Palestine, and particularly Jerusalem at its heart, has been holy for
Muslims since the beginning of the history of Islam. Muslims' seeing Palestine
as holy has enabled them to bring peace and harmony to the region. We
shall be considering some historical instances of this in this article.
There are two fundamental reasons why Jerusalem is holy for Muslims:
It is the first direction to which Muslims used to turn to pray. Furthermore,
what can be seen as one of Prophet Mohammed's greatest miracles, his ascent
to heaven, was from Masjid al-Haram to Masjid al-Aqsa, in other words
from Mecca to Jerusalem. This fact is revealed in the Koran in these terms:
Glory be to Him who took His slave on a journey by
night from the Masjid al-Haram to the Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings
We have blessed, in order to show him some of Our Signs. He is the All-Hearing,
the All-Seeing. (Surat al-Isra: 1)
In stories about the Prophets in the Koran, those holy verses that discuss
Palestinian lands refer to them as 'blessed lands' and 'holy
lands.' In the above verse about the ascent to heaven, Masjid al-Aqsa
is described as a land 'whose surroundings We have blessed.' In
Surat al-Anbiya, in which the migration of the prophets Abraham and Lot
is recounted, the same territory is described as 'a land We have blessed.'
All Palestinian soil, where many prophets from the tribe of Israel have
lived, fought in the path of God, and been martyred or died and buried,
is holy for Muslims.
Consequently, Muslims have brought "blessings", i.e. peace
and security to Jerusalem and Palestine over the last 1,400 years.
The Peace and Justice brought to Palestine by Khalif
Jerusalem was the capital of the Jews until A.D. 71. In that year, the
Roman Army made a major assault on the Jews, and exiled them from the
area after great savagery. As the time of the Jewish diaspora began, Jerusalem
and its surrounding area was becoming an abandoned land.
However, Jerusalem once again became a center of interest with the acceptance
of Christianity during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Roman
Christians built churches in Jerusalem. The prohibitions on Jews settling
in the region were lifted. Palestine remained Roman (Byzantine) territory
up until the 7th century. The Persians conquered the region
for a short time, but the Byzantines later reconquered it.
An important turning point in the history of Palestine came in the year
637, when it was conquered by the armies of Islam. This meant the genesis
of a period of peace and harmony in Palestine, which had for centuries
been the scene of wars, exiles, looting and massacre, and which saw new
brutality every time it changed hands, a frequent occurrence. The coming
of Islam was the beginning of an age when people of different beliefs
in Palestine could live in peace and harmony.
Palestine was captured by Omar, the second caliph after the Prophet himself.
The entry of Omar into Jerusalem, the incredible tolerance, maturity and
kindness he showed towards people of different beliefs, introduced the
beautiful age that was beginning. The British historian and Middle East
expert Karen Armstrong describes the capture of Jerusalem by Omar in these
terms in her book Holy War:
The Caliph Omar entered Jerusalem mounted on a white
camel, escorted by the magistrate of the city, the Greek Patriarch Sophronius.
The Caliph asked to be taken immediately to the Temple Mount and there
he knelt in prayer on the spot where his friend Mohammed had made his
Night Journey. The Patriarch watched in horror: this, he thought, must
be the Abomination of Desolation that the Prophet Daniel had foretold
would enter the Temple; this must be Antichrist who would herald the
Last Days. Next Omar asked to see the Christian shrines and, while he
was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the time for Muslim prayer
came round. Courteously the Patriarch invited him to pray where he was,
but Omar as courteously refused. If he knelt to pray in the church,
he explained, the Muslims would want to commemorate the event by erecting
a mosque there, and that would mean that they would have to demolish
the Holy Sepulchre. Instead Omar went to pray at a little distance
from the church, and, sure enough, directly opposite the Holy Sepulchre
there is still a small mosque dedicated to the Caliph Omar.
The other great mosque of Omar was erected on the Temple Mount to mark
the Muslim conquest, together with the mosque al-Aqsa which commemorates
Mohammed's Night Journey. For years, the Christians had used to the
site of the ruined Jewish Temple as the city rubbish dump. The Caliph
helped his Muslims to clear the garbage with his own hands and there
Muslims raised their two shrines to establish Islam in the third most
holy city in the Islamic world. 
In short, Muslims brought 'civilization' to Jerusalem and all of Palestine.
Instead of barbaric beliefs that showed no respect for other peoples'
sacred values, and which killed them simply out of differences of belief,
there reigned the just, tolerant and moderate culture of Islam. After
its capture by Omar, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace
and harmony in Palestine. Muslims never tried to use force to make people
convert, although some non-Muslims did so of their own free will.
The peace and harmony in Palestine lasted as long as Muslim rule in the
region. However, at the end of the 11th century, an invader
entered the region from abroad, and the civilized land of Jerusalem was
barbarically and savagely plundered, in a way never before seen. These
barbarians were the Crusaders.
A historical testimony of Muslim tolerance to
the Christians: Muslim Dome of the Rock next to the Christian Church.
The Savagery of the Crusaders
Crusaders plundered Jerusalem and killed all
its non-Christian inhabitants.
While members of all three religions were living in peace
and harmony in Palestine, the Christians in Europe decided to organize
the 'Crusades.' Following a call by Pope Urban II on 25 November 1095
at the Council of Clermont, more than 100,000 people from all over Europe
set out for Palestine to 'Free the Holy land from the Muslims' and find
the fabled wealth of the East. After a long and wearying journey, and
much plundering and slaughter of Muslims, they reached Jerusalem in 1099.
The city fell after a siege of nearly five weeks, and the Crusaders moved
in. And they carried out a savagery the like of which the world has seldom
seen. All Muslims and Jews in the city were put to the sword. In the words
of one historian, 'They killed all the Saracens and the Turks they
found... whether male of female."  One
of the Crusaders, Raymond of Aguiles, boasted of this violence:
Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and
this was more merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shoot
them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured
them longer by casting them into flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet
were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick
one's way over the bodies of men and horses. But these were small matters
compared to what happened at the Temple of Solomon, a place where religious
services are normally chanted ... in the temple and the porch of Solomon,
men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. 
In two days, the Crusader army killed some 40,000 Muslims
in the barbaric ways just described.  The peace
and harmony in Palestine, which had lasted since Omar, ended in terrible
slaughter. The Crusaders violated all the ethical laws of Christianity,
a religion of love and compassion, and spread terror, allegedly in the
name of Christianity.
The Justice of Saladin
The barbaric Crusader army made Jerusalem their capital, and established
a Latin Kingdom whose borders stretched from Palestine to Antioch. However,
the Crusaders who brought savagery to Palestine did not last long. Saladin
gathered all the Muslim kingdoms under his banner in a holy war, and defeated
the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin in 1187. After the battle, the two
leaders of the crusader army, Reynauld of Chatillon and King Guy, were
brought in Saladin's presence. Saladin executed Reynauld of Chatillon,
who had won fame with the terrible savagery he had committed against Muslims,
but he let King Guy go, as he had not committed the same crimes. Palestine
once again saw the true meaning of justice.
Immediately after Hattin, and on the very same day that Prophet Mohammed
had been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night, the day of the ascent,
Saladin entered Jerusalem and freed it from 88 years of Crusader occupation.
When the Crusaders had taken the city 88 years earlier, they had killed
all the Muslims inside it, and for that reason they were afraid that Saladin
would do the same thing to them. Whereas he did not touch even one Christian
in the city. Furthermore, he merely ordered the Latin (Catholic) Christians
to leave it. The Orthodox Christians, who were not Crusaders, were allowed
to live in the city and live and worship as they chose. The British historian
Karen Armstrong describes the second Islamic capture of Jerusalem in these
On 2 October 1187 Saladin and his
army entered Jerusalem as conquerors and for the next 800 years Jerusalem
would remain a Muslim city... Saladin kept his word, and conquered
the city according to the highest Islamic ideals. He did not
take revenge for the 1099 massacre, as the Koran advised (16:127), and
now that hostilities had ceased he ended the killing (2:193-194). Not
a single Christian was killed and there was no plunder. The ransoms
were deliberately very low...
Saladin was moved to tears
by the plight of families who were rent asunder and he released many
of them freely, as the Koran urged, though to the despair of his
long-suffering treasurers. His brother al-Adil was so distressed by the
plight of the prisoners that he asked Saladin for a thousand of them for
his own use and then released them on the spot...
When Imad ad-Din saw the
Patriarch Heraclius leaving the city with chariots crammed with treasure,
he urged Saladin to confiscate it. But Saladin refused. The Koran said
that oaths and treaties must be kept to the letter and it was essential
that the Muslims should observe the legalities... Heraclius paid his ten-dinar
ransom like everybody else and was even provided with a special escort
to keep his treasure safe during the journey to Tyre. 
In short, Saladin and the Muslims in his command treated the Christians
with great mercy and justice, and even showed them more compassion than
their own leaders had.
Richard the Lionheart, was not very "noble"
After Jerusalem, the Crusaders continued their barbarity and the Muslims
their justice in other cities in Palestine. In 1194, Richard the Lionheart,
who is portrayed as a great hero in British history, had 3,000 Muslims,
among whom were many women and children, basely executed in Acre Castle.
Although the Muslims witnessed this savagery, they never resorted to the
same methods. They abided by God's command "Do not let hatred
for a people... incite you into going beyond the limits" (Surat al-Ma'ida)
and never used violence against innocent civilians. They never employed
unnecessary violence, not even against the Crusader armies they defeated.
The savagery of the crusaders and the justice of the Muslims once more
revealed a historic truth: Only an administration built on the principles
of Islam could allow people of different faiths to live together in Palestine.
This fact continued to be demonstrated for 700 years after Saladin, particularly
during the Ottoman period.
The Ottoman Empire's Just and Tolerant Rule
In 1514, Sultan Selim captured Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and
some 400 years of Ottoman rule in Palestine began. As in other Ottoman
states, this period would enable Palestine to enjoy peace, stability,
and the living together of different faiths.
The tolerance of Islam continued in the Ottoman
Empire. Church, synagogue and the mosque coexisted peacefully.
The Ottoman Empire was administered under what is known as the 'nation
(millet) system,' the fundamental feature of which was that people
of different faiths were allowed to live according to their own beliefs
and even legal systems. Christians and Jews, described as the 'People
of the Book' in the Koran, found toleration, security and freedom
in Ottoman lands.
The most important reason for this was that although the Ottoman Empire
was an Islamic state administered by Muslims, it had no desire to force
its citizens to adopt Islam. On the contrary, the Ottoman state aimed
at providing peace and security for non-Muslims, and to govern them in
such a way that they would be pleased with Islamic rule and justice.
Other major states at the same time had a much cruder, oppressive and
intolerant view of government. The Kingdom of Spain could not tolerate
the existence of Muslims and Jews on the Spanish peninsula and inflicted
great violence on both communities. In many other European countries,
Jews were oppressed just for being Jews (for instance they were imprisoned
in ghettoes), and were sometimes the victims of mass slaughter (pogroms).
Christians could not even get on with one another: the fighting between
Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries
turned Europe into a lake of blood. The Thirty Years War between 1618
and 1648 was one result of this Catholic-Protestant conflict. As a result
of that war, central Europe turned into a battleground, and in Germany
alone, one-third of the population of 15 million perished.
In such an environment, it is an indisputably important truth that Ottoman
rule was exceedingly humane.
Many historians and political scientists have drawn attention to this
fact. One of these is Columbia University's world-famous Middle East expert
Professor Edward Said. Himself from a Jerusalem Christian family, he continues
his research in American universities. In an interview in the Israeli
newspaper Ha'aretz he recommended the 'Ottoman nation system'
if a permanent peace is to be built in the Middle East. What he said was:
A Jewish minority can survive the way other minorities
in the Arab world survived. …it worked rather well under the Ottoman
Empire, with its millet system. What they had then seems a lot more
humane than what we have now. 
Koranic Morality: The Source of Islamic Tolerance
The fundamental reason for the establishment of exceedingly tolerant,
just and humane administrations in the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim
states is that such government is commanded by the Koran. The reason for
the justice and civilization displayed by Omar, Saladin, the Ottoman sultans
and many Muslim rulers (and this is accepted by the West today), was their
faithfulness to God's commands in the Koran. These are some of the commandments
that make up the basis of the Islamic view of government:
God commands you to return to their owners the things
you hold on trust and, when you judge between people, to judge with justice.
How excellent is what God exhorts you to do! God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.
(Surat an-Nisa : 58)
You who believe! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness
for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives.
Whether they are rich or poor, God is well able to look after them. Do
not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist or
turn away, God is aware of what you do. (Surat an-Nisa: 135)
God does not forbid you from being good to those who
have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or
from being just towards them. God loves those who are just. (Surat al-Mumtahana:
There is a phrase in politics that 'power corrupts, and absolute power
corrupts absolutely.' This means that everyone who comes by political
power becomes somewhat morally corrupted by the opportunities this power
brings with it. This really does apply to most people, because they shape
their morality in line with social pressure. To put it another way, they
avoid immorality because they are afraid of society's disapproval or of
punishment. Power gives them strength however, and decreases social pressure.
As a result, they become corrupted, or come to easily make concessions
regarding morality. If they possess real power, in other words if they
rule a nation, they may try all means of satisfying their desires.
The only human model where the 'law of corruption' does not apply is
those who sincerely believe in God, who embrace religion out of fear and
love of Him, and live according to that religion. Because their morals
are not defined by society, not even the most absolute power can affect
them. In the Koran, God gave the Prophet David as an example of this ideal
ruler, with the way he governed even those who questioned his authority,
and the way on the other hand that he prayed with complete submission
to God. (Surah Sad: 24)
The fact that the history of Islam is full of just, merciful, humble
and mature rulers stems from this morality that God teaches Muslims in
the Koran. Since a Muslim ruler fears God, no opportunity that he may
be given will make him corrupt, proud or cruel. (Of course rulers who
became corrupt and departed from Islamic morality do crop up in the history
of Islam, but their numbers and influence were very small).
History reveals that Islam is the only system of belief to offer a just,
tolerant and compassionate way of government in the Middle East. The Pax
Ottomana, which came to an end with the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire
from the region, has still not been replaced. After the Ottomans, the
Middle East first passed into the hands of European colonialists, and
then became the target of Israel's policies of occupation and aggression.
There is one fundamental reason for the current conflict in the Middle
East: The fact that the sides do not want to make peace. What Israel
must do is to abide by U.N. resolution 242 and withdraw to the pre-1967
borders, and recognize and grant the rights of the Palestinian people.
What the Palestinians (and other Arabs) should do is to abandon such aims
as "pouring Israelis into the sea" and accept living together
with the Jews. The most important thing of all is not to dirty just causes
with barbaric acts of terrorism against civilians.
In short, in order for there to be peace in the Middle East, both sides
have to agree to be moderate and tolerant, and make a genuine effort to
rid themselves of Jewish racism (Zionism) or Arab chauvinism. The vision
that is needed for this is hidden in the virtues that Islamic morality
has blessed the Middle East over the past centuries.