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What Are Islam’s 'Claims' to Jerusalem?

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. His comments may suggest to the casual Western listener that “by rights,” and as a matter of universal justice, Jerusalem belongs to Muslims. However, the comments are laden with religious and historical references and observations that only Muslims might understand, and of which none accord with Western notions of universal rights and justice.

This is especially evident in the cleric’s 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.

This leads to the third, and most telling “right”: that Jerusalem is a “historical right of the Muslims” because in the year 637, Muslim Arab armies “opened” -- that is to say, conquered -- 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 in 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 even Eucharist they came across, Anastasius of Sinai (b. 630) described them as “perhaps even worse than the demons.”