Karen Armstrong's Jerusalem--One City, Three Faiths

 Author reviews Armstrong's Jerusalem, a book that contains many "puzzling and undocumented assertions. (Ballantine Books ed., 1997, 474 pp. illustrated with maps and photographs).

Reviewed by Norman Golb
 Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

    In addition to her contribution here under review, Karen Armstrong is the author of ten other books on the great monotheistic faiths and related topics, perhaps the best known of which is her A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (London, 1993). Incrementally, each one of these works has enhanced her reputation as a transmitter of scholarly findings to wide audiences of readers and (no less important) as a serious thinker on questions of a religious nature, particularly as they intertwine with events of history. 

    One might say, in this respect, that her JERUSALEM is vintage Armstrong. The book traces all the known major involvements of ancient and modern peoples with the city. To be sure, Armstrong suggests that the book is "merely an attempt to find out what Jews, Christians and Muslims have meant when they have said that the city is "holy" to them and to point out some of the implications of Jerusalem's sanctity in each tradition" (p. xxi). In point of fact, this latter theme appears only occasionally within the work as a whole, which reviews most of the known facts and events relating to the city, beginning with its earliest Canaanite incarnation (Chap. 1), continuing with the periods of Israelite domination, exile and return (Chaps. 2-5), then onward through the Hasmonaean, Roman and Byzantine/Christian periods (Chaps.11-13), the Islamic middle ages including the Crusade episodes (Chaps. 11-14), and finally the periods of Ottoman rule and modern times up until recent events (Chaps. 15-18). All this history is related in a most engaging literary style, accompanied by numerous maps, photographs and diagrams that make the attraction of the work all the greater. Present-day readers who are not specialists in this field of study, with its complex and variegated aspects and daunting linguistic challenges, will surely learn much from this volume, and some will even be convinced by her own particular interpretations of the manifold events and ideas she has set out to study and comment upon.

    At the same time, it must be said, however reluctantly, that there are problems with this book that readers with a critical eye will hardly be unable to recognize. Perhaps foremost among these is Armstrong’s treatment of the aforementioned “holiness of Jerusalem” theme. She explains her stated effort to explore the implications, in each tradition, of that concept by suggesting that this attempt “seems just as important as deciding who was in the city first and who, therefore, should own it, especially since the origins of Jerusalem are shrouded in obscurity.” This proffered dichotomy can only have the effect of throwing dust in the reader’s eye: neither Jews nor Muslims claim that they were the first inhabitants of the city which in time became known as Jerusalem. What this statement has the effect of obscuring is that the author’s main purpose—as quoted in the first paragraph above—does not include an expressed interest in explaining when and how this concept of Jerusalem’s holiness was created. Nor is the effort made within the body of the book to explicate this matter, despite the obvious fact that many lay readers coming to this subject for the first time will have only a fuzzy notion about the entire matter.

    In point of fact, available texts of antiquity indicate that the concept was created by one or more personalities among the Jewish spiritual leadership, and that this occurred no later than the 6th century B.C. The prophet usually identified as Deutero-Isaiah, whom learned opinion generally places in that age, addresses the city with the words “. . . clothe yourself with the garments of your glory, O Jerusalem, holy city . . . (yerushalayim ‘ir haqodesh, Isaiah 52.1) and, after him,the author of Nehemiah refers to those selected “to dwell in Jerusalem the holy city’ (11.1). The author of the Book of Daniel, addressing none other than God, refers to “Your holy city” (‘ir qodsheka, Dan. 9.24). The meaning of this “holiness” of Jerusalem is defined to some extent by a passage in Psalms (87.3) that speaks of Zion (an epithet for Jerusalem) as “the city of the Lord” (same expression in Psalms 46.5 and, with YHWH instead of elohim, in Isaiah 60.14); Zechariah states (8.3) that “Jerusalem shall be called the city of truth,” adding something further to the concept of Jerusalem’s sacredness created by representative figures of post-exilic Judaism. That concept was thereafter reinforced in literally hundreds of sayings of the early rabbinic masters. (Footnote 1. See, e.g., the numerous citations brought forward in Bialik’s Sefer ha’agadah (Tel-Aviv, 1960), passim; one can today conveniently isolate all known Jerusalem citations of the pre-Islamic rabbinic period, in their hundreds, by consulting the Bar-Ilan CD-Rom rabbinic literature program.)

    Armstrong asserts (p. 422) that, within Christianity, “devotion to the city came quite late and almost took Christians by surprise,” but here again something important is missing from her account. In its early emergence, Christianity had created, among other ideas, the doctrine now often referred to as supercessionism, which held, inter alia, that those of Christian belief, and not the Jews themselves, were the “True Israel” and as such the sole authentic spiritual heirs and interpreters of the entire Bible. For them, Isaiah and the other Hebrew prophets were wondrous bearers of truth who had not only foretold the coming of Christ but proclaimed many other authentic doctrines of their faith. Belief in the holiness of Jerusalem , as so many other ideas originally unique to the Hebrew Bible, was taken over by the Christians from the Jews. Armstrong conscientiously describes the struggle during the early Christian centuries among the divisions in Christianity over the question of the nature and degree of holiness of physical Jerusalem (pp. 174 ff., and see especially her interesting chapter “Christian Holy City, pp. 194-216), but nothing in that account leads one to expect her later statement about Christians being taken almost by surprise in their devotion to the city. One might at least have expected that, if only by way of reasonable balance with this puzzling statement, the author would somewhere in this book acknowledge the fundamental borrowing and trace it back to its origins.

    All the more is this the case in view of the author’s treatment of the early Muslim period and, more particularly, of Islamic belief regarding the holiness of Jerusalem. Despite contradictorily stating (p. 224) that “there is nothing in the Qur’an to link the Remote Mosque” with Jerusalem, Armstrong asserts (p. 221) that “ . . . from the earliest years (my italics) the Muslims were taught to regard three places as sacred centers of the world”— meaning, as she goes on to explicate, Mecca, Medinah and Jerusalem, in that order of holiness. This assertion stands in contrast with the wording of the Quran, which nowhere explicitly mentions Jerusalem by name; we find neither al-Quds, Beit al-Muqaddas, Ursalim, or Ilia anywhere in that book. There are a few obscure epithets used in the Quran that post-Quranic interpreters claim are allusions to Jerusalem, but the claim is, to the best of my knowledge, unsupported by any philological proof, and only one such epithet—the masjid al-aqsa (“most distant mosque”) figuring in the well-known account of Muhammad’s miraculous “night journey” — contains any reference to holiness or a sacred state of being. 

    The passage in which this latter phrase occurs may be rendered: “Praise be He who at night carried aloft His servant from the Sacred Mosque to the most distant [or “remote”] mosque, whose environs we blessed, so that We might show him some of Our signs.” Out of this, some post-Quranic interpreters who flourished, as far as we know, only after the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 637, developed the view that mention of this latter mosque alluded to the Temple of Jerusalem, and that Muhammad had experienced a transmigration (mi’raj) to the Lord’s heavenly abode while standing upon the rock around which the Dome of the Rock was erected. Other Quranic interpreters, however, opposed this exegesis, and verbal battles on the question of the degree of holiness of Jerusalem, and whether Muhammad’s night flight was or was not connected with that city, proliferated during the first several centuries of Islam. [Note 2: Cf. Izhak Hasson’s detailed study, “The Muslim View of Jerusalem, the Quran and Hadith” in J. Prawer and H. Ben-Shammai, The History of Jerusalem—The Early Muslim Period (Jerusalem 1996), pp. 349-385. This latter study (which appeared in the same year as did the first edition of Armstrong’s book) contains a detailed bibliography of earlier writings on the subject, including numerous Arabic titles, ibid. pp. 379-382; it also includes a full English translation of the ebullient pro-Jerusalem dicta gathered by Muqatil b. Sulaiman (died 768), ibid. pp.383-385.] We observe in passing that, despite the fact that there are those who regard the claimed connection of masjid al-aqsa with the Jerusalem Temple as a certainty, there was no standing Temple or other place of worship on the Temple Mount during the lifetime of Muhammad, while at the one point in the Quran (30.1) where there is a quite certain reference to contemporary events in Palestine, viz., ghulibati l-rumu fi adna ‘l-ardi (“the Greeks [=Byzantines] have been vanquished in the nearby land”), the term adna, “nearby” or “nearest,” stands in stark contrast with the expression “most distant mosque” claimed to allude to the Jerusalem Temple. 

    Armstrong also writes that Muhammad taught his first converts “to turn away from the Ka’abah [i.e., in Mecca—N.G.] to face Jerusalem” in prayer (p.222), and that “Muslims never forgot” that their first direction of prayer [i.e., their qiblah] had been towards Jerusalem. No Quranic statement offers proof of this latter claim either. The Quran (2,142 ff.) does speak of his followers’ former customary direction of prayer (qiblatihimi ‘llati kanu ‘alaiha) prior to their being commanded to face the (Meccan) “Sacred Mosque” (al-masjid al-haram), and there is a commonly held view fostered, once again, by Quran interpreters living after, and not before, the Muslim conquest of Palestine, that the former direction alluded to was that towards Jerusalem. However, the “former direction” may as well allude to (1) a former pagan direction of prayer, (2) the eastward direction favored by Christians, or (3)—because Arabia lay south of Jerusalem—the northern direction, generally speaking, that the Jews of Mecca, Medinah and other Arabian localities would have faced in conducting their daily prayers. The Quran, after all, contains many passages showing both Jewish and Christian influence. The aforementioned verse itself, however, proves nothing about any particular adulation, either by Muhammad or by his followers, of Jerusalem, or any awareness of its holy status, but at the most only hints that the believers may, early on, have taken up the practice of the Arabian Jews in turning to the north for their daily prayers, just as they adopted other practices and beliefs of the Jews described in the Quran—a feature of earliest Islam that, puzzlingly, Armstrong does not appear to deal with in her book. We observe parenthetically that, although it was indeed the case that, after the flight from Mecca to Medinah, Muhammad and his followers turned against the Arabian Jews and decimated their population, that can hardly be properly construed to mean, as she would have us believe (p. 220) that during the followers’ “struggle for survival (my italics—N.G.) three of the most important Jewish tribes of Yathrib were either expelled from the settlement or massacred.” This is, to say the least, a most novel way on the part of an English writer to treat this subject and appears to show an apologetic streak in the author’s writing that manifests itself in this book more than occasionally. 


Armsrtong's treatment of holiness is also problematic; nowhere in the Quran do we read about the holiness of Jerusalem. It is rather a theme which begins to be sounded in Islamic literature only after the Muslim conquest of Palestine (634-638 A.D.) and, as an obvious result of that conquest, after contact of the Muslim newcomers with its Jewish population. From the literary evidence at our disposal, it is quite obvious that the Muslims, as the Christians beforehand, did not come to understand and to appreciate the concept of Jerusalem’s sacredness until Jews in Jerusalem (and perhaps Christians as well) made them aware of it, or as Muslims themselves otherwise experienced the manifestations of that concept once they had settled in the city; and it must have taken them several decades to fully assimilate the implications of their control over it. The Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ordered the building of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount only in 688 A.D.— a full half-century after the Byzantine surrender of the city. Armstrong, however, does not take up the problematics of the interpretation she has chosen to embrace but rather gives the impression of seeming to put this matter aside in favor of emphasizing Islamic religious originality. That characteristic of Islamic religion should certainly be emphasized where emphasis is due, but when she makes such undocumented statements as that “From a very early period the Muslims felt that a visit to their new shrine took them back to the primal harmony of paradise” (p. 239) or that the rock and circular dome “symbolize the spiritual ascent to wholeness and perfection” (p. 240), or that by erecting the Dome and restoring the Mount “Muslims expressed their conviction (my italics—N.G.) that their new faith was rooted in the sanctity of the older traditions” (p. 236), the author appears not so much to be fundamentally exploring the Islamic concept of holiness as to be urging upon her readers religious interpretations of her own making.

    Among many other equally puzzling and undocumented assertions found in Armstrong’s book are the following:

    1. Pp. 40-45: With reference to David’s bringing the Ark of the Lord up to Jebus, (Jerusalem’s prior name), “Other famous Jerusalemites [besides Uriah] who would become very important in the Jewish tradition may also have been Jebusites. One of these was Nathan . . . Zadok, the chief priest of Jerusalem, may also have been a Jebusite . . . Zadok is a Jebusite name, . . . Religion is still used as grounds for appropriating territory in the Near East . . . By conveying the Ark to Jerusalem, David was gradually appropriating the city. . . ” It is regrettable to find jejune interpretations of biblical texts being used in a modern book, as here, to support a contemporary political agenda, particularly when there is no hint of that agenda in the book’s title. 

    2. P. 81: “The Temple was destroyed, but in Babylon the exiles learned to find God in the Law of Moses, making of the sacred text a new shrine.” I am unaware of any ancient or medieval Hebrew author who suggested, or whose thought would imply, that the Pentateuch or any other writing was to be considered a shrine— an idea that belongs more in the category of new-age spiritualism than sober historical discourse.

    3. P. 127: During Herod’s time, when the High Priest put on his sacred garments “he was . . . empowered to approach YHWH.” P. 137: After Antiochus, emphasis was not placed “on the social concern which had always been regarded as an essential concomitant of the Zion cult;” p. and passim (italics mine—N.G.). Given developments in late Second Temple Jewish religious thinking that are by now widely known, as well as the terminology used by Armstrong herself to describe Islamic belief, the appropriate expressions would be “to approach the Lord” and “Judaean religious and social thought.”

    4. P. 137: The Associates (haberim) “pledged themselves to live perpetually in the state of ritual purity that was necessary for Temple worship.” There is no hint in the Tannaitic texts describing this group that their observance of ritual purity was anything other than an effort to scrupuously observe the Pentateuchal laws of purity per se. No ancient statement attributable to this group adduces Temple worship as its raison d’etre.

    5 Ibid.: The piety characteristic of the Associates’ joint meals “made each home a temple and brought the sacred reality of Jerusalem into the humblest 
house.” P.166: The Tannaitic rabbinical figures “taught that the home had in some sense replaced the Temple: calling the family house a miqdash m’at (small sanctuary): the family table replaced the altar, and the family meal replicated the sacrificial cult.” The expression miqdash m’at is, to the best of my knowledge, used only to describe a synagogue. Armstrong cites no ancient text-passages where this and the other cited assertions might be found. 

    6 P. 167: The synagogue building had an “element of holiness and, like the vanished Jerusalem sanctuary, had a hierarchy of sacred places . . . . The women had their own section . . . ; the room where the sacrifice was conducted was holier; then came the bimah (reading desk) and, finally, the ark containing the scrolls of the Torah . . . ” Sacrifices were, however, not conducted in synagogues, and there was no such room in them; the synagogue, moreover, is not characterized in rabbinic sources as a place having an “element” of holiness, but as a building whose holiness is exceeded only by that of a school.

    7 P. 167: After the Temple was destroyed, Jews celebrated Passover “with a family meal at which the father, clad in white, officiates as a priest . . . ” —with which compare p.156, where Armstrong states that, at Yabneh, Yohanan ben Zakkai “and his fellow rabbis, many of whom had served as priests in the Temple, began to build a new Judaism.” (Italics mine—N.G.) These assertions grossly overstate the priestly role in post-biblical rabbinic Judaism. Virtually no Tannaitic master was of priestly descent, and written traditions pertaining to the Passover seder do not describe the officiant as serving qua priest.

    8 P. 156: Many of the [rabbinic] laws were concerned with the Temple ritual, and to this day when Jews study this legislation, they are engaged in an imaginary reconstruction of the lost Temple in which they recover a sense of the divine at its heart.” On the contrary, the great majority of rabbinic laws do not deal with Temple ritual, which, in addition, is hardly ever studied today in the rabbinical schools. According to ancient recorded Jewish tradition, rabbinical students achieve a sense of the divine through intense study of Jewish law in the schools, whose curricula as a rule have not included and do not include the laws regarding Temple ritual. I have occasionally studied those laws for their historical interest, but my perception of Armstrong’s description is that it is imaginary.

    9 P. 255: The Karaite Daniel al-Qumisi (not “al-Qumusi”) supposedly emigrated with his companions from Damaghan in the province of Qumis (not “from Khurasan”) to Jerusalem where “he came across documents belonging to the Qumran sect . . . . These . . . Scrolls convinced Daniel that the exile of the Jews would shortly end . . .” However, although Hebrew texts were discovered during the ninth century in a cave near Jericho, there is no evidence that Daniel al-Qumisi ever saw such texts or that they were writings similar or identical with those found in the 20th century in caves near Khirbet Qumran; one would moreover be hard put to meet a scholar of the Qumran texts who has succeeded in demonstrating an affinity between the contents of any particular scroll and the ideas of Daniel al-Qumisi. Nor is there any extant evidence that Sahl b. Masliah was “Daniel’s disciple” (ibid). Hasty writing, however unintentional, can easily mislead. 

    10 P. 426: “In exile, Zion became an image of salvation and reconciliation to the Jews. Not surprisingly, al-Quds has become even more precious to the Palestinians in their exile. Two peoples, who have both endured an annihilation, now seek healing in the same Holy City.” The highly personal, arbitrary and undocumented statements cited above, and others like them found in the book, pale when compared to this most unfortunate characterization of historical events of the past seven decades.

    Armstrong’s treatment is obviously not totally innocent. The book’s rhetoric, judging from the above citations and many other passages, seems pitched towards gaining the reader’s assent to certain of the author’s own conclusions regarding the political situation now prevailing in Israel and the territories, with particular focus on Jerusalem. In the end, Armstrong’s view of this matter emerges as decidedly partisan, not at all flowing of necessity either from the documented historical facts presented by the author or from those sources relating to it that remain untreated by her.

    As for the statement quoted above that the book merely attempts to determine what members of the three monotheistic faiths mean when they say the city is “holy” to them, etc., it must be said that that effort has produced few genuine new findings in the book—something which could only be accomplished by a careful study, in the original languages, of the pertinent Semitic terms within their literary contexts. The Meccan Mosque, for example, is sometimes referred to in Islamic sources as hatim al-masajid (the seal, or highest, of the mosques) and at other times as al-masjid al-haram (the forbidden mosque); the two mosques together, i.e., of Mecca and Medina, are collectively called al-haramain (i.e., the two harams); while the Jerusalem mosque is generally known as al-haram al-sharif (i.e., the noble haram )— and these are different expressions altogether than the beit al-muqaddas used with respect to the Jerusalem Temple or Jerusalem itself. The latter expression contains the same roots as— and appears to derive specifically from—the Hebrew beit hamiqdash, commonly translated as “the House of Holiness,” but the terms miqdash, qadosh, qedushah and others derived from the same root, in fact, have multiple meanings in biblical Hebrew, not just the sense of “holiness” as speakers of English generally understand that term. Mastery of the terminology and ideational complex of the subject of “holiness” or “sanctity” as a whole, over and across several religious traditions, is a daunting task. Armstrong supplies imaginative ideas regarding what she considers to be the state of mind of Jews, Muslims and Christians vis-a-vis venerated objects, structures, and concepts found within the separate traditions, but as a rule her interpretations, except when footnoted as they occasionally are, are not found in the actual sources of the religious traditions. Armstrong’s goal as set forth in her introduction remains elusive, but it may surely be hoped that she will treat this subject in greater depth in future publications.

Norman Golb is a distinguished Professor at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago   


Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.