Al-Aqsa: A dangerous preoccupation
Islamic leaders should make some effort to depoliticize the controversy over the repair of a collapsed walkway to the al-Aqsa mosque.
Originally published in ISN Security Watch, 14 February 2007
What should be a routine repair of a collapsed walkway has exacerbated an already tense situation in the Middle East and raised international condemnation. Even though the work is taking place well outside the perimeter wall of the al-Aqsa mosque, Israel has been accused of "desecrating" an Islamic holy site. It has also been accused of attempting to consolidate its control over the third holiest place in Islam.
Israeli officials say that the walkway is in dire need of repairs after its partial collapse three years ago. Opponents of the refurbishing say that the work could damage the area's foundation. With the tension between both sides increasing, one may ask if any Islamic leaders have offered to de-politicize the matter and even offer technical assistance in repairing the bridge? It is safe to say that since the al-Aqsa mosque is one of their holiest sites, Islamic leaders should applaud any effort to keep the centuries-old building from falling into disrepair.
The reasons have to be found in the contested religious space in the city of Jerusalem. If one includes the Holy Sepulcher nearby, the walled city in east Jerusalem comprises some of the holiest sites to three monotheist religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Known to the Jews as Har-ha-Bayit or The Temple Mount, the Harem al-Sharif stands upon what is believed to be the ruins of the First and the Second Jewish Temples. The Western Wall, sometimes known as Wailing Wall, on the southern end of the complex is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
For Christians, the area is sacred because of the Holy Sepulcher, the place where Jesus Christ is said to have been resurrected.
For Muslims, Harem al Sharif, which includes the al-Aqsa mosque, is where Mohammed ascended to heaven.
In short, Old Jerusalem, has been intrinsically linked to the three major religions.
Due to a host of political developments, the religious significance and composition of the city has been changing since the 6th century. The city was captured by the armies of second caliph Umer around 637 shortly after the death of Prophet Mohammed. It was during the early years of Islam that the al-Aqsa mosque was built.
With the brief exception of the Crusades, Jerusalem remained under Islamic control until the entry of British forces led by General Edmund Allenby in December 1917. While the Jews were always allowed to pray, Harem al-Sharif always remained under strict the Islamic Waqf trust and control.
This political and religious control of the area became a major issue during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which ended with East Jerusalem, including the Harem-al-Sharif area, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher coming under the Jordanian control. During this period, the Hashemite Kingdom not only destroyed a number of ancient Jewish holy sites in the old city but also prevented even non-Israeli Jewish worshippers from praying near the Western Wall.
This situation changed following the Israeli capture of the West Bank including east Jerusalem during the June 1967 war. This in practical terms meant that for the first time in over 13 centuries, Harem al-Sharif, including the Western Wall came under non-Muslim Jewish control. While granting freedom of access to all, including Muslim worshippers, since the outbreak of the Intifada in 1987, Israel has been periodically restricted access to the al-Aqsa mosque.
Over the centuries, Christianity has abandoned its political claims over the city. This has not been the case with Judaism and Islam. The formation of the Jewish state posed a fundamental challenge to Islam. The Jews, who were tolerated as protected "people of the book" had become independent and asserted their sovereignty and in 1967 took control over an Islamic site. Jews were no longer a protected people but a sovereign subject.
Theologically, Islam has been unable to handle such an unprecedented development. Thus, while other countries have been focusing their attention on the legality of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, Islamic countries have been preoccupied with the non-Islamic control over the Harem.
Because of their close geographic proximity, even Israeli control over the Western Wall is not recognized by them. A vast majority of Muslims do not even admit that the Harem al-Sharif, including the al-Aqsa mosque, stand upon the ruins of the pre-Islamic Jewish temple.
As long as Islam and Judaism fail to come to terms with each other's claims over holy sites in Jerusalem, even smaller issues will continue to snowball into major political controversies invoking passionate attention and emotional responses from Muslims and Jews alike.
This contested religious significance makes the city of Jerusalem and its holy sites one of the most controversial and explosive place on this planet.