Jerusalem is a holy city for believers of the three monotheistic faiths: Jews consider Jerusalem to be the “capital” of their ancient state and pray in its direction; for Christians, Jerusalem is the place of the Passion of Christ. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third holiest city (after Mecca and Medina); it constituted the first direction of prayer (qibla) and a significant moment in the life of the Prophet (related in Sura XVII of the Qur'an, entitled “Night Journey”; al-Isra’), during which he traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night and then made a celestial ascent (mi’raj).
All year long, and particularly during the month of Ramadan, Jerusalem welcomes foreign Muslim pilgrims, both Sunni and Shiite. They mingle with the many tourists and Jewish and Christian pilgrims walking through the streets of the Old City. But the itineraries of the Muslim pilgrims, which have as their ultimate destination the Haram al-Sharif, set them apart.
The pious visit of Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem is part of a continuum of practices ranging from the canonical pilgrimage to Mecca to the visits of the tombs of local saints. The pilgrimage to Mecca may take two forms: the hajj (major pilgrimage), which constitutes a religious prescription to be performed once in a lifetime and on specific dates and is the last of the five pillars of Islam; or the ‘umra (minor pilgrimage), which is recommended though not obligatory, may be performed at any time, and involves many of the rituals performed during the hajj. Like the ‘umra, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is not a ritual obligation; unlike the ‘umra, however, there is no codified way to perform it. It is recommended that pilgrims who intend to perform the ‘umra depart from Jerusalem and that those who perform the hajj continue on to Jerusalem for further prayer as a final step in the hajj (taqdis al-ḥajj). Today, one can see Palestinians or other foreigners in Jerusalem dressed in the traditional pilgrim attire (ihram), setting out for Mecca.
Beyond Jerusalem, the Holy Land bears the graves and relics of the prophets of the monotheistic faiths (Moses and Abraham, for example), as well as the Companions of the Prophet (al-sahaba) and significant figures in Islamic history. Associated with the pious visit to Jerusalem, visits to these emblematic sites express the search of a spiritual blessing and intercession and are based on the literature of the “Spiritual Merits,” which establishes the Islamic character and holiness of a territory. These visits are generally local pilgrimages, which distinguish them from the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that attracts pilgrims from the world over and constitute for the faithful a radical break with their daily lives. However, some components of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, notably participation in the Nabi Musa festival, whose procession begins at the Esplanade of the Mosques (the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque) and continues on to the tomb of the Prophet Moses in the region of Jericho, also make it a pilgrimage with a local dimension. Some (though not all) theologians frown on these practices and consider them semi-idolatry. However, the four schools of law (maḏhab) of Sunni Islam agree on the sanctity of the Esplanade of the Mosques.
In the Umayyad era, when the foundations of the Esplanade of the Mosques were constructed, traditions circulated praising the particular sacredness of the city of Jerusalem. During the period of the counter-crusades and the capture of Jerusalem by Salah al-Din in the twelfth century, numerous writers encouraged people to visit Jerusalem and also to settle in the city because of its sacred character. Later, during the Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods, infrastructure was built in Jerusalem to accommodate the needs of pilgrims who often travelled individually, separate from the caravans taking pilgrims to Mecca. The best-known historical accounts of Jerusalem are testimonies of Muslim travelers passing through this holy city, but never of pilgrims travelling with a group. The voyage to Jerusalem was probably more like the riḥlāt of the late 19th century, the city functioning as a place of education, the center of a network of scholars. Many Sufi pilgrims wanted to be in direct contact with the holy place, and so sometimes settled in its vicinity.
With the support of brotherhood networks, pilgrims from the Maghreb, India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central Asia remained and formed communities in the city after their hajj to Mecca. The phenomenon of Muslim pilgrimage has thus played an important role in the history of the creation of the Muslim communities of Jerusalem. Since Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, these communities have played been essential to maintaining a Palestinian presence in the city of Jerusalem; the community established by pilgrims from what are now Chad and Sudan resides in areas adjacent to the holy site.
Indeed, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip has been accompanied by a policy aiming at fragmenting the Palestinian territory and isolating East Jerusalem and its holy sites. This policy contrasts sharply with the image of Palestine, described historically as a “holy land” by the pilgrims, a place of pilgrimage par excellence and thus of mobility. Due to the Israeli occupation, Palestinians of the diaspora and nationals of Arab countries with the exception of Jordan and Egypt (which have signed peace treaties with Israel) have no free access to the Esplanade of the Mosques. Since the early 1990s and especially since 2000, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have had limited access to Jerusalem, subject to their ability to secure hard-to-get Israeli-issued permits, and even Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Palestinian citizens of Israel must pass through checkpoints and face other restrictions.
An additional factor that has resulted in making the Esplanade of the Mosques a locked, tense, and extremely guarded sacred site since the early 1990s has been the aggressive initiatives of associations of messianic Israeli Jews (supported by a number of Israeli ministers and Knesset members) aiming at upsetting the status quo that has prevailed since the Ottoman era. These associations, known as Temple Mount movements, have been organizing campaigns to visit and pray at the Esplanade of the Mosques (considered to be the site of the Temple Mount), particularly during the celebrations of Sukkot and Tisha B’av which commemorates the date of the destruction of the Temple. Their demands range from the right to pray on the Esplanade to its annexation; some associations even call for its destruction and the building of a third Jewish Temple. Groups of Jewish worshippers visit the holy place daily accompanied by the Israeli police and army, and major clashes with Palestinian Muslim worshippers regularly ensue.
It is in this troubled context that, since around 2010, pilgrimage from Muslim countries to Jerusalem, a central ancestral phenomenon in the Muslim tradition, has emerged as a topic of debate, because the city is under occupation. Hamas and the North branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel encourage Palestinians to visit the Esplanade of the Mosques, but, consistent with the fatwa issued by the Egyptian imam Youssef al-Qardawi in April 2012 and then again in February 2014, call on Muslims around the world to boycott the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as long as the Israeli occupation continues. On the other hand, since 2012, the Palestinian Authority, which has no official role in the city of Jerusalem, has been implementing various strategies to encourage Islamic tourism as a means of supporting the Palestinian economy in Jerusalem.
In April 2014, a fatwa was issued in Amman by a conference of ulamas entitled “The Road to Jerusalem” as a reaction to Qardawi’s fatwa. Convened with the encouragement of the Jordanian government, the conference permitted religious visits to Jerusalem to all Palestinians, whatever their nationality, and to Muslims from non-Muslim countries. It did not explicitly ban or encourage visits of Muslims from Muslim countries, but affirmed that the visit should in all cases fulfill a number of conditions: not to result in “normalizing” with the occupation or supporting it financially; to benefit the Palestinians financially (accommodation, transportation, shopping); to be chartered by Palestinian or Jordanian companies; and to be preferably performed in groups and as part of hajj or ‘umra route to Mecca. Following the conference, the Palestinian mufti Muhammad Ahmad Hussein went further and urged visits to Jerusalem by Muslims from all over the world.
This debate between supporters and opponents of pilgrimage to Jerusalem (as well as the undecided) is undoubtedly a sign that the taboo surrounding it is diminishing. At present, the number of Muslim pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem is increasing (more than 140,000 in 2018). They come mostly from Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, South Africa and India, but also from Sudan, Russia, Canada, France and Great Britain, and mainly during the last ten days of Ramadan. Not surprisingly, Israel promotes foreign Muslim tourism since it serves to improve its public image, to support its claim of tolerance, and may render the Palestinian identity of the city increasingly invisible.
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