Who should own the "Kingdom of Heaven"?
In Ridley Scott’s monumental movie, "The Kingdom of Heaven" (May 2005), which is another way of saying Jerusalem according to the end of the film, the European Crusaders and the Muslim Crusaders fight over the city, with the Muslims coming out victorious.
The unexpected consequence or effect of the film, for me at least, is that I came away from the film with a deeper conviction that neither the Muslims nor the Christians should have fought over Jerusalem. The city historically and originally belonged to the Jews; they owned it a thousand years before Christ came and 1600 before Muhammad came. And when they were exiled, many came back, as soon as it was feasible; the love for this city runs deeply in them. So it belongs to them today. It is simply a myth to assume that Muslims or Christians won Jerusalem by some kind of divine right or by an unchallenged assumption that says, "of course they own the region."
With that said, however, the film makes an erroneous assumption. It assumes that the European Crusaders and the Muslim Crusaders stand on an equal footing when they fight over Jerusalem. The opposite is true. When the Medieval Christians fought over earthly ground, they abandoned the example of Jesus Christ. However, when the Muslims fought over Jerusalem and conquered other cities, they were following the example of their prophet Muhammad. So the two religions do not stand on the same ground whatsoever.
To clarify this unintended consequence and this opposing outlook on military conquest, this article is divided into two main sections. The first clarifies the early Muslim Crusades at the founding of Islam. Once we understand its origins, then we will understand its later history. The second section deals with Jesus’ view of Jerusalem and how this should influence Christians today, and the second section also analyzes the Islamic view of Jerusalem, as represented by two academic Muslims working in America.
I. The Islamic Crusades
Few Westerners know that the Muslims launched their own Crusades outside of Arabia two years after Muhammad’s death of a fever in AD 632. The first part of this article answers three questions about the early Muslim Crusades. In this article, the word Crusade (derived from the Latin word for "cross") means a holy war or jihad. It is used as a counterweight to the constant Muslim accusation that only the Europeans launched a crusade. Muslims seem to forget that they had their own, for several centuries before the Europeans launched theirs as a defense against the Islamic expansion (cf. The Real History of the Crusades).
1. Who or what inspired the Islamic Crusades?
It may surprise the reader that Muhammad was the first to launch a Crusade.
In October to December 630, after the conquest of Mecca in January 630, Muhammad launches a Crusade to Tabuk, a city in the north of Saudi Arabia today, but in the seventh century it was under the control of northern tribes. "Crusade" is the right word, because early Muslim sources say the army had 30,000 men and 10,000 horsemen and because Muhammad did so under the banner of Islam. On his way north, Muhammad extracts (or extorts) "agreements"—without provocation—from smaller Christian Arab tribes to pay the jizyah tax, instead of being attacked and killed (a jizya tax is exacted from non-Muslims for the "privilege" of living under Islam; see Sura 9:29). They also had the option to convert, but most do not and agree, rather, to pay the tax. Once the Muslims reach Tabuk, however, the Byzantine army fails to materialize. Muhammad the prophet had believed a false rumor. So Muhammad and his large army return home.
So it is Muhammad himself who inspired the first generations of Muslims to carry out his Crusades.
2. Besides following Muhammad, why else did the Muslims launch their Crusades out of Arabia in the first place?
In a complicated Crusade that lasted several centuries before the European Crusades, it is difficult to come up with a grand single theory as to what launched these Crusades. Because of this difficulty, we let three scholars and two eyewitness participants analyze the motives of the early Islamic Crusades.
Muslim apologists like Sayyid Qutb assert that Islam’s mission is to correct the injustices of the world. What he has in mind is that if Islam does not control a society, then injustice dominates it, ipso facto. But if Islam dominates it, then justice rules it (In the Shade of the Qur’an, vol. 7, pp. 8-15). Islam is expansionist and must conquer the whole world to express Allah’s perfect will on this planet, so Qutb and other Muslims believe. But this is ambiguous at best. Over the centuries until now, Islam does not represent justice. People, especially women, are oppressed in Islamic lands—for reasons beyond bad rulers like Saddam Hussein. The essence of Islam, which Qutb correctly describes elsewhere (e.g. pp. 147-50), is to control the details of society, but sharia (Islamic law) sometimes becomes excessive. Excess is never just. Nonetheless, Qutb describes Islam as politically and militarily expansionist from the very beginning, and in this he is right.
Karen Armstrong, a former nun and well-spoken, prolific author and apologist for Islam, comes up short of a satisfactory justification for the Muslim Crusades:
Once [Abu Bakr] crushed the rebellion [against Islamic rule within Arabia], Abu Bakr may well have decided to alleviate internal tensions by employing the unruly energies within the ummah [Muslim community] against external foes. Whatever the case, in 633 Muslim armies began a new series of campaigns in Persia, Syria and Iraq. (Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, New York: Ballantine, 1997, p. 226).
The key words "may well have decided" indicate doubt about the trigger, and "alleviate internal tensions" and "employing unruly energies" are hardly sufficient to justify the Islamic Crusades. Also, she notes that the "external foes" to Islam in Arabia in 633 are the Persians and the Byzantines, but they are too exhausted after years of fighting each other to pose a serious threat to Islam. Therefore, it moved into a "power vacuum," unprovoked (Armstrong p. 227). She simply does not know with certainty why Muslims marched northward out of Arabia.
Fred M. Donner, the dean of historians specializing in the early Islamic conquests, cites three large factors for the Islamic Crusades. First, the ideological message of Islam itself triggered the Muslim ruling elite simply to follow Muhammad and his conquests; Islam had a divinely ordained mission to conquer in the name of Allah. (The Early Islamic Conquests, Princeton UP, 1981, p. 270). The second factor is economic. The ruling elite "wanted to expand the political boundaries of the new state in order to secure even more fully than before the trans-Arab commerce they had plied for a century or more" (p. 270). The final factor is political control. The rulers wanted to maintain their top place in the new political hierarchy by having aggressive Arab tribes migrate into newly conquered territories (p. 271).
However replete these three factors are with ideas, we do not need to explore them further except to note that they have nothing to do with just wars of self-defense. Early Islam was merely being aggressive without sufficient provocation from the surrounding Byzantine and Persian Empires.
Khalid al-Walid (d. 642), a bloodthirsty but superior commander of the Muslim armies at the time, also answers the question as to why the Muslims stormed out of Arabia, in his terms of surrender set down to the governor of al-Hirah, a city along the Euphrates River in Iraq. He is sent to call people to Islam or pay a "protection" tax for the "privilege" of living under Islamic rule (read: not to be attacked again) as dhimmis or second-class citizens. Says Khalid:
"I call you to God and to Islam. If you respond to the call, you are Muslims: You obtain the benefits they enjoy and take up the responsibilities they bear. If you refuse, then [you must pay] the jizyah. If you refuse the jizyah, I will bring against you tribes of people who are more eager for death than you are for life. We will fight you until God decides between us and you." (Tabari, The Challenge to the Empires, trans. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, NY: SUNYP, 1993, vol. 11, p. 4; Arabic page 2017)
Thus, according to Khalid religion is early Islam’s primary motive (though not the only one) of conquering people, so Donner is right about his first factor.
Khalid also says that if some do not convert or pay the tax, then they must fight an army that loves death as other people love life. This clause inspires Osama bin Laden and Palestinian terrorists today, who blow themselves up along with innocent civilians because the bombers love death more than the Christians and Jews love life. Osama bin Ladin issues a lengthy fatwa against Zionist-Crusaders (Jews and Christians) and concludes about his jihadists: "These youths love death as you love life." In 2000, Azzam al-Tamimi, PhD in Political Theory and head of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, in his article "Hizbullah’s Gift to Palestine," also draws inspiration from those words in early Islam.
But material benefit must be included in this not-so-holy call, as Donner notes. When Khalid perceived that his Muslim Crusaders desired to return to Arabia, he pointed out how luscious the land of the Persians was:
"Do you not regard [your] food like a dusty gulch? By God, if struggle for God’s sake and calling [people] to God were not required of us, and there were no consideration except our livelihood, the wise opinion would [still] have been to strike this countryside until we possess it" ... (Tabari 11:20 / 2031)
At the time of this "motivational" speech, the Empire of Persia included Iraq, and this is where Khalid is warring. Besides his religious goal of Islamicizing its inhabitants by warfare, Khalid’s goal is to "possess" the land.
Like Pope Urban II in 1095 exhorting the Medieval Crusaders to war against the Muslim "infidels" for the first time, in response to Muslim aggression that had been going on for centuries. Abu Bakr gives his own speech in 634, exhorting Muslims to war against the "infidels," though he is not as long-winded as the Pope. From his short sermon Abu Bakr says:
... Indeed, the reward in God’s book for jihad in God’s path is something for which a Muslim should love to be singled out, by which God saved [people] from humiliation, and through which He has bestowed nobility in this world and the next. (Tabari 11:80 / 2083-84)
Thus, the Caliph repeats the Quran’s trade of this life for the next, in an economic bargain and in the context of jihad (cf. Suras 4:74; 9:111 and 61:10-13). This offer of martyrdom, agreeing with Donner’s first factor, religious motivation, is enough to get young Muslims to sign up for and to launch their Crusades out of Arabia in the seventh century.
3. Did the Islamic Crusades force conversions by the sword?
Historical facts demonstrate that most of the conquered cities and regions accepted the last of the three options set forth in Sura 9:29 and enforced by the later Muslim Crusaders: fight and die, convert, or pay the jizya tax. They preferred to remain in their own religion and to pay the tax. However, people eventually converted. After all, Islamic lands are called such for a reason—or many reasons. Why?
Four Muslim apologists whitewash the reasons people converted, so their scholarship is suspect.
First, Malise Ruthven and Azim Nanji use the Quran to explain later historical facts: "Islam expanded by conquest and conversion. Although it was sometimes said that the faith of Islam was spread by the sword, the two are not the same. The Koran states unequivocally, ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (Sura 2:256)." (Historical Atlas of Islam, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard, 2004, 30). According to them, the Quran says there should be no compulsion, so the historical facts conform to a sacred text. This shaky reasoning is analyzed, below.
Next, David Dakake also references Sura 2:256, and defines compulsion very narrowly. Jihad has been misrepresented as forcing Jews, Christians, and other peoples of the Middle East, Asia and Africa to convert to Islam "on pain of death." ("The Myth of Militant Islam," Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, ed. J.E.B. Lumbard, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004, p. 13). This is too narrow a definition of compulsion, as we shall see, below.
Finally, Qutb, also citing Sura 2:256, is even more categorical: "Never in its history did Islam compel a single human being to change his faith" (In the Shade of the Qur’an, vol. 8, p. 307). This is absurd on its face, and it only demonstrates the tendentiousness of Islamic scholarship, which must be challenged at every turn here in the West.
These four apologists, representing others, seem to follow this odd logic:
But history does not follow abstract logic. Did the vast majority of conquered peoples make such fine distinctions, even if a general amnesty were granted to People of the Book? Maybe a few diehards did, but the majority? Most people at this time did not know how to read or could barely read, so when they saw a Muslim army outside their gates, why would they not convert, even if eventually? To Ruthven’s and Nanji’s credit, they come up with other reasons to convert besides the sword, such as people’s fatigue with church squabbles, a few doctrinal similarities, simplicity of the conversion process, a desire to enter the ranks of the new ruling elite, and so on. But using the Quran to interpret later facts paints the history of Islam into a corner of an unrealistically high standard.
Indeed, militant Christianity does not live up to it. Jesus said that "if anyone would come after me" ... (Matt. 16:24). The word "if" shows that Jesus did not force anyone, and this is the implied starting point in the following logic. Would a Muslim apologist believe this about the Medieval European Crusades?
This is the same unsound logic that the four Muslim apologists use in their explanation of the Muslim Crusades. But this is completely inaccurate and wrong. Rather, everyone agrees that Medieval Crusaders did not always act exemplarily or that they sometimes forced conversions. Hence, this misguided connection between Scripture and later historical facts does not hold together. Revelations or ideals should not run roughshod over later historical facts, as if all followers obey their Scriptures perfectly. Actually, modus tollens (denying the consequent or "then" clause) works better here.
The historical fact in the eighth premise leads to a better conclusion. This must be repeated: The Medieval Crusaders did not follow Jesus Christ closely when they slashed and burned or forced conversions. The same cannot be said for the Muslim Crusaders, for they in fact closely followed their founder when they slashed and burned and forced conversions.
To his credit, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), late Medieval statesman, jurist, historian, and scholar, has enough integrity and candor to balance out these four Muslim apologists, writing a history that is still admired by historians today. He states the obvious:
In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. (The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History (abridged), trans. Franz Rosenthal, Princeton UP, 1967, p. 183)
In these thirty-three words lies the insight that follows common sense. When the Islamic Crusaders go out to conquer, carrying an Islamic banner inscribed in Arabic of the glory and the truth of their prophet, Ibn Khaldun would not deny that the army’s mission, besides the material reasons of conquest, is to convert the inhabitants. Islam is a universalizing religion, and if its converts enter its fold either by persuasion or force, then that is the nature of Islam.
Moreover, Ibn Khaldun explains why a dynasty rarely establishes itself firmly in lands of many different tribes and groups. But it can be done after a long time and employing the following tactics, as seen in the Maghrib (N and NW Africa) from the beginning of Islam to Ibn Khaldun’s own time:
The first (Muslim) victory over them and the European Christians (in the Maghrib) was of no avail. They continued to rebel and apostatized time after time. The Muslims massacred many of them. After the Muslim religion had been established among them, they went on revolting and seceding, and they adopted dissident religious opinions many times. They remained disobedient and unmanageable .... Therefore, it has taken the Arabs a long time to establish their dynasty in the ... Maghrib. (p. 131)
Using wisdom that is based on observation, the Medieval Muslim scholar acknowledges that slaughter occurred not only to establish a worldly dynasty, but also to force people to convert to the true religion by the sword, even though some of the inhabitants in the Maghrib were People of the Book, European Christians. If they did not convert, then "the Muslims massacred many of them," he says, matter-of-factly. This excerpt also shows that many did not want to become Muslims, or when they gave up and became Muslims, they "apostatized [and] ... adopted dissident religious opinions ... and remained disobedient." Therefore, freedom of religion was not the purpose of Islam, as it was not in Muhammad’s days, when he conquered Mecca and the Arabian Peninsula.
Though European Crusaders may have been sincere, they wandered off from the origins of Christianity when they slashed and burned and forced conversions. Jesus never used violence; neither did he call his disciples to use it. Given this historical fact, it is only natural that the New Testament would never endorse violence to spread the word of the true God. Textual reality matches historical reality.
In contrast, Muslims who slashed and burned and forced conversions did not wander off from the origins of Islam, but followed it closely. It is a plain and unpleasant historical fact that in the ten years that Muhammad lived in Medina (622-632), he either sent out or went out on seventy-four raids, expeditions, or full-scale wars, which range from small assassination hit squads to the Tabuk Crusade, described above. Sometimes the expeditions did not result in violence, but a Muslim army always lurked in the background. Muhammad could exact a terrible vengeance on an individual or tribe that double-crossed him. These ten years did not know long stretches of peace.
Given these real-life and historical facts, it is only natural that Muhammad’s Quran would be filled with references to jihad and qital, the latter word meaning only fighting, killing, warring, and slaughtering. Textual reality matches historical reality. Therefore, Muslim Crusaders did not wander off the original path of their founder Muhammad.
After Jesus’ death and Resurrection, his disciples in the first three centuries (Constantine comes in the fourth century) turned the world upside down by simply preaching the love of God, never by swinging a sword. After Muhammad’s death, his disciples turned the world upside down in the first few centuries by swinging a sword or by forcing a city’s surrender with a large army backing up the peace treaty and the jizya tax.
That is the difference that Ridley Scott’s film overlooked.
II. Why the Jews alone should own the "Kingdom of Heaven"
We now come to the second part of the article, which answers why Muslims and Christians should lay no claim over Jerusalem or the "Kingdom of Heaven." It belongs to the Jews alone.
According to prolific and prominent Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, Muhammad transforms Jerusalem into a holy site for Muslims primarily in three ways ("The Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem: The Islamic Vision. The Islamic Quarterly. 4 (1998): pp. 233-242).
First, the prophet used Jerusalem as his first qiblah (prayer direction), which therefore provides a "mystical" link between Mecca and Jerusalem.
Second, while Muhammad was still living in Mecca he reports that he took a Night Journey to Jerusalem in a vision, even though Jerusalem is never mentioned by name. According to MAS Abdel Haleem’s translation for Oxford University Press (2004), the two passages in the surah (or chapter), itself entitled Night Journey, read:
17:1 Glory to Him who made His servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship [Mecca] to the furthest place of worship [Jerusalem], whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him some of Our signs ...
17:59 ... We send signs only to give warning. 60 Prophet, We have told you that your Lord knows all human beings. The vision We showed you was only a test for people ...
This non-empirical revelation contains two basic ideas: First, as the context around verses 59 and 60 show, Muhammad was undergoing some persecution in Mecca; the polytheists were asking for a sign of Muhammad’s prophethood. He replies that he is only an ordinary man, so he cannot perform them. The only sign Allah gives him is a vision. Second, this revelation parallels the one in 2:144, which permits Muhammad to take over the Kabah shrine before he actually does. The two passages are mutually supportive. Verse 1 reads: ... "whose surroundings We have blessed" .... Allah blesses the location (read: Jerusalem, though the Quran never says this), as He will bless Mecca a few years later. It should be noted that later tradition says that while in Jerusalem Muhammad was taken up to the seventh heaven, giving the vision extra significance for Muslims today.
The third factor is this: Muslims, says Nasr, believe in the Second Coming of Christ to Jerusalem. Therefore the city is sacred to Muslims and to Christians—according to Nasr. But this is misleading, for Muslim theology says that Jesus will return as a leader of Muslims and break the cross to show how wrong Christians have been, in following their Lord (Bukhari 3:425; 3:656; 4:657; and Muslim no. 289). Also, these hadiths say nothing about Jerusalem. Rather, traditional belief says that he is supposed to return to Damascus, as this Islamic website states. But let us assume, only for the sake of argument, that Nasr is correct about Jerusalem. Then his assertion still fails, for the reasons explained now.
The empirical and political implications of these three factors (the qiblah, the Night Vision, and the Second Coming) are enormous: Muslim ownership over Jerusalem. With these three factors combined, Jerusalem is now the third holiest site for Muslims and therefore a place of pilgrimage and alleged ownership.
According to this dubious epistemology, revelation takes priority over history; indeed, revelation makes or creates history. Even Nasr, a modern scholar, accepts this epistemology:
Not all the Palestinians nor all the Arabs nor even all the over one billion two hundred million Muslims now living in the world could give Jerusalem away for no matter what amount of wealth, power, land, or any other worldly compensation. The attachment to Jerusalem is permanent and will last as long as human history itself. (p. 234)
His inference makes three controversial claims.
First, the words "Muslims living all over the world now living could not give Jerusalem away" assume that Jerusalem is owned by the Muslims already. Could it be that Nasr is following the path or sunna of Muhammad as the prophet claimed Mecca before he actually owned it?
Second, those same words assume that "Muslims living all over the world" actually worry about Jerusalem and controlling it. However, more evidence of this needs to be offered. It is doubtful whether the millions in Indonesia care about not giving it away for any "amount of wealth, power, and, or any other worldly compensation." Nasr speaks for too many people.
Third, Nasr brings up "human history" in the last sentence, but it is precisely this element that is missing in his three factors. Jerusalem is sacred to Muslims supposedly all over the world mainly due to non-empirical revelations that not everyone agrees with and that cannot be verified in history.
*Waleed El-Ansary, the second Muslim scholar, draws this outlandish conclusion about Jerusalem:
Perhaps the only ways to achieve peace in the Middle East would be for Jerusalem to be depoliticized. It should not be a political capital of either Israel or Palestine, but be given a unique status as a spiritually sovereign entity under a theocracy of the traditional representatives of the Abrahamic religions .... ("The Economics of Terrorism," in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, ed. J.E.B Lumbard, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004, p. 216).
However noble and lofty his conclusion may sound, it has never crossed my mind, as a Christian, that the Jews should relinquish control of Jerusalem and let a representative theocracy rule over it. Why not?
The answer can be found in simple logic too:
We do not need to answer each premise one by one, since that would involve multiplying words about evidence that is non-existent. No evidence shows Jesus transforming Jerusalem (or any other city) into a holy site, and certainly not in the way Muhammad did to Mecca—by the sword—nor did he institute a required pilgrimage to a holy site.
It is true that Jesus wept over Jerusalem because as a whole she did not accept his comfort (Luke 19:38-44); and that he cleansed the temple there with a whip (Luke 19:45-46), but he did this by himself, which shows he was making only a theological statement, not a military one. If his intentions were military, then he had enough disciples and crowds to call them to a holy war to try to conquer Jerusalem. It is also true that he foretold her destruction (Luke 21:20); that he instituted the first Eucharist there (Luke 22:7-23); that he died there (Luke 23:26-49); and that he was resurrected there (Luke 24:1-12).
All of these events are historically and empirically verifiable, as opposed to non-empirical revelations. Despite all of these events that are rooted in earth and not floating in the air, Jesus never once turned Jerusalem into a place of pilgrimage or declared that it should belong forever to his followers, the Christians.
Thus, Nasr misses the mark widely when he writes:
... [B]y virtue of accepting Christianity, Christians are duty bound to have a special attachment to Jerusalem as did their forefathers who even fought bloody wars known as the Crusades for over a century with the declared intention of regaining control of the holy city, who oriented their churches in Europe in its direction and who have made pilgrimage to the holy city during the past two millennia. (p. 234)
The key words are "duty bound." Why does he impose that duty? Bloody wars? Oriented European Medieval churches? Free-will pilgrimages? These are not nearly sufficient for the average Evangelical Christian anywhere in the world. It is difficult to imagine that Thai or Korean evangelicals, for example, ever feel duty bound for those reasons, and certainly not for non-existent New Testament reasons. The American ones I know do not feel duty bound.
It is one thing for a devout Christian to follow his heart on a personal pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to derive spiritual benefit, but it is quite another to follow one’s alleged bound duty or command to go on one and to insist that Jerusalem should come under the political control of Christians, especially to the point of bloodshed.
And as to the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming (Nasr’s third factor), Christians believe that Christ will return when the Father pleases. Whoever is squabbling over Jerusalem at that time will have to submit to his reign. True, professional Bible prophecy teachers believe that the Bible teaches Jews own Jerusalem, but they do so for a simpler reason than reading current events and matching them up with the Bible.
American Evangelicals (including Bible prophecy teachers) are faced with three grounds of epistemology on which to make some choices: (1) history, which says that the Jews own Jerusalem; (2) the non-existence of evidence in the New Testament that says Christians should own Jerusalem (what Christ’s later followers like the Crusaders did is another matter, but they do not set the genetic code for Christianity); and (3) Islamic revelation that says Muhammad transformed Jerusalem into a holy site—which is completely unacceptable to Bible-educated Christians.
The vast majority of Evangelicals in America choose the first epistemological option simply because the Bible and history outside the Bible agree that Jews have lived there long before Christians and Muslims arrived on the scene, and because the Christian Founder never said it belonged to the Christians.
However, Christians (and Jews) should respect later Islamic revelation (the third option)—respecting is different from agreeing with—that says Jerusalem is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Fulfilling a pledge to take a non-violent pilgrimage to the Jews’ sacred city harms no one materially or politically.
Yet, Muslims should understand why Bible-educated and Bible-believing Christians claim that the ownership of Jerusalem belongs to the Jews. History trumps revelation, which is always better epistemologically when a revelation and its inferences can become politically charged and are not believed by everyone. Thus, moderate Muslim scholars should understand our position thoroughly before imposing a non-existent, mystical duty on us, as Nasr does.
Instead of an earthly Jerusalem, Christians are looking for a New Jerusalem in heaven (Revelation 21). They are on a pilgrimage to the City of God (as Augustine calls it), not to a mundane city. Therefore, it is not hard for us to let plain ole history take priority over earthward and political revelations.
And plain ole history says Jews should be able to live in and govern their holy city in peace.