Essay Three of Zero-Sum Historiography: The Palestinian Assault upon HIstory.
The Muslims say to Britain, to France, and to all the infidel nations that Jerusalem is Arab. We shall not respect anyone else’s wishes regarding her. The only relevant party is the Islamic nation, which will not allow infidel nations to interfere. – Sheik Ikrama Sabri, Mufti of Jerusalem, July 11, 1997.
“Islam’s Third Holiest Site”
Every day we are reminded by our media, our intellectuals, our politicians, and (most fervently of all) by our church leaders thatJerusalem, al-Quds, is “Islam’s Third Holiest Site.” And we are given to understand by these same authorities that this consideration is somehow a sound basis for a claim by the Arabs to a sovereign State of Palestine, with its capital at al-Quds.
Those who have not looked closely at Muslim attitudes towards other religions may be puzzled that Muslims would not concede that their Third Holiest Site (on a long list whose length no one truly knows) might, at least out of courtesy, co-exist in the vicinity of the Only Holy Site of the Jews. This zeal for al-Quds becomes more problematical still when one discovers in the pages of Islam’s own Holy Book that Muhammad, disappointed by the Jews’ rejection of his claims to inspired prophecy, turned his backs upon the Jews and their history.
In the early days of his mission (610 CE until 623), Muhammadestablished it as a Muslim duty to pray exclusively towards Jerusalem, and he ordered a Qibla, a mark pointing in the correct direction, to be set in every mosque; but then he changed the policy and the Qibla was re-oriented towards the Kaaba in Mecca. Mainstream Islamic teaching today is that when the Qibla moved to indicate Mecca, Jerusalem did not cease to be an Islamic site. This conforms to the fundamental premise that nothing that has ever belonged to Islam can ever be considered surrendered.
The Sanctity of al-Quds
Teachers of Islam insist that Adam lived in the cave below the main surface of the rock upon which Jews imagine that Solomon’s Templehad once stood. Other Old Testament figures, including David, Solomon, Elijah and others, at one time or another sojourned in that very same cave — the lack of any reference in the Hebrew Scriptures to any such matters being neither here nor there. And thus the cave (the “pit of souls”, wherein the spirits of the dead meet twice a week for prayer) and all the property around it (upon which the Jews and the secular historians falsely maintain once stood the Temple of the Jews), must be thought of as the permanent abode of all faithful theology – that is, of Islam. Therefore, by definition this place has always been and ever will be an Islamic site and nothing else.
Within ten years of Muhammad’s death, Muslims were in possession of Jerusalem. After a brief period of enthusiasm for the site, during which the present Dome of the Rock was built, Muslim energies were directed for the most part elsewhere — to capitals of new Muslim Empires, to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Cordoba, and Constantinople (Istanbul.) Jerusalem lost almost at once its high priority in the Muslim imagination. Somewhere in recent times, however, Muslims began speaking of Jerusalem as al-Quds (the Holy Place) and as “Islam’s Third Holiest Site.”
Muhammad and Jerusalem
Yet Jerusalem appears nowhere in the Qur’an – neither by name nor by allusion. It is only because Muhammad associated his “night journey” into the heavens – evidently, some sort of out-of-body-experience — with Allah’s promise to bring all religion under the sway of Islam, that the “furthest mosque” came, long after his death, to be associated withJerusalem. In 691 A.D., when the Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus (660s to 750) was in possession of this region, but was not in possession of Mecca and Medina, Abd el Melek Ibn Merwan proposed that the Temple Mount was the site of Mohammed’s mystical night time journey to Al Aqsa (“the furthest mosque.”) An indentation on the rock (the tour guide will be glad to lead your hand to it) was then identified as the print left by Muhammad’s horse Burak (the one with the head of a peacock) as horse and rider had ascended into the heavens. None of this is in the Qur’an. There was, of course, no “mosque” at the site in Muhammad’s day, but only a Byzantine church, later replaced by the present Dome of the Rock.
In modern times, this holy association has been magnified to match the political requirements: when Muslims speak to Western Christians, they insist that historical associations make Jerusalem (al-Quds) equal in spiritual importance to Christians, Jews and Muslims; when speaking to Muslim audiences, Muslims state that al-Quds is pre-eminently and preemptively sacred to Islam. Present Muslim doctrine is that the Holy site on the Temple Mount belongs to Islam, as it had never ceased to be a Muslim site.
The Jews, in contrast, have never asserted any claim to possession of any site on earth but this one — the site of their ancient Temple. They have utterly no interest in asserting a claim to Mecca or Medina, or, for that matter, to Rome or Ephesus, or Constantinople, or Kapilavastu, orCanterbury, or Disneyland, et cetera.
The mindset out of which this Muslim attitude comes will not go away under persuasion. The Second Intifada, which began in the summer of 2000, and which Palestinians call “the Al-Aqsa Intifada,” makes clear what the First Intifada perhaps did not: that the conflict between Israel and her enemies is not about an unsatisfied need for political independence, but about the Islamic claim to preemptive possession of everything that is sacred to Jews and Christians everywhere.
History and Anti-History
When his claims were rejected by his Jewish neighbors, Muhammad turned away from the Hebrew Bible, which the Jews had told him contains a true record of the history of the Jews. In doing so, he turned away from the religious tradition which is founded upon the understanding that the God of Israel was (and is) the God of History.
The understanding that God fulfills his Purposes throughout the course of History was the bedrock of Jewish theology and it is no less the lynchpin of the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity – that God was present, before time in the Creation, present in the midst of time in the Incarnation (the pivotal event in historical time) and present through unfolding time until the end of time in the work of the Church. When he turned his back on that message, Muhammad turned his face towards the task of finding somewhere else than in History the cardinal truths about God.
Not only did Muhammad turn away from Jewish Scripture (which, we recall, he had never read, being illiterate) but he made it clear, in doing so, that even consulting Jewish Scripture was an unforgivable crime against the truth. Everything that Muslims need to know about the story of the Jews as well as the story told by the Christians, he said, can be gleaned from Muhammad’s many references to these stories which can be found in the Qur’an. Everything to be found on these same themes outside the pages of the Qur’an is lies.
More specifically, the Qur’an declares that the whole of the Jewish scripture from Genesis 15 forward is a pack of lies. The Qur’an offers a counter-history, wherein God’s promises devolve upon Ishmael, not upon Isaac. In Sura 2:125, we read:
Remember We made the House [the kaaba, in Mecca] a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye take the Station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Isma‘il [Ishmael], that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer.)
A. Yusuf Ali, in his widely-recommended commentary on the Qur’an, offers this explanation of the text:
Abraham and Isma‘il together built the House of God inMecca (long before the Temple of Jerusalem was built.) They purified it and laid the foundations of the universal religion, which is summed up in the word Islam, or complete submission to the Will of God. Abraham and Isma‘il were thus true Muslims. . . . Historically theTemple at Mecca must have been [emphasis added] a far more ancient place of worship than the Temple atJerusalem. Arab tradition connects various places in and around Mecca with the name of Abraham and identifies the well of Zam-zam with the well in the story of the child Isma‘il. [Genesis 21: 14-21] Arab tradition also refers the story of the Sacrifice to Isma‘il and not to Isaac, therein differing from the Jewish tradition in Gen. xxii 1-19.” [Explanatory note # 121 (to Sura 2:122-141.)]
The key phrase in the above is must have been. Islam simply demands acquiescence in this story. We are told to listen to it with total submission and accept that it replaces, supersedes and overrides biblical stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. No proof of this is suggested – nothing, that is, which would enable us to fit the Ishmael story into World History – nothing at all to enable us to locate it in time and place.
Abraham cannot BOTH have been at Jerusalem, preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac, AND at Mecca, preparing to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Many good people decline to believe either story; others believe one and decline to believe the other. It is not possible to believe both. There is no common ground on which these stories can stand.
Even in Muhammad’s time, there existed in ancient libraries modest amounts of authentic testimony to the history of the time of Abraham (roughly the beginning of the second millennium BC); and nowadays there is vastly more – enough to fix with confidence in time and place the larger details at least of the historical testimonies which we find in Hebrew Scripture. Given the accomplishments of modern archeology and philology, there is no authentic argument for rejecting the historicity of the main features of the story of Israel. On the other hand, there are absolutely no authentic historical arguments for acquiescing in any part of Muhammad’s story about the adventures of Ishmael.
It never occurred to the illiterate founder of Islam that anyone would ask him to locate his story about Ishmael anywhere in the historical record. Indeed, it did not occur to him that there was such a thing as an historical record. Faithful Muslims today despise the very notion of historical facts which have standing in universal scholarship, external to the pages of the Qur’an. This is prudent, since there is nothing historical to which the pseudo-historical assertions of theQur’an can be related. No hoards of documents have ever come out of the soil of Arabia to help us in answering the questions which arise in a mind not intimidated by fear of defying religious authority: How did Abraham and Ishmael get to Mecca? How does the story of Abraham and Ishmael and the Temple in Mecca fit into the narrative of World History? Who reigned over what kingdom? How can this be synchronized with the rise and fall of empires? But there is no record of empires in the Arab world to which to relate Muhammad’s tales about Abraham and Ishmael in Mecca and thus no way to link any of those ancient events to other documented events in History. In Muhammad’s time, there were no literate priests, no scribes, no official or sacred literature there were no archives to consult — no literature at all.
Kenneth Cragg, a Christian scholar who has made a worldwide reputation as an apologist for Islam, tries to equalize our appreciation for Christianity and Islam by sweeping away our fetishistic obsession with historical fact. Cragg asks: “In what sense are religious convictions ‘unfounded’ if, albeit historically questioned, they are lived in sincerely and intensely?”[Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian (Oxford: One World, 1999), p. 5. ] This is shameless baffle-gab, meant to make a problem out of a simple matter –namely that Muhammad’s story about Abraham and Ishmael in Mecca is anti-History – it is all fantasy. It makes a world of difference to every self-respecting person whether Muhammad’s narratives stand upon history or just upon fantasy.
Make no mistake: Islam requires belief in this fantastic anti-History; it is the primary requirement of the faith, determining one’s eternal destiny either in paradise or in hell. The lack of historical justification is never regarded by Muslims as an obstacle to anything, because what keeps all this in place is not the desire to learn but the fear of learning.
NOTE: Some of the above lines are also to be found in my book, Those That Bless You, I Will Bless (Mantua Press, 2012), pp. 112-115.)