The core Islamic connection to the city of Jerusalem lies in the story of the isra' and mi'raj, the night journey of the Prophet Muhammad (described in the first verse of the 17th sura of the Qur'an) and his subsequent ascent into heaven.

During this night journey, the Prophet was taken from the Sacred Mosque of Mecca to "the farthest mosque," the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (the same site as the Temple of Jerusalem). Because of this night journey in the Qur'an, Jerusalem became the first direction (the first qibla) in which Muslims were to pray--it would only later be replaced by Mecca--and the third of Islam's holy places.

This connection is in turn predicated on a vision of Islam as the culmination of the Abrahamic tradition, whereby Muhammad is the last of a series of prophets, including the Jewish prophets and Jesus--a vision whose focal point is Jerusalem, described in that same verse of the Qur'an as "blessed." To describe Jerusalem as unimportant to Islam is to misunderstand this central element of the Islamic faith.

It has also been argued--wrongly--that it was only at moments of crisis that Islam considered Jerusalem significant. While there have been changes in how Muslims have regarded Jerusalem over time, Muslim rulers have frequently shown their reverence for the city by their building projects there, as can be seen from the Islamic-Arab aspect of the entire Old City.

In the earliest days of Islam, Muslims regarded the city with veneration. The second caliph, `Umar ibn al-Khattab, received the city's surrender in 638, and soon afterward the earliest incarnation of the al-Aqsa mosque, holding several thousand worshippers, was erected in the Haram al-Sharif.

Jerusalem was a central focal point for the Umayyads, several of whose caliphs, including the founder of the dynasty, first received the allegiance of their followers there. The importance of the city is evidenced by the two monumental structures they erected in the Haram al-Sharif: the Dome of the Rock, perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful of all Islamic structures, constructed by `Abd al-Malik in 691-92; and a much larger and more magnificent al-Aqsa mosque, rebuilt by his son al-Walid in 715.

It is attested further by the massive Umayyad-era palace-administrative complex immediately to the south of the Haram, only recently fully unearthed and identified. The buildings in the Haram continued to be a focus of devotion for Muslims everywhere, and were carefully repaired and further adorned by the Abbasids caliphs, several of whom visited the city. Thereafter, the Fatimid rulers of Egypt undertook extensive programs of construction and renovation in Jerusalem.

The Crusaders' seizure of Jerusalem initially provoked little Islamic reaction. Within a few decades after 1099, however, popular Islamic religious enthusiasm for Jerusalem had grown to the point that shrewd and successful Muslim regional political leaders like Nur al-Din Zengi and Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin) made a jihad to liberate the city into the centerpiece of their respective policies.

This was symbolized by the wooden pulpit for the al-Aqsa mosque that Nur al-Din commissioned and stored in the great mosque of Aleppo until the liberation of Jerusalem, where it was installed by Salah al-Din soon after his entry into the city in 1187. It was symbolized as well by the many awqaf (pious foundations) for schools, hospitals, mosques, and pilgrim hostels Salah al-Din and his sons established in Jerusalem.

After the city's liberation from the Crusaders, there was a continued concern for the city among Muslims, which was evidenced by the erection of numerous magnificent structures (among them the walls of the city) by the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, and Ottomans, and by the visits of Muslim pilgrims, travelers, and scholars, many of whom remained to teach or study there. There was also a renewed flowering of an earlier genre of Islamic literature that glorified specific cities and regions of special religious or historic significance--in this case Jerusalem. This was the Fada'il al-Quds, or the "merits of Jerusalem."

Jerusalem has thus been a continuous focus of devotion for Muslims since the very earliest days of the Prophet Muhammad's mission. Indeed, as is evident from a careful reading of Sura 17 of the Qur'an, the Holy City was always a central focus of Islam's view of itself as a continuation of the prophetic tradition that began with Abraham and continued through Jesus, and much of which unfolded in and around Jerusalem.

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