Al-Quds, Al Mi’raj, and Al-Insan Al-Kamil Jerusalem’s Contribution to Muslim Civilization
Dr. Ali Qleibo
* Published in Saliba Sarsar and Carole Monica Burnett, What Jerusalem Means to Us: Muslim Perspectives and Reflections (North Bethesda, Md: Holy Land Books/Noble Book Publishing Inc., 2021).
** Dr. Ali Qleibo is an artist, author, and anthropologist. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States, his books and artwork have taken him all over the world. He has lectured at Al-Quds University, teaching ancient classical civilization. He has also held various senior positions locally and internationally, including Director of Cultural Studies Program at Al-Quds University; Fellowship at Shalom Hartman Institute; Director of Department of Fine Arts at Al-Quds University; and Visiting Professor at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies, and at Kyoto University in Japan. At The Jerusalem Research Center, Dr. Qleibo developed the Muslim tourism itinerary in Jerusalem, encompassing tangible and intangible heritage. He is a specialist in Palestinian social history. He has authored various books, including Surviving the Wall, Before the Mountains Disappear; Jerusalem in the Heart; and Mamluk Architectural Heritage in Jerusalem, as well as a plethora of articles published locally and internationally. His pioneering ethnographic field work published over the past ten years indicates the continuity between contemporary Palestinian customs and manners and ancient Semitic cultures.
Al-Insan al-Kamil, the complete man, is a complex theological problematic that belies the Sufi spiritual struggle to achieve gnosis and gain insight into humanity’s nature as divine. The Sufi concept describes one who has reached perfection, literally “the complete human being.” The epithet contrasts the spiritual purity of the primordial human being with the material human who is bound by his or her senses and driven by earthly desires and needs. The iconic images of both prophets – Adam before the fall and our father Abraham, Khalil Allah, the friend of God – are exemplary and are forerunners of the Muslim concept of man without sin. The appellation is an honorific title to describe the Prophet Muhammad who is considered al-insan al-kamil par excellence. The Sufi discourse of gnosis and al-insan al-kamil provides insight into humanity’s real nature as divine. The mirror metaphor, favored by the Arab Andalusian Sufi philosopher Shaikh-e-Akbar Mohi-ud-Din Ibn-e-Arabi (1165-1240) describes the dialectic relation between God and man in terms of subject and object. Humanity at large is a refraction of God’s light. In Fusus al-Hikam, Ibn Arabi writes,
Man unites in himself both the form of God and the form of the universe. He alone manifests the Divine Essence together with all his Names and Attributes. He is the mirror by which God is revealed to Himself, and therefore, the final cause of creation. We ourselves are the attributes by which we describe God. Our existence is merely an objectification of his existence. While God is necessary to us in order that we may exist, we are necessary to Him, in order that He may be manifested to Himself.
Al-insan al-kamil, a title describing the transcendent status of Prophet Muhammad, finds its full expression in the Night Journey (Al-mi’raj), whence Prophet Muhammad connected with God in Jerusalem. That night, according to the Qur’an, God blessed the rock and its environs. Blessed and sanctified by God (الذي باركنا حوله), the rock assumed a new identity as the “Holy Rock” الصخرة المقدسة)). Roman Jerusalem, Aelia Capitolina, assumed its new Muslim identity as the Home of the Holy Rock, Bait al-Maqdis, from which the present-day appellation Al-Quds, The Holy, is derived. In the following centuries, special discourses were deployed, namely, the virtues of Jerusalem, folk literature, miniatures representing the Night Journey, and the architectural masterpieces in Jerusalem. These oeuvres further confirmed the privileged elevated status of the holy city that witnessed the eruption of the sacred: hierophany, a word much favoured by Mircea Eliade.
Bait al-Maqdis is constitutive of Muslim faith. Al-Quds, the blessed rock, stands as the axis mundi and a point of connection between heaven and earth.Even though Al-Hajj, the pilgrimage, to Mecca is interpreted as a duty prescribed in the Qur’an, the spiritual and theological role of Jerusalem as a major center of pilgrimage (ziyarat) in Islam is paramount. In Muslim narratives, Jerusalem stands out as the first direction of prayers in the formative years of Islam, the focal point of the miraculous Night Journey and one of the three pilgrimage mosques.The Prophet enjoined Muslims to go on pilgrimage, that is, travel with the declared intention to pray, to three mosques: Mecca, Medina, and Al-Quds The relationship of the three holy cities, it must be stressed, is not of a hierarchical order but of a dialectic nature based on their value as symbolic expressions of the sacred in Islam.
The concept of the sacred (القداسة) in Islam is expressed paradigmatically along the lines deployed within a cultural, intellectual, and symbolic context. The complex symbolic paradigms through which the three sacred cities discursively deploy their theologies and traditions include the authoritative symbolism of the Qur’an and Sunnah, Muslim orthodoxy as defined by the Prophet’s actions and sayings, and the consensual interpretations of tradition. Culturally deployed legends and tales add a mystic aspect to the miraculous event and underlie the mystical allure of Jerusalem that stamps its tangible and intangible heritage throughout history.
In Al-Aqsa Mosque, legend, myth, and ritual meet. It is sacred, it is historic, and it is magical. The sacrosanct space exudes an overwhelming sense of spiritual serenity and transcendence, which is timeless and sublime. To the Holy Rock, Al-Quds, the Muslims first prostrated themselves in prayer. Henceforth, Al-Aqsa Mosque came to be known as the first qibla, direction of prayer, and the third noble sanctuary in Islam. Pilgrims visit Beit al-Maqdis to experience the physical manifestations of their faith, confirm their beliefs in the holy context with collective excitation, and connect personally to Islam through its symbolic sacred expressions specific to the place of hierophany in Layletal-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj.
Pilgrimage to the Noble Sanctuary is a transcendent experience. The pilgrim’s first view of the Dome of the Rock is visionary. The beauty of the Noble Sanctuary is astonishing. The architecture evokes the exhilarating feelings of awe, delight, and admiration. Its emotive splendor assuages existential loneliness and stimulates intimations of the infinite. Its immensity, lyricism, and harmony trigger the feeling of the sublime. Subhan Allah (Glory be to God) comes involuntarily to mind.
The Cotton Market, the covered Mamluk bazaar, provides the most spectacular entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The long, dark tunnel leads to a staircase in deep shadow. As one stands on the dark landing, the gold of the Dome glistens in the bright sunlight. Climbing the dark steps, one is overwhelmed by the glow outside. Slowly the eyes adjust to the light, shining above one’s head. Through the small, open entrance in the giant, leaf-green, painted gate, the deep-green pine tree, the silver-green palm tree, and the blue ceramics that cover the walls of the Dome of the Rock commingle in a sacred symphony of blue, green, turquoise, ochre, and gold.
The simple design and intricate arabesque decoration of the Dome of the Rock is a joy to the eye. But the artistic greatness diminishes compared to the feeling of being in the place where the Prophet Muhammad, may his name be blessed, led all the Biblical prophets in prayer before his mi’raj during that pivotal evening Lailet al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj – The Night Journey.
This is when the doctrines of Islam, related to prayers, are believed to have been revealed; hence the oft-quoted Qur’anic verse, “Blessed be He who transported His slave by night from Al-Haram Mosque to Al-Aqsa Mosque whose environs we blessed” (Qur’an, surat l-isra, 17:1).
Standing on the threshold of the Cotton Merchant’s Gate, which provides the most striking aspect of the glittering Dome, the faithful are overwhelmed with a vast sense of wonder and delight by the intensity of the moment.
An overpowering sense of sacred presence permeates the precincts and commingles with the architectural beauty of the Noble Sanctuary, the Umayyad architectural masterpiece, to endow the encounter with a transcendent quality. Abbasid, Mamluk, and Ottoman theological colleges, grandiose gateways, water reservoirs, Ottoman reclusive domed rooms, arches, prayer platforms, domed niches, vaulted galleries scatter asymmetrically in the lower and upper courtyards of the mosque. Above, in the center of the upper courtyard, shimmers the Golden Dome that enshrines the Holy Rock (al-Qudus), the locus of Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual ascent in the Night Journey (al-Isra’ wal-Mi’raj). The architectural narrative traces the fourteen centuries of Islam in Jerusalem. In their totality, the buildings form a virtual archive of a long train of kings, emirs, and princes, religious personalities who immortalized their names by association with the Holy Rock enshrined under the Golden Dome of the Noble Sanctuary and throughout the thoroughfares, lanes, and alleys leading to Masjid al-Aqsa.
During the month of Rajab in the year 620AD, almost one-and-a-half years before Prophet Muhammad’s Hijra (migration) from Mecca to Medina, the symbolic event of Isra and Mi’raj (Night Journey and Ascension) occurred. The Prophet Muhammad made a night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence ascended to the heavens. Whereas the horizontal voyage to Jerusalem is referred to as Al-Isra’, the vertical ascension to heaven is called Al-Mi’raj.
Glory be to Him Who made His servant to go on a night from the Sacred Mosque to the remote mosque of which We have blessed the precincts, so that We may show to him some of Our signs; surely He is the Hearing, the Seeing (Qur’an, surat l-isra), 17:1-21).
Throughout the history of Islam, a special genre of literature has been deployed to extol the virtues of the three holy cities of Islam: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. Authors of great renown, theologians, pilgrims, travellers, and bards had de rigueur to include in their repertoire a narrative about the magic and wonders that bespeak the holiness of these three cities. The Discourse on the “Virtues of Jerusalem” (فضائل القدس) is quite distinctive and goes back to the first decades of Islam. Wonderful legends and mythological events find their place in the literature and provide moral and religious education for the plebeians. In one such narrative in relation to the Night Journey, we read,
Then he [Gabriel] brought the Buraq, handsome-faced and bridled, a tall, white beast, bigger than the donkey but smaller than the mule. He could place his hooves at the farthest boundary of his gaze. He had long ears. Whenever he faced a mountain his hind legs would extend, and whenever he went downhill his front legs would extend. He had two wings on his thighs that lent strength to his legs. He bucked when Mohammed came to mount him. The angel Gabriel put his hand on his mane and said, ‘Are you not ashamed, O Buraq? By Allah no one has ridden you in all creation more dear to Allah than he is.’ Hearing this he was so ashamed that he sweated until he became soaked, and he stood still so that the Prophet mounted him.
During the Mi’raj, the Prophet is believed to have received from Allah the command of five daily prayers (salah) that all Muslims must perform. Upon his return to Mecca, the Prophet instituted these prayers. It is significant to note that he made Jerusalem the direction (al-Qiblah) to which Muslims must face when they pray. Jerusalem is thus called Ula al-Qiblatain (the First Qiblah).The Prophet and the early community of Islam worshiped toward the direction of Jerusalem during their stay in Mecca. For almost seventeen months after the Hijra (migration), Muslims in Medina also continued to pray facing Jerusalem. Later, God commanded the Prophet to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca (Qur’an, surat 2:142-150).
The literature, folk legends, and miniatures inspired by Al-Isra and Al-Mi’raj are full of miraculous events, marvellous encounters, and symbols. The Archangel Gabriel provided the Prophet with the mythical animal al-Buraq who flew him from Mecca to Jerusalem. There it is believed that the Prophet stood at the Sacred Rock (Al-Sakhrah al-Musharrafah) and then ascended to the heavens whence instructions were revealed about the number of prayers the Muslim community should observe each day. In al-Masjid al-Aqsa, the Prophet of Islam met with the Biblical prophets and he led them in prayers. After these experiences, the Prophet flew back to Mecca astride the mysterious Buraq.
Al-Mi’raj, as a symbolic expression of the sacred, remains shrouded in evocative mystery around which folk culture deployed fantastic narratives. According to folk legend, the Holy Rock, whence the Prophet rose on his “quick visit” to the heavens, as witness to the miraculous eruption of the sacred, has changed and has come to assume a symbolic function as a sign of that mysterious Night Journey. In folk culture, it is believed that the rock bears the imprint of the Prophet’s feet. “Stand still,” the Prophet was told, and he stamped his feet firmly on the rock to keep it in its place. It is commonly believed that the rock started to rise along with him to the heavens to meet God, and it would have continued had it not been for his firm command to stay put. The trace of his feet is now enshrined in the southwestern reliquary that also contains hairs from his beard. In another narrative, my Sufi friend, Al-Sheik al-Jamal, explained, “Prophets do not leave traces in the sand, but the stamp of their footprints shows up on rocks.”
Legend portrays Buraq as a magical animal, bigger than a donkey and smaller than a mule, with lightning speed – hence the name, al-Buraq, an anagram of the word barq, Arabic for “lightning,” to denote the element of high speed with which the Prophet travelled between Mecca and Jerusalem. Al-Mi’raj is derived from the word arj (عرج), to drop by for a brief visit, and refers to Prophet Mohammed’s rise to the upper skies to seal, in a sense, God’s covenant with the Muslim Prophet as al-insan al kamil and a paragon to emulate for mankind.
Whether al-Mi’raj describes the ascent of Prophet Muhammad in body or whether it is a spiritual event remains controversial. Muslim theologians, mystics, and poets have proffered Al-Mi’raj in terms that eschew the reification and anthropomorphization of God and avoid the pitfalls of the transfiguration of the Prophet into a divinity, whose humanity of which orthodox Sunni Muslims cannot lose sight. Ibn-e-Arabi, basing his argument on the Hadith (saying of the Prophet) “I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay” advances the view of the “Muhammadan reality” (الحقيقة المحمدية). For Ibn-e-Arabi, the Prophet’s divinity is constitutively constituted in the description of Al-Nur al Muhamadi (Muhammadan light). In the emanation scheme of cosmology characteristic of Sufi and Shi’i metaphysics, the description refers to the pre-cosmic soul of Muhammad, which is associated with the complete human (al-insan al-kamil) and Muhammadan truth (haqiqah muhammadiyyah). Through the theory of he light as emanating from the Prophet, a concept based on Ibn-e-Arabi’s mirror metaphor, the chasm that separates mankind from God in orthodox Sunni theology is thus traversed in Sufism. The primordial purity of Humanity, as a mirror reflection of God, through gnosis, the love of God, Prophet Mohammed, rigorous self-discipline (جهادالنفس) and gnosis can be regained through Sufi asceticism. Whereas the special privileged status of the Prophet as al-insan al-kamil becomes the paragon for men to love and to emulate, Jerusalem, Bait al-Maqdis, however, as the locus of al-Miraj, is the holy city par excellence. Both the Prophet Muhammad and the Al-Quds were selected and assigned this noble privilege; that of mediation between heaven and earth, as axis mundi.
The sacred in Jerusalem exuded an overwhelming sense of spiritual serenity and transcendence that made it the favoured exile city for deposed Mamluk princes. Their ornate mausoleums were enshrined in theological colleges that flourished in the medieval period. Throughout the past millennia, Muslims came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and stayed here in the precincts of Al-Haram al-Sherif. It is believed that the famous Persian philosopher and theologian Al-Ghazali took up residence in the small theological college on top of the Golden Gate where he started his major opus, Reviving the Sciences of Religion (احياء علوم الدين).
Jerusalem is a treasure trove of architectural monuments. Ummayad, Abbasid, Ayyubid, Mamluk, and Ottoman architectural heritage pervades Al-Quds al-Sharif, namely Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), both the lower and upper courtyards, and all the access streets and alleys that lead to the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque with its sublime noble serenity and inalienable Muslim Arab identity. Wealthy dowagers, emirs, and sultans are among the illustrious pious philanthropists who bequeathed Jerusalem its majestic edifices and grandiose façades. These include Sitt Tanshiq, Tankiz, Qalawoon, Qaytbay, Barquq, Barka Khan, Baybars, and Arghun El-Kamilly, Baybars, and others. A motley array of personages that included slave traders, palace tutors, royal princesses from East and Central Asia – all seeking a safe haven distant from Mongol invasion, penitent sisters from Mardin, Sufi friends in personal quest for inner peace, and deposed princes sought redemption in Al-Quds al-Sharif. Each endowment has its story of love and hate, loyalty and treachery, fear and faith. Behind these exquisitely designed picturesque façades they sought inner peace. The palatial portals were doorways to personal redemption and paradise; the sumptuously decorated first-floor windows with iron grid bars were windows of grace. Their splendor, the constant Qur’anic recitation, and their sheer glorious disposition compelled the passerby to stop and read al-bismallah, the first chapter of the Qur’an (usually recited for the dead).
In Jerusalem, Mamluks found redemption. In a society where every slave could become a Sultan and where every female slave could become a wife of the Sultan, life was rife with strife. Many chose to spend their last days in peace in Jerusalem where Muslims believe Judgment Day will take place. A plethora of mausoleums dot the main access roads to Al-Haram al-Sharif encased within the innumerable Sufi educational, spiritual, and lodging institutions that are sumptuously decorated façades and palatial portals. In time, the penitent mystics developed into holy men of God, Awliya’. Their mausoleums became holy shrines. Up to the nineteenth century, the passerby would stop and listen to the Qur’an being recited by the Sheikh inside, recite the bismillah (the first verses of the Qur’an), and move on.
These architectural gems confirm the elevated religious status of the city in Muslim theology and practice. The Mamluk massive building campaign was first and foremost an act of religious tribute to the third-most-holy city in Islam. Among other complex factors, these theological links underlie the Mamluk endeavor to revive Jerusalem as a Muslim religious center of pilgrimage, comparable in importance to that of Mecca and Medina. Hence, the numerous magnificent endowments, include ribat (hospices), zawiyat (Islamic religious schools or monasteries), madaress, mausoleums, caravanserai, hammamat (public baths), and palaces. These monuments exemplify and illustrate various overall structural cum decorative details and styles such as ablaq masonry, interlocked stones, stalactite formations in vaults (muqarnas), shell or conch motifs and patterns, calligraphic and ornate inscriptions, and arabesque.
There is, however, one essential point to bear in mind: namely, that al-Mi’raj serves as an expression of every Muslim’s deep devotion and spiritual connection to Allah, Prophet Muhammad, and Jerusalem, and as a confirmation of Mecca’s spiritual and symbolic link with al-Quds.
A victim to a turbulent history whose vicissitudes have made it inaccessible to Muslims first during the Crusader Latin Kingdom and now because of the Israeli occupation, its mere name, Al-Quds, triggers an emotional affectual upsurge in every Muslim heart and mind. It is where nostalgia, piety, the love of God, and his Prophet Muhammad meet.