Jerusalem: Its Sites, Scholars and Scholarship before the Crusades

Jerusalem prior to the crusades was a place filled with a thriving trade, scholars and magnificant architectural works. This is notably significant in any study of Muslims contribution to the advancement of Jerusalem.

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The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

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Jerusalem by Salah Zaimeche

Jerusalem prior to the crusades was a place filled with a thriving trade, scholars and madrasas. The crusades destroyed all such wealth and, above all, scholarship. This destruction, which will be considered in some detail in the last part of this article, will show how learning declined in Jerusalem due to the devastation of war inflicted upon Islam. Despite some improvement following the recapture of the city by Salah–ud-din in 1187, the city never recovered its prime scholarly activity, and just like the rest of the Muslim world, also suffering from the same problems, fell into gradual decline.

The thriving character of the city prior to the crusades is caught by the traveller Nasr-ud-din Khusraw who saw the city in 1047 just decades before the crusades. He noted how things were cheap and plentiful and how the city had beautiful markets and high buildings. It had a great number of craftsmen and each craft had its market. The city was large with the number of inhabitants at about a hundred thousand. Nasr Khusraw refers to a great teaching hospital with rich waqfs dedicated to it, from which medicines for its numerous patients were dispensed and salaries for doctors were paid. He also refers to hostels for the Sufis by the mosque where they lived and prayed.

Serious patronage of architecture had begun in Umayyad times (661-750). During their rule no single architectural style was used throughout the Islamic world, but monuments associated with the dynasty or its high officials were often well built and elaborately decorated. In structures such as the mosques of Medina and Damascus the aim appears to have been to create monuments that would proclaim the power and ideals of the new Islamic state. Even richer and more complex was the decorative and epigraphic program of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by Caliph 'Abd al-Malik and completed in 691/692CE. From its plan—a central domed area over the rock proper and a double octagonal ambulatory around it—the commemoration of the rock appears to be the building's main purpose; a door placed where the mihrab should be demonstrates that it was not intended for use as a mosque. Both the inner (circular) and outer (octagonal) zones are formed of piers alternating with columns. Internally the building is notable for its colourful decoration: marble panels on the piers and lower wall surfaces; and mosaic cubes on the arcades of both zones as well as on the drum of the central dome.

In the early eighth century the Aqsa Mosque (The Further Mosque) was erected adjacent to the south side of the Dome of the Rock. It was also embellished with marble and mosaics. In their complex decorative and iconographic schemes the Umayyad religious buildings of Damascus, Medina and Jerusalem are unique. However even more influential was the basic spatial organization of the mosques in those three cities which was often imitated in later buildings.

The Aqsa Mosque has been repeatedly described by Muslim scholars. Al-Muqaddasi, who originally came from the city, wrote in 985:

`the main building of the Aqsa Mosque has twenty six doors. The door opposite the Mihrab is called the Green Brazen Gate; it is plated with brass gilt, and is so heavy that only a man strong of shoulder and of arm can turn it on its hinges…. On the right hand side of the Court (that is along the West Wall of the Haram Area) are colonnades supported by marble pillars and plasters; and on the back (or north wall of the Haram Area) are colonnades vaulted in stone. The centre part of the main building is covered by a mighty roof, high pitched and gable wise, over which rises a magnificent dome.'

The mosques played a primary role in disseminating science and culture in Islam. A brief glimpse of the scholarly institutions, which are described in great detail by the late medieval scholar, the Qadi Mudjir-ud-din (d.1521), enlightens us on the link between faith and learning. Although his outline also includes madrasas built following the crusades, the earliest institutes which saw the best of Muslim scholarship in the city date from before the wars. Inside the Aqsa Mosque, just near the women's area is the madrasa Farisiya founded by Emir Fares-ud-din Albky. There was also the madrasa Nahriye and the Nassiriya. The latter was named after the Jerusalem scholar, Sheikh Nasr, before it became known as the Ghazaliya, after the famed scholar al-Ghazali who resided and worked there. Around al-Aqsa was the Qataniya, the Fakriya, Baladiya and the Tankeziya. The latter, Ibn Mudjir tells, is an immense madrasa situated on the Khatt road, and its founder, the vice ruler of Syria Emir Tankiz Nasri, is also responsible for building the aqueduct for the water supply of Jerusalem.

A number of Turkish women are behind the construction of many such madrasas in and around Masjid al-Aqsa. The madrasa Othmania was constituted in waqf in the year 1523 by a woman who belonged to one of the greatest families of the country; she was called Isfahan Shah Khatoun. Earlier, in 1354, another madrasa called Khatouniya was constituted in waqf by Oghl Khatoun, daughter of Chams ud-din Mohammed Bin Sayf ud-din of Baghdad. The madrasa was financed by a local business.

The great number of madrasas is a reflection of the great intellectual activity that thrived in Jerusalem during the Islamic era preceding the crusades. Mudjir ud-din names some of the illustrious figures who, by their thoughts and writing, made a mark in the city's history such as Omm al-Khayr Rabeah, daughter of Ismail of the Aqyl family, who lived in the 8th century (CE). In the 11th century, under the Seljuks, on the eve of the crusades, the city witnessed a great variety of cultural activities. Great scholars from both east and west of the Muslim land made the city their destination and, many settled therein. Both the city's scholars and the visitors participated in a rich cultural life. Ibn al-Arabi gives a vivid picture of the active life in the city which was a meeting place of scholars from Khurasan in the east to Al-Andalus in the west; he was impressed by the circles of study and the majlis of disputations. Amongst such scholars was the Sha'afiite Nasr b. Ibrahim al-Maqdisi (1096), who taught at the Nassriyya school; Ata al-Maqdisi (Abu'l Fadl); , and al-Rumali. Abu'l Farradj Abd Al-Waheed (d. ca 1090s) also dwelt Jerusalem. He is responsible for the spread of the Hanbalite thought of Islam in and around the city. He also wrote on jurisprudence and wrote Kitab al-Djawaher on the interpretation of the Quran. Abu Fath Nasr (d. 1097) is the author of many works such as Zahd al-Abed, and he taught Hadith in Jerusalem in the same place that was to be Al-Ghazali's abode. Abu'l Maaly Al-Mucharraf is amongst the great scholars of Jerusalem, who wrote Fadail al-Bayt Al-muqaddas wa Asakhra (The merits of the Jerusalem and the Rock) in which he deals with all that relates to the city, its history, its sites and its sanctuaries. He is the contemporary of Abu Kassem Mekki al-Romarly, who also gathered many facts on Jerusalem and wrote on its history. There was the great al-Ghazali (b. 1058) who settled in the city. The Andalusian Faqih, Abu al-Bakr al-Turtushi, also came to Jerusalem in 1091 and stayed and taught in the Aqsa Mosque, whilst Abu Bakr Ibn al-Arabi, who left for the East, attended his lectures.

It has already become apparent how much of the scholarly life evolved in and around the mosques and especially with regards to al Aqsa. The Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is Islam's third holiest shrine and it had four libraries. It had several book collections in the Nahawiya and Ashrafyia madrassas and a library of even greater stature: the Farisiya Madrassa. Next to it is the Mosque of Omar which was founded during the reign of the second caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab (Caliph 634-644). It developed rapidly into an important academy for religious and secular studies and included a large book collection which was spread among the mosque's four madrassas. Amongst the latter was the Nassiryia Madrasa, founded by Nasr al-Maqdisi, which is also known as the Ghazzaliya in a tribute to the philosopher al-Ghazali (d. 505AH/1111CE) who sequestered himself there until he completed the writing of the celebrated work Ihya al-Ulum ud-din (The revival of religious sciences).

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was born at Tus in 1058, lost his father at an early age and was reared by a Sufi friend. He studied law, theology and philosophy; he spent much of his life teaching and writing and he would stay in Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad. At thirty-three he was appointed to the chair of law at the Nizamiya College in Baghdad where he taught. Soon all Islam acclaimed his eloquence, erudition and dialectical skill.After four years of this glory he was laid low by a mysterious disease; appetite and digestion failed, paralysis of the tongue occasionally distorted his speech and his mind began to break down. In 1094 he left Baghdad, ostensibly on a pilgrimage to Mecca; in reality he went into seclusion seeking silence, contemplation and peace. He transported himself to Jerusalem burning with a desire to devote his life to faith and to visit the sacred sites. He established his house in the zawiya which was above the Door of the Redemption and which was formerly known as the Nassiriya, inside Masjid al-Aqsa, and there he wrote his famed Ihya al-Ulum ud-din (The Revival of the Science of Religion). He subjected sensation—on which materialism seemed to rest—to critical scrutiny; accused the senses of making the stars appear small when, to be so visible from afar, they must be vastly larger than the earth; concluded from a hundred such examples that sensation by itself could be no certain test of truth; reason, he deduced, was higher and corrected one sense with another but in the end it too rested on sensation. Perhaps there was in man a form of knowledge, a guide to truth surer than reason'.

Al-Ghazali wrote his most influential Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Destruction of Philosophy) in which all the arts of reason were turned against reason; by a "transcendental dialectic" as subtle as the eighteenth century German philosopher Kant's, he argued that reason leads to universal doubt, intellectual bankruptcy, moral deterioration and social collapse. Seven centuries before Hume, al-Ghazali reduced reason to the principle of causality and causality to mere sequence: all that we perceive is that B regularly follows A, not that A causes B. Philosophy, logic and science cannot prove the existence of God or the immortality of the soul; only direct intuition can assure us of these beliefs, without which no moral order and therefore no civilization, can survive. He accepted again the Quran and the Hadith, and in his Ihya Ulum ad-Din (Revival of the Science of Religion) he expounded and defended his renovated beliefs in Sunni Islam with all the eloquence and fervour of his prime; never in Islam had the sceptics and the philosophers encountered so vigorous a foe. When he died in 1111CE the tide of unbelief had been effectively turned; all Sunnis took comfort from him; even Christian theologians were glad to find, in his translated works, such a defence of religion and such an exposition of piety as no one had written since Augustine. Al-Ghazali wrote,
Dome of the Rock

`It has always been my practice, as a youth and as a man, to thirst for knowledge of the true nature of things…. So that I can be freed from the bond of imitation.'

For al-Ghazali personal knowledge should lead on to good deeds which please God and lead to salvation. He was also a very prominent scholar; his Maqasid al-Falasifah (The Aims of the Philosophers) was translated into Latin in the twelfth century and became very influential amongst scholastic Christian theologians. He deeply influenced the medieval Jewish philosophers, Maimonides . Even Christian writers - particularly Aquinas, Dante, and Pascal - found inspiration in his translated works and used his ideas in the defence of their religion.

Before al-Ghazali, the city's famed scholars included Al-Tamimi (10th Century). His full name was Abu 'Abdallah Mutammad ibn Ahmad ibn Sa'id al-Tamimi al-Muqaddasi (meaning, the native or inhabitant of the Holy City). He was a Palestinian physician who conducted pharmaceutical experiments and wrote various medical works chiefly on materia medica. His main work is a guide (Murshid) on materia medica entitled Kitab al-murshid ila jawahir al-aghdhiya wa quwa-l-mufradat (Guide towards [the understanding of] the substances of food-stuffs and [of] the simple drugs) which contains much valuable information on plants, minerals, etc….

The 19th century French medical historian, Leclerc, in the first volume of his work on Muslim medicine, (on pages 549-52) deals with a most interesting manuscript that is located in Madrid—Escorial 887, old 882—containing what seem to be the notes taken by a student at the consultations of a physician. His physician is one Muhamad al-Tamimi about whom no definite information is given. Leclerc would place him in Toledo, c.1069, but Sarton notes that his conjecture is not convincing. There is a possibility that these two Tamimi are the same person. In any case this work seems to be very valuable and deserves a thorough investigation. About 50 consultations are reported in it. Leclerc himself offers a good insight into this particular manuscript at the Escorial which he says is a mutilated, badly preserved manuscript. It is divided into sessions, or consultations, and these sessions are in the number of fifty. A sick person presents himself/herself, the doctor asks them questions, and has them examined by his student with further questions and answers. The doctor then prescribes medicines. The doctor generally asks his student on his knowledge about the illness of the patient. If the student does not know much, the doctor then lectures him more about it once the patient has left. If the student notices something that is odd in relation to the diagnosis, the prognosis or something that has struck him, he asks the master who then provides him with answers.

Here is an instance of a session narrated by the student:

`a patient arrived telling he was suffering from severe headache. My master asks him: `Is it at the front or at the back, and how do you feel the beating against the side of the head?'

The patient answered: `It is as if someone was hitting me with a hammer at the front of the head.'

The master provided the following prescription: You take some camomile, some rose leaves, and the head of poppies; you will mix the lot in a pan, and add water in sufficient quantity to cover the lot. You will boil the pan, and you bend your head towards the emanated steam. Do this for three days, day and night, and you will recover. With respect to your diet: eat something soft and that is relaxing.' The patient soon recovered.'

Another session is also recounted by the student:

`A man came in saying he had a large mole on his upper lid. My master orders me to measure the tumour with my hand, and whether it was static or moving. Which I did. The tumour moved like a sort of stone under the skin. The master asked me to see whether under the lid were lesions. Which I did and found nothing. The master then said: Friction the tumour with olive oil, and apply some compress with hot bread on it. The patient did it for three days and recovered.'

In one session, the student relates how the master cured a disease by just prescribing a food diet. To the baffled student, the master answers that the prescribed food is enough to cure the disease.

Al-Muqaddasi (b. 946-d. 1000 C.E.), originally from al-Quds (Jerusalem), hence his name, is by far one of the most instructive of all early Islamic writers on the social geography of Islam. On his travels, he set off from Jerusalem and visited nearly every part of the Muslim world. His best known treatise is Ahsan at-Taqasim fi Ma'arifat al-Aqalim (The best divisions in the knowledge of the Climes), which was completed around 985. A good outline of it is given by Kramers, extracts of which can be found in Dunlop's Arab Civilisation.

In this work, al-Muqaddasi was the first geographer to determine and standardize the meanings and connotations of Arabic geographical terms and the first to provide a list of towns and other features for quick referencing. He drew the first ever colour map indicating regional boundaries and trade routes in red, sandy areas in yellow, rivers in blue and mountains in ochre. After a general overview of geography and the land of Islam, the geographical arrangement of its various parts and approximate estimate of distances from one frontier to the other, al-Muqaddasi deals with countries separately. In dealing with each region, he divides his work in two parts: the first enumerates localities and gives good topographical descriptions, especially of the major towns, and the second lists various subjects: population, its composition, its social groups, commerce, minerals, archaeological monuments, money, political climate etc. The work also includes accounts of weights and measures, moneys, languages, political climate, fiscal charges of people and commerce. Al-Muqaddasi also gives the itineraries between the main places and distances are given in days' journeys but also in farsakhs.

The Islamic urban setting, its growth, diversity, complexities, economy and politics are the details that attract most of the attention of al-Muqaddasi, and can be found in each chapter, for every region and place he visits as Miquel shows. Al-Muqaddasi differentiates between town and city by the presence of the great mosque and its minbar, symbols of Islamic authority. In connection with this, he states what follows:

`Now, if someone should say: `Why have you considered Halab the capital of the district, while there is a town bearing the same name?' I reply to him: `I have already stated that the capitals are compared with generals and towns with troops. Hence it should not be right that we assign to Halab, with all its eminence, and its being the seat of government and the location of the government offices, or to Antakiya with all its excellence, or to Balis, with its teeming population, the position of towns subordinate to a small and ruined city.'

Al-Muqaddasi delves most particularly on the defensive structures of every city. Walls, their height, thickness, distances between each, fortifications, access in and out, their location according to the general topography but it is the artificial obstacles which in particular draw his attention. So do daily concerns such as trade and exchanges, markets and the urban economy as a whole. Al-Muqaddasi studied markets, their expansion and decline, providing a bill of health for each, the daily and monthly revenues derived from them, and how such revenues were distributed. He would carefully study how a location was run and the way its citizens would act, dwelling mainly on such factors as order, cleanliness, morality and state of learning, all of which he considers for each and every place visited.

On water management and hydraulic technology, much can be learnt from him as he describes Egypt, the Nile and the Nilometer. Currency, its uses, and its users as well as its fluctuations constitute a major aspect of interest; Dinar, Dirhem, their multiples and sub-multiples in addition to each region's local currencies were studied in good detail. Also of interest is information on diets, clothing, dialects, the varied differences of the many ethnic groups of the vast Muslim land, a diversity in union, which Miquel notes in his conclusive words, was to be completely shattered by the Mongol irruption.

This approach is in contrast with his predecessors, whose focus was much narrower, whilst Al-Muqaddasi wanted to encompass aspects of interest to merchants, travellers, and people of culture. Thus, it becomes no longer the sort of traditional `geography', but a work that seeks to understand and explain the foundations of Islamic society, and not just that, the very functioning of such society. On the whole, Kramers concludes that `There is thus no subject of interest to modern geography which is not treated by al-Muqaddasi.' And so, he is, according to A. Miquel (the author of a more recent translation of Al-Muqaddasi), the creator of `total geographical science.'

Muwaffaq Al-Din Yaqub Ben Saklan was a Christian doctor of Jerusalem (d. 1229). He was an Oriental Christian who served as a manager of the hospital of Jerusalem under Muaddam the Ayyubid ruler. Muaddam took Yaqub into his service and showered him with gifts and honours. Although his own health failed and he could not move due to problems with his legs, he still served the same Muaddam even if he had to be carried to see to the ruler. Both died in a short space of each other. Ben Saqlan was not just an able doctor, he is also said to have been appreciated for his surgical skills; Ibn Abbi Ussaybaia (the 13th century medical historian) is particularly full of praise for him. According to Ibn Abbi Ussaybia, Ben Saqlan observed very minutely all the symptoms, studied them while never allowing any detail to escape his attention and then applied the most accurate cures. He was an accomplished man, intelligent and judicious in his practice. He died leaving a son who followed in his footsteps.

Rashid Al-Din Ibn Essury (13th century), as shown by his last name, is of Syrian origins and he learnt his trade in Damascus. However he too practiced medicine for some time in Jerusalem and was attached to the city's hospital. He was taught the art of botany by his friend Abu Al-Abbas Al-Hayany, a scholar and a man of great generosity, who knew about simples. Rashid Al-Din, just as Ibn Saqlan, served King al-Muaddam (Muazzam) including during his war campaigns against the crusaders. At the death of Muaddam he served Nasir who legated to him the headship of doctors. Rashid Al-Din was a well-recognised botanist and his passion and knowledge of the subject places him amongst the greatest botanists such as Ibn al-Baytar and Ibn Rumya. His works are not extant but other scholars refer to them. Rashid Al-Din was famous not just for his theoretical knowledge of the subject but also for his innovations in the field. He travelled extensively especially in the mountains of Lebanon and he was always accompanied by a painter; the latter painted each plant in the proper colours, in minute details relating to the leaves, roots, body and at the various stages of growth; then the plants were drawn at their stage of dryness which is when they are best to be used as medicinal plants. According to the Ottoman historian-biographer, Hadji Khalifa, Rashid Al-Din added many plants to the known repertory. He is also known for his commentary on botany exchanged with another famed botanist of Islam, Tadj Al-Din al-Bulghari (a friend's of the famed botanist Ibn al-Baytar)

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