Is a Jewish Museum Forbidden and a Muslim University Permitted?

In Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, not only nationalist Jews rely on the prohibitions of traditional religious law to bolster religious and nationalist arguments and to improve their political standing among their supporters.

Recently Sheikh Raed Salah, the chairman of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, expressed strong opposition to the building of the Museum of Tolerance on part of the old Muslim cemetery at the edge of Independence Park in Jerusalem. The sheikh argued that Muslim graves had been desecrated during the digging of the building's foundation, contrary to "the proscription in religious law against changing the purpose of a cemetery to any other purpose."

Pursuant to these arguments, last week the Al Aqsa Company, responsible for developing assets of the Waqf (Muslim religious trust), petitioned the court to issue a provisional injunction that would prevent the continuation of work on the construction of the museum.

The Wiesenthal Center, which is behind the establishment of the museum, and the Moriah Company, which is responsible for its implementation, argue that even before the excavation work at the site began, the Sharia Court issued a ruling that because the Muslim cemetery was abandoned, it was no longer sanctified and that the excavations were being carried out in complete coordination with the Antiquities Division.

Newly sanctified

It emerges that in the past the sanctity of the cemetery was not uppermost in the minds of Muslim institutions and leaders no less respected than Salah and the Al Aqsa Company.

At the beginning of the 1920s, heads of the Supreme Muslim Council deliberated on the establishment of an extensive Muslim project on part of that very cemetery. This forgotten project was revealed to me by chance about 20 years ago when I was visiting the Temple Mount. It happened in the office of the Waqf architect, in connection with my research on Muslim building in Jerusalem.

On the wall of his office I saw a large picture in a gold frame showing an impressive rendering of a plan that I could not identify. The structures in the picture were reminiscent of the monumental architecture of the Temple Mount, but were more modern and on a different site.

My curiosity was aroused, and I asked what the project was, but the architect evaded answering. I photographed the picture and filed it in my archive. For years I did not know what the plan was until, also by chance, I came across a mention of a Waqf initiative to establish a Muslim university near the Palace Hotel, which was dedicated in 1929 on the southern part of that cemetery.

Pan-Islamic university

During the building of the hotel Muslim graves were uncovered at the site, but since the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini himself was managing the building of the project, he also saw to it that the graves were transferred to a different site.

In 1923 the leadership of the Supreme Muslim Council began to develop the idea of establishing a pan-Islamic university, which would constitute a counterweight to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the cornerstone of which had been dedicated in 1918 and which was inaugurated in 1925.

In the discussions at the Muslim Council, there were differences of opinion about the academic structure of the future university. Some of the council members thought that a Muslim university must have as its standard the religion of Islam; others argued that the university should specialize in secular studies.

Ultimately a compromise emerged whereby the university would offer both general and religious studies, including a faculty of Muslim theology and a special department of exegetical studies.

In 1931, Egyptian architect Ibrahim Fawzi drew up a plan on behalf of the Supreme Muslim Council for the campus of Al Aqsa University on an area of about 70 dunams, including all of the Muslim cemetery and today's Independence Park. The plan included a faculty of medicine, a faculty of industry and a faculty of architecture. The planned campus included large public expanses, fountains, gardens and large, splendid buildings in traditional style with domes and towers that afforded it a distinctly Muslim design.

By means of the architectural monumentalism, al-Husseini wanted to give the Muslim university religious and national stature that would outshine the Jewish building in the heart of Hebrew Jerusalem. The Supreme Muslim Council set up a special foundation to raise funds for implementing the prestigious project and even promised that once the university was erected, it would have the adjacent Palace Hotel building at its disposal.

Shelved

In his book "The Supreme Muslim Council: Islam under the British Mandate for Palestine," Professor Uri Kupferschmidt describes the difficulties in raising funds. Potential donors in Egypt feared that the establishment of a Muslim university in Jerusalem would lead to a decline in the prestige of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The newspaper Al-Jamiya al-Arabiya published from time to time an updated list of the donors. But several years after the start of the activity, the foundation ceased its operations and in the mid-1930s the plan was shelved. The Supreme Muslim Council failed in its attempts to raise the sum necessary for the costly and ambitious project.

Presumably had such a large Muslim university been established in the heart of Hebrew Jerusalem, the Arabs would have fought tooth and nail during the 1948 war to keep it in their hands. The border of the divided Jerusalem of 1948-1967 might not have run close to the Jaffa Gate but rather much to the west of it, along King George Street, near the Nahlat Shiva neighborhood.

The author is an architect who specializes in the preservation and documentation of the historical architecture of the built-up heritage of Jerusalem.