Opinion |

Is There Room in Jerusalem for Both Jews and Muslims?

As Muslims mark Muhammad's night journey to Jerusalem, competing Jewish and Muslim traditions too often stake claims over the city that deny legitimacy to the other

Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
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Dome of the Rock
A Palestinian man stands by a door at the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock mosque, Jerusalem. September 29, 2015. Credit: AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX
Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul

It’s become a commonplace for some Muslims to deny any Jewish connection to Jerusalem. It’s also likely you’ll hear the opposite: that Jerusalem just isn’t that important to Muslims.

Whether offering to give the Palestinians a capital near to, but not actually in Jerusalem, or denying that al-Aqsa mosque is the one named in the Qur’an, or 'forgetting' to mark Muslim sites on Jerusalem maps - such arguments aren’t just wrong—they’re self-defeating. Without recognizing the depth of Muslim attachments to Jerusalem, it’d be hard to come to a political solution over the city’s final status.

Tonight provides just one clear demonstration. Many Muslims will mark the “Isra and Miraj,” or the night journey and ascension, when (Muslims believe) God sent Muhammad from an increasingly hostile Mecca to the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem—also known as the Temple Mount—and from there through the heavens to the very presence of God. But that’s not the only reason Muslims revere Jerusalem.

Al Aqsa mosque
Inside the Al Aqsa mosque. March 1 2006.Credit: Miki Kratzman

The Children of Israel

Muhammad’s night journey isn't the only reason Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims: it's also because we revere, among others, David and Solomon as Muslim prophets and heroes.

In the Muslim conception, God chose numerous prophets to preach to humanity the very same religion (if even the specifics differed from place to place): There’s One God. He created you. He’ll take your life. He’ll resurrect and judge you. Heaven, hell, that kind of thing. Abraham was such a Prophet, as were his sons—and from them more Prophets were chosen.

Muhammad descends from Ishmael, while Isaac’s line gives us Jacob and Joseph, and on to Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus—as well as Kings David and Solomon.

Dome of the Rock
Israeli paratroopers reach the Dome of the Rock having captured the Lions' Gate entry into Jerusalem's Old City. June 5 1967.Credit: Amos Zucker, IDF Archive


The sight of Muslims prostrating in prayer—more on that later—is one of the most common images associated with Islam. Muslims pray in the direction of the Ka’ba, a cubic shrine we believe was built by Adam as the world’s first mosque, rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael, and rededicated to monotheism by Muhammad.

But it wasn’t always the Muslim direction of prayer.

For about the first dozen years of Muhammad’s mission, Jerusalem, and specifically the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, was the direction of Muslim prayer; on that site today are two very sacred Muslim spaces. The Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock—which, as you can tell from the name, houses a rock from which Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven.


619 was Muhammad’s worst year.

He, his followers and their relatives, had been banished to the wild for three years. In that third year, his wife Khadija, died; his powerful uncle, Abu Talib, also died. Many Muslims believe it was in the middle of that year of sorrow that God sent a miraculous steed, Buraq, which carried Muhammad to the site of the Farthest Mosque, or Masjid al-Aqsa. There Muhammad was greeted by all the Prophets, tens of thousands of individuals from all places and peoples, and led them in prayer. Which is another reason Jerusalem matters to Muslims.

Saddam Hussein
The Dome of the Rock as political propaganda: Poster of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Nov. 13, 2002. Credit: AP

It is a symbol of what Islam aspires to be. Universal, yes, but also conclusive; Muhammad prayed with Moses and Jesus, yes—but he led them in prayer.

The problem with missionary religions is the same as their strength. Any faith that believes itself ordained for all combines the potential to unite humanity across divides, even as it contains within it the temptation to overbearing dominance. If, after all, all people should be Muslims, then why aren’t they? Hence the special valence of the Muslim attachment to Jerusalem.

At a time when the Muslim world is fragmenting into ever more bitter and benighted factions, the symbolic universalism of this moment is striking. But it was also in Jerusalem that God chose, Muslims believe, for that moment of shared worship to happen (and not Mecca or Medina). The great prayer completed, the Archangel Gabriel accompanied Muhammad to the Rock and from there to the heavens, and to the divine presence.

Dome of  the Rock
Palestinian Muslim girls play in front of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock during the first day of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. Sept. 10, 2010. Credit: AP

Prayer and prostration

There is a rich Muslim literature describing Muhammad’s miraculous journey through the heavens, including the sacred figures he meets—Adam, Jesus, Moses, and Abraham, and then his crossing the “utmost boundary,” the line across which no created being had thitherto traveled, to the presence of the Divine.

There, God offered Muhammad not only the consolation of an unmatched audience, but the five daily prayers that anchor the Muslim day, the heart of which might be prostration. It is through physical humility that spiritual humility is accomplished. Which is to say that every day, five times a day, Muslims face Mecca—to recognize a prayer launched in Jerusalem. This, and the reasons previous, are all causes for a deep Muslim attachment to Jerusalem.

And perhaps, too, the dangerous temptation to deny how sacred Jerusalem is to other faiths, peoples and traditions. While it is wrong to deny the Muslim connection to Jerusalem, it is likewise wrong to deny, belittle or dismiss the Jewish and Christian connection to the sacred city. But perhaps it can be hoped that one day such sacred territory can reflect the far greater common ground between Abraham’s children.


Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. He is president of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul