Palestine, and particularly Jerusalem at its heart, has been holy for Muslims since the beginning of the history of Islam. Muslims' seeing Palestine as holy has enabled them to bring peace and harmony to the region. We shall be considering some historical instances of this in this article.
There are two fundamental reasons why Jerusalem is holy for Muslims: It is the first direction to which Muslims used to turn to pray. Furthermore, what can be seen as one of Prophet Mohammed's greatest miracles, his ascent to heaven, was from Masjid al-Haram to Masjid al-Aqsa, in other words from Mecca to Jerusalem. This fact is revealed in the Koran in these terms:
Glory be to Him who took His slave on a journey by night from the Masjid al-Haram to the Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, in order to show him some of Our Signs. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. (Surat al-Isra: 1)
In stories about the Prophets in the Koran, those holy verses that discuss Palestinian lands refer to them as 'blessed lands' and 'holy lands.' In the above verse about the ascent to heaven, Masjid al-Aqsa is described as a land 'whose surroundings We have blessed.' In Surat al-Anbiya, in which the migration of the prophets Abraham and Lot is recounted, the same territory is described as 'a land We have blessed.' All Palestinian soil, where many prophets from the tribe of Israel have lived, fought in the path of God, and been martyred or died and buried, is holy for Muslims.
Consequently, Muslims have brought "blessings", i.e. peace and security to Jerusalem and Palestine over the last 1,400 years.
The Peace and Justice brought to Palestine by Khalif Omar
Jerusalem was the capital of the Jews until A.D. 71. In that year, the Roman Army made a major assault on the Jews, and exiled them from the area after great savagery. As the time of the Jewish diaspora began, Jerusalem and its surrounding area was becoming an abandoned land.
However, Jerusalem once again became a center of interest with the acceptance of Christianity during the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Roman Christians built churches in Jerusalem. The prohibitions on Jews settling in the region were lifted. Palestine remained Roman (Byzantine) territory up until the 7th century. The Persians conquered the region for a short time, but the Byzantines later reconquered it.
An important turning point in the history of Palestine came in the year 637, when it was conquered by the armies of Islam. This meant the genesis of a period of peace and harmony in Palestine, which had for centuries been the scene of wars, exiles, looting and massacre, and which saw new brutality every time it changed hands, a frequent occurrence. The coming of Islam was the beginning of an age when people of different beliefs in Palestine could live in peace and harmony.
Palestine was captured by Omar, the second caliph after the Prophet himself. The entry of Omar into Jerusalem, the incredible tolerance, maturity and kindness he showed towards people of different beliefs, introduced the beautiful age that was beginning. The British historian and Middle East expert Karen Armstrong describes the capture of Jerusalem by Omar in these terms in her book Holy War:
In short, Muslims brought 'civilization' to Jerusalem and all of Palestine. Instead of barbaric beliefs that showed no respect for other peoples' sacred values, and which killed them simply out of differences of belief, there reigned the just, tolerant and moderate culture of Islam. After its capture by Omar, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace and harmony in Palestine. Muslims never tried to use force to make people convert, although some non-Muslims did so of their own free will.
The peace and harmony in Palestine lasted as long as Muslim rule in the region. However, at the end of the 11th century, an invader entered the region from abroad, and the civilized land of Jerusalem was barbarically and savagely plundered, in a way never before seen. These barbarians were the Crusaders.
The Savagery of the Crusaders
While members of all three religions were living in peace and harmony in Palestine, the Christians in Europe decided to organize the 'Crusades.' Following a call by Pope Urban II on 25 November 1095 at the Council of Clermont, more than 100,000 people from all over Europe set out for Palestine to 'Free the Holy land from the Muslims' and find the fabled wealth of the East. After a long and wearying journey, and much plundering and slaughter of Muslims, they reached Jerusalem in 1099. The city fell after a siege of nearly five weeks, and the Crusaders moved in. And they carried out a savagery the like of which the world has seldom seen. All Muslims and Jews in the city were put to the sword. In the words of one historian, 'They killed all the Saracens and the Turks they found... whether male of female."  One of the Crusaders, Raymond of Aguiles, boasted of this violence:
In two days, the Crusader army killed some 40,000 Muslims in the barbaric ways just described.  The peace and harmony in Palestine, which had lasted since Omar, ended in terrible slaughter. The Crusaders violated all the ethical laws of Christianity, a religion of love and compassion, and spread terror, allegedly in the name of Christianity.
The Justice of Saladin
The barbaric Crusader army made Jerusalem their capital, and established a Latin Kingdom whose borders stretched from Palestine to Antioch. However, the Crusaders who brought savagery to Palestine did not last long. Saladin gathered all the Muslim kingdoms under his banner in a holy war, and defeated the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin in 1187. After the battle, the two leaders of the crusader army, Reynauld of Chatillon and King Guy, were brought in Saladin's presence. Saladin executed Reynauld of Chatillon, who had won fame with the terrible savagery he had committed against Muslims, but he let King Guy go, as he had not committed the same crimes. Palestine once again saw the true meaning of justice.
Immediately after Hattin, and on the very same day that Prophet Mohammed had been taken from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night, the day of the ascent, Saladin entered Jerusalem and freed it from 88 years of Crusader occupation. When the Crusaders had taken the city 88 years earlier, they had killed all the Muslims inside it, and for that reason they were afraid that Saladin would do the same thing to them. Whereas he did not touch even one Christian in the city. Furthermore, he merely ordered the Latin (Catholic) Christians to leave it. The Orthodox Christians, who were not Crusaders, were allowed to live in the city and live and worship as they chose. The British historian Karen Armstrong describes the second Islamic capture of Jerusalem in these words:
On 2 October 1187 Saladin and his army entered Jerusalem as conquerors and for the next 800 years Jerusalem would remain a Muslim city... Saladin kept his word, and conquered the city according to the highest Islamic ideals. He did not take revenge for the 1099 massacre, as the Koran advised (16:127), and now that hostilities had ceased he ended the killing (2:193-194). Not a single Christian was killed and there was no plunder. The ransoms were deliberately very low...
Saladin was moved to tears by the plight of families who were rent asunder and he released many of them freely, as the Koran urged, though to the despair of his long-suffering treasurers. His brother al-Adil was so distressed by the plight of the prisoners that he asked Saladin for a thousand of them for his own use and then released them on the spot...
When Imad ad-Din saw the Patriarch Heraclius leaving the city with chariots crammed with treasure, he urged Saladin to confiscate it. But Saladin refused. The Koran said that oaths and treaties must be kept to the letter and it was essential that the Muslims should observe the legalities... Heraclius paid his ten-dinar ransom like everybody else and was even provided with a special escort to keep his treasure safe during the journey to Tyre. 
In short, Saladin and the Muslims in his command treated the Christians with great mercy and justice, and even showed them more compassion than their own leaders had.
After Jerusalem, the Crusaders continued their barbarity and the Muslims their justice in other cities in Palestine. In 1194, Richard the Lionheart, who is portrayed as a great hero in British history, had 3,000 Muslims, among whom were many women and children, basely executed in Acre Castle. Although the Muslims witnessed this savagery, they never resorted to the same methods. They abided by God's command "Do not let hatred for a people... incite you into going beyond the limits" (Surat al-Ma'ida) and never used violence against innocent civilians. They never employed unnecessary violence, not even against the Crusader armies they defeated.
The savagery of the crusaders and the justice of the Muslims once more revealed a historic truth: Only an administration built on the principles of Islam could allow people of different faiths to live together in Palestine. This fact continued to be demonstrated for 700 years after Saladin, particularly during the Ottoman period.
The Ottoman Empire's Just and Tolerant Rule
In 1514, Sultan Selim captured Jerusalem and the surrounding area, and some 400 years of Ottoman rule in Palestine began. As in other Ottoman states, this period would enable Palestine to enjoy peace, stability, and the living together of different faiths.
The Ottoman Empire was administered under what is known as the 'nation (millet) system,' the fundamental feature of which was that people of different faiths were allowed to live according to their own beliefs and even legal systems. Christians and Jews, described as the 'People of the Book' in the Koran, found toleration, security and freedom in Ottoman lands.
The most important reason for this was that although the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state administered by Muslims, it had no desire to force its citizens to adopt Islam. On the contrary, the Ottoman state aimed at providing peace and security for non-Muslims, and to govern them in such a way that they would be pleased with Islamic rule and justice.
Other major states at the same time had a much cruder, oppressive and intolerant view of government. The Kingdom of Spain could not tolerate the existence of Muslims and Jews on the Spanish peninsula and inflicted great violence on both communities. In many other European countries, Jews were oppressed just for being Jews (for instance they were imprisoned in ghettoes), and were sometimes the victims of mass slaughter (pogroms). Christians could not even get on with one another: the fighting between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries turned Europe into a lake of blood. The Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 was one result of this Catholic-Protestant conflict. As a result of that war, central Europe turned into a battleground, and in Germany alone, one-third of the population of 15 million perished.
In such an environment, it is an indisputably important truth that Ottoman rule was exceedingly humane.
Many historians and political scientists have drawn attention to this fact. One of these is Columbia University's world-famous Middle East expert Professor Edward Said. Himself from a Jerusalem Christian family, he continues his research in American universities. In an interview in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz he recommended the 'Ottoman nation system' if a permanent peace is to be built in the Middle East. What he said was:
Koranic Morality: The Source of Islamic Tolerance
The fundamental reason for the establishment of exceedingly tolerant, just and humane administrations in the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim states is that such government is commanded by the Koran. The reason for the justice and civilization displayed by Omar, Saladin, the Ottoman sultans and many Muslim rulers (and this is accepted by the West today), was their faithfulness to God's commands in the Koran. These are some of the commandments that make up the basis of the Islamic view of government:
God commands you to return to their owners the things you hold on trust and, when you judge between people, to judge with justice. How excellent is what God exhorts you to do! God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. (Surat an-Nisa : 58)
You who believe! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether they are rich or poor, God is well able to look after them. Do not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist or turn away, God is aware of what you do. (Surat an-Nisa: 135)
God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just. (Surat al-Mumtahana: 8)
There is a phrase in politics that 'power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' This means that everyone who comes by political power becomes somewhat morally corrupted by the opportunities this power brings with it. This really does apply to most people, because they shape their morality in line with social pressure. To put it another way, they avoid immorality because they are afraid of society's disapproval or of punishment. Power gives them strength however, and decreases social pressure. As a result, they become corrupted, or come to easily make concessions regarding morality. If they possess real power, in other words if they rule a nation, they may try all means of satisfying their desires.
The only human model where the 'law of corruption' does not apply is those who sincerely believe in God, who embrace religion out of fear and love of Him, and live according to that religion. Because their morals are not defined by society, not even the most absolute power can affect them. In the Koran, God gave the Prophet David as an example of this ideal ruler, with the way he governed even those who questioned his authority, and the way on the other hand that he prayed with complete submission to God. (Surah Sad: 24)
The fact that the history of Islam is full of just, merciful, humble and mature rulers stems from this morality that God teaches Muslims in the Koran. Since a Muslim ruler fears God, no opportunity that he may be given will make him corrupt, proud or cruel. (Of course rulers who became corrupt and departed from Islamic morality do crop up in the history of Islam, but their numbers and influence were very small).
History reveals that Islam is the only system of belief to offer a just, tolerant and compassionate way of government in the Middle East. The Pax Ottomana, which came to an end with the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire from the region, has still not been replaced. After the Ottomans, the Middle East first passed into the hands of European colonialists, and then became the target of Israel's policies of occupation and aggression.
There is one fundamental reason for the current conflict in the Middle East: The fact that the sides do not want to make peace. What Israel must do is to abide by U.N. resolution 242 and withdraw to the pre-1967 borders, and recognize and grant the rights of the Palestinian people. What the Palestinians (and other Arabs) should do is to abandon such aims as "pouring Israelis into the sea" and accept living together with the Jews. The most important thing of all is not to dirty just causes with barbaric acts of terrorism against civilians.
In short, in order for there to be peace in the Middle East, both sides have to agree to be moderate and tolerant, and make a genuine effort to rid themselves of Jewish racism (Atheist Zionism) or Arab chauvinism. The vision that is needed for this is hidden in the virtues that Islamic morality has blessed the Middle East over the past centuries.
1- Karen Armstrong, Holy War, MacMillan, London, 1988, p. 30-31
2- Geste Francorum, or the Deeds of the Franks and the Other Pilgrims to Jerusalem, trans. Rosalind Hill, London, 1962, p. 91
3- August C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants, Pinceton & London, 1921, p. 261
4- August C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants, Pinceton & London, 1921, p. 262
5- Karen Armstrong, Holy War, p. 185
6- 18.8.2000, Ha'aretz Newspaper; MiddleEast.Org, August 2000