mecca in 1915-16AD, London decided not to include Jerusalem in territories to be assigned to the Arabs because, as the chief British negotiator, Henry McMahon, put it, “there was no place of sufficient importance further south” of Damascus “to which the Arabs attached vital importance.”
Israeli scholar Hava Lazarus-Yafeh noted that, Jerusalem “became the focus of religious and political Arab activity only at the beginning of last century.” She ascribes the change mainly to “the renewed Jewish activity in the city and Judaism’s claims on the Western Wailing Wall.”
The Jordanian era saw a decline in the city’s status and an insulting religious standing where, mosques lacked sufficient funds, where Jordanian radio broadcast the Friday prayers not from Al-Aqsa Mosque but from mosques in Amman.
It was the Israeli era that brought the neglect to an abrupt end after June 1967 war. Almost immediately the city quickly became the single most emotional issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflicts have not ended till this day.
Ibrahim Hooper, an American based Muslim speaks of how “the Muslim attachment to Jerusalem does not begin with the prophet Muhammad, it begins with the prophets Abraham, David, Solomon and Jesus, who are also prophets in Islam.”
Some say if this is so, doesn’t the fact that for a time Muslims directed prayers toward Jerusalem and upon revelation uniquely rejected the city and turned towards Mecca a sign that God had rejected the city for them?
Others wonder if Jerusalem, considered third in line in Islam, will ever be more than a secondary city for Muslims? They say considering the similarity between both religions in principle, Jerusalem should be to Jews what Mecca is to Muslims? That the Qur’an itself at 2:145, recognised that Muslims have one qibla and “the people of the Book [Jews]” another one that this should support their argument.
I believe Jews and Palestinians are one people. Jews pray thrice to Jerusalem, Muslims five times daily to Mecca. Muslims see Mecca as the navel of the world, just as Jews see Jerusalem. Whereas Jews believe Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac in Jerusalem, Muslims believe it was Ishmael, and that it was in Mecca. The Ka’ba in Mecca has similar functions for Muslims as the Temple in Jerusalem for Jew. Worshipers take off their shoes and go barefoot in both their places of worship. Jews don’t eat pig, Muslim don’t eat pig. Jews fast in Yom Kippur and the Muslims fast in Ramadan and so on.
Time to set aside the almost nonexistent differences, find a common ground and live together, that tiny piece of land should cease to be reason for all the strife and bloodshed, and neither side should be denied access to their holy sites.
Finally, a constructive breakthrough that requires an outside-the-box approach in that region is urgently necessary to put an end to the bloodshed and maybe save the rest of the world from the crisis that may emanate from there.
Albert Afeso Akanbi is a Novelist, Researcher and Humanitarian. He lives in Abuja, FCT.