Jerusalem during Muslim Rule
Dr. Azzam Tamimi
Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in Rabi' al-Akhir of 16 Higrah, (in May 637 AD). The conquest put an end to centuries of instability, religious persecution and colonial rule once by the Egyptians, another by the Greek, a third by the Persians, and a fourth by the Romans. The conquering Muslim armies, who had just finished conquering the north of Ash-Sham province and consolidated their success with a victory at Al-Yarmouk, marched toward Jerusalem and imposed a siege around it.
Having known of the defeat of his empire's army at Al-Yarmouk, the Roman governor of the Holy City fled and left its own people to negotiate a peaceful surrender to the Muslims. Jerusalemites wanted a peace treaty similar to the ones concluded by the Muslims with the inhabitants of other towns in the region save for one extra condition; they asked that the leader of the Muslims, Omar, be present to take delivery of the city. As soon as the news arrived in Madina, Omar prepared for the journey to Jerusalem and asked Ali ibn Abi Talib to take charge of Madina during his absence.
It has been suggested that the insistence on the presence of Omar emanated from the desire on the part of the leaders of Jerusalemites to ensure that guarantees for the safety and security of Christian shrines be given by the most senior figure in the Islamic state. There is an abundance of historic evidence that the peoples of conquered regions, and Jerusalem was no exception, had heard of the piety and justice of Omar and of the strict adherence of Muslims to the values they preach.
The conduct of the Muslims during their conquest campaign convinced many natives that this was not another colonial power.
On the eve of Al-Yarmouk battle between the Muslims and the Roman army, the Roman commander instructed a native Arab informer to infiltrate the Muslim camp and come back to him with a description of their conditions. The informer returned with the most astonishing report. He said: "I have come to you from a people who spend the night in worship and the day in fasting. They enjoin good and forbid evil. They are priests at night- time and lions at daytime. If their leader were to commit an act of theft they would not hesitate to cut his hand, and if he were to commit adultery they would not stand short of stoning him. They sanctify truth and give it preference over personal desire." Reportedly, the commander of the Roman army responded by saying: "If such is their description, then the bottom of the earth is better than its top." In other words, he feared that a people with such description just could not be defeated.
To the natives of Palestine the Muslims were a new breed of humans, different from all those who invaded their country before. They watched the newcomers as they communicated with each other and as they dealt with their adversaries. The Muslim worriers had strict instructions to violate no sanctity and to hurt no innocent creature. A farewell admonition from Caliph Abu Bakr to one of the departing armies toward Jerusalem read as follows:
"I recommend to you that you fear Allah and obey Him. When you engage the enemies and win over them do not loot, do not mutilate the dead, do not commit treachery, do not behave cowardly, do not kill children, the elderly or women, do not burn trees or damage crops, do not kill an animal unless lawfully acquired for food. You will come across men confined to hermitages in which they claim to have dedicated their lives to worshipping God, leave them alone. When you engage the pagan infidels invite them to choose between two things. Invite them to embrace Islam. If they don't wish to do so invite them to pay the jizyah (tax paid by non-Muslims in a conquered land). If they accept either, accept from them and stop fighting. But if they reject both, then fight them."(1)
The lessons native inhabitants learned every day from the conquering army were crowned with the amazing experience of watching the arrival of the leader of the Muslims from Madina, second caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab. He had with him one companion, not a servant or a slave, but a friend with whom he shared one camel for the entire journey. The garment Omar had been wearing had been torn and soiled. He took some time to patch it and clean it. He was advised upon his arrival that this is not too an impressive scene for the locals who are used to seeing kings and emperors well dressed and well-guarded. He answered: "We are a people whom Allah has empowered with Islam. We do not seek the pleasure of other than Allah."(2)
The arrival of Omar in Jerusalem signalled the beginning of a new era during which the city of Jerusalem became an open city. Only during the times of non-Muslim rule did the city lose its sanctity and openness. The secret lies in Islam itself. On the one hand, Islam considers itself an extension of the divine messages that preceded it. All the messengers and prophets that preceded Muhammad (peace be upon him) are regarded, as well as their followers, Muslim; and the followers of Muhammad are ordered to believe in them all and to respect them as much as they respect their own prophet. The Qur'an calls on the believers to proclaim:
"We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and in that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus, and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Lord: we make no distinction between any of them." (3) On the other hand Islam awards to the followers of both Judaism and Christianity rights the violation of which is considered a sin. The Prophet is reported to have said: "He who harms a dhimmi it is as if he harms me personally."
Although Islam unequivocally condemns those who have altered their own divine messages to suit their own personal interests or in order to deny the divine mission of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Islam guarantees the freedom of worship for the followers of both Judaism and Christianity. This is evident in the declaration signed by Omar upon his entry into the holy city. He pledged that the Muslims should guarantee the security of the inhabitants of the city, of their wealth, of their churches and of their crosses. He also guaranteed that their churches would not be taken from them nor would they be demolished or undermined in anyway, that none of their possessions would be seized from them and that they would not be compelled to change their religion.
The pledges given to the Christians applied similarly to the Jews except that the Jews had not at the time of conquest been living in the Holy City. Relations between the Jews and the Christians were extremely bitter, a product of the Roman persecution of Jews which long predates the conversion to Christianity by Emperor Constantine in 325 AD but which continued for many centuries afterwards. Between the years 132 and 135 AD, the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled against Roman rule only to be vanquished and banished in the earth by Emperor Hadrian who forbade them from every returning to the Holy City. Jews returned to the city only when the Muslims took hold of it thus opening it to all believers.
Although at the dawn of Islam Muslims had a conflict with the Jewish tribes that had been living in and around Madina and later on in Khaibar, they did get along very well at all times afterwards, and especially in Palestine. For both Jewish and Christian inhabitants of the conquered lands, Islamic rule signaled the start of a golden age. Territories under Muslim rule became safe havens to which many Jews and Christians fled to escape persecution in their own homelands. It was in Muslim metropolis that many Christians and Jews found the opportunity to acquire learning and to excel in various fields of knowledge and expertise. Many of them had become historic figures who benefited from as well as contributed greatly to the Arab Muslim civilisation.
In addition to recognising both Judaism and Christianity as divine faiths whose Prophets preached the same message Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent to complement and seal, Muslims are warned against the attitude of self-appointing as judges over people's hearts and choices of faith. Although Muslims disagree fundamentally with Jews and Christians over matters of faith, they are supposed to accept that faith is a matter between man and his creator and that notwithstanding the differences a common ground exists where Muslims and other believers may stand.
"And dispute not with the People of the Book, except in the best way, unless it be with those who initiate aggression against you. But say: We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; our God and your God is One; and it is to Him we submit." (4) A Muslim's duty is to invite others, through wisdom and peaceful admonition, to what he believes to be the truth. But no Muslim, including the Prophet himself, has the authority to compel another human being to accept what Muslims believe to be the truth. It is, however, the responsibility of Muslims in this life to establish an order of justice in which human dignity is protected and freedom of choice is guaranteed. It is not surprising, hence, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not perceive the Muslims to be conquerors but rescuers who came to deliver them from persecution and enslavement.
Furthermore, Muslims are ordered to observe justice in their dealings, whether among themselves or between them and others.
"O you who believe! Stand firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well acquainted with all that you do." (5) In addition, Muslims are prohibited from abusing the symbols of other faiths, no matter how much these symbols contravene the basic tenets of the Islamic creed.
"Revile not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance." (6)
The status of Jerusalem under Muslim rule is best be contrasted with its status under the rule of the Crusaders who occupied it for about 88 years between 1099 and 1187 AD. In seven days, the Crusaders killed no less than seventy thousand of the city's inhabitants. No distinction was made between Muslim and Jew. All those who did not share the faith of the invaders, including many local Christians, were considered heathens killing whom was the religious mission the invaders came from afar to fulfil. Muslim symbols in the city were completely obliterated: the Al-Aqsa mosque was turned into a barracks for the troops and its basement into a stable for their horses. The call the prayer was banned and the minarets of Jerusalem were silenced for 88 years.
The peace, tranquillity and openness of the Holy City were restored only when Salah-u- ddin Al-Ayyubi liberated it from its foreign intruders. Peace prevailed so long as Islamic rule continued. This lasted until the turn of this century when Jerusalem, like the rest of Palestine, was placed under the mandate of the British who used their power to alter the demographic nature of the country in preparation for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Since then, Zionists have resorted to all sorts of measures to force the Palestinians out of the city and to obliterate all non-Jewish symbols. Yesterday's victims have become today's oppressors. Haunted by their bitter experience in Europe, Zionist Jews have gone as far as pursuing the policy of their own oppressors, the Nazis. Never will Jerusalem's peace and openness be restored unless Islamic rule is reinstated. Only the Muslims are guaranteed to respect the sacredness of the city and observe its central position not only to their faith, but also to the faiths of Christians and Jews.
The crimes committed by the Zionists in Palestine are reminiscent of those perpetrated by the Crusaders almost nine centuries ago. Today's slogans and justifications of aggression are not much different from those of yesterday. Both the Crusaders and the Zionists claimed to fulfil a divine mission of some sort. Flying on a mythical carpet of divine promises they came from afar to rob, murder, destroy and disturb. In both cases, the invaders were motivated by greed and hatred and were driven to their doom by blind faith in some incredible myths. In both cases, the weakness of the Muslims helped the invaders achieve their goals.
Just as the crimes and barbarity of the Crusaders brought an end to their rule on its 88th anniversary, so will the crimes of the Zionists bring an end to their project, perhaps just before they celebrate its 88th anniversary. Just as the return of Muslims to their faith marked the beginning of the end of the Crusader campaign, it is today's return to their faith by the Muslims, despite all the hurdles, that promises a close ending of the current painful chapter in the history of the Holy City.
The day the Zionist project comes to an end will be the day when peace and freedom of worship are restored in Jerusalem and when the Holy City will be re-opened to all believers from all faiths.
* Prepared for the National Conference on the Centrality of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Islam, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Leicester, 24 October 1998.
1 M.M. Salih, At-Tariq ilal-Quds, A Filastin Al-Muslima Publication, London 1995; p. 65.
2 Ibid. p. 85.
3 Holy Qur'an, Surat Al-Baqarah (no. 2), Verse no. 136.
4 Holy Qur'an, Surat Al-'Ankabut (no. 29), Verse no. 46.
5 Holy Qur'an, Surat Al-Ma'idah (no. 5), Verse no. 8.
6 Holy Qur'an, Surat Al-An'am (no. 6), Verse no. 108.