On the 25th day of the lunar month of Kislev (Dec. 24, 2106), Jews around the world will celebrate the eight-day holiday of Hanukah. Hanukah commemorates the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in the second century BCE by Jewish freedom fighters (the Maccabees) who resisted the Macedonian regime in Damascus. The regime had violently attempted to enforce its polytheistic Hellenistic religion on the inhabitants of Judea — a people who held the then extraordinary belief in the one invisible God of all humankind and whose temple was in Jerusalem.
The story is told in great detail in the Book of Maccabees I and II, which, originally written in Hebrew, now survives in Greek and Latin versions in the Christian Bible. The Jews have kept the story alive through the Hanukah festival itself and the retention of the scroll of Hanukah (the Megillat Antiochus).
The story of Hanukah is the archetypal story of the fight for religious freedom. It has been adopted and celebrated by American presidents at the White House for more than a decade, as an American tribute to the biblical roots of the country’s national dedication to freedom. For 2,000 years religious Jews, Christians and Muslims, and later secular scholars, have all believed that the temple ruins lie beneath the two Muslim mosques that were later built upon the Temple Mount by conquering Arabs after the death of Muhammad — and that the surviving pre-Islamic “Wailing Wall” is the outer wall of the Temple courtyard that existed in Roman times during the ministry of Jesus.
However, the late Yasser Arafat (and since then his political heirs have taken up the cause) abruptly decided that there is no evidence that there ever was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and, therefore, that Jews — and ipso facto Israelis — have no right to claim Jerusalem as their religious, historical and political capital. A wave of Temple denial is now sweeping the Arab and Islamic world and many fellow intellectual travellers in the journalistic and archaeological world are joining the bandwagon.
The historical, archaeological and literary evidence for the existence of the sacred Jewish temple underneath and beside the two Mosques that now bestride the Temple Mount is overwhelming. It includes thousands of scholarly articles and books supported by scores of archaeological digs and studies of historical documents. The best introduction to the topic is Cambridge Professor Simon Goldhill’s most readable book, The Temple of Jerusalem.
For over a decade the Muslim authorities (the Waqf) who now control the Temple Mount have been despoiling its archaeology through illegal excavations and site destruction. Nevertheless, the physical evidence that they have discarded, and which Israeli archaeologists pore over like forensic scientists at a crime scene, shows signs of the temple’s existence, the most recent being coins minted by the Hasmonean rulers of Judea who were the royal and priestly heirs of the Maccabees, as well as coins minted during the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 AD. It was these pagan conquerors who burnt the temple and brought its sacred treasure back to Rome, and whose golden menorah was beautifully reproduced on the Arch of Titus. A three-dimensional copy of this menorah now stands in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, walking distance from where the original once stood, 2,000 years earlier.
As the Bible is rarely taught in our schools and universities, and as it has, at the same time, become popular to argue that only the winners write history (that it is to say there are no historical facts), let us see how some of the biggest winners in Middle Eastern history have written about the Temple in Jerusalem. I mean the religious and secular scholars of the conquering Muslims who made the land of Israel part of their Islamic empire until the Turks lost it to the British during the First World War.
Abu Abdallah ibn al-Hasan, also known as Hamzah al-Isfahani (from the city of Isfahan in what is now Iran) was a Persian Muslim scholar who was born in 893 AD and died around 971 AD. He wrote extensively about the pre-Islamic history of pagan Persia. Although he wrote in Arabic, historians believe that he had access to Iranian court chronicles and epics whose originals no longer exist. He was also fascinated by the history of the Jewish people. In his book called, The Chronicle of the Israelites, Al Isfahani wrote:
“… between the construction of the Temple by Solomon and the reign of Alexander, 717 years intervened; then between the destruction of the Temple by the Persians and the death of Alexander, 269 years passed. The appearance of the Messiah (peace be upon him) occurred in the 65th year since the reign of Alexander in the 51st year from the beginning of the Arsacids. The birth of the Messiah (peace be upon him) had occurred during the 42nd year of the reign of Augustus, king of the Romans. Then followed the destruction of the Temple at the hands of Titus, son of Vespasian, King of the Romans… after the warriors had been killed and their children had been taken captive to the city of Rome, and the Temple was demolished until not a single stone remained on top of the other … From the destruction of the Temple by Titus until the end of the reign of Constantine 272 years passed.”
Al Isfahani wrote during the height of what scholars of Islamic history call “classical Islam,” when Islamic intellectuals and scientists were most open to the intellectual and scientific heritage of the Greeks that they had adopted. In the above passage we see a scholar who is knowledgeable about the following things: historic periods; who conquered whom; what the chronology was; the trials and tribulations of the temple; the birth of Jesus; and the Roman conquest, which not surprisingly corresponds closely to Josephus’s description in his Jewish War (written shortly after the Roman destruction of the temple) and other historical sources. The existence of the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem is never in doubt.
Abul Al Fida, Imad Ad Din, Ismail bin Umar bin Kathir Ibn Daw Ibn Kathir (now referred to by historians as Ibn Kathir) was born outside of Damascus in 1301. He died in 1373. He was, and perhaps remains to this day, one of Sunni Islam’s most revered religious scholars of the Koran, the sayings of Muhammad (the Hadith) and interpreters of Koranic law (the Shariah). Among present day Salafists he is praised as the teacher of Ibn Taymiyya, the spiritual godfather of today’s supporters of radical Islam such as the Wahhabi Saudis and Taliban. You cannot get more orthodox.
In one of his manuscripts Ibn Kathir retells the story of Solomon and Sheba as an allegorical story of why one should worship the one God. He wrote, “After his father’s death, Solomon became king … in Jerusalem, on a huge rock, Solomon built a beautiful temple to draw the people to worship Allah. Today this building is known as the Dome of the Rock.”
Clearly In Kathir accepts the existence and place of the Jewish Temple in the heart of Jerusalem from the time of Solomon onwards. And in one of the classic books of Islam, the Qisas al Anbiya written in the 12th century by Muhammad Al Kisai, we read about the numerous adventures of King Solomon and his Temple in Jerusalem.
In 1925 the Muslim Waqf, which was and still is in charge of the mosques on the Temple Mount, published a booklet called A Brief Guide to the Haram al Sharif. It can be downloaded from the Internet as a PDF file. On page four it talks about the Dome of the Rock and states bluntly, “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.” This is also supported by the folk literature of the Jews, Christians and Muslims of the Holy land which was collected in the 19th and early 20th century. This rich and entertaining oral literature is suffused with magical tales about the Temple of the Jews that lies beneath the two mosques of the Temple Mount.
Despite the wave of Temple denial that is becoming mainstream in the Arab world today, there remains one brave contemporary scholar and Muslim religious leader who maintains the time honoured religious and historical Islamic scholarship that affirms the Jewish nature of the Temple in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount. Abdul Hadi Palazzi is a devout Muslim scholar and religious leader based in Italy. He holds a PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Naples. He has studied at Egypt’s Al Azhar University. He accepts without doubt the validity of Jewish, secular and traditional Islamic sources that locate the Temple of the Jews on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But Palazzi goes one step farther drawing on the Koran itself, especially the Sura called “The Children of Israel” to reiterate the traditional Islamic belief that the Jews are blessed in the land of their forefathers. He has said that “… the Koran specifies that the Land of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, that God himself gave that Land to them as heritage and ordered them to live therein. It also announces that … the Jewish people will come from many different countries to retake possession of that heritage of theirs.”
Simply put, Sheikh Hadi is arguing against those who deny the special Jewish connection to the land of Israel where they built a Temple to the one God in Jerusalem and where now mosques stand. He clearly argues that this also flies in the face of the erudition and integrity of some of Islam’s greatest scholars and theologians.
Although it may seem absurd today, it is still possible to hope that Hanukah will one day be celebrated by presidents in Arab capitals as a holiday that pays tribute to the important of the Temple of Jerusalem, so dear to Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world who believe in that one invisible God.