Umar’s Jerusalem

Umar’s Jerusalem

December 11, 2015

Amal Al-Sibai

Amal Al-Sibai

In Jerusalem, Jews are free to worship at Temple Mount and to study their sacred texts there. Christians freely offer religious services at their holy sites in Jerusalem, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Muslims too are free to come and go, and to pray the five daily prayers in Al-Aqsa Mosque as they please, without fear of persecution. Walking down the streets that connect several houses of worship, a Muslim runs into a Jew and then a Christian; he nods respectfully and extends greetings of peace each time, wishing his neighbor a good day. None of the people hate those of other faiths; there is no oppression, violence, checkpoints, demolitions, barbed wire, arrogance, or forced conversions. Jerusalem is a hub of knowledge, worship, and trade; it is marked by peaceful coexistence and mutual respect and understanding across the three religious faiths.

It may sound like a fantasy or a picture from utopia, but it’s not. That is exactly what Umar ibn Al-Khattab’s Jerusalem was like. That was a reality in Jerusalem for 400 years under Muslim rule, from the time Umar ibn Al-Khattab entered Jerusalem around the year 637 until it was captured by the Crusaders in 1099.

Going further back in history, we see that Jerusalem was a common warring ground between the two powerful empires: the Byzantines and the Persians. Jerusalem had been an important Byzantine city but it fell to the Persians in the year 614 during the Byzantine-Sassanid Wars. The Persians looted the city, destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and are said to have massacred its 90,000 Christian inhabitants. It was believed that the Jews, who were persecuted in their Roman-controlled homeland, had aided the Persians.

The Byzantines regained control of Jerusalem in 628, after the Emperor Heraclius led a final battle against the Persians; Heraclius was victorious. When they were in power again, they made repairs to the city, and the Byzantines banned the Jews from worshiping on the Temple Mount and the Wailing Wall.

After the death of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the year 632, his companion, Abu Bakr became the Caliph (ruler). During Abu Bakr’s lifetime, he secured the Arabian Peninsula under his sovereignty and initiated a conquest in the east towards Iraq.

In 634, Abu Bakr died and was succeeded by Umar ibn Al-Khattab who expanded the Muslim empire north, south, east, and west. He sent armies led by the brilliant military commanders, Khalid ibn Al-Waleed and Amr ibn Al-As, to Syria, which was still under Byzantine control.

According to historian Firas Alkhateeb, “The decisive Battle of Yarmuk in 636 was a huge blow to Byzantine power in the region, leading to the fall of numerous cities throughout Syria such as Damascus.”

Once Syria had fallen into the hands of the Muslims, Umar ibn Al-Khattab ordered the Muslim armies to march towards Jerusalem, and they received reinforcements from another military commander, Abu Ubaida ibn Al-Jarrah, from northern Syria. The Muslims arrived at Jerusalem around early November, and the Byzantine forces withdrew into the well-fortified city. Rather than instigating violent assaults on Jerusalem, the Muslim troops surrounded the fort and laid siege to the city.

At the time of the siege, Patriarch Sophronius, a representative of the Byzantine government and a leader of the Christian Church, was in charge of Jerusalem. Realizing that resistance was pointless and after a siege of approximately four months, Bishop Sophronius and the Christians in Jerusalem decided to surrender. The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem was bloodless.

However, Sophronius had one condition: he would surrender the keys to the city only if the Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab came to Jerusalem himself to receive the keys, accept the surrender, and sign a peace pact.

The Muslims had differing opinions, should the Caliph accept these terms, even though the Byzantine forces had been defeated and were in no position to make demands? In Medina, Umar ibn Al-Khattab consulted his council. Ali bin Abi Talib who had been one of the closest aides of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and was known for his wisdomsaid that Jerusalem was as much sacred to the Muslims as the Jews or the Christians, and that in view of the sanctity of the place it was desirable that its surrender should be received by the Caliph personally. Umar ibn Al-Khattab accepted Ali’s advice.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the ruler of the Muslim Empire, traveled to Jerusalem, not with a royal entourage of servants and guards, but with a single servant and one riding camel. During the journey, Umar and his servant took alternating turns; riding the camel and walking. Umar wore simple, coarse clothes; none could have distinguished between the ruler and the servant.

As he approached Jerusalem, it so happened that the servant was on the camel and the Caliph was walking alongside. The servant had pleaded with Umar to ride instead, but he refused. When someone had advised Umar ibn Al-Khattab to wear luxurious robes befitting of a Caliph, he replied that he derived his strength and status from his faith in Islam, and not from any dress.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem by Sophronius. The people of Jerusalem were in awe of the Caliph; he was dressed simply like an average person and he was walking on foot, while his servant was riding.

The Bishop of Jerusalem handed over the keys of the city of Jerusalem to Umar ibn Al-Khattab. No killing or destruction was carried out by Muslims. It was a peaceful transition and all the holy sites of Christians were left untouched. Caliph Umar signed a treaty with Sophronius and as a result, Christians were allowed to live in the city, but must pay jizya, or tax. The treaty Umar signed was as follows:

“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the assurance of safety which the servant of God, Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion. Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted.”

Alkhateeb wrote, “Umar was given a tour of the city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the time for prayer came, Sophronius invited Umar to pray inside the Church, but Umar refused. He insisted that if he prayed there, later Muslims would use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – thereby depriving Christendom of one of its holiest sites. Instead, Umar prayed outside the Church, where a mosque called Masjid Umar was later built.”

Umar ibn Al-Khattab asked to be taken to the rock from which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon) ascended to Heaven on his night journey of Israa and Miraj. Umar ibn Al-Khattab cleared the area of the Temple Mount, cleaned it up, and built a mosque, Al-Aqsa Mosque. After staying for ten days in Jerusalem, the Caliph returned to Medina.

Umar ibn Al-Khattab protected the rights not only of the Christians, but also the Jews. For the first time, after almost 500 years of oppressive Roman rule, Jews were once again allowed to live and worship inside Jerusalem. Caliph Umar and the Muslim rulers after him understood the significance of Jerusalem in the hearts of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The three religions flourished in Jerusalem.

In the course of time, many scholars from the three religions came and settled in Jerusalem. For Muslims, Jerusalem, especially Al-Aqsa Mosque, became a center of learning. It also became common for Muslims to start mentioning in their wills the desire to be buried in Jerusalem. There are now thousands of Muslim graves in Jerusalem. The Muslim rulers also built many schools, religious centers, and hospitals in Jerusalem.

That is the Jerusalem that we yearn for, Umar’s Jerusalem. Jerusalem remained under Muslim rule until it was captured by Crusaders in 1099, during the First Crusade.

December 11, 2015