The following is the first installment of a three-part series of posts on the subject of “Islamic Jerusalem”, written by our latest associate author, Dr Abu Abdullah.
Dore Gold, the former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, recently wrote a book entitled The Fight for Jerusalem. A synopsis of the book reads: “Radical Islam has long desired to seize Jerusalem and cut it off to Christian and Jewish believers.”
In today’s climate of Islamophobia, it is no surprise that this oversimplified understanding—touted by Jewish Zionists and Christian neoconservatives—is readily accepted by many laypersons. There is an erroneously held belief that the entire Israel-Palestine issue revolves around the historical Muslim desire to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Muslims—unlike Jews and Christians—are seen as totally incapable of the tolerance needed for a resolution of the conflict. These are widely held ideas, and therefore it is important to address this issue.
Dogmatic discourse would not serve our purpose here, and so herein the author has decided to employ a less direct means: this article will contain a brief chronological history of Jerusalem, starting from its earliest inhabitants (the Canaanites) all the way to the modern era. It is hoped that this lesson in history will dispassionately challenge the popular misconception, and demonstrate how in verity it was the Jews who “drove the Gentiles into the sea”, and the Christians who “drove the Jews into the sea”, so to speak. Meanwhile, Jews were not only not thrown out during the Muslim rule, but they came back to Jerusalem in droves due to the prevailing religious tolerance found therein. As for the Christians of Jerusalem and its surrounding areas, surprisingly they favored the rule of the Muslims over that of their coreligionists (the Eastern Roman Empire).
- Part 1: Jewish Rule of Jerusalem [Prehistory to A.D. 70]
- Part 2: Christian Rule of Jerusalem [A.D. 70 – 630]
- Part 3: Muslim Rule of Jerusalem [A.D. 630 – 1095]
- Part 4: The Crusades [A.D 1095 – 1250] *
- Part 5: The Turks [A.D. 1250 – 1914] *
- Part 6: The British Mandate, Israel, and the Rise of Anti-Semitism [A.D. 1914 – Present]*
- Part 7: Clarifying our Thesis: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly*
- Part 8: Conclusion*
* Link to next instalment.
Parts 1-3 are included below.
Part 1: Jewish Rule of Jerusalem [Prehistory to A.D. 70]
Part 1a: The Earliest Known Inhabitants of Jerusalem
The earliest known inhabitants of Jerusalem were the Canaanites:
Concerning the origin of the city of Jerusalem we have no information. Even the meaning of the name is unknown. Various Semitic etymologies have been proposed, but all are uncertain, and it is possible that the name goes back to the primitive non-Semitic inhabitants of Palestine. Ezek. 16:3 [in the Bible] says of Jerusalem: “Thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of the Canaanite; they father was an Amorite, and they mother a Hittite.” This statement may point to a tradition that the city was originally founded by Amorite colonists, settling in Hittite territory.
In particular, the Jebusites—a Canaanite tribe of either Hittite or Amorite origin—lived in Jerusalem:
The city of Jerusalem was sometimes called Jebus because the Jebusites controlled it.
Part 1b: The Jewish Conquest
Somewhere between the sixteenth and thirteenth century BC, the Hebrews (often synonymously used with the words “Israelites” and “Jews”) emerged from Egypt and marched towards Canaan (modern day Israel, Palestinian territories, Lebanon, etc.). Eventually, the Jews conquered Jerusalem:
The conquest of Canaan was not completed until the time of David (c 1012-972 BCE), who conquered Jerusalem and made it the capital.
The Jews believed that God had promised the land of Canaan to them; thus, the native Canaanites were to be destroyed in order to remove the influence of any other religion:
Conquering Jericho and other Canaanite cities are not ordinary battles…Instead, these are wars of “destruction” (from the Hebrew word herem, often mistranslated as “holy war”), which have their own special laws as recorded in Deuteronomy 20…If the war is fought against a city within the borders of the Promised Land, then to erase the influence of foreign religion, the destruction must be total. Men, women, children, and even livestock are to be destroyed. This divinely sanctioned genocide is disturbing, but the Bible presents this as a unique period in ancient Israel’s history.
Although the Biblical verse commanded the Jews to “exterminate…the Jebusites” (Deut. 20:17), some Jebusites were spared and enslaved:
The Israelites…enslaved the remainder of the Jebusites and other non-Israelites.
Part 1c: The Second Jewish Conquest
The Jews ruled Jerusalem for more than four hundred and fifty years, until the Babylonians conquered the city in 586 BC. After the Babylonian conquest, the city shuffled between the rule of the Persians, Macedonians, and Greeks. Finally, in 168 B.C., a Jewish national liberation group (the Maccabees) overthrew the Greek Seleucid Empire, and the Jewish Hasmonaean Kingdom was established, with Jerusalem as its capital. Gentiles (non-Jews) were either killed, driven out, enslaved, or allowed to stay if they became Jews:
How many of the conquered Gentiles were brought back to Judea as slaves, we do not know. Maccabees and Josephus speak of some populations’ being exterminated, some driven out, and some permitted to remain if they accepted Jewish practices. Those of Samaria, Gaza, Raphia and Anthedon, are said to have been enslaved. The biblical law on these matters reads as follows:
When you go to make war against a city you are to make [an offer of] peace to it. Then if it accepts peace and surrenders to you, you shall use all the people found in it as forced labour, and they shall be your slaves/serfs. But if it will not make peace with you, and makes war against you, you are to besiege it, and when Yahweh your god gives it to you, you are to kill by the sword every male in it. Only the women and the children and the animals and whatever [else] may be in the city…you are to take as plunder [i.e. slaves]…Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far off from you, which are not of the cities of these peoples [who live in the promised territory]. However, from the cities of these people [the cities] which Yahweh your god is giving you as a possession, you shall not let any human being survive. For you shall completely exterminate the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as Yahweh your god has commanded you.
However the [Jewish] Hasmonaeans could interpret the [Biblical] Law to suit themselves and slaves were worth more than corpses, so enslavement, even of the resistant and of people from the territory biblically assigned to Israel, is indicated not only by Josephus’ reports, but also by the fact that the Romans were able to restore many of the gentile towns to (the descendants of) their former inhabitants…Accordingly enslavement, being usual, should usually be supposed when nothing else is specified.
The Jews sought to expand their territory, and forcibly converted entire populations by the sword:
Hasmonaean imperialism can be explained in part by…a search for new lands where Jews who had none could settle. And indeed, Jewish conquests for the most part were accompanied by a program of rural colonization…The policy of forced Judaization…[involved] offering the conquered peoples a choice between expulsion or conversion…
It seems likely, therefore, that the Hasmonaean program of territorial expansion was also dictated by a concern for rebuilding a kingdom that would coincide with the Promised Land…Generally speaking, Judaization was effective…
Jews annexed the Greek coastal cities (Gaza, Raphia, Azotus, Strato’s Tower, Dor, Joppa, Iamnia) and the cities of the Decapolis (Gerasa, Gadara, Scythopolis, Dion, Pella), which they sought to Judaize by force; they razed Pella when its inhabitants refused to convert. This policy was no doubt responsible for the exile of prominent Greeks from the cities…
Part 1d: Roman Rule
The Hasmonaean Kingdom lasted about one hundred years. In 19 B.C., the Romans installed a client king in the region, and by 6 A.D., Jerusalem came under direct Roman rule. In 66 A.D., the Jews revolted, but the Romans brutally put down the rebellion. In A.D. 70, the Romans expelled the Jews:
After Jewish rebels attempt to overthrow Roman authority, Romans capture Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70. Jews disperse from Jerusalem and scatter throughout the Roman Empire.
(Christianity for Dummies, by Richard Wagner, p.348)
The Jewish rule thus came to an end.
Note: The author does not at all approve of Part 1 of this article being used for Anti-Semitic propaganda; it is not the intention of this author to demonize the Jews. Although such atrocities seem out of place today, back then it was quite the norm, as evidenced by the treatment of the Babylonians towards the Jews, the subsequent actions of the Romans, the war ethic of the Crusaders, the devastation of the Mongols, etc. Therefore to single out the Jews would be altogether inappropriate and unjustified. The author has investigated the Jewish rule of Jerusalem only in order to contextualize the subsequent Islamic rule of the city, as well as to address the argument brought forth by the former Israeli ambassador.
Part 2: Christian Rule of Jerusalem [A.D. 70 – 630]
Part 2a: Constantine
The Roman emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity, and passed sweeping legislation in A.D. 313 that empowered Christianity in the land, and by A.D. 380 Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire. With the rise of this new religion, Jerusalem developed into a distinctly Christian city:
With the triumph of Constantine in 313, Jerusalem changed character again. Jerusalem became a Christian city. The Christians from Byzantium built churches and monasteries in the city and its environs.
Under Constantine, Jews were officially banned from residing in Jerusalem (emphasis is ours):
Under Constantine, Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem (315 CE). Even earlier, mixed marriages and sexual intercourse had been forbidden, and in 337 these became punishable by death. The first case of burning a synagogue following a local anti-Jewish campaign occurred in 388…
St. Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, had the Jews expelled from this city, and the Byzantine emperor Justinian I prohibited reading the Bible in Hebrew, building synagogues, and Jews’ assembling in public. The Synod of Claremont in 535 decreed that Jews could not hold public office; in the fifth century Jews were expelled from parts of France, and in 613 Jews in Spain had to either embrace Christianity or leave the country. Pope Leo III outlawed Judaism and in 855 the Jews were exiled from Italy…The church council of Toledo in 697 decreed that Jews were to be held in perpetual slavery…
Note: The author of this book, Walter Laqueur, served for over thirty years as the director for the Wiener Library in London, the leading institute for the study of Anti-Semitism.
Part 2b: The Byzantine Re-conquest
In A.D. 614, the Persians managed to conquer Jerusalem, and Jews were once again allowed to live in Jerusalem. However, the Eastern Roman Empire (i.e. the Christian Byzantines) recaptured the city within fifteen years, and immediately expelled the Jews. The official website of the Jewish Agency for Israel writes (emphasis is ours):
Constantine was the founder of the Byzantine empire and a devout Christian. He tried to make Jerusalem into a center of Christian worship by erecting many churches there, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and designating various areas as Christian holy sites….In 614 the Persians actually managed to capture Jerusalem…but this victory was short-lived and the Byzantines returned in 629 to again expel the Jews. They ruled Jerusalem until their defeat at the hands of the Muslim Arab caliph, Omar, in 638.
Note: The Jewish Agency for Israel was the pre-state Jewish government before the establishment of Israel, and later became the official organization in charge of Jewish immigration.
Part 2c: The End of Byzantine Rule
In A.D. 630, the Eastern Roman emperor dispatched an army to attack Arabia, a confrontation between the Christian Byzantines and Muslim Arabs that is known as the Battle of Tabouk. Thus began the epic Byzantine-Arab wars which would last for hundreds of years. It would only be a matter of time before the Christian rule of Jerusalem would come to an end, and a new phase would begin.
Part 3: Muslim Rule of Jerusalem [A.D. 630 – 1095]
Part 3a: The Ghassanids
Before the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem, the city was occupied by the Ghassanids, a group of South Arabian tribes that immigrated to the Holy Land in the early 3rd century from Yemen. The reader may ask: did we not agree that the Romans (i.e. Byzantines) ruled Jerusalem, so how do the Ghassanids fit into the equation? This confusion can be cleared up by explaining to the reader that the Ghassanids were actually a vassal state of the Romans.
The Ghassanids were Christians, but they were Monophysites. Monophysitism is a sect of Christianity that denies the orthodox Christian position as enunciated by the Council of Chalcedon: the Monophysites rejected the dual nature of Christ (i.e one divine and one human). For their rejection of this integral Christian doctrine, the Monophysites were declared heretics by their Roman counterparts and were thus heavily persecuted:
[Emperor] Justin’s succesor Tiberius (578-82) continued the persecution [of the Monophysites] instigated by Justin…It seems that Maurice [Tiberius’s successor] too abandoned formal negotiations with the Monophysites…Monophysites were persecuted during his reign. According to John of Ephesus, John the Faster, patriarch of Constantinople at the time (582-95), asked why pagans were given amnesty while Monophysite Christians were persecuted.
As such, it is no surprise then that during the Byzantine-Arab Wars, the Monophysite Ghassanids of Jerusalem defected and joined the side of the Muslims. This mass defection can be attributed to two causes: (1) The persecution of the Monophysites by the orthodox Christians, and (2) The Ghassanids were Arabs and therefore sympathized with their Arab brethren:
The Ghassanids promptly defected and joined their [Arab] brothers coming up through the south.
At the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 AD, at least 10,000 (and perhaps as many as 15,000) Ghassanids defected, and working in concert with the Muslims, essentially destroyed the entire Byzantine army. Damascus and Syria were lost forever. Jerusalem fell shortly afterward.
Part 3b: The Jerusalemites Preferred Islamic Rule
It was under Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab’s reign that Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. The Christian Monophysites breathed a collective sigh of relief:
The [Christian] residents said that they preferred the [Islamic] Arabs to the tyranny of the Byzantines. This is…recorded in both Christian and Muslim sources. In 661 the Monophysite Armenian bishop Sebeos…explained that God intended to fulfill in the Arabs the promises made to Abraham and his descendants…and with God’s help [they had] overcame the armies of Byzantium. The Monophysite chronicler John of Nikiu in the last decades of the seventh century wrote of the conquests that God, “the guardian of justice,” allowed the Islamic conquests for the sake of his persecuted people, the Monophysites, and as punishment upon those who “had dealt treacherously against Him,” to wit, the Orthodox [Christians]. A later Monophysite chronicler explained that the Byzantines had been given over to the Muslims “as a punishment for their corrupt faith,” and because of their heretical acceptance of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. In the early eighth century, when the Muslims were seeking to consolidate their control over Caucasian Albania, they were aided by [Christian Monophysite] factions from within that did not want the Monophysite Albanian church to submit itself to the authority of the Byzantine Orthodox church.
Other Christian sects too, such as the Nestorians, looked to the Islamic rule as something beneficial:
When we examine the earliest non-Melkite Christian sources, we find a similar enthusiasm [towards Muslims]…Iso’yaw III, Nestorian Catholicos in the 650s, in his fourteenth epistle wrote with respect to the Muslims:
“These Arabs, whom God has now given sovereignty over the world, are disposed towards us as you know. They are not opposed to Christians. Indeed, they respect our religion and honor the priests and the saints of ours Lord and they give aid to the churches and monasteries.”
This is more than rhetoric: As was mentioned above, Nestorian monasteries first began to appear in Palestine only under the Muslims. Clearly, the rule of the Muslims was for the [Christian] Nestorians a better state of affairs than had been the rule of the Byzantines.
Indeed, both Jews and Christians—as well as other minority groups—felt this way:
In the case of the Jews and Samaritans, although we have few accounts from their own hands, their actions would seem to suggest that they welcomed the Muslims, or at the very least, that they aided the Muslims to the best of their ability, limited though it was as a result of various Byzantine indemnities…Jacobites and Nestorians also appear to have looked upon the Muslim conquests with a guarded hope for increased freedom…Monophysite authors, mostly of a later date, saw the defeat of the Byzantines as a punishment for their heresy and their persecution of the Monophysites.
The responses of the religious minorities taken as a whole show that the Muslim invasions were looked upon as a generally positive state of affairs by the non-Melkite inhabitants of Syro-Palestine–not usually because of some inherent value attached to Islam per se, but rather insofar as the events were seen as playing an important role in the maintenance and furtherance of the communities of the religious minorities themselves.
Part 3c: Ban on Jews is Lifted
Caliph Umar reversed the four hundred year Christian ban on Jews:
Caliph Omar allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem, and granted Christians free use of their holy sites…Caliph Omar’s openness helped make Jerusalem the city it is still today: an intense collocation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Karaism, a Jewish sect, had its golden age during this period of Islamic rule, which ended with the Crusader conquest:
[Jewish] Karaism is born and takes form in the Islamic world. The period selected, from the advent of Islam in the seventh century until the Crusader conquest of Palestine in 1099, constitutes for Karaism its formation and florescence…In the tenth and early eleventh centuries, Jerusalem became a center for Karaism and Karaite literary production, inaugurating what has been called a “golden age” of [Jewish] Karaism, characterized by intellectual achievement…The Crusader conquest, following shortly on the heels of the Turkoman conquest of 1071-1073, marks the end…The stories of Crusaders burning the Jews alive in their synagogues…certainly stand as testimony to the wholesale massacre and taking of captives that marked the end of a vibrant Jewish community in Jerusalem, composed of both Rabbanites and Karaites.
The Muslims then ruled Jerusalem for an uninterrupted half a millennium, a time during which Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side-by-side in harmony and tolerance. The Andalusians coined the appropriate term for this era: La Convivencia (The Coexistence). But the peace would not last forever, and soon would the world witness a conflagration that would leave deep wounds that remain unhealed to this day.