Islamic Jerusalem is no ordinary place: its significance
reaches far beyond its physical stones. It is sacred place for people of three
religions; Muslims, Christian and Jews.
For Christians there is Church of Holy Sepulcher that is main
pilgrimage destination for millions of Christians worldwide who visit the empty
tomb of Jesus and seek solace and redemption in prayer at the site.
Jerusalem also contains the shrine of the Dome of Rock and the al-Aqsa
Mosque on a plateau known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif. Muslims visit the holy
site all year round, but every Friday during the holy month of Ramadan,
hundreds of thousands of Muslims come to pray at the mosque.
For Jews there is Kotel (or Western wall) on which Holy Temple once
stood. Jewish people from all over the world visit this place to pray and
connect to their heritage, especially during the High Holidays.So during its turbulent history, the followers of all three
monotheistic religions made strenuous efforts to conquer the city by any means
and at any cost. The era of Muslim rule in Islamic Jerusalem is long compared
to some other periods in the city’s history. It embraces two distinct phases,
the first and the principal one being the Muslim conquest under the leadership
of Caliph “Umar bin al Khattab” (644CE). The second Muslim conquest of Islamic
Jerusalem was led by Sultan Salah al-Din (1193 CE).
These two periods witnessed a history of both tolerance and
tension towards non-Muslims, and specially Christians. Caliph Umar liberated
the Christians from the domination and persecution of Byzantine rule, and
allowed Jews to return to the city after being expelled for nearly five hundred
years. The second conquest freed Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Jews
from the domination of the Latin Crusaders.
The both rulers created a model atmosphere of tolerance and
peaceful coexistence among followers of different religions and enabled
Christians and Jews to live side by side peacefully after centuries of tension.
Prior to the first Muslim conquest, Aelia (Islamic Jerusalem)
was a largely Christian region ruled by the Byzantines. Most of its inhabitants
had converted to Christianity after the Emperor Constantine professed his
Christian faith in 312 CE. As time passed, Christian population in Aelia
increased dramatically. The Christian consisted of both Arabs and Non Arabs
from various places who differed in language, culture and civilization. This
caused instability in Aelia Christian community. In the 5th century
serious disagreements erupted between Monophysites and Byzantine emperor about
the coexistence of divine and human natures of Christ.
Thus, at the time of Muslim conquest, the lives of the
Christians of Aelia were rent by conflict,
dispute and disagreement , accompanied by persecution for those who did
not conform to the particular beliefs of the imperial regime at that time.
Muslims had been interested in Islamic Jerusalem since the
time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Prophet himself had issued a number of
traditions (ahadith), in which he told his followers about the future conquest
of Bayt al-Maqdis (Islamic Jerusalem). For instance, in a statement to Shaddad
Ibn Aws, one of his companions, he said:
“Al-Sham will be conquered, and Bayt al-Maqdis will be
conquered, and your sons will be the Imams there, if God wills.”
And to another of his companions, Awf Ibn Malik, he predicted
six incidents that would occur before the last day:
“O Awf, Count six things between now and judgment day. First
is my death and second is conquest of Bayt al-Maqdis.”
The Prophet asserted the significance of Islamic Jerusalem to
the Muslims, despite the fact that whole area including Aelia was ruled by
Byzantines at that time. The Muslim state in Madinah was in its early stages
and Muslims were still relatively weak. But the significance of Islamic
Jerusalem was such that Muslims made it their sacred duty to bring holiness
back to the region.
The Prophet Muhammad began his mission in the early years of
the seventh century CE. After him Abu Bakr understand his vision and after Abu
Bakr’s death, his successor, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab ‘ continued the project.
As life in Aelia became more difficult, Sophronious informed
his people that he would surrender the walled city to the Muslims if the Caliph
had the name Umar. Patriarch also presented his terms that caliph would take
care of their holy places and religious freedom and in return they would pay
Sophronious must have been delighted that caliph had accepted
his offer to come to Aelia for the city’s surrender. He invited Umar to pray in
church at the hour of prayer. Sophronious considered the Muslims and the caliph
to be protector of Aelia and its holy Places from the domination of Jews, who
were the enemies of Christians. He maintains that the conquest of Aelia led to
an opportunity for Christians to contain the Jews, with the help of Muslims,
through the concession granted to them in “Umar assurance of safety”.
Soon after the arrival, Umar gave an assurance to the
inhabitants of Aelia that guaranteed their security and religious freedom known
as “Umar assurance of safety”. He wrote to the inhabitants of Islamic Jerusalem;
“I guarantee for you the safety of your persons, properties,
families, your crosses and your churches.
You will not be taxed beyond your means, and whosoever
decides to follow his people then he will be guaranteed safety and you pay the
kharaj like the other cities of Palestine. ”
One of the guarantees in Umar’s Assurance was that Christian
churches would not be converted into dwellings or destroyed, and that there
would be no compulsion in regard to religious rights. Among the events that
demonstrated his respect for places of worship belonging to other religion was
his refusal to pray in church of the Holy sepulcher.
Al-Kilani, a Jordanian scholar, quoting Balmer and Bezanit on
Umar’s refusal to pray in church, says:
“This noble action by Umar to prevent this church being taken
by Muslim calls forth our admirations for this man. Despite the civilization we
have reached in the 19 th century, we will never imagine the nobility and the
wonderful behavior Muslims had when they ruled Jerusalem. ”
Another event that shaped the relations between Muslims and
Christians in Islamic Jerusalem was the handing over the keys to the Holy
sepulcher church by Patriarch Sophronious to caliph Umar.
Christians inhabitants of the area wrote to the Muslims,
“O Muslims, we prefer you to the Byzantine, though they are
of our own faith, because you keep faith with us and are more merciful to us
and refrain from doing us injustice and your rule over us is better than
theirs, for they have robbed us of our goods and our homes.”
Umar Ibn al-Khattab valued the observance of the Islamic
requirement of just treatment of the people of Book more highly than
establishing “Islamization” in the newly conquered territory. He provided a lasting
framework for dignified coexistence between Christians and Muslims. He was the
magnanimous leader indeed.
However just over 450 years latter Islamic Jerusalem fell to
Crusader army, followed by great slaughter and banishment of much of the
surviving population. Some historians maintain that reason for the launching of
first Crusade and a war against Muslims was that Pope Urban 2 repeatedly issued
calls to Christians in Western Europe to go to the Jerusalem and rescue the
Christian’s holy places and tomb of the Jesus from the hands of Muslims. He
made false speeches that Muslims behavior to Christians is not just and at last
his efforts bore fruit.
The Crusaders killed more than seventy thousand people in
Al-Aqsa mosque, among them a large group of Muslim imams, religious scholars,
devout men and ascetics, many of them had left their homeland to live near holy
Ibn al Qalanisi reports;
“The Franks stormed the town and gained possession of it. A
number of the townsfolk fled to the sanctuary and a great host were killed. The
Jews assembled in the synagogue, and the Franks burned it over their heads. The
sanctuary was surrendered to them on guarantee of safety on 22 Shaban / 14 July
of this year, and they destroyed the shrines and the tombs of Prophet Ibrahim
Thus a new era began in history of Islamic Jerusalem, lasting
88 years and bringing many changes.
Yusuf Ibn Ayyub Salah-al-din known in western literature as
Saladin. He was the grandson of Shadhi who was the master of citadel of Takrit
After his death, his position was given to Najm al-Din Ayyub.
As a child Salah
al-din vigorously studied Quran that later followed by long hours of scholarly
study. At young age of 14 Sala al-Din began to learn the art of fighting and
soon stood out among the troops of Nur al-Din (his uncle). Like his father was
vying with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and both were attempting to take
over Egypt after Nur ul-din suddens death in 1174 CE, leaving a 12 years old
son, al Salih. Salah al-Din asserted his right to succession in ground that al
Salih would not be able to shoulder the burden of Kingship. So the following
year Salah al-Din proclaimed himself Sultan of Egypt.
After his success in
uniting Muslims under his leadership and in his administrative Reforms, Salah
al-Din and his army proceeded towards Islamic Jerusalem. Islamic Jerusalem
occupied a very distinctive position in the mind of Salah al-Din.
“If God blesses us by enabling us to drive his enemies out of
Islamic Jerusalem, how fortunate and happy we are going to be! For the enemy
has controlled Islamic Jerusalem for ninety one years, during which time God
did not accept any good deed from us.. At the same time the zeal of Muslim
rulers to deliver it faded away. Time passed and so did many generations while
the crusaders succeeded in rooting themselves strongly there.”
As Muslim army marched from South to Damascus they won a
number of victories over the crusaders but most important and decisive battle
was that of Hittin. This paved the way to Islamic Jerusalem.
The walled city of
Islamic Jerusalem surrendered on 27 Rajab 1187 CE that was the same date on
which Holy Prophet (PBUH) had been supernaturally transported from Makkah to
Islamic Jerusalem. The region contained more than one hundred thousand people
including Christian men, women and children. Salah al-din entered the city and
freed it from 88 years Crusader rule.
The Muslim treatment of Christians during Salah al-Din reign
was quite different from that of Caliph Umar Ibn-al Khattab in an early
century. The political state was also very different. In time of Umar there was
one Muslim State, with central government in Madinah controlling the whole of
the State. In Salah al din’s day there was more than one Muslim Government.
Some historians writing at the time reported that Salah
al-Din relations with Christians in Egypt began uneasily and the deteriorated
further. Churches in Egypt suffered extreme destruction, particularly after
Salah al-Din became wazir. All wooden crosses on tops of basilica dome and
churches in Egypt were removed at Salah al-Din’s order. Churches with white
exteriors were painted black. The ringing of bells was prohibited throughout
the country and Christians were not allowed to pray in public. On Palm Sunday
the Christians were not allowed to hold their traditional procession in streets
of Egyptian towns and villages, or to cary olive branches and crosses.
Beginning of reign Salah al-Din promulgated harsh social
restrictions on the dhimmis , ordering the Christians to wear clothes that
distinguished them from Muslims and waist belts of different color, not to ride
horses or mules but only donkeys and not
to drink alcohol in public. Coptic patriarch and priests suffered greatly in
the early years of Salah al-Din’s rule.
The reason of such harsh behavior was that both Fatimid’s and
Dhimmis were strongly against him. He faced threats from Fatimid supporters,
from the large number of Armenian soldiers who had held the positions of
Authority and had been exempted from Jizyah tax and from Christians and Jews
activities who had played a significant role in the disturbances and plots
against his new Government. Al Maqrizi reports that Armenians had fiercely
resisted Salah al-Din army in 1169 CE. That’s why Salah al-Din took harsh
measures to protect himself and his new reign.
It is clear that unstable political and security situation
was the reason for harsh rules and regulations, as it was at the time of pact
of Umar. Salah al-Din’s restrictions compelled the Christians to submit to his
rule since they were his subjects and second would control them and restrict
their freedom. This would make it easier for him to assert to his authority and
if the dhimmis breached the regulations they would be accountable to him. Salah
al-Din also ordered Christians to obey the restrictions laid down in Pact of
The turning point came when Salah al-Din abandoned these
oppressive rules after four or five years. It was not a sign of weakness on his
part. The conspiracies had been suppressed
and situation had calmed down. Salah al-Din was now a sole ruler of
Egypt, supported by the army that had accompanied his Uncle Shirkuh from al
Sham as well as by many Egyptians who had been opposed to Fatimid caliphate.
From the historical point of view it is event that Salah
al-Din’s actions against the Christians in Egypt were in no way related to the
Crusader occupation of Jerusalem, but were a direct response to the rebellion
of local Christians against him.
However after about five years, when the Salah al-Din had
developed more confidence in Christians, he allowed them become clerks in Army
and to hold higher position than before. They were also permitted to ride
horses and mules and to wear same garments and belts as Muslims.
He displayed tolerance towards the dhimmis of Egypt. He gave
generously to them and to dhimmis in the surrounding areas and allowed them
certain benefits. Egypt also witnessed a large building and renovation programs
of Christian churches.
Later in Salah al-Din reign Christians were also able to
celebrate Palm Sunday and other festivals in the atmosphere of greater
religious tolerance. Salah al-Din payed great importance on allowing the
freedom of religious practice on Christian places of worship. Salah al-Din
tolerance extended towards the dhimmis peasants. Coptic Farmers, like all other
inhabitants, benefitted from justice and tolerance of Salah al-Din era. The farmers
were grateful that their land was save from confiscation. Religious officials
had complete freedom from government interference when collecting the proceeds
from farm belongings to the church and from the lands endowed to churches. In
short Christians enjoyed the freedom of religion during Salah al-Din’s reign.
“The native Christian certainly preferred the rule of the
Muslims to that of Crusaders, and when Jerusalem fell finally and ever into
hands of the Muslims, the Christian population of Palestine seems to have
welcomed the new masters and to have submitted quietly and contentedly to their
It can be said that Salah al-Din was a model of chivalry. He
was generous to his defeated enemies and kind to Crusader women and humane to captured
the prisoners of high rank. Once he had taken Islamic Jerusalem, he opened the
city to pilgrims of all faiths. Salah al-Din was also a determined fighter and
a good strategist. His attitude towards Christians was vastly different from
that of Crusaders to Muslims. Although he had the power to do so, Sala al-Din
did not kill thousands of them when he took Islamic Jerusalem, as the Crusaders
had done to Muslims and Jews.
His treatment of Christians and non-Muslims in Islamic
Jerusalem was characterized by tolerance, respect and generosity.