An Islamic preacher who recently appeared on official Palestinian Authority television made all the usual angry remarks that Muslims often make concerning Israel’s right to exist, particularly in the context of its claim to Jerusalem. Although his comments may suggest to the casual Western listener that “by rights” and as a matter of universal justice Jerusalem belongs to Muslims, they are heavy laden with religious and historical references—none of which accord with Western notions of universal rights and justice—that only Muslims understand.
This is especially evident in the cleric’s succinct assertion that Jerusalem “is a religious, Sharia, and historical right of the Muslims, and of no one else but them.”
Why is Jerusalem a “religious” right for Muslims? Because Islamic tradition teaches that one night in the year 610, Muhammad—miraculously flying atop a supernatural horse-like creature (al-Buraq)—visited and prayed in it.
Why is Jerusalem a “Sharia”—or legal—right for Muslims? Because according to all interpretations of Islamic law, or Sharia, once a territory has been “opened” to the light of Islam, it forever belongs to the House of Islam or Dar al-Islam.
Which leads to the third “right”—that Jerusalem is a “historical right of the Muslims, and of no one else but them.” In the year 637, Muslim Arab armies “opened”—that is to say, conquered Jerusalem—an often forgotten tale that especially sheds light on Muslim claims to Jerusalem.
After raiding the Eastern Roman Empire’s Syrian territories for years, Emperor Heraclius mustered a massive army that met and fought the Muslims near the Yarmuk River, August, 636 (this pivotal battle is featured in chapter 1 of my new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West). The Muslims defeated the Christian army, and by November were at and laying siege to the Holy City. The preserved sermon of its holed up patriarch, Sophronius, captures these times:
Why are the troops of the Saracens attacking us? Why has there been so much destruction and plunder? Why are there incessant outpourings of human blood? Why are the birds of the sky devouring human bodies? Why have churches been pulled down? Why is the cross mocked? Why is Christ … blasphemed by pagan mouths? … [T]he vengeful and God-hating Saracens, the abomination of desolation clearly foretold to us by the prophets, overrun the places which are not allowed to them, plunder cities, devastate fields, burn down villages, set on fire the holy churches, overturn the sacred monasteries, oppose the Byzantine armies arrayed against them, and in fighting raise up the trophies [of war] and add victory to victory.
It’s worth noting that the majority of descriptions of the invaders written by contemporary Christians portray them along the same lines as Sophronius—not as men, even uncompromising men, on a religious mission, as later Muslim sources claim, but as godless savages come to destroy all that is sacred. Writing around the time of Yarmuk, Maximus the Confessor (b.580) described the invaders as “wild and untamed beasts, whose form alone is human, [come to] devour civilized government.” Due to the Muslims’ penchant for desecrating churches and “trampling on, mocking, setting on fire, and destroying” every cross, icon, and Eucharist they came across, Anastasius of Sinai (b.630), described them as “perhaps even worse than the demons.”
At any rate, after several months of being holed up and reduced to starvation and plague, Jerusalem capitulated in the spring of 637. The conquest of the Holy City was enough for Caliph Omar to pay it a visit from Medina. There he saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a massive complex built by Constantine (c. 331) over the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. On entering Christendom’s most sacred site—clad in “in filthy garments of camel-hair and showing a devilish pretense,” to quote a chronicler—Sophronius, looking on, bitterly remarked, “Surely this is the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the Prophet standing in the holy place.” (One can hardly blame his exegesis since the Greek Septuagint word often translated as “desolation” more literally means, “desert,” and was thus long seen as a reference to the Arabs.)
In short, the entire Muslim claim to Jerusalem rests atop these three elements:
- A religious—or to Western sensibilities, mythical—story about Muhammad flying atop a magical horse to it;
- A Muslim made supremacist law—the antithesis of universal law, namely, Sharia—that naturally always sides with Muslims against infidels;
- A brutal, bloody, historical conquest.
These themes are repeatedly made among Muslims. In the aforementioned PA television sermon, the cleric added that, although they behave this way, Jews “have no right to arrogance, tyranny, and occupation.” Note his complaint is not that “arrogance, tyranny, and occupation” are always bad, but rather that Jews “have no right” to behave this way. After all and as seen, this “right” belongs to Muslims and “no one else but them.” Their law (Sharia) permits them to “occupy” whatever they can seize from and to treat contemptible infidels with “arrogance and tyranny.”
The Islamic preacher closed by saying Muslims will again take Jerusalem “if not peacefully then by force,” and implored “Allah, [to] drive out the Jews.” No matter how passionate such words may seem to the non-Muslim observer, they are not reflective of a people who feel wronged according to universal sensibilities but rather mythical and supremacist sensibilities.