Sadat, the Quran, and Jews in the Holy Land

In the middle of the commemorative parade marking the eighth anniversary of the October 1973 war launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel on Yom Kippur, also known as the Ramadan War, Anwar Sadat, President of Egypt, was murdered by a band of Egyptian soldiers taking part in the event. Twenty-five years later as we recall the legacy of Sadat – his journey to Jerusalem in November 1977, his reaching out to Menachem Begin, the Prime Minister of Israel, and the two of them forging together a partnership of respect and affection culminating in the Camp David Accord of September 1978 for which the two leaders shared the Nobel Peace Prize – it becomes unmistakably clear that the men who killed Sadat on October 6, 1981 were forerunners of those who flew passenger jetliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington on that fateful morning of September 11, 2001 unleashing a whirlwind of hatred and bigotry emanating from the deep toxic bowels of a medieval age that still clings to our world at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In this evening’s lecture established in the memory of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat – of the example they set in embracing each other and of their promise that remains unfulfilled – I will reflect on the meaning of Sadat’s historic journey to Jerusalem and the speech he delivered at the Israeli Knesset on November 20, 1977 within the larger context of Arab and Egypt’s modern history. In addition I will dwell briefly on what the Quran tells us about Jerusalem and Jews in the Holy Land.

Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem marked a departure, politically dramatic and then fatal for him, from the course taken by the Arab states with Egypt at its head three decades earlier in repudiating the decision of the United Nations to partition Palestine under the British mandate into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. It was also a departure for Sadat from the politics and ideology of Arab nationalism of the previous half century with which his generation was associated. In setting out for Jerusalem Sadat broke ranks with his fellow Arab leaders and, in seeking reconciliation with Jews and Israel, he practically signed his own death warrant. His journey from Cairo to Jerusalem was, in the first instance, conceived in strategic terms to wrest back territories by diplomatic means lost to Israel in the June 1967 war, and he drove a hard bargain in the subsequent negotiations at Camp David to recover Egyptian territories from Israeli occupation. Yet the nature of the journey with all of the symbolical trappings carried within it the possibility of putting in place an entirely new Arab-Israeli and Jew-Muslim relationship that could help heal the rift between the two branches of Abraham’s family. We will never know how Sadat would have nurtured this relationship if he had lived longer.

Sadat’s murderers belonged to the most rabid fundamentalist Muslim cells in the Egyptian society known as al-Takfir wa`l Hijra (meaning “Excommunication and Flight”) and al-Jihad (meaning “Holy War”), and were offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. The theoreticians of these groups denounced Egypt as an apostate nation for not following in full what they considered the teachings of the Quran, most importantly the practice of jihad literally taken to mean engaging in violence and bloodshed in the cause of their faith and land and given equal importance as prayers, fasting, charity and pilgrimage that taken together represent the “pillars of Islam.” The leader of Sadat’s assassination squad was a lieutenant in the artillery, and after unloading his machinegun on the president he yelled out, “I am Khalid al-Islambuli, I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death.”

I characterize Sadat’s decision to visit Jerusalem and forge together with Begin, Israelis and Jews outside of the Middle East a new relationship of mutual respect and common interest as an act of conversion on a journey that never got fully consummated. The significance of Sadat’s journey might only be appreciated if it is understood within the larger framework of modern Arab politics and history that shaped the thinking, attitude and behavior of the generation to which Sadat belonged and those which have come after his.

Sadat came of age between the two world wars. These were the years when the brief blossoming of liberalism in Egypt that coincided with the British presence in the country following Disraeli’s purchase of shares in the Suez Canal Company in 1875 began to fade. In the three decades before the guns of August ended the long twilight of the Victorian Age, Egypt became receptive to the flow of ideas from Europe which generated a movement of reform across the society. This period in Egypt’s history is known as the nahda, an awakening or renaissance, when Egyptians experimented in arts and letters, in politics and religion, with the wish of reconciling its culture based on traditional Islamic values with the modern world of science and democracy as found in Europe. But by the time Sadat graduated from Cairo’s Royal Military Academy and got posted in the Signal Corp of the Egyptian Army in 1938 as a Second Lieutenant at the age of twenty, reformist liberalism was being rapidly replaced by a rising tide of nationalism combined with a militant rendition of Islam as an ideology opposed to Britain and France as victorious powers over the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.

The First World War in the Levant was fought around the edges of Egypt, and Egypt not directly affected by the partitioning of Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf after the war. Egypt was nominally an independent country under a monarchy belonging to the sons of Muhammad Ali, an Albanian soldier who served the Caliphs in Istanbul but following Napoleon’s successful military interlude in Cairo. But since 1882 Britain had emerged to control aspects of Egypt vital to her strategic interests in the area and beyond. Following the war Britain arranged a treaty with the ruling monarchy by which the security of Egypt and Sudan and the control of the Suez Canal area were retained by London. It was an arrangement that quickly became the focus of nationalist resentment ultimately culminating in the Suez crisis of 1956.

It was in this context of anti-British nationalist sentiments fueled in part by the new phenomenon of Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna that Sadat’s generation came of age. Islamism might be described as the reduction and bending of a faith tradition for political purpose, and as an ideology fed by an increasing number of Muslim intellectuals Islamism grew alongside the other two modern secular ideologies born in Europe, Bolshevism or Communism and Fascism, as a bitter opponent of Liberalism. Nadav Safran, a historian of modern Egypt, writes of the ideology of the Brotherhood as a “simple creed, grounded more on faith than systematic thought, cast into the frame of a militant movement inspired and activated by negative nationalism, and reinforced by concern with the bitterly felt social misery.”1 The nationalist anger inside Egypt drew upon the sense of betrayal felt beyond its borders by Arabs newly liberated by the arms of Britain and France. Britain’s decision to help Jews establish their homeland in Palestine announced by Balfour in his letter of November 2nd, 1917 to Lord Rothschild, and the revelations of the Sykes-Picot draft agreement from May 1916 about post-war settlements in the Middle East were taken as evidences of perfidious intentions of London and Paris to divide and hobble Arabs from achieving their independent goals. In time the theme of Arab betrayal became the axiom of Arab nationalist politics. These were also the years when the Mufti of Jerusalem, an appointed position and in Hajj Amin el-Husayni’s case his appointment made by the first British High Commissioner to Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel who was a Jew, disclosed how the combined effect of nationalist resentment and Islamism led to a populist support of Arabs for Hitler and the German Nazis when the Mufti became a collaborator with the Third Reich.

In his autobiography, In Search of Identity, Sadat recalls these years and his own impression with the politics of the time. Sadat writes:

I was in our village for the summer vacation when Hitler marched forth from Munich to Berlin, to wipe out the consequences of Germany’s defeat in World War I and rebuild his country. I gathered my friends and told them we ought to follow Hitler’s example by marching forth from Mit Abul-Kum to Cairo. I was twelve. They laughed and went away.2

But the adolescent impressions about Hitler remained with Sadat through the intervening years and after he graduated as an officer in the Egyptian army. Again, here is Sadat in his own words describing his involvement in clandestine politics within the army:

Meetings took place in my apartment in my father’s house at Kubri al-Qubbah, in the Officers’ Club, at cafes, and in the houses of our colleagues. Contacts were initially confined to fellow officers in the same corps, mostly my coevals, but, encouraged by Hitler’s successive threats to the British in 1939-41, I widened the circle gradually. Many senior and junior officers were approached and actually responded to our call, namely, that we should seize the opportunity and carry out an armed revolution against the British presence in Egypt.3

At this time Sadat also made a secret acquaintance with Hasan al-Banna, and was positively impressed. A relationship began between Sadat and al-Banna, and though Sadat does not admit of formally joining the Brotherhood he writes about others who did and of how Brotherhood’s ideology penetrated into the ranks of the Egyptian military influencing some who would join the Free Officers’ Organization led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the future dictator of Egypt.

The Free Officers coup of July 1952 ending the monarchy, later celebrated as a revolution, placed Sadat in the inner circle of the military officers who have held power ever since in Egypt. It became the model of other military seizure of power within the Arab world, and the political thinking and attitudes of the Free Officers’ would be in different degrees copied in Baghdad, Damascus, Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis, Khartoum and draw populist support in those Arab states where the traditional order as in Saudi Arabia held firm against pan-Arab nationalists. In Egypt the Free Officers suppressed the Brotherhood as their rivals competing for power, and similar measures were taken in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, but the ideology of Islamism remained percolating through the ranks of those in power and those resentful of being denied power.

Arab nationalism of the variety that took hold in Egypt was an appeal to unite against outsiders, to achieve independence, provide for progress, development and regaining a past dolled up as glorious. It confronted Jews in Palestine, mobilized Arab states to war against Israel and after repeated defeats found great difficulty in holding in check the rising influence of Islamism grown more virulent in its hatred of Jews and opposition to the liberal-democratic West. Sadat as Nasser’s deputy, and then following Nasser’s death in September 1970 as a leader in his own right, was caught in the conflicting pulls of Arab nationalism and Islamism. For a while Sadat spoke about Egypt as the crossroad between Arab and Mediterranean cultures, of an Egypt with a history of several millennia prior to the coming of Arabs and Islam, of Alexandria connected to Europe, of an Egypt that is not entirely part of an Arab world as is Jordan or the Gulf emirates and hence an Egyptian-Arab identity that looks in both direction towards Europe and the East. This was pointedly an attempt to depart from Nasser’s representation of Egypt as being at the centre of three concentric circles: Arab, African and Islam. Sadat’s attempt to circle the conflicting pressures of history and ideology, to harness them on behalf of a clearly defined Egyptian national interest without completely rejecting the claims of Islamists eventually failed as he fell to the violence of those whose totalitarian impulse viewed anyone disagreeing with their pronouncements as enemies of Islam. But Sadat was part of the milieu that killed him, and the reason for his murder was his journey to Jerusalem seen as a betrayal of Arabism – the mix of nationalism and Islamism – of which he was a product. Sadat’s Jerusalem journey, therefore, in its conception and execution signified a repudiation of what his generation’s history had made of him until then. Before the journey, however, there was another war fought.

The October 1973 war was planned and launched to redress the humiliation of June 1967, to break the status quo in Israeli occupied Egyptian territory of Sinai, to open the blockaded Suez Canal, to harness U.S. support behind Arab claims and grievances, and to demonstrate to Israelis that the Arab states were not entirely without military recourse in meeting their objectives of regaining equilibrium in the Arab-Israeli face-off. At the end of the June 1967 war and ahead of the passage of the UN Security Council Resolution 242 in November the Arab states met in Khartoum, Sudan, in September and came out with the three “no”: no peace, no negotiation and no recognition of Israel. For Sadat the October war was the means by which to cut through this stalemate and establish his own authority instead of being considered merely as Nasser’s successor.

The October war designed as limited in scope and duration could only succeed if it caught the Israelis completely by surprise, and regain for Egypt and its Arab partners an initiative against Israel lost in 1967. From Sadat’s perspective the October war fulfilled its purpose. The United States was drawn into the diplomatic pursuit of a negotiated disengagement between Egyptian and Israeli forces under Henry Kissinger’s stewardship, the Suez Canal was re-opened, and Sadat emerged with the profile of a military-statesman in stature bigger than his predecessor who was held responsible for the debacle of 1967.

Sadat could have rested on the laurels of the October war. The world was prepared to tilt in favour of the Arab states as effects of the Arab oil-embargo and oil-price quadrupling in support of the October war sent chill through the global economy. One measure of this tilt was the passage in 1975 of the UN General Assembly resolution declaring Zionism “is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Sadat gradually awoke to the realization, however, that neither diplomacy nor military posture could break the impasse between Arabs and Israelis unless there was a prior change of thinking in head and heart among both parties after a painfully long, debilitating and ultimately meaningless cycle of conflicts denying hope for a better future to both the Arab and Jewish children alike.

In Sadat’s view a “psychological barrier” imprisoned Arabs and Israelis, and this barrier needed to be scaled. This is how Sadat explained himself:

By a “psychological barrier” I mean that huge wall of suspicion, fear, hate, and misunderstanding that has for so long existed between Israel and the Arabs. It made each side simply unwilling to believe the other… I have therefore tended to compare that barrier to the Australian Great Barrier Reef – which is so dangerous to navigation in the southern hemisphere. And if the apparent barrier goes back only thirty years, it really has far deeper roots in history. For if, as Begin alleges, the question has a religious dimension for the Israelis, it certainly has such a dimension for us. So I decided to look at the situation from a new angle and to embark on a fresh study that took all dimensions into consideration.4

What was then set into motion was the details of Sadat’s Jerusalem journey on November 19-20, 1977. It took everyone by surprise. Sadat’s foreign minister, Ismail Fahmy, tendered his resignation instead of boarding the jetliner prepared to carry the President of Egypt to visit with the Israeli leadership and address the Knesset. The date of Sadat’s journey was also laden with symbolism. Sadat was visiting Israel on the eve of the Muslim feast of Abraham’s sacrifice, and he wanted to pray in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque on that occasion which fell on November 20. Sadat’s Jerusalem journey moreover came on the sixtieth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration; it was also on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of the UN partition resolution for Palestine passed on November 29, 1947, and just ahead of the tenth anniversary of the passage of the UN Security Council Resolution 242 on November 22, 1967.

Sadat’s speech to the audience assembled at the Israeli parliament was revealing of the inner journey he had made to embark upon his outward journey that brought him into the heart of the Jewish state’s capital. It was a carefully crafted speech, delivered in classical Arabic being the language of the Quran, to disclose his inner journey of mind and heart in order to advance the external requisites of peace. Sadat avoided getting stuck in the details of peace negotiations or in discussing the necessary diplomatic trade-offs that would be required for the eventual signing of an Egyptian-Israeli peace accord. Instead he invoked the names of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham as the patriarch of both Jews and Arabs, and of Moses with whom God spoke on the soil that was part of Egypt’s territory, as he described his vision of peace between two people who worship the same God. Sadat’s speech was interlaced with words that touched upon the themes of becoming fully human and of common humanity, about God and of peace, about individual and national responsibility in seeking peace, and of peace to endure requiring justice that must not be denied nor abridged. Sadat drew support for his vision and journey from the prophets of the Old Testament held in common respect by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and quoted from Solomon’s Proverbs: “Deceit is in the heart of them that imagine evil: but to the counsellors of peace is joy.” (Proverbs 12:20) “Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith than an house full of sacrifices with strife.” (Proverbs 17:1) Then he read from King David’s Psalms:

Unto thee will I cry, O Lord.
Hear the voice of my supplications.
When I cry unto thee, when I lift up my hands towards thy holy oracle.
Draw me not away with the wicked,
and with the workers of iniquity,
who speak peace with their neighbours,
while mischief is in their hearts.
Give them according to their needs
and according to the wickedness of their endeavours.
(Psalms 28:1a and 28:2—4a)

Sadat’s appeal to peace and to labour for peace was built upon the shared religious values of Arabs and Israelis, Jews and Muslims. Sadat called upon God to witness that he had faithfully delivered his message, and then he ended by reciting from the Quran the verse: “We believe in God and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the 13 Jewish tribes. And in the books given to Moses and Jesus and the prophets from their Lord, Who made no distinction between them.” (2:136) Then Sadat departed after having traveled the distance to Jerusalem to embrace Jews in a manner that no Arab and Muslim leader in modern times until then even considered, nor since then has any Arab and Muslim leader equaled. It was a unique moment and a unique event in a history that became burdened with recrimination, violence and grief.

And so we ask what does the Quran, the sacred book of Islam whose words, according to Muslim belief, were first spoken to Muhammad by heavenly power the Archangel Gabriel has to say about Jerusalem and Jews in the Holy Land?

The striking fact on first reading of the Quran is how much of its message is Jewish. The Quran tells the story of Jews, of Abraham and Moses, of Jesus and Mary among others. The story is told for instructing Arabs and Muslims in a history of a people who received divine sanction in acknowledging the reality of One Supreme Deity as Creator of the universe and Law-giver to mankind and forsaking idol worship. It is remarkable how Muslims, despite their daily readings of the Quran, tend to obscure this fact that the story of Jews is front and centre in their sacred text. And even more that it anticipates with favour the Zionist hopes for a re-born Israel.

The historian Max Dimont captured succinctly the meaning of the new history which erupted from the sandy waste of seventh century Arabia following the descent of heavenly message to a man born among pagan Arabs. Dimont wrote:

In the same way as the Septuagint prepared the way for the teachings of Paul among the pagans in the Roman Empire, so a general knowledge of the Old Testament among the Arabs helped prepare the way for the coming of Islam. The stage was set for the hero in history to fuse the nature worship of the Arabs, the salvation doctrine of the Christians, and the monotheism of the Jews into a new God image. The hero was Muhammad; the creed was Islam; the motivating ideology was Judaism.5

Here is a capsule version of the history of which Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist and historian of the Victorian age described as “if a spark had fallen, one spark, on a world of what seemed black unnoticeable sand; but lo, the sand proves explosive powder, blazes heaven-high from Delhi to Grenada! I said, the Great Man was always as lightning out of heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.”6 Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 A.D. He died in Medina in 632. In his fortieth year, around 610, he began receiving heavenly revelations which comprise the Quran as God’s messenger and later confirmed by these revelations as the seal of the prophets. In the twelfth year of his mission, 622, Muhammad fled Mecca for MedinaMecca to safety in Medina, located to the northwest of his native city, is known as hijra (the flight), and it marks the year one in the Islamic calendar. In Medina he found himself among various clans of Arabs, and among them were Jewish tribes. Here he eventually forged a new alliance, confronted his Meccan threats in three battles and various skirmishes, established a nascent form of some authority, administered justice, and eventually led the final campaign against his Meccan adversaries. He triumphed over his enemies, conquered Mecca, demolished the idols of the tribes in the Ka’aba, the sacred mosque of Islam, and before his demise more or less unified the tribes of the peninsular Arabia by submitting them to Islam. when physical threats from his enemies among the idol-worshipping Meccans could no longer be discounted. This flight from

What is Islam? Islam in quintessence is the affirmation of belief in One God. The creedal statement of Islam expresses this in a formula of universal import: “There is no god but God” – La illaha illalla – “and Muhammad is His messenger” – Muhammad-ur rasul allah. The formula is in two parts: the primary phrase is the central message of the Quran, and the rest is its explication in human history; the secondary phrase confirms the divinely guided mission of Muhammad. Then there is the historical Islam, the profane history of Muslims as any other people driven by the complex motivations of the plethora of human impulses across the spectrum of good and evil in the making of their somewhat distinct culture and civilization. This history was stamped at its outset by the tribal culture of desert Arabs among whom Muhammad was born, and while impressions of that tribal culture were refined during the imperial rule of the first Arab dynasties of an expanding Arab-Islamic empire this history has persisted into the present times. Muslims of subsequent generations, dissidents apart, came to view this period – the first two centuries of the Islamic calendar – as the template of Islam and Muslim history upon which rested the later developments of the Islamic civilization.

Following Muhammad’s demise his successors, administering the quasi-state the prophet established in Medina even as they were torn among themselves by blood-soaked internecine quarrels resulting from familial ambitions and tribal interests, directed military campaigns which eventually extended the boundaries of Islam beyond the Arabian heartland into North Africa and Asia. In 637 Jerusalem under Byzantine rule was conquered by Arab armies under the authority of Umar, the second caliph or successor of the Prophet, and with this conquest Palestine passed into the control of Muslims – except for the period of the Crusades in the 11th-12th centuries – until 1917 when British forces entered Jerusalem in the course of the campaigns against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.

Since Palestine with claims on Jerusalem is at the heart of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis, Jews and Muslims, referring to the Quran is essential in verifying the legitimacy of Muslim position. The Quran was revealed to Muhammad prior to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 637. This fact is critical, for either Arab-Muslim claim rests on the words of the Quran or it is based on rights as possession that came from the conquest of Jerusalem and Palestine by Arab-Muslim armies. In Muslim religious perspective, a claim legitimized by the Quran will be of timeless duration. But if it is based on mere conquest by arms, then it could only be maintained by force and lost to superior force; in other words, if force and conquest provide legitimacy, then defeat and loss make that legitimacy null and void.

Islam – the Quran repeatedly reminds Muslims and others who may read the text – is not a new religion but the primordial faith of man, the belief in and the witness thereof to the reality of One God as the source and origin of all things in the universe. This primordial faith gets repeatedly corrupted, yet God in His infinite mercy sends prophets and messengers to reform the corrupted faith and remind people how their sorrow in this world is a product of their corruption born as they deliberately or mistakenly, wander away from the path prescribed. Islam is a reminder to each and every soul endowed with free will of its connection with God, of its responsibility and accountability on the Day of Reckoning, of the relationship of God and man in the divine scheme of things, and those who acknowledges this cosmological reality and submits to it in living out of obedience, faith, love, devotion – however one wants to explain the meaning of submission which is one of the cognates of the word “Islam” in Arabic – is then at peace within while the outward reality of such person would reflect God’s mercy and compassion. The outward turmoil in an individual or a nation is the absence of inner peace and harmony, and nothing better reveals the wisdom of this message then the present state of Muslims and their nations so utterly in disrepair indicating how greatly absent is God’s message as delivered to Muhammad from their living.

Once Muhammad was instructed to preach God’s message to his people and engage in devotion through prayers privately and in public, Jerusalem became an axis of religious orientation of the Prophet and his early followers. The reason was simple. Again, according to the Quran, Islam was the primordial faith of the people in closest proximity to Arabs of the desert among whom Muhammad was born and to whom he preached. These people are the children of Abraham, the various tribes of the Jews, and then Christians who parted from the Jews in following Jesus, the son of Mary.

The direction in which a person stands and prays is a matter of orientation, of affirming the chain of connections or relationship in the divine plan to which an individual submits. Muhammad prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem in the very early years of Islam was the qibla, or the direction of prayers for the first Muslims in Mecca. This orientation was an affirmation that Islam was the primordial message of submission that prophets from Adam to Abraham, and then through Moses and David and Solomon to John and Jesus brought as God’s favor to their people, and later this same favor was dispensed to Arabs through a prophet born among them.

Soon after Muhammad left Mecca and settled in Medina he was instructed to reorient his qibla or direction of prayers towards Ka’aba, the mosque in Mecca built in the original, according to the Quran, by Abraham and his son Ishmael. The specific verse of the Quran reads: “We have seen you turn your face to the heavens. We shall turn you to a Qiblah that will please you. So turn towards the Holy Mosque, and turn towards it wherever you are (2:144).” Since then Muslims have turned in their prayers towards Mecca, and not Jerusalem. In the divine scheme there is a message here that those with discernment might discover. My view is by turning Muslims away from Jerusalem meant any future claim on the City of Prophets by Muslims on religious ground was taken away by an omniscient and merciful God.

An event of much significance occurred just before Muhammad took flight from MeccaMedina in 622. This was his Night Journey to the heavens. This journey is narrated in chapters 17 and 53 of the Quran, both chapters revealed in the early years of Islam in Mecca. Chapter 17 of the Quran is called Bani Israel or the Children of Israel, and Chapter 53 is called An-Najm or the Star. Bani Israel is the story of the Jews, and it opens with the following verse: “Glory to Him who took His votary to a wide and open land from the Sacred Mosque (at Mecca) to the distant Mosque whose precincts We have blessed, that We may show him some of Our signs.” to

It is instructive this Night Journey or miraj (ascent), of Muhammad took place from the distant Mosque that most commentators from the early years of Islam agreed was located in Jerusalem, and where at the presumed site subsequently the Dome of the Rock was built by the Muslim ruler, Caliph Abd al-Malik, in 691 some seventy years after the event the Quran narrates. This narration is part of the story of the Children of Israel, and thereby it is made clear the mission of the Prophet is in the same line as the prophets of Israel, belongs to the same tradition and constitutes and completes the story in the divine scheme of things, places and people whose patriarch is Abraham.

These are the two instances reported in the Quran by which Muslims find their spiritual connection with Jerusalem. In one instance it is to do with the qibla, when the Quran instructs Muhammad to change his direction of prayers from Jerusalem to Mecca. This instruction to Muhammad becomes the fixed orientation of Muslims as Mecca with its Ka’aba becomes the epicenter of Islam. Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, a place to be revered as the City of Prophets, but it is not the centre of Islam.

In the second instance, the Night Journey of Muhammad from presumably Jerusalem (accepting the interpretation given by earliest commentators of the Quran) established his intimate relationship with all the prophets in the tradition of Abraham who preceded him. This relationship is at the spiritual level, its occurrence precedes the subsequent events of Muslim history, and this spiritual connection stands outside of time and place in the secular history of Muslims, Jews and Christians and, hence, is incorruptible by what people do in the name of their faith traditions as in the sack of the holy city during the Crusades. This spiritual connection with Jerusalem for Muslims, following the relationship of Muhammad with the city built by David and Solomon and where Jesus preached, should remain unsullied by any secular politics, and its holiness revered. But this spiritual connection offers no basis for any claim on a city that the Quran clearly instructs is not the qibla of Muslim prayers and obligatory pilgrimage and, consequently, the city sanctified by prophets of the Old Testament must not become a matter of contestation – specially by Muslims with Jews – among people who together revere Abraham. It might also be noted here that since its conquest in 637 by Arab-Muslim armies and its loss in 1917 by the Ottoman forces to the British army General Allenby, with the exception of the hiatus during the Crusade years, Jerusalem never served as a political capital of any Arab-Muslim dynasty. The religious-political capital of Islam in the classical period of the 7th through the 15th century moved from Medina to Damascus then Baghdad, and later was situated in Istanbul until the end of World War I.

The history by which the Quran illuminates the divine scheme and instructs Arabs of the desert is of the Israelites. Indeed, the Arabs of the desert and, in particular, the Meccan clans of the Quraysh – with the most illustrious among them being the family into which Muhammad was born – traced their descent from Abraham through his older son Ishmael born of Hagar. Muhammad’s mission in part was returning his people back to the path which Abraham had walked as a hanif (believer in One God), and the Quran’s narration of the Israelite story is an illustration of God’s mercy and favor for a people most proximate to the desert Arabs who have remained faithful despite adversity to the One God that Abraham worshipped.

In this narrative of the Israelites, the Quran retells and confirms the story of Moses, of his tribulation and that of his people in the land ruled by the Pharaoh, and of their flight to freedom and to the land promised for them to live and multiply in faithfulness to God’s commandments. The land promised is Palestine, or the land of Canaan, and the words of the Quran cannot be mistaken. In Bani Israel (Children of Israel), Chapter 17 verse 104, which opens with the Night Journey of Muhammad, the Quran states: “And We said unto the Children of Israel after him [Moses]: Dwell in the land; but when the promise of the Hereafter cometh to pass we shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations.” Then in a later Medina revelation, Al-Ma’idah (The Table Spread), chapter 5 and verses 20-21, the Quran declares: “Remember when Moses said to his people: ‘O my people, remember the favors that God bestowed on you when He appointed apostles from among you, and made you kings and gave you what had never been given to any one in the world. Enter then, my people, the Holy Land that God has ordained for you, and do not turn back, or your will suffer.’”

The words of the Quran pertaining to the Jews and Palestine, of their right to live free and secure there where their prophets preached and their kings built the temple in Jerusalem, cannot be misunderstood, misread or denied. It was always incumbent on Muslims, as it is today, as part of their faith tradition to acknowledge the rights of Jews in Palestine, while denying or twisting the meaning of verses and words of the Quran to suit their contrary purposes amount to repudiating in effect the message contained in their sacred text. Muslims cannot have it both ways, venerate the Quran as divine revelation to Muhammad and then contradict those passages of the Quran, as in these instances where the words are amply clear and precise, because they find them distasteful or contrary to their tribal (nationalist) interests.

The leap Sadat made from making war against Israel to striving for peace in embracing Israel was driven as much by calculations of national interest as it required reaching back into his faith tradition to legitimate his journey to Jerusalem among his people. Sadat gave enough indication in his memoir that he had thought deeply about the journey he set out to make. Yet it is also clear that there still remained a distance for Sadat to travel in his own thinking to fully circle the politics of his people with the message of the Quran.

Sadat did not fully understand, nor did those after him, the extent to which nationalism of illiberal variety tainted with anti-Semitism that drowned Europe twice in a generation in blood and ashes corrupted the faith tradition of Arabs and pushed them into the sort of hostility against Jews that was alien to their history. Yet it is not improbable to speculate that Sadat had slowly awakened to the fact that for Arabs and Muslims to be in harmony with the world around them, to make progress as a people striving to live in accordance with the values of Islam, required fully reconciling with Jews and accepting Israel as a legitimate partner and friend in the family of nations. Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem in this sense symbolized the acceptance by a Muslim, however belated, that the rights of Jews are bestowed by God of Abraham, Moses and Muhammad, and that these rights must be unquestionably protected by Muslims if they are to remain bound by the truth of their sacred text, the Quran. In this respect Anwar Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem was an act of conversion, of coming to terms with the marvel of God’s message, and of dying in the work of repairing the broken triangle of relationship among Jews, Christians and Muslims.


This paper was given as the inaugural lecture for the Canadian Coalition for Democracies’ Annual Begin-Sadat Lecture given at the Great Hall of the Hart House, University of Toronto, on Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Mr. Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and a syndicated columnist in Canada and the United Kingdom.  A Muslim native to Calcutta, India, and a noted Islamic scholar, Prof. Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.




1 Nadav Safran, Egypt in search of Political Community (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 231.

2 Anwar Sadat, In Search of Identity (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 13.

3 Ibid., p. 21.

4 Ibid., p. 303.

5 Max I. Dimont, Jews, God and History (New York: New American Library, Signet Classic Printing, 2004), p. 191.

6 T. Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero-Worship (London: Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd., 1911) pp. 101-2.


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