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Al-Aqsa Mosque

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is not to be confused with the Dome of the Rock.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque (Arabic: المسجد الاقصى, Masjid Al-Aqsa, literally "farthest mosque") is part of the complex of religious buildings in Jerusalem known as either the Majed Mount or Al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews.

Muslim tradition states that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the Mount in 621, making the mosque the third most holy shrine in Islam. After the Dome of the Rock (690 CE) the first wooden Al-Aqsa Mosque was constructed by the Umayyads, completed in 710 CE. The structure has been rebuilt at least five times; it was entirely destroyed at least once by earthquakes. The last major rebuild was in 1035.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque
The Al-Aqsa Mosque

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the largest mosque in Jerusalem; about 5,000 people can worship in and around the mosque. It shows a mixture of styles including Crusader work from when the Crusaders held Jerusalem, during which the mosque was used as a palace and called the Temple of Solomon, in the belief that the mosque was built on the site of the original temple. Al-Aqsa has been at times the target of attacks by Jewish extremists (see Temple Mount for more details), but most attempts were averted by Israel's security services.

Since part of the mosque's extended surrounding wall is the Western Wall venerated by Jews, this relatively tiny spot in Jerusalem can become the source of friction. There have been times when enraged Muslims worshiping at the mosque have hurled rocks downward at the Jews praying below at the Western Wall. A group of Jews known as the Temple Mount Faithful actually have plans to rebuild the ancient Jewish Temple in that area.

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades is named after the mosque, probably in memory of Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the Temple Mount at the beginning of the Second Intifada (also known as the al-Aqsa Intifada).

The term "Masjid al-Aqsa" in ayah 17.1 of the Quran

The "farthest Mosque" (al-masjid al-Aqṣa) in verse (17:1) of the Qur'an is traditionally interpreted by Muslims as referring to the site at the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem on which the mosque of that name now stands:

سبحان الذي أسرى بعبده ليلاً من المسجد الحرام إلى المسجد الأقصى الذي باركنا حوله
Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless (Yusuf Ali's translation)

This verse is traditionally interpreted by Muslims as referring to Muhammad's Night Journey (al-Isra wal-Miraj), in which he is said to have miraculously travelled first to the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount), where in some elaborations of the story the footprint of his heavenly steed Buraq remains, and thence to heaven. The term used for mosque, "masjid", literally means "place of prostration", and includes monotheistic places of worship such as Solomon's Temple, which in verse 17:7 is described as a masjid. This argument is supported by the fact that, in Quran 17:7, Solomon's Temple is described as a mosque (using the same word, masjid), and is confirmed by Muhammad's early biographers.

A more literal translation of the preceding verse is "Most glorified is the one who carried his servant during the night from the inviolable place of prostration to the farthest place of prostration." This verse does not say who this servant is, where he left from, where he travelled to, or what its meaning is supposed to be. Usually, "servant" is interpreted to mean Muhammad, "sacred place of prostration" as the area around the Kaaba where the mosque of that name (Masjid al-Haram) stands today, and "farthest mosque" as the area on the Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount) where the mosque of that name (the Al-Aqsa Mosque) stands today. Many Western historians regard this as the originally intended interpretation, for instance Heribert Busse and Neal Robinson (see references.) However, some disagree.

John Wansbrough, who caused a furor in the 1970s by claiming that the Quran was compiled from a variety of sources some 200 years after Muhammad's death rather than being a single document dating to Muhammad's lifetime, holds that this verse does not refer to Muhammad. "The alternative, namely, that 'abd can only be Muhammad, implies submission to an interpretation of all the Quranic data which, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated." (Quranic Studies, p. 68, Oxford, 1977.) Wansbrough holds that not only does no evidence exist to link this verse to Muhammad or Jerusalem, but that it probably is Islamic scriptural exegesis designed to explain away the vagueness of the verse (a literary phenomenon common in early Islamic and Jewish theology.) "Far from providing unambiguous witness to the Arabian prophet, this particular scriptural image (israa' bi-abdeehee laylan) is employed, in but slightly varying forms, only to describe Moses' departure from Egypt" (Wansbrough, Quranic Studies).

Other historians hold that at the time this verse of the Quran was recited (around 621 CE, which is of course incompatible with Wansbrough's views) many Muslims understood the phrase "furthest mosque" as a poetic phrase for a mosque already known to them, a mosque in Heaven, or as a metaphor. For the following reasons, they find it unlikely that this verse referred to a location in Palestine:

(a) There were already two places that Muslim tradition of that time period called "the furthest mosque"; one was the mosque in Medina (Arthur Jeffrey, The Suppressed Quran Commentary of Muhammad Abu Zaid, Der Islam, 20 (1932): 306) and the other was the mosque in the town of Jirana, which Muhammed is said to have visitied in 630 CE, although Solomon's Temple is of course further than either. (Alfred Guillaume, Where Was Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa? Al-Andalus, (18) 1953: 323-36) and (b) When Muslims finally did conquer and occupy Jerusalem, they are not known to have identified the Temple Mount with "the furthest Mosque" until 715 CE.

In 715 CE the Umayyads built a second mosque on the Temple Mount; they named this Mosque al-masjid al-aqsa, the Al-Aqsa Mosque or "furthest mosque". According to A. L. Tibawi, a Palestinian historian, this action "gave reality to the figurative name used in the Koran." (A. L. Tibawi, Jerusalem: Its Place in Islam and Arab History, Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1969, p. 9.) From this point on Muslims worldwide are known to have identified the reference to "the furthest mosque" in the Quran with this new mosque built in Jerusalem.

The evidence is insufficient to confirm whether a specific meaning had been attached to this verse before the Muslim conquest and occupation of Jerusalem. However, by 25 years after the conquest it was believed that the person this verse refers to is Muhammad, that he left Mecca, that he travelled to a specific place in Jerusalem, and from there ascended to Heaven. While none of these details exist in the Quran, this set of ideas corresponds to the mainstream Islamic belief. Today, nearly all Muslims interpret this verse identically, and take this as evidence that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a particularly holy place within Islam.

External links

References on the interpretation of Quran 17:1

  • A. Bevan, Mohammed's Ascension to Heaven, in "Studien zu Semitischen Philologie und Religionsgeschichte Julius Wellhausen," (Topelman, 1914,pp. 53-54.)
  • B. Schreike, "Die Himmelreise Muhammeds," Der Islam 6 (1915-16): 1-30
  • J. Horovitz, "Muhammeds Himmelfahrt," Der Islam 9 (1919): 159-83
  • Heribert Busse, "Jerusalem in the Story of Muhammad's Night Journey and Ascension," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 14 (1991): 1-40.
  • Heribert Busse and Georg Kretschmar, Jerusalemer Heiligstumstraditionen (Weisbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1987)
  • Heribert Busse, "The Destruction Of The Temple And Its Reconstruction In The Light Of Muslim Exegesis Of Sūra 17:2-8", Jerusalem Studies In Arabic And Islam, 1996, Vol. 20, p. 1.
  • N. Robinson, Discovering The Qur'ān: A Contemporary Approach To A Veiled Text, 1996, SCM Press Ltd.: London, p. 192.
  • Egyptian writer says Mohammed's night trip was to Medina, not Jerusalem - from MEMRI

Last updated: 11-06-2004 06:57:25