Jerusalem in Islam

A detailed overview of Jerusalem in Islamic history and belief.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
Al Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem


It’s been an interesting few months for Jerusalem. As Israel National News recently reported (/News/News.aspx/241564), Sheikh Kamal al-Khatib, Deputy Head of the illegal Islamic Movement in Israel, published an article in the Gaza newspaper Filastin, asserting that “the city of Al-Quds is the capital city of the Islamic Caliphate... With the help of Allah, this will soon become reality”.

Then US President Donald Trump’s recent recognition of the historical, political, and geographical fact that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and his relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, unleashed a veritable tidal-wave of verbal and physical violence.

Then on 5th June came “Naksa Day”, the anniversary of Arab and Moslem world’s attempted genocide of Israel and their subsequent defeat in the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel liberated Jerusalem.

And in response to the statement of the simple historical fact that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, a new slogan has been invented: “Jerusalem (or Al Quds) is the eternal capital of Palestine”.

A Google search for “Jerusalem” and “eternal capital of Israel” yields about 78,000 results; a Google search for “Jerusalem” and “eternal capital of Palestine” yields about 39,000 results.

Now this is a truly impressive achievement for Arab propaganda: given that there has never been a state called Palestine in history, and there has therefore never been a capital of Palestine, 39,000 online references to this non-existent capital of a non-existent country shows genuinely hard work.

And when the US administration moved its Embassy to Jerusalem – that unleashed a veritable tidal-wave of hatred and violence against Israel, and unrestrained claims of “violence” against the “Palestinian nation”; more, of “violence” against Islam’s “holy city”.

And this demands some response. Let us concede the historical fact that there has never been a Palestinian state in history, and that Jerusalem has therefore never been the capital of Palestine.

Jerusalem in Islamic history

What of Al-Khatib’s assertion that “the city of Al-Quds is the capital city of the Islamic Caliphate”?

– Quite simply, this is a lie. (Had a lesser man made this statement, we might have attributed it to ignorance; but Sheikh Kamal al-Khatib is no ignoramus.) The first four Caliphs, known as the Rashidun (Rightly-Guided) Caliphs, ruled in Medina for collectively 29 years (632-661).

This is significant, because it was during the tenure of the second caliph, Umar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), that the Islamic Caliphate conquered Jerusalem (and, indeed, all Israel). The capital city of the Caliphate remained in Medina.

The second Caliphate was the Umayyad (661-750), whose capital city was Damascus.

The third Caliphate was the Abbasid, which continued to rule from Damascus until it transferred its capital to Baghdad in 762, where it remained until 1258, and finally to Cairo from 1261 until 1517.

Finally, the Ottoman Caliphate rose to power in 1517, moving its capital city to Istanbul in 1451 where it remained until its dissolution in 1924.

For most of the 1,279-year period from 638 until 1917 the Caliphate ruled Israel, including Jerusalem.

There were a few interruptions when other Moslem  nations invaded and ruled the country for brief periods – the Turkish Tulunides from 878 until 904, the Egyptian Ikhshidid Princes from 943 to 969, the Turko-Persian Seljuks from 1070 until 1080.

And there were also periods when non-Muslims invaded and ruled the country – the Byzantine Empire from 970-976, the Crusaders from 1099 until 1187, and the Khwarezmians (a Tartar nation related to the Mongol hordes and inspired by Genghis Khan) from 1244 until 1260.

During this entire millennium-and-a-third, Jerusalem was never the capital of the Caliphate; indeed Jerusalem was never even a regional, or even a local, capital. Jerusalem was always a backward, impoverished, neglected town, slumbering in obscurity. The regional capital was Ramleh, 40 km (25 miles) north-west of Jerusalem.

Islam never established a single major seat of learning in Jerusalem, never established a madrassa (Islamic school) in Jerusalem, never built Jerusalem into a centre for government, for commerce, for arts, for literature, or anything else.

The last time that Jerusalem fell under Islamic rule was when Jordan (illegally) conquered and annexed half the city, including the Old City with the Temple Mount, in 1948, and occupied it until the Six Day War (1967). Jordan, like all its Islamic predecessors, attached no special significance to Jerusalem: the Hashemite Monarchy established its kingdom in Amman.

And the Hashemite dynasty is no newcomer to Islam: they trace their ancestry to Hashim ibn ‘Abd Manaf, great-grandfather of Muhammed (hence the name “Hashemite”). Indeed, in its early generations the Hashemites challenged the Umayyad dynasty (who were a different clan within the same tribe) for the title of Caliph. Thus the Hashemite monarchy claims not only temporal authority, but theological Islamic authority as well.

And the Hashemite Monarchy, too, saw no special significance in Jerusalem.

Let us come back to the end of the Crusader Kingdom. In 1187, Sallah al-Din (Saladin) conquered Israel from the Christians, restoring Islamic control over Jerusalem for the first time in 88 years.

Sallah al-Din awarded himself the title Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (a title which he himself invented). The “Two Holy Mosques” in the title are the mosques of Mecca and Medinah; clearly, the Sultan Sallah al-Din, who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, did not consider the city and its famous mosque important enough to be included in his honorific.

When the Ottoman Turks inherited the Caliphate, the Turkish Sultans adopted the title, changing it to Servant of the Two Holy Cities. The “Two Holy Cities” in the title refer, again, to Mecca and Medinah. Again, this is highly significant because the Ottoman Caliphate, under Sultan Selim I, conquered Jerusalem (and all Israel) at its very beginning, in the summer of 1517.

Again, the Ottoman Sultans clearly did not consider Jerusalem to be important enough to be included in their title.

For most of the 400-year Ottoman rule, Jerusalem continued to be neglected – except by the Jews, who continued to stream into it, to live there and to build it up. It is clear that historically, Jerusalem had no special historical significance for Islam.

But what of the theological argument that Jerusalem is the third holiest city for Islam, after Mecca and Medinah?

The two Islamic claims to Jerusalem as a holy city

Islam and its apologists typically cite two aspects of Jerusalem’s sanctity to Islam. The first is that Jerusalem was the first Qiblah, or direction of prayer. That is to say, when Muhammed first created Islam, he directed his followers to face Jerusalem when worshipping.

The second aspect is Muhammed’s famous Night Journey, as related in the Qur’an, Sura 17. According to this claim, Muhammed flew on Buraq, his magical horse, in one night from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he led all the other prophets in prayer, and from Jerusalem he ascended to heaven.

The first Qiblah

Muhammed copied this, of course, from the Jews – as indeed he copied much of his new religion from Judaism and (to a lesser extent) from Christianity.

The Qur’an never specifies explicitly that Jerusalem was the first Qiblah: the Qur’an never mentions Jerusalem (or for that matter Israel, or even “Palestine”) by name even once. But tradition has it that at the start of his ministry, in the year 610, Muhammed originally instructed his followers to face “Qibla al-Yahud”, “the Qibla of the Jews”, an implied reference to Jerusalem, when praying.

However, 14 years later, Muhammed received a prophetic vision instructing him to change the Qiblah to Mecca.

Islamic tradition has it that the change happened instantaneously: Muhammed was leading the congregation in the Zuhr (noon-time prayer) on 11th February 624 in a mosque in Medina, facing Jerusalem, when he received this inspiration to turn and face Mecca instead.

This event is referenced in the Qur’an, Sura 2 (The Cow):

“Such of our [Allah’s] revelations as we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, we replace with one better or similar. Do you not know that Allah is able to do all things?” (Sura 2:106).

Having given the doctrine of nas’kh (abrogation), this Sura continues:

“The fools among the people will say: What has turned them away from the Qiblah which they used to observe? Say [in response]: Both east and west belong to Allah...And we [Allah] appointed the Qiblah which you used to observe solely in order to discern who follows the messenger... It was verily a hard test, except for those whom Allah guided. But Allah never cause your faith to be wasted, for Allah is full of mercy, compassionate to mankind” (Sura 2:142-143).

We note here that consistent with the doctrine of nas’kh, that the replacement is superior to the original, it follows that Mecca (in Islamic theology) is superior to Jerusalem.

But more important is the interpretation that some of Islam’s greatest scholars gave. The great Qur’anic scholar Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani (c.1260-c.1330) wrote in his commentary, Tafsir al-Kashani:

“The change [of Qibla] was a hard test, that it was troublesome and burdensome, except for those whom Allah guided… But Allah would never cause your faith to be wasted – meaning, your prayers towards the Holy House [of Jerusalem], because it was [performed] for Allah. And since it was for him, in whichever direction you orientated yourselves formerly, he would accept these [prayers]”.

That is to say, according to al-Kashani, praying in the direction of Jerusalem was an error, but because it was an honest error, done in genuine service of Allah and sincere intent to serve him, he accounts it as genuine prayer and devotion.

Whatever sanctity Jerusalem may have held for those first Moslems was (according to al-Kashani) an error.

The Night Journey

This Night Journey (Al-Israh) is such a significant event in Islamic history that it has entered the Islamic calendar as an annual celebration.

While the precise date of the Night Journey is disputed, the majority opinion is that it happened on 27th Rajab (the seventh month). But even those sects which believe that the Night Journey occurred on another date nevertheless commemorate and celebrate it on 27th Rajab.

The Qur’an relates Muhammed’s Night Journey in Sura 17:

“Praiseworthy is he [Allah] who brought his servant [Muhammed] in a single night from the Sacred Mosque [Masjid al-Haram] to the Furthermost Mosque [Masjid al-Aqsa], whose precincts we [Allah] have blessed; surely it is he who is the All-seeing and the All-hearing”.

The Sacred Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) is the mosque in Mecca. However, the Furthermost Mosque (Masjid al-Aqsa) cannot possibly refer to the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem which currently bears this name, for the simple historical reason that the current Al-Aqsa mosque had not yet been built: the Night Journey happened sometime between 617 and 624, Muhammed died in the year 632, and the Islamic invasion of Israel was in 637.

This means that until the year 637 there were no mosques in Israel, so the Furthermost Mosque could not have been the mosque which would later bear this name. The mosque today called Al-Aqsa was originally built at the command of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the Caliph who first conquered and colonised Israel.

Umar had come to Jerusalem in 637 specifically to accept the surrender of Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. When Umar reached the Temple Mount and was disgusted at seeing it used as a garbage-heap, he personally began cleaning it up and exhorted his followers to help him (which they did).

And when the time for prayer came, he prayed on the steps of the nearby Cardo Maximus; clearly, because there was as yet no mosque for him to pray in – proving, from Islamic history itself, that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in its present location did not exist in Muhammed’s day.

This is why, according to the earliest commentators on the Qur’an, the “Furthermost Mosque” was actually the mosque in Al-Jur’anah, some 18 km (12 miles) north-west of Mecca – the mosque in which Muhammed prayed after his resounding victory in the Battle of Hunayan in 630.

And other commentators understood the Night Journey to have been a purely spiritual experience, in which Muhammed never physically left the mosque in Mecca.

The idea that the “Furthermost Mosque” of Sura 17 was in Jerusalem was a later interpretation, anachronistically imposed on the text of the Qur’an.

And in any event, the mosque’s location is of secondary importance. The celebration of the 27th Rajab is called “Lailat al-Miraj”, “the Night of the Ascension”. What is significant in Islam is Muhammed’s ascension to heaven, not the location from which he ascended.

Several centuries later, the great Muslim theologian Imam Ibn Tamiyyah (1263-1328), whose works and philosophies have a major influence in mainstream Islam until today, admonished that recognising Jerusalem as a holy city was nothing short of sacrilegious, an insidious Jewish influence on Islam. Islam has only two Holy Cities, he insisted – Mecca and Medinah.

According to Ibn Tamiyyah, when Caliph Umar visited the Temple Mount after conquering Jerusalem, he was accompanied by his aide, Ka’b al-Akhbar, a Yemeni Jew who had converted to Islam. Umar asked Ka’b where to build a mosque, and Ka’b responded: “Build it north of the Rock”.

Umar responded angrily: “You son of a Jew! – Has your Jewishness taken you over?!”

Had Umar built his mosque north of the Rock (as Ka’b al-Akhbar suggested), then Muslims would pray facing both the site of the ancient Jewish Holy Temple and Mecca. Umar thus accused Ka’b of attempting to “Judaize” Islam by getting Moslems to worship in the same direction as the Jews – the “Qiblah al-Yahud” which Muhammed himself had long-since rejected!

Instead, therefore, Umar deliberately built his mosque south of the Rock – the area which is today called Al-Aqsa Mosque, to guarantee that when Muslims would prostrate towards Mecca, they would turn their rear-ends on the site of the Jewish Holy Temple.


Jerusalem is mentioned nowhere in the Qur’an; it features nowhere in Islamic prayers; it carries no significance in Islamic history. Theologically, Jerusalem’s significance in Islam is the same as Madrid’s or New Delhi’s: the Caliphate conquered them and colonised them for a while, and then the indigenous peoples retook possession.

Theologically, Islam claims any land which was ever Islamic: it is forbidden for Islam ever to relinquish any Islamic territory, and Jerusalem was once Islamic territory.

But that is the sole sanctity that Jerusalem has in Islam.

All the rest – all the claims of Jerusalem’s theological significance to Islam, the claims that Jerusalem was the capital of some Islamic entity – are modern fictions, invented for political reasons.