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Karen Armstrong's Jerusalem--One City, Three Faiths

         Author reviews Armstrong's Jerusalem, a book that contains many "puzzling and undocumented assertions. (Ballantine Books ed., 1997, 474 pp. illustrated with maps and photographs)

Reviewed by Norman Golb
 Oriental Institute, University of Chicago       

    In addition to her contribution here under review, Karen Armstrong is the author of ten other books on the great monotheistic faiths and related topics, perhaps the best known of which is her A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (London, 1993). Incrementally, each one of these works has enhanced her reputation as a transmitter of scholarly findings to wide audiences of readers and (no less important) as a serious thinker on questions of a religious nature, particularly as they intertwine with events of history. 

    One might say, in this respect, that her JERUSALEM is vintage Armstrong. The book traces all the known major involvements of ancient and modern peoples with the city. To be sure, Armstrong suggests that the book is "merely an attempt to find out what Jews, Christians and Muslims have meant when they have said that the city is "holy" to them and to point out some of the implications of Jerusalem's sanctity in each tradition" (p. xxi). In point of fact, this latter theme appears only occasionally within the work as a whole, which reviews most of the known facts and events relating to the city, beginning with its earliest Canaanite incarnation (Chap. 1), continuing with the periods of Israelite domination, exile and return (Chaps. 2-5), then onward through the Hasmonaean, Roman and Byzantine/Christian periods (Chaps.11-13), the Islamic middle ages including the Crusade episodes (Chaps. 11-14), and finally the periods of Ottoman rule and modern times up until recent events (Chaps. 15-18). All this history is related in a most engaging literary style, accompanied by numerous maps, photographs and diagrams that make the attraction of the work all the greater. Present-day readers who are not specialists in this field of study, with its complex and variegated aspects and daunting linguistic challenges, will surely learn much from this volume, and some will even be convinced by her own particular interpretations of the manifold events and ideas she has set out to study and comment upon.

    At the same time, it must be said, however reluctantly, that there are problems with this book that readers with a critical eye will hardly be unable to recognize. Perhaps foremost among these is Armstrong’s treatment of the aforementioned “holiness of Jerusalem” theme. She explains her stated effort to explore the implications, in each tradition, of that concept by suggesting that this attempt “seems just as important as deciding who was in the city first and who, therefore, should own it, especially since the origins of Jerusalem are shrouded in obscurity.” This proffered dichotomy can only have the effect of throwing dust in the reader’s eye: neither Jews nor Muslims claim that they were the first inhabitants of the city which in time became known as Jerusalem. What this statement has the effect of obscuring is that the author’s main purpose—as quoted in the first paragraph above—does not include an expressed interest in explaining when and how this concept of Jerusalem’s holiness was created. Nor is the effort made within the body of the book to explicate this matter, despite the obvious fact that many lay readers coming to this subject for the first time will have only a fuzzy notion about the entire matter.

    In point of fact, available texts of antiquity indicate that the concept was created by one or more personalities among the Jewish spiritual leadership, and that this occurred no later than the 6th century B.C. The prophet usually identified as Deutero-Isaiah, whom learned opinion generally places in that age, addresses the city with the words “. . . clothe yourself with the garments of your glory, O Jerusalem, holy city . . . (yerushalayim ‘ir haqodesh, Isaiah 52.1) and, after him,the author of Nehemiah refers to those selected “to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city’ (11.1). The author of the Book of Daniel, addressing none other than God, refers to “Your holy city” (‘ir qodsheka, Dan. 9.24). The meaning of this “holiness” of Jerusalem is defined to some extent by a passage in Psalms (87.3) that speaks of Zion (an epithet for Jerusalem) as “the city of the Lord” (same expression in Psalms 46.5 and, with YHWH instead of elohim, in Isaiah 60.14); Zechariah states (8.3) that “Jerusalem shall be called the city of truth,” adding something further to the concept of Jerusalem’s sacredness created by representative figures of post-exilic Judaism. That concept was thereafter reinforced in literally hundreds of sayings of the early rabbinic masters. (Footnote 1. See, e.g., the numerous citations brought forward in Bialik’s Sefer ha’agadah (Tel-Aviv, 1960), passim; one can today conveniently isolate all known Jerusalem citations of the pre-Islamic rabbinic period, in their hundreds, by consulting the Bar-Ilan CD-Rom rabbinic literature program.)

    Armstrong asserts (p. 422) that, within Christianity, “devotion to the city came quite late and almost took Christians by surprise,” but here again something important is missing from her account. In its early emergence, Christianity had created, among other ideas, the doctrine now often referred to as supercessionism, which held, inter alia, that those of Christian belief, and not the Jews themselves, were the “True Israel” and as such the sole authentic spiritual heirs and interpreters of the entire Bible. For them, Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets were wondrous bearers of truth who had not only foretold the coming of Christ but proclaimed many other authentic doctrines of their faith. Belief in the holiness of Jerusalem , as so many other ideas originally unique to the Hebrew Bible, was taken over by the Christians from the Jews. Armstrong conscientiously describes the struggle during the early Christian centuries among the divisions in Christianity over the question of the nature and degree of holiness of physical Jerusalem (pp. 174 ff., and see especially her interesting chapter “Christian Holy City, pp. 194-216), but nothing in that account leads one to expect her later statement about Christians being taken almost by surprise in their devotion to the city. One might at least have expected that, if only by way of reasonable balance with this puzzling statement, the author would somewhere in this book acknowledge the fundamental borrowing and trace it back to its origins.

    All the more is this the case in view of the author’s treatment of the early Muslim period and, more particularly, of Islamic belief regarding the holiness of Jerusalem. Despite contradictorily stating (p. 224) that “there is nothing in the Qur’an to link the Remote Mosque” with Jerusalem, Armstrong asserts (p. 221) that “ . . . from the earliest years (my italics) the Muslims were taught to regard three places as sacred centers of the world”— meaning, as she goes on to explicate, Mecca, Medinah and Jerusalem, in that order of holiness. This assertion stands in contrast with the wording of the Quran, which nowhere explicitly mentions Jerusalem by name; we find neither al-Quds, Beit al-Muqaddas, Ursalim, or Ilia anywhere in that book. There are a few obscure epithets used in the Quran that post-Quranic interpreters claim are allusions to Jerusalem, but the claim is, to the best of my knowledge, unsupported by any philological proof, and only one such epithet—the masjid al-aqsa (“most distant mosque”) figuring in the well-known account of Muhammad’s miraculous “night journey” — contains any reference to holiness or a sacred state of being. 

    The passage in which this latter phrase occurs may be rendered: “Praise be He who at night carried aloft His servant from the Sacred Mosque to the most distant [or “remote”] mosque, whose environs we blessed, so that We might show him some of Our signs.” Out of this, some post-Quranic interpreters who flourished, as far as we know, only after the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 637, developed the view that mention of this latter mosque alluded to the Temple of Jerusalem, and that Muhammad had experienced a transmigration (mi’raj) to the Lord’s heavenly abode while standing upon the rock around which the Dome of the Rock was erected. Other Quranic interpreters, however, opposed this exegesis, and verbal battles on the question of the degree of holiness of Jerusalem, and whether Muhammad’s night flight was or was not connected with that city, proliferated during the first several centuries of Islam. [Note 2: Cf. Izhak Hasson’s detailed study, “The Muslim View of Jerusalem, the Quran and Hadith” in J. Prawer and H. Ben-Shammai, The History of Jerusalem—The Early Muslim Period (Jerusalem 1996), pp. 349-385. This latter study (which appeared in the same year as did the first edition of Armstrong’s book) contains a detailed bibliography of earlier writings on the subject, including numerous Arabic titles, ibid. pp. 379-382; it also includes a full English translation of the ebullient pro-Jerusalem dicta gathered by Muqatil b. Sulaiman (died 768), ibid. pp.383-385.] We observe in passing that, despite the fact that there are those who regard the claimed connection of masjid al-aqsa with the Jerusalem Temple as a certainty, there was no standing Temple or other place of worship on the Temple Mount during the lifetime of Muhammad, while at the one point in the Quran (30.1) where there is a quite certain reference to contemporary events in Palestine, viz., ghulibati l-rumu fi adna ‘l-ardi (“the Greeks [=Byzantines] have been vanquished in the nearby land”), the term adna, “nearby” or “nearest,” stands in stark contrast with the expression “most distant mosque” claimed to allude to the Jerusalem Temple. 

    Armstrong also writes that Muhammad taught his first converts “to turn away from the Ka’abah [i.e., in Mecca—N.G.] to face Jerusalem” in prayer (p.222), and that “Muslims never forgot” that their first direction of prayer [i.e., their qiblah] had been towards Jerusalem. No Quranic statement offers proof of this latter claim either. The Quran (2,142 ff.) does speak of his followers’ former customary direction of prayer (qiblatihimi ‘llati kanu ‘alaiha) prior to their being commanded to face the (Meccan) “Sacred Mosque” (al-masjid al-haram), and there is a commonly held view fostered, once again, by Quran interpreters living after, and not before, the Muslim conquest of Palestine, that the former direction alluded to was that towards Jerusalem. However, the “former direction” may as well allude to (1) a former pagan direction of prayer, (2) the eastward direction favored by Christians, or (3)—because Arabia lay south of Jerusalem—the northern direction, generally speaking, that the Jews of Mecca, Medinah and other Arabian localities would have faced in conducting their daily prayers. The Quran, after all, contains many passages showing both Jewish and Christian influence. The aforementioned verse itself, however, proves nothing about any particular adulation, either by Muhammad or by his followers, of Jerusalem, or any awareness of its holy status, but at the most only hints that the believers may, early on, have taken up the practice of the Arabian Jews in turning to the north for their daily prayers, just as they adopted other practices and beliefs of the Jews described in the Quran—a feature of earliest Islam that, puzzlingly, Armstrong does not appear to deal with in her book. We observe parenthetically that, although it was indeed the case that, after the flight from Mecca to Medinah, Muhammad and his followers turned against the Arabian Jews and decimated their population, that can hardly be properly construed to mean, as she would have us believe (p. 220) that during the followers’ “struggle for survival (my italics—N.G.) three of the most important Jewish tribes of Yathrib were either expelled from the settlement or massacred.” This is, to say the least, a most novel way on the part of an English writer to treat this subject and appears to show an apologetic streak in the author’s writing that manifests itself in this book more than occasionally.  

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