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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Islam and Jerusalem

Not only Palestine but the entire Roman east as well would be shaken by the resumption of the perennial warfare between Byzantium and Sassanian Persia during the latter half of the sixth and the early seventh centuries. Perhaps exhausted by warfare, the Byzantine emperor Maurice (582–602) and the Persian king Chosroes II (590–628) made an “eternal” pact of peace. The peace lasted approximately a decade, but was shattered when Maurice was murdered by the usurper Phocas. In 614 Chosroes conquered Jerusalem, from which he is said to have taken the true cross and transported it to Persia. Persian rule was short-lived. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610–41) left Constantinople in 622 to launch a major counterattack, triumphantly returning the cross to Jerusalem eight years later.

Weakened, however, by decades of conflict, neither the Sassanian nor the Byzantine armies were any match for the forces of Islam, which between 634 and 644 would conquer the Sassanian empire and much of Byzantium as well. In 638, under the leadership of Umar, the second caliph, Muslim forces peacefully entered Jerusalem, following the surrender of the city by the Christian patriarch Sophronius. With the exception of the periods of Crusader rule (1089–1187, 1229–44), Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands until 1917.

At about the same time that Chosroes II was invading Byzantine territory, Islam holds that the prophet Muhammad was beginning to receive revelations from God, mediated by the angel Gabriel and eventually embodied in the Quran. Islam understands Muhammad as the seal of the prophets, bringing to humankind a final and perfect form of monotheism. In this sense, Islam can be understood as a continuation of and a correction of the older monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam views Abraham as the ancestral figure and as the perfect man of faith.

To be sure, historians disagree over the precise nature of the relationship between early Islam and contemporary Judaism and Christianity. It is clear, however, that Jerusalem, identified as the city of the prophets and the site of Solomon's Temple, occupied a place of profound importance in emerging Islam. For a brief period, before Muhammad's hijra, or emigration, from Mecca to Medina in 622, the direction of prayer was toward Jerusalem; the Quran notes the change in the direction of prayer to Mecca.

Unlike many earlier conquerors of the Holy City, Umar's forces would neither massacre its inhabitants nor destroy the religious monuments of the vanquished. Later sources describe Umar's interest in the Temple Mount, the “Noble Sanctuary” (Arabic Haram al-Sharif). Horrified by the state of ruin and filth in which the Byzantine Christians had kept the Temple Mount, thereby testifying to the victory of the “new Israel” over the “old,” Umar ordered that it be cleaned in its entirety. Sometime thereafter a modest mosque was built at the southern end of the old Herodian platform.

In 691/692 the magnificent Dome of the Rock, a rotunda on an octagonal base built by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, was completed. The Dome, which dominates the Haram today, affirmed the triumph of Islam in the Christian showplace of Jerusalem. Early Muslim authorities would identify Jerusalem as the destination of the prophet Muhammad's “night journey,” and the rock as the place from where he ascended to heaven, thus strengthening for Islam the sanctity and significance of Jerusalem. So, too, as in Judaism and Christianity, Jerusalem would assume an important role in Muslim beliefs concerning the end time.

Although the name Jerusalem probably originally meant “foundation of [the god] Shalem,” it has often been interpreted to mean “city of peace” (Hebrew 'ir shalom). Tragically, peace has eluded Jerusalem for most of its history. Today Jerusalem often seems to embody that which separates the children of Abraham. News stories bear daily witness to the enduring tensions between Jerusalem the ideal and Jerusalem the real.

Roughly a millennium ago, Muqqadisi, a Muslim geographer and historian and a native of Jerusalem, would describe it as a place oppressive to the poor, lacking in learned men, “a golden basin filled with scorpions.” However, he would also celebrate Jerusalem as “the most illustrious of cities,” where the advantages of the present and the next world meet. Perhaps the visions of and yearnings for Jerusalem the holy, the ideal Jerusalem, embedded in centuries of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim literature, can serve as a reminder of that which brings together the children of Abraham and all of humankind.

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