Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region
4. Muslims Rewrite Jerusalem’s History

4. Muslims Rewrite Jerusalem’s History

From the moment Jerusalem was unified in June 1967 and its eastern part came under Israeli rule, the Palestinians and the Arabs began to portray Al-Haram al-Sharif as “Al-Aksa that has fallen prisoner to the Jews,” while the mount rose to the status of Islamic holiness.1 So long as a Muslim sovereign ruled in Jerusalem, the religious leadership of the Arabs of Palestine, from their seat on the Temple Mount, concentrated on religious practice, with very little role for political matters in their activities. But Jerusalem’s conquest by non-Muslim rulers, whether Christian Crusaders at the beginning of the second millennium or Jews at the end of that millennium, catapulted Jerusalem from a religious symbol of secondary importance to a religious-national symbol of the first order.2

The historian and Middle East scholar Prof. Emmanuel Sivan notes in his book Arab Political Myths that in the early period of Islam, no special sanctity was attributed to Jerusalem. As he observes:

The extent to which Islam at its inception did not accord importance to Jerusalem can be proved by the fact that Jerusalem was one of the last cities to be conquered at the time of the invasion of Syria, after the death of Muhammad, and that its conquest is associated with the name of a junior commander and not – as later legends claim – with the name of the revered Caliph Omar himself. Furthermore, the city did not even become the capital of the new province of Palestine. Its new lords called it Ayela, an Arabic version of the Roman name Aelia Capitolina. Nor was the city the municipal seat of Palestine. That was initially Caesarea and subsequently Ramle.3

Praying at the Al-Aksa Mosque, July 1967. Worship there was immediately renewed with the end of the Six-Day War. (Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office)
Praying at the Al-Aksa Mosque, July 1967. Worship there was immediately renewed with the end of the Six-Day War. (Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office)

Sivan points out that while the sacredness of Jerusalem was a widespread notion at the end of the seventh century, mainly because of factors on the popular level, its revival in the mid-twelfth century was instigated from above by ruling circles – initially by Zengi, the Turkish emir of the state of Mosul-Halav, who conquered the Crusader principality of Odessa in northern Syria. This emir was the first ruler of his time to declare a jihad aimed at obliterating the entire Crusader presence in the East. The liberation of Jerusalem was made a supreme objective of the campaign and the keynote of its propagandizing. Zengi’s son, Nur ad-Din, continued in this path, and one of his court poets wrote in one of his poems:

The infidel rulers must hand over [to Zengi] not only Odessa but also the rest of their lands. All this land is his. If the conquest of Odessa is the sea, then Jerusalem, And the Crusader Kingdom within it, is its shore.4

In the days of Saladin this push further intensified, and the Dome of the Rock was described as “rejoicing at the news that the Koran, which she has been lacking, is to return.”5 In the sultan’s missive that proclaimed to all the princes of Islam the victory in the Battle of Hattin (July 4, 1187), he promised to immediately impose a siege on Jerusalem: “the darkness of heresy has so long enfolded her, and very soon the dawn of redemption will shine on her.”

As we have seen, a similar phenomenon occurred after 1967, but this time it was brought about by “Jewish infidels” instead of “Crusader infidels.” Under the rule of the Jordanian monarchy, Jerusalem’s status had drastically declined.6 Now, in the wake of the Six-Day War, the city suddenly rebounded in holiness and political importance. Poems and yearnings for Muslim Jerusalem were published in the Arab world, and almost every self-respecting Arab ruler set up a special committee on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.7 Over the years, military units, camps, schools, clubs, refugee camps in the West Bank, conferences, conventions, and committees were given the name Al-Aksa.

Jerusalem’s unification under Israeli sovereignty in 1967 also immediately piqued Arab rulers’ interest in the city in general and in Al-Haram al-Sharif with its pair of sacred shrines in particular. Arab leaders made sure to weave into their speeches words of longing for the Temple Mount mosques, “which are being defiled by the Jews,” and to raise generous contributions for the renovation and maintenance of the compound. Any involvement, even if symbolic, with the sacred place was portrayed as assistance and devotion to the national struggle for liberation of the occupied lands.8

From the standpoint of the Arab countries, making the connection with the Temple Mount was an act of solidarity in the battle against Israel and proof of unreserved loyalty to the national struggle of the Palestinians. In the years immediately after the Six-Day War, hundreds of organizations, councils, and committees on Jerusalem and Al-Aksa popped up in the Arab countries like mushrooms after rain, and many of these continued to exist for many years thereafter.

For tens of millions of residents of Arab countries, Islam and their Arab nationalism are interlinked. They do not necessarily distinguish between one and the other. Allegiance to Islam is often proof of allegiance to the national struggle. While the use of religious symbols for political and national purposes is not an invention of Islam, it is hard to give the flavor of the Arab states’ ongoing struggle against Israel without the religious symbols that have sustained it, and all the more powerfully after the Six-Day War and Israeli rule over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

Even the name of Fatah, for many years the military wing of the PLO, manifests the Muslim ethos. In Arabic the acronym for Fatah is the initials in reverse of the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine, representing Sura 48 or “Sura al-Fatah” of the Koran, which glorifies the conquest of Mecca by Muhammad’s army and extols the victory of Islam through holy war – jihad. Hundreds of newspapers and journals throughout the Arab world, of various ideological hues and sharply differing political slants, continue to feature a photo of the Dome of the Rock on the front page. Al-Aksa became a trademark and a national symbol. Glorifying in it attested to one’s fealty to the Islamic holy places of Jerusalem and effectively shielded one against possible accusations of insufficient nationalism by extreme Palestinians. The terror gangs of Fatah are called the Al-Aksa Brigades. The Palestinian Authority’s police company in Jericho, and the police camp there, are called the Al-Aksa Company and the Al-Aksa Camp. The Second Intifada that erupted in 2000 was called the Al-Aksa Intifada, and the Arab summit that convened after it broke out was called the Al-Aksa summit.9 Even Christian Arabs view the Al-Aksa Mosque compound as a national symbol.10

After the war Jerusalem sprang forth in new colors in Muslim literature and poetry as well. Particularly successful was a song by the late, beloved songstress Oum Kalthoum, “The Three Holy Cities.” In its third stanza dealing with Jerusalem, Oum Kalthoum as well sowed the seeds of the “Al-Aksa is in danger” libel, which in the years to come would take on such profound dimensions:

From the place from which Muhammad ascended at night to the heavens, From Jerusalem the pure and clear, I hear…a cry for help I bear witness that the enemies burned The holiest place of all And paced on it in arrogance I hear the sad stones Lamenting in the darkness of night: Alas for Jerusalem captured by the aggressor.11

A short time after the Six-Day War, the Muslims reverted to the Temple Mount’s original name in Arabic. Instead of calling it Al-Haram al-Sharif, they began using the name that is mentioned in the Koran: Al-Masjid al-Aksa (the Farthest Mosque). This made it easier to confer a sacred status, similar to a mosque, on the Temple Mount as a whole, while relating accordingly to any Jewish presence on any part of the mount. From this point onward the view of the entire mount and its walls, and not only the mosques, as a holy place also shaped attitudes toward activity by the Israeli security forces on the mount, visits by Jews there, attempts by Jews to pray there, and indeed toward any Israeli connection to the compound and its walls.12 From the Muslim standpoint, Jewish rule itself is what contaminates and desecrates the Muslimness of Jerusalem, and is fundamentally illegitimate.

In 1967, forty-six years after its creation by Haj Amin al-Husseini and sixteen years after the Jordanian authorities dismantled it, the Supreme Muslim Council was reconstituted, this time under the stewardship of the leader of the revolt against Jewish rule, Sheikh al-Sayach, who was elected as its head. In his statements and mode of leadership Al-Sayach, whom Israel eventually expelled to Jordan, was reminiscent of the mufti Amin al-Husseini. He too obtained his religious education at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and then returned to Jerusalem. The most important chapter of his life was his work with Husseini himself. At the end of the 1930s, al-Sayach was put in prison for his insurrectionary activity against Great Britain under Haj Amin’s direction. The latter ramped up the status of the two mosques on the Temple Mount and, with al-Sayach’s help, transformed them from a religious symbol to a national one of struggle against the renascent Zionist movement. “Religion, education and politics,” the sheikh would say to his close associates, “descended bundled together from the heavens. In this path went Muhammad, and in this path I too will proceed.”13

The events of August 1967 augmented the religious dimension of the Arab revolt that spread through eastern Jerusalem. The attempts by IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to conduct Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount, which were obstructed by the government, brought the Muslim religious leaders, headed by al-Sayach, to publish on August 22 a ruling that set the tone – which would only gain strength in the future – for the Muslim attitude toward the Israeli sovereign presence in Jerusalem and on the mount in particular:

Given Israel’s intention to widen the Western Wall plaza, the prayer sessions of Brigadier Goren, and the declaration of the religious affairs minister that the Temple Mount is a Jewish property, on the basis of conquest and ownership, the following points must be emphasized: the Al-Aksa Mosque is the first kibla [direction of prayer] and the third mosque in importance in Islam. This sanctified place comprises the entire expanse of the Temple Mount, the mosque itself, the walls that surround the plaza, the gates, the plaza, the Dome of the Rock, and all the areas adjacent to it. Whoever offends the sanctity of this site, offends the sanctity of the mosque itself….The right of ownership of the sacred Rock…has been determined by traditions and sayings over hundreds of years in which the Muslims possessed these rights, and these rights are not open to question. They cannot be questioned either before a religious court or according to local or international law.14

In light of this ruling, it is worth recalling how Jerusalem came to be the third holiest place in Islam. The Koran does not mention Jerusalem by name at all. Ancient Muslim commentary vacillated on the question of the identity of Al-Aksa (the farthest, the remote), which is mentioned in the context of Muhammad’s Night Journey (Koran, Sura 17). Some claimed it was a heavenly mosque, but others maintained that it was in Jerusalem. After Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina (the hijra in Arabic) in 622, he ordered his believers, for a short period of sixteen months, to turn in their prayers toward the city of Jerusalem. He thereby hoped to convince Jewish tribes in the city to convert to Islam. When this failed, the kibla became the Kabaa in Mecca, the birthplace of the Islamic religion, near which Muhammad had his first revelation. The term for Jerusalem in the Muslim tradition remains, however, “the first kibla.” For hundreds of years Muslim writings and sources call the city Beit al-Mikdas (the Arabic equivalent of Beit Hamikdash, which means “the Temple” in Hebrew), but it was only in the second half of the twentieth century that this name was adopted by masses of Muslim believers.15

In the Muslim tradition Jerusalem was third in virtue and importance after Mecca and Medina, where Muhammad and his followers migrated and found refuge from the persecution they suffered in Mecca.16 Concerning Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the Muslim tradition states: “One prayer in Mecca is weighed against ten thousand prayers. A prayer in Medina is weighed against a thousand prayers, and a prayer in Jerusalem is weighed against five hundred prayers.”17 Pilgrimage to Mecca confers the title of Haj. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as to all sites that are not the Kaaba in Mecca, is accorded less value. Nevertheless, Jerusalem has a central place in the Muslim view of the End of Days. As religion scholar Prof. Zvi Verblovsky put it: “There are no direct flights from Mecca to heaven. You have to make a stop in Jerusalem.”18 According to one Muslim tradition, at the End of Days the Kaaba, the black stone in Mecca, will move to Jerusalem and be affixed there.

At the end of the seventh century, in 691, about sixty years after Jerusalem was conquered by the Arabs, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik created a structure for the Dome of the Rock.19 In the view of many, the illustrious shrine was primarily intended to commemorate Islam’s victory over the existing religions; emphasize the sense of connection between Islam and Jerusalem and the Temple Mount; compete aesthetically with the glorious Christian churches; and – no less important – to develop a political-religious hub in Jerusalem that, if it did not surpass Mecca, would at least be equal to it.20 The Al-Aksa Mosque was founded in 705 by the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid, son of the founder of the Dome of the Rock, Abd al-Malik.21 In the course of over 1300 years the two structures have become an inseparable pair. The Dome of the Rock preserves and exalts the intrinsically sacred Rock, and within it Muslims have engaged in individual prayer; the Al-Aksa Mosque has been a place of public prayer.22

In his book The Fight for Jerusalem, Dr. Dore Gold notes that “the Muslim theologians argued among themselves as to whether the Night Journey, and the ascent to the heavens that are attributed to Muhammad, were part of the vision – that is, some sort of spiritual experience, or an event that actually occurred.” The interpretation of the event as a vision was supported by Aisha (613-678), daughter of Abu Bakr and beloved wife of Muhammad, whom many consulted in her later years about the practices and sayings of the leader.23 The Caliph Muawiyah as well, who founded the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus in 600, regarded the story of the Night Journey as a vision.24 The Arabic inscription from the time of the Dome of the Rock, which surrounds the central octagonal portico of the structure, above the arches, consists almost completely of an intense theological debate with Christianity,25 but makes no mention of Muhammad’s dream.

Prof. Menashe Harel observes in this context that “the Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem was built sixty years after Muhammad’s dream and is not mentioned in the 240 meters of Koran verses that adorn the inner walls of the Dome of the Rock,” and that “the Night Journey of this mosque was mentioned for the first time in the Ottoman inscription that is on the Dome of the Rock.”26 As noted, though, other scholars maintain that “originally there was an ancient stratum of traditions that located the Al-Aksa Mosque in heaven, while a second, later stratum of traditions, which was intended to emphasize the glory of Jerusalem over Mecca, located Al-Aksa in Jerusalem.”27 In the view of these researchers, the aim of Abd al-Malik, builder of the Dome of the Rock, whose capital was Damascus, was to lessen the importance of pilgrimage to Mecca (which was under the control of his rivals, followers of the Shiite caliph Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr)28 and to exalt Jerusalem. In any case, the view that was ultimately accepted is that Muhammad came to Jerusalem physically and also ascended from it to heaven.

Thus Jerusalem became the third place in importance in Islam. In recent years, however, new layers have been added to the old traditions, and the Muslim and Arab history of Jerusalem has been rewritten. The center of gravity is now the historical right of the Arabs to Jerusalem and Palestine, and the story is built on the claim that the Arabs ruled Jerusalem for thousands of years before the Israelites.

Muslims have promulgated a denial and negation of the Jewish-Zionist narrative – including the de-Judaization of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and of Jerusalem altogether – making changes in a history they upheld for centuries, documented in their own writings.

This new version of the Arab-Muslim claim is, however, inadequate, since against it already stand thousands of years of the “Jewish story.” Hence the Muslims have also promulgated a denial and negation of the Jewish-Zionist narrative, including the de-Judaization of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and of Jerusalem altogether. The changes the Muslims have made in the history they upheld for centuries, a history that is documented in their own writings, concern first and foremost the question of the age and status of Al-Aksa. The age of the mosque has been altered as dating from the ancient Muslim era.29 “This was part of the attempt to ‘Islamize’ the period that preceded Muhammad’s message of Islam, and to Arabize Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. The process of Islamization and Arabization stemmed from the need to claim an Arab and Islamic historical right to the sacred land, before the Israelites were there – the ancient Jews, and the Christians.”30 To this end old traditions were enlisted that attribute the building of Al-Aksa to Abraham, to the first man, or to the time of the creation of the world.31

The new Muslim narrative determined, for example, that the Al-Aksa Mosque was not built around 1300 years ago – which is what modern research finds – but rather by the first man, forty years after the mosque in Mecca was built. The Jordanian Wakf minister Al-Salaam al-Abadi already claimed this in 1995. The Saudi historian Muhammad Sharab, too, asserted that Al-Aksa was built by the first man, and that God himself chose the spot and meant it to be a place of worship for believers in one God. The former mufti of Jerusalem and of the Palestinian Authority, Sheikh Akrama Sabri, also repeatedly attributed the building of the mosque in Mecca and of the Al-Aksa compound to the first man, and said it was King Solomon who renewed the building of Al-Aksa. According to Sabri, Solomon did not build the Jewish Temple but, rather, the Al-Aksa compound, which is a Muslim mosque.

In recent years spokesmen of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement have been stating that Abraham is the one who built Al-Aksa about four thousand years ago, forty years after he built the Kaaba together with his son Ishmael.32 Thus, so as to “Islamize” the era before Muhammad’s message of Islam emerged, ancient Muslim traditions are mobilized that previously were of negligible importance, and to the Al-Aksa Mosque are added more ancient origins, a great deal earlier than the year of its construction and, of course, earlier than the presence of the Israelites in the Land of Israel.33

Lately Muslim figures have come up with a further surprise: defining, for the first time, Al-Aksa as second – not third – in holiness, still coming after Mecca but before Medina.34 This was done, for example, by Sheikh Kamal Rian of the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, who said that “in our faith this is the second mosque. It is holier than the mosque in Medina, and this the Jews do not grasp.”35

Along with the upgrading of the Muslim holiness of Jerusalem and Al-Aksa, a campaign has already been waged for years, as mentioned, to deny the Jewish link to Jerusalem and Judaism’s holy places. A former mufti of Jerusalem, Sheikh Saad al-Din al-Alami, was very explicit on this issue when he said that the Jews contaminate the Muslimness of Jerusalem.36

I was personally witness to an example of this attitude when, a few years ago, I came with some archeology students from Bar-Ilan University to the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. The students tried to retrieve archeological relics from the piles of dirt that the Wakf had dug from the Temple Mount, which were then brought in trucks and dumped in the valley. One of the Wakf officials who saw the students started bellowing at them, and one of his statements stood out: “You have nothing to look for here just as the Crusaders had nothing to look for here! Jerusalem is Muslim!”

Although such remarks could indeed have been considered anomalous in the past, all that changed with the Camp David Conference in July 2000. There it became clear to senior Israeli officials that this claim – that Jews have no real connection to Jerusalem and the holy places – had not only been widely disseminated in Arab and Muslim communities and become a staple of Arab public discourse, but that the Palestinian leadership had adopted it as well.

Arafat himself endorsed this claim at Camp David37 and reiterated it in slightly different form in September 2003 when he lectured to a delegation of Arab leaders from the Galilee and told them that the Jewish Temple had not been located in Jerusalem but, rather, in Yemen. “I myself,” Arafat “testified,” “visited Yemen and was shown the site where the Temple of Solomon existed.”38 Arafat apparently drew this theory from a book by the historian Kamal Salibi, professor emeritus of the American University in Beirut, who was appointed to direct the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies in Jordan.39 Saeb Erekat as well, who has been a Palestinian negotiator since the Madrid Conference in 1991, also cast doubt on the Jewish connection to Jerusalem during the 2000 Camp David Conference.40

That the senior official representatives of the Palestinian Authority embraced Temple denial, and flung it shamelessly at Jewish statesmen, is seemingly the best testimony to the assimilation of the new narrative that the Muslims have written for Jerusalem. The Israeli statesmen, who were not members of the Jewish Temple Mount movement, did not conceal their amazement and consternation when confronted with this reality.

Such sentiments are evident in a 2002 article by Yossi Alpher, a former senior Mossad member who directed the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Alpher, a secular Jew who also is not suspected of excessive closeness to the Temple Mount movement, and is known for his readiness for far-reaching compromises for peace, wrote:

Of all the declarations concerning the peace process that were voiced by Yasser Arafat and his associates in the months from Camp David (July 2000) to Taba (January 2001), none was as offensive and disturbing as the claim that there was never a Temple on the Temple Mount. Indeed, Arafat annulled the basic tenet of the Jewish faith that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Like the majority of Jews, religious and secular, I saw in these statements an attempt to subvert our national identity.

“As a secular Jew,” Alpher explained,

I feel no need to pray – not at the Western Wall and not on the Temple Mount; however, I do require a visit to the mount itself. I can accept that we will never have an opportunity to excavate and recover the relics on the mount. I, like a majority of Jews, do not seek to reestablish the Temple….But in a more profound sense, the Palestinian denial of the narrative that links the Jewish people to the Temple Mount – like the demand that Israel agree “in principle” to the right of return of the Palestinian refugees – apparently reflects a degree of fundamental Arab denial of Israel’s right to exist and of its being a legitimate Jewish state….I do not seek Israeli rule over the Temple Mount. It is a sacred place to Muslims, the mosques are facts of life, and Muslims should manage the place. I have no trouble respecting the Muslim narrative concerning the Mount/Haram. However, peace will not be established and there will be no permanent agreement on Jerusalem until an arrangement is found that will accord appropriate respect to the national Jewish narrative along with that of the Muslims.41

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, concluded: “Peace will not be established and there will be no permanent agreement on Jerusalem until an arrangement is found that will accord appropriate respect to the national Jewish narrative along with that of the Muslims.”

Materials compiled in different books and studies by Dr. Yitzchak Reiter, Prof. Shmuel Berkovitz, and this writer42 disclose hundreds of rulings, publications, and sources that reflect how much the denial of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the holy places has metastasized in the Arab world. Various Muslim elements try to undermine the Jewish principle of Jerusalem’s centrality to Judaism, deny the existence of the Temple in Jerusalem, and assert that the Western Wall is not an authentic remnant of the external retaining wall of the Temple Mount compound.

The rewritten Muslim history, which challenges the Jewish link to Jerusalem and its history, makes three basic claims: that the Jewish presence in Jerusalem was short-lived (only sixty to seventy years) and does not justify Jewish sovereignty over the Holy City; that the Temple of Solomon, which is nothing but an ancient Muslim edifice, was at most a place for personal prayer (as noted, many publications deny the Temple’s existence altogether); and that the Western Wall is a sacred Muslim site, the Jewish connection to which was invented only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for political reasons.43

For example, an article posted a few years ago on the website of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, written by Egyptian archeologist Abd al-Rahim Rihan Barakat, director of the antiquities site for the Dahab region in Sinai, states that “the legend of the fraudulent Temple is the greatest crime of historical forgery.” A fatwa on the website of the Jerusalem Wakf asserts that David, Solomon, and Herod did not build the shrine but merely renovated a building that had already been there since the time of the first man.44

Today many Muslim jurists attach to the word al-haikal the descriptor al-mizum, whose literal meaning is “the alleged” or “the supposed.” They thus underline their position that the Temple is an invention with no factual basis. Abd al-Tuav Mustafa, from the Department of Political Science at the University of Cairo and former presenter of a religion program on Egyptian television, wrote in a book of his that the Jews’ belief in the Temple is nothing but a bogus claim and that their ostensible research is not scientific but merely conjectures and hypotheses.45

According to Mustafa, the Temple was a building no larger than a spacious apartment, and actually there were many other houses of worship that were dubbed “Al-Haikal.” He distorts the report of the British investigatory committee on the issue of the Western Wall, which was set up in the wake of the 1929 pogroms, and tells his readers that the committee found the Jews’ claim that the Western Wall is one of the walls of Solomon’s Temple to be untrue (in fact, the committee’s report substantiates the Jews’ ancient link to the site). Mustafa purports to base himself on the research of the archeologist Prof. Kathleen Kenyon, who, he states, determined that the Jebusite city was outside the walls of Al-Haram al-Sharif in the direction of the Kidron Valley – and thus, if there was a Temple there, it did not stand where the Al-Aksa Mosque stands today. Here too one must note that the renowned archeologist, who excavated the City of David during the reign of King Hussein, did not cast doubt in her writings on the location of the Temple Mount.46

A similar distortion appears on the website of Israel’s southern Islamic Movement. Muhammad Helaika, a member of the movement, purports to rely on Israeli archeologists in pronouncing that no vestige of the Jewish Temple has been found. Since 1967, he asserts, the Jews have conducted sixty-five archeological excavations on the Temple Mount. In actuality they have not conducted a single one because the Wakf has prevented it. Helaika quotes the archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar as saying: “We have not reached the Temple and we have no idea where it was.” Mazar, however, draws links between archeological findings and biblical and other sources that describe the Temple.47 She, too, notes that the reason there are no findings from the Temple building itself is that no excavations could be carried out under the Temple Mount compound, the place where the Temple resided.48

For hundreds of years up to 1967, the story of the Jewish Temple was a firmly established and undeniable motif in Muslim literature. Classical Arab sources identify the place where the Al-Aksa Mosque stands with the place on which the Temple of Solomon stood.

Against this sweeping denial stands the fact that, for hundreds of years up to 1967, the story of the Jewish Temple – including details about it, and even information on the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar – was a firmly established and undeniable motif in Muslim literature of all kinds.49 Moreover, classical Arab sources identify the place where the Al-Aksa Mosque stands with the place on which the Temple of Solomon stood. For example, the tenth-century Jerusalemite geographer and historian al-Makdisi, and the fourteenth-century Iranian jurist al-Mastufi, both identify the Al-Aksa Mosque with the Temple of Solomon. The thirteenth-century poetry of Jilal al-Din al-Rumi makes a similar identification. And Abu Bakr al-Wasiti, who was a preacher at the Al-Aksa Mosque at the beginning of the eleventh century, in his book of praises for Jerusalem adduces various traditions that mention the Temple’s Jewish past.50 One of them says that the sons of Aaron called the Rock “Al-Haikal.”51 In addition, the Supreme Muslim Council’s 1924 abbreviated guide to Al-Haram al-Sharif states that “this site is one of the most ancient in the world….Its identity as the site of the Temple of Solomon is beyond all doubt.”52

Even in the twentieth century (but before 1967) the Palestinian historian Arf al-Arf wrote that Al-Haram al-Sharif was on Mount Moriah, which, in the Book of Genesis, is the location of the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, which David purchased so as to build the Temple on it. Arf al-Arf, formerly mayor of East Jerusalem, further states that Solomon built the Temple in the year 1007 BCE, and that relics from the buildings that are under the Al-Aksa Mosque date from Solomon’s era. Moreover, he notes that the underground quarry next to the Nablus Gate (that is, the quarry Jews call the Cave of Tsidkiyahu [Zedekiah]) is known as “Solomon’s Quarry” because David and Solomon took stones from it for the building of the Temple. But these statements were written when the Old City of Jerusalem was still part of the Kingdom of Jordan, and there is almost nothing similar in the Arab history books written since 1967 or in the discourse of today.53

The writings of Muslims from previous centuries contradict current claims that the Western Wall – or Al-Buraq Wall – is holy to Muslims. Indeed Muslims never created a prayer site of their own there.

As for the Western Wall – or Al-Buraq Wall for the Muslims – the writings of Muslims from previous centuries contradict current claims that this wall is holy to Muslims. Indeed Muslims never prayed there, with the exception of the Al-Buraq Mosque on the southern side of the Western Wall, and never created a prayer site of their own there. According to a survey by Dr. Shmuel Berkovitz,54 the books and official guides on Al-Haram al-Sharif published by the Muslim Wakf in 1914, 1965, and 1990 never mention the Western Wall as a Muslim holy place. Furthermore, the Encyclopaedia of Islam published in 1971, in its articles on “Al-Buraq” and “Al-Haram al-Sharif,” never refers to the Western Wall as a sacred site nor identifies it as the place of the tethering of Al-Buraq.55 The “Al-Haram al-Sharif” article refers to the “Wailing Wall,” a name that is identified with the tears and prayers of the Jews beside it, and no Muslim holiness is attributed to it there.56 In his book The History of Jerusalem in Detail, Arf al-Arf includes the Western Wall in the list of Jewish holy places in Jerusalem and describes it in these words: “the Western Wall is the external wall of the Temple, which was renovated by Herod. And the Jews visit it often and particularly on Tisha B’Av, and when they visit it they remember the glorious and unforgettable history and begin to weep.”57

To this contradiction between denial of the Jewish Temple and the Islamization of the Western Wall, on the one hand, and the writings of generations of Muslims themselves, on the other, must of course be added the multitude of facts, discoveries, and sources that substantiate the Jewish link to Jerusalem and the existence of the Temple. Although these are not the subject of this study, they should not go unmentioned: the Bible, the Mishnah, the Gemara, the Midrashim, and the many Jewish commentaries testify to the fact of the Temple’s existence over the course of many years. To these must be added the writings of the historian Yosef ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius),58 who saw the Temple and its destruction with his own eyes. Josephus indeed describes the Second Temple at great length, as well as the Roman victory procession that carried the plunder of its sacred objects. This procession is also depicted on the arch that Titus had built in Rome, which commemorates the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE. On the Arch of Titus are pictures and reliefs of the Temple objects being borne away by Roman soldiers. In addition, the New Testament often refers to the Temple and the Temple Mount.59 An array of archeological findings from earlier years also confirms the existence of the two Temples. Dr. Dore Gold discusses some of these testaments in The Fight for Jerusalem; studies by contemporary Israeli archeologists such as Dr. Gabriel Barkai, Prof. Dan Bahat, Dr. Eilat Mazar, and others deal with them in greater detail.

Praying at the Western Wall, 1995. After the Mughrabi Quarter was evacuated, the narrow Western Wall alley was widened into a large plaza that accommodated tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers. (Moshe Milner, Government Press Office)
Praying at the Western Wall, 1995. After the Mughrabi Quarter was evacuated, the narrow Western Wall alley was widened into a large plaza that accommodated tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers. (Moshe Milner, Government Press Office)

A catalog published by the Israel Museum60 presents a fragment of an inscription in Greek from the Second Temple period, which was found beside the Lions’ Gate of the Temple Mount. A similar, entirely preserved inscription is kept today in the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul. The inscriptions prohibit entry by non-Jews beyond the grate that surrounds the Temple and threaten transgressors with death in these terms: “No gentile will enter in from the barrier that surrounds the Temple and to the surrounding court, and whoever is caught, will be liable for his life and will die.” These inscriptions are mentioned in the description of the Temple in Josephus’ book The Jewish War.61 In post-Six-Day War excavations along the Southern and Western walls of the Temple Mount that were conducted by Prof. Benjamin Mazar, a cornerstone was found that had stood at the southwestern corner of the Temple in Second Temple days, bearing an inscription that declares: “In the house of the shofar blast one must distinguish between sacred and profane.” At this corner the priest stood when he announced the trumpet blast on Friday for the entry of Shabbat, and on Saturday evening for its departure. This is documented both in The Jewish War and in the Mishnah.62

One of the extraordinary findings of recent years, from the time of the First Temple itself, was made on the Temple Mount during the laying of electrical lines there. This was the “preserved layer of life,” an underground stratum that according to archeologists “was preserved as a homogeneous whole since First Temple days. Even the shards that were identified there were broken at that very place, and have not changed their location since the days of the First Temple.”63

Dr. Yuval Baruch, a Jerusalem-district archeologist, noted in 200864 that the findings in the “preserved layer of life” included pieces of tableware along with fragments of animal bones, and that the findings are dated to the eighth to ninth centuries BCE. Baruch, Prof. Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, Prof. Yisrael Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, and Prof. Seymour Gittin, director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, tested the findings. They concluded that their nature and location could probably provide an archeological basis for the retracing of the boundaries of the Temple Mount compound in the First Temple period.65 The findings were also sent for dating to a laboratory at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot where identifications from the First Temple were further confirmed.66

Media stories on this topic agitated Muslims who for years have been denying any connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, and indeed the existence of the Temple itself. The director of Jerusalem’s Council for Wakf and Islamic Affairs, Azzam al-Khatib, hastened to deny the possibility of findings from the First Temple period, and said the media stories were simply aimed at bolstering the Israeli claim to sovereignty over part of the Al-Aksa compound. Member of Knesset Ibrahim Sarsur reacted similarly.67

A further notable finding, while not confirming the existence of the Temple, substantiates the wording of the Priestly Blessing in the Torah, a formulation the priests already used in Temple times. This is a discovery of the archeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkai: two tiny, rolled, silver scrolls, which served as amulets and contained the most ancient text of biblical Hebrew ever found, namely, verses of the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and keep you…. May the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace.”

Yet another fascinating finding was made in rescue digs68 carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority a few years ago in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem. This time it was an ancient quarry that extends over at least five dunams. The dig was done in the context of a project of the City of Jerusalem to build a school for the neighborhood’s children. From this quarry, giant stones were taken for use in governmental building in Second Temple-era Jerusalem. What was unique about the quarry was the tremendous size of the stones, whose length reached eight meters – similar to stones that were preserved at the lower levels of the Temple Mount compound. This is, so far, the first and only discovery of a full-size quarry that can be linked to the massive building work in Jerusalem during Second Temple times. The use of these huge stones in the building of the Temple Mount compound is what has maintained the structure’s stability for two thousand years, without any need for plaster or cement. Among the dig’s additional findings were coins and earthenware shards that are dated to the peak period of the building work in Second Temple days.69

These findings and numerous others have not altered, and apparently have only accelerated, the process of greatly augmenting Jerusalem’s holiness in Islam. Jerusalem is described as having “fallen” into the hands of the Israeli Jewish sovereign. The same terminology is used for the Temple Mount mosques, which are said to have “fallen into the captivity of the Jews.”70 Their status, as we have seen, has been greatly elevated. Moreover, the Muslim narrative about Jerusalem has changed completely, now contradicting the writings and attitudes of the Muslims themselves until not many years ago. Concomitantly, the campaign to deny any Jewish link whatsoever to Jerusalem is constantly gathering steam, despite a welter of facts, sources, and archeological discoveries, many of which were acknowledged by Muslims as well until recently, and were presented in their writings in a way that is the polar opposite of how they are presented now.