The Meaning of Jerusalem for Muslims
Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway
*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).
** Dean of the College of Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem
Islam came to confirm the original previous revelations. Despite serious theological differences, not least because of post-revelational constructs, convivencia among the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has been the hallmark of the Islamic civilization, from Cordoba to Jerusalem, and beyond. In fact, Jews were only able to return to living in Jerusalem during Islamic rule, for they were prohibited from doing so previously for many centuries. Yet, convivencia does not include sharing holy places, the status of which should remain as on the eve of June 6, 1967. Nor is convivencia ever possible under the Israeli occupation.
A city that is the desired destination for people from all corners of the globe speaks many languages, and I understand some of them. I am a Jerusalemite who understands many verbal and non-verbal signifiers that grow naturally and artificially on Jerusalem’s skin. Arabic is still the predominant language of the Old City of Jerusalem, because Palestinians are still the majority of the inhabitants, despite the ethnic cleansing and utter destruction of the Moroccan Quarter in 1967 by bulldozing an 800-year-old neighborhood. Arabic, the language of the Holy Qur’an and the language of the Arab-Islamic civilization, is still the lingua franca of the region, from Iraq to Morocco. Yet, Arabic has been demoted at the hands of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in the Nation-State Law of 2018, an act that reflects racism and cultural insecurity.
Jerusalem’s mosaic is not monolithic. Early in the morning, I could be entering the Old City through Lions’ Gate on my way to Al-Aqsa Mosque, while Catholic nuns and priests leave through the same gate to the nearby Gethsemane and Church of All Nations. The Mosque of `Umar and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the heart of the Old City have been neighbors for centuries. And the Pact of `Umar with Patriarch Sophronius, more than fourteen centuries old, reflects better times, when religious institutions were protected against infringement. Our collective history speaks volumes of deep historical roots in the Holy City. We are not a twentieth-century phenomenon.
For Muslims, Al-Aqsa Mosque continues to shape their relationship with the city. Decades of going to Al-Aqsa Mosque left many beautiful memories. Years ago, all three generations of our family went there together during Ramadan. It is only a walking distance to the family home on the slopes of Mount of Olives, facing the Old City. It also faces the Muslim cemetery of Bab Al-Rahmah, where at least two companions of the Prophet are buried, Shaddad ibn Aws and Ubada ibn al-Samit. Generations of my family, including my parents and my parents-in-law were laid to rest in the shadow of the eastern wall of the Old City. The Israeli occupation authorities confiscated this cemetery, which has been in use for fourteen centuries. We are still allowed to bury our dead there, but not in all of it! The southernmost tip of the cemetery, for example, became off limit for Muslim burials, and is believed to be slated for the cable car project, which led The New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman to accuse Israel of carrying out the “Disneyfication” of Jerusalem. Tourism at the expense of the sacred!
There is a process of altering the pre-Nakba Islamic religious topography! Many mosques were transformed into mundane use or rather sacrilegious purposes. One of them, in West Jerusalem, a walking distance from Damascus Gate, remains intact in a good condition, but it has been closed since 1948. The same applies to some Muslim cemeteries within the Green Line! Well, until “development” takes place. The Mamilla (Ma’man-illah) Cemetery is only a couple of minutes’ walking distance to the west from Jaffa Gate or New Gate. Its story reflects total disregard for the living and no respect for the dead. The Israeli Jerusalem municipality granted building permits to Rabbi Marvin Hier, from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, to build a massive Jewish Museum of Tolerance on part of this Muslim cemetery. Israeli newspapers reported that 400 boxes of human remains were exhumed and taken away! The Israeli court system would not stop this evil! This “Museum” will forever be tainted. It is nothing but a monument to Rabbi Hier. It is indeed a place where “tolerance” is buried!
A radical colonial project will attempt to change demography in favor of the occupier, the physical topography to reconstruct reality, but most importantly the narrative of and about the indigenous. It appropriates history. Colonialism is by definition exclusivist, self-centered, and cannot share. Its hallmark is extra rights for the supra-human colonialist and fewer rights for a dehumanized native, who is allowed to serve and subsist. One of the best representations of dehumanization is the plate number given to Palestinian taxis in East Jerusalem after the occupation in 1967; all of them, at the time, began with 666, the symbol for the biblical beast or Satan!
The map of the Old City fails to reflect the inclusive reality on the ground that predates the Zionist project. It falsely creates the sense that there are four well-defined quarters: Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish. To deconstruct this predominant tourist map, I will provide examples from the Muslim Quarter first. Enter through Lions’ Gate, and you will find Al-Aqsa Mosque to your left, and St. Anne’s Church, the birth place of Mary, to your right, then the `Umariyyah school to your left and the Church of Flagellation to your right, then the Naqshbandi Sufi Zawiyah to your left and Ecce Homo to your right, then an Armenian Building/Third Station of the Cross to your left and the Austrian Hospice to your right! In the Christian Quarter, mosques and churches rub shoulders, as well as Christian and Muslim families living together, as a testimony to centuries-old convivencia. The Muslim and Christian Quarters are more inclusive than what meets the eye on the tourist map.
Then, there are the colors of the Old City that reflect religious commitment and assert political will. Thanks are due to the late Hashemite Monarch, HM King Hussein bin Talal, who financed the gilding of the Dome of the Rock at Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif. It dominated the cityscape for centuries, and it continues to define Jerusalem aesthetically! Surah Ya-Sin (36) is inscribed on its blueish octagonal walls on the outside. Higher, adorning its drum outside like a necklace, Surah Al-Isra’ (Night Journey) (17:1) celebrates Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey:
Glory be to [Allah] Who did take His Servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque [Al-Masjid Al-Haram] to the Farthest Mosque [Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa] whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One who hears and sees [all things].
The same Surah proceeds to speak about Prophet Moses and the Children of Israel, with verses that could be understood as speaking about the future of Al-Aqsa Mosque, with ramifications for all. History is still unfolding!
On the golden-turquoise arches inside, facing the Mount of Olives to the east, the verses that speak about Mary and Jesus Christ are flanked by palm trees, commemorating the scene of Jesus’ miraculous birth in the Qur’an. Prophets Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses are all mentioned here.
On one level, the Dome of the Rock is peacefully quiet. Yet, there is an ongoing festival of colorful mosaics, Qur’anic verses, and supplications and motifs that connect the seen with the unseen, the physical with the metaphysical. This mesmerizing unique architectural marvel is reserved for the Muslim ladies when large crowds of Muslim worshippers are anticipated during religious festivities.
The dome that “reflects the will of Heavens,” to borrow from the Palestinian poet Tamim Al-Barghouthi’s In Jerusalem, should have been kept highest. This statement is only intended as a direct critique of the ever-changing, lifeless, new horizon of Jerusalem, surrounding the Old City. These high-rise buildings should not have been permitted. Much like Washington, DC, where buildings cannot be higher than Capitol Hill, Jerusalem should have been spared the ugliness of buildings that are alien to the spirit of this holy city. The new buildings, to apply the logic of Christian Norberg-Schulz, betray the Genius Loci.
The municipal borders of Jerusalem also defy the spirit of the place. Geopolitical maps should not be conflated with holiness and blessedness, two concepts that are predominantly alien to modern political thinking and city planning. Jerusalem’s theological dimensions extend beyond its municipal borders, which has been expanded by the Israeli occupation to accommodate its colonial project. It would be absurd to think that holiness could be stopped by the twelve-meter concrete Apartheid Separation Wall!
The story of the “Night Journey” in particular speaks of an expanse of divine blessedness that surrounds Al-Aqsa Mosque, setting Jerusalem at the center of a blessed and holy land. No geopolitical borders are suggested!
There are those who parade the idea that Jerusalem is not important to Muslims because it has never been the capital of any Islamic state. The answer to such an ill-informed claim is that Makkah (Mecca) was never the capital of any Islamic state!
The importance of Jerusalem to Muslims is further reflected in many Prophetic traditions.
Maimuna said: “O Messenger of Allah! Inform us about Bayt Al-Maqdis!”
He said: “It is the land where people will be gathered and resurrected [on the Day of Judgment]. Go (grammatically imperative!) and pray in it, for a prayer in it is the equivalent of a thousand prayers in other [mosques].”
I said: “What if I couldn’t reach it?”
He said: “Then you send a gift of oil to it in order to be lit in its lanterns, for the one who does so is the same like the one who has been there.”
How could Palestinian Muslims fulfill their spiritual obligations toward Al-Aqsa Mosque when they do not enjoy freedom of movement? Muslims from the United States, for example, who live thousands of miles away, could have free access to Al-Aqsa Mosque, but Palestinian Muslims from Bethany, which is located couple of miles away, do not!
While the Israeli Foreign Ministry under Avigdor Lieberman attempted to redefine Al-Aqsa Mosque, the definition of Al-Aqsa Mosque predates the emergence of Zionism. Mujir Al-Din Al-Hanbali (d. 1522) used “Al-Masjid Al-Sharif Al-Aqsa” in the first page of his introduction to Al-Uns Al-Jalil fi Tarikh Al-Quds wal-Khalil, which he wrote in the year 900 AH/1494. Muslim scholars understood that the name ”Al-Aqsa Mosque” predates the structures, is a name of the space, and that no one building could be called as such. It is anachronistic to call the southernmost building Al-Aqsa Mosque; Al-Hanbali called it “Al-Jami` Al-Kabir Al-Qibliyy” (The Grand Southern Friday-Mosque). It is quite remarkable that Mujir Al-Din Al-Hanbali, the author of the book, offered the following definition:
Verily, “Al-Aqsa” is a name for the whole mosque which is surrounded by the wall, the length and width of which are mentioned here, for the building that exists in the southern part of the Mosque, and the other ones such as the Dome of the Rock and the corridors and other [buildings] are novel (muhdatha).
The paragraph that preceded the definition of Al-Aqsa Mosque was dedicated to its measurement. Twice, the measurements of the Mosque were taken under the supervision of Al-Hanbali to make sure that they were accurate. He mentioned that the length of the Mosque was measured from the southern wall to the northern corridor near Bab Al-Asbat (Lions’ Gate), and the width was measured from the wall overlooking the cemetery of Bab Al-Rahmah (Golden Gate) to the western corridor, beneath the Tankaziyyah School, which was confiscated by the Israeli occupation.
To clarify the definition of Al-Aqsa Mosque, it is a name for all the 144 dunums (about 36 acres) including the walls on all four sides, all gates including Bab Al-Rahmah (Golden Gate) and ramps leading to them, including the one leading to the Moroccan Gate, buildings such as the Qibli and the Dome of the Rock, and open courts, all space within, below (that is, subterranean space, such as Al-Marwani), and above (that is, airspace).
Al-Aqsa Mosque belongs to the Muslim Ummah, the global Muslim community at large. It will be under Palestinian sovereignty after the end of the Israeli Occupation. HM King of Jordan will continue to be the Custodian of the Muslim and Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, with the Directorate of Waqf in Jerusalem continuing to be part of the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf, Islamic Affairs and Holy Sites. The cornerstone of this Hashemite legacy goes back to 1924 when the Supreme Muslim Council in Palestine recognized the Sharif of Mecca Al-Hussein bin Ali as custodian of the Holy Al-Aqsa Mosque. Almost a century later, the Hashemite Custodianship became entrenched in the March 1, 2013 treaty between Jordan and Palestine.
It should be noted that the Qur’anic reference to Al-Aqsa Mosque, appeared years before the actual arrival of Muslims to Jerusalem. It means that it is an integral part of Islamic theology, faith, and creed that Al-Aqsa Mosque was designated as a mosque by God.
Moreover, the importance of Al-Aqsa Mosque in the life of Muslims is reflected in the many other traditions of the Prophet. One of these traditions – narrated by Al-Bukhari (#1115) and Muslim (#2475) – makes it clear that traveling in order to visit mosques for religious purposes, is permitted to three mosques only: Al-Masjid Al-Haram (in Mecca), Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi (in Medina), and Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem).
The language of the above-mentioned Hadith in Arabic gives the impression that it is prohibited to travel to mosques other than these three. This led the prominent Shafi`i scholar Imam Al-Juwayni (d.1085 CE) to issue a religious ruling that it is prohibited to do so. Imam Al-Nawawi (d.1277), who belonged to the same school of fiqh (Islamic Law), rendered the position of Al-Juwayni erroneous, and that the majority of scholars (jumhur al-‘Ulama’) understand the Hadith as saying that “there is no [extra] merit in traveling to other mosques.”
The journey by night had Jerusalem as a transit station or as a gate to the heavens. God could have taken His Prophet (Peace be upon him) directly from Mecca to heaven, but He didn’t. Al-Aqsa Mosque has a very prominent place in the whole event. It was the place where the Prophet (Peace be upon him) led the other prophets and messengers in prayer. This act is interpreted, among other things, as inheriting the responsibility and becoming custodians of the mosque.
Bayt Al-Maqdis, Jerusalem, became the first Qiblah or direction of prayer. Al-Bara’ said:
“We have prayed with the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) in the direction of Bayt Al-Maqdis for sixteen or seventeen months. Then we were directed to the Ka`bah [in Mecca].” (Narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Despite the change of the Qiblah, the mere fact that Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem is an indication of its prominence in Islam. According to the Qur’an, however, the mosque in Mecca was the first ever established by God for humanity, so it should not be surprising that the Qiblah was shifted back to it:
The first House [of worship] appointed for men, was that at Bakkah [Mecca]: full of blessing and of guidance for all the worlds. (Qur’an, 3: 96)
The same position is confirmed in a hadith narrated by Al-Bukhari and Muslim:
Abu Dhar Al-Ghafari (May God be pleased with him) said:
“I said: O Messenger of Allah: Which mosque was established first on earth?
He said: Al-Masjid Al-Haram [in Mecca].
I said: Then which one?
He said: Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa [in Jerusalem].
I said: How much time was between them?”
He said: Forty years, and when it is time for prayer, wherever you are, pray, for that is where the merit is.”
The Qur’an teaches that, while a single system of ethics and belief should be common to the revelations and scriptures of all peoples, the specific laws of ritual and behavior may vary in revealed scriptures:
“… To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but His plan is to test you in what He has given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues.” (Qur’an, 5:48)
The second chapter of the Qur’an (verses 142-150) addresses the change of the Qiblah in detail. The basic message is that both directions of prayer are from God and that:
“… the People of the Book know that that is Truth from their Lord.”
Al-Aqsa Mosque structure was developed and the buildings expanded on a large scale during the reign of two seventh- and eighth-century Umayyad Caliphs, Abd Al-Malik Ibn Marwan and his son Al-Walid, to the extent that it surpassed the architectural grandeur of all mosques. The magnificence of the architecture of the Dome of the Rock and the southernmost building within the parameters of Al-Aqsa Mosque is witness to the importance of these holy sites in Islam.
In addition, Um Salamah, wife of the Prophet, said:
I have heard the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) saying: “He who initiates the minor Hajj [the `Umrah] or Hajj at Al-Aqsa Mosque, God will forgive his prior sins.”
There is an addendum to the previous Hadith stating that Um Hakim, daughter of Umayyah Ibn Al-Akhnas, who reported the Hadith of Um Salamah, traveled from Medina all the way to Al-Aqsa Mosque and initiated the minor Hajj from there.
I have seen Muslims early in the morning, after praying the dawn prayer, with men covered in two white unsewn pieces of cloth. They have initiated their `Umrah, and they would be heading to Mecca. I usually greet them and talk to them briefly about their upcoming trip. Most of them come from overseas.
One of my friends, who came to visit from overseas years ago, spent a whole night sitting on the Mount of Olives meditating and looking at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Old City. He behaved like a true lover of this city, being absorbed by its magnificence. In a way, he was fulfilling the following tradition.
Abu Dharr (May God be pleased with him) said: We have discussed while we were with the Messenger of God (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him) which is more meritorious, the mosque of the Messenger of God (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him) or Bait Al-Maqdis (Al-Aqsa Mosque)? The Messenger of God (May God’s peace and blessings be upon him) said: A prayer in this mosque of mine is better than four prayers in it. And how good a place of prayer it is, for soon a man having a piece of land as much as [the length of] the rope [with which he ties] his horse (in another version, the length of his bow), from which he could see Bait Al-Maqdis, it would be better than the whole world, or he said: better than the world and what’s in it.”
There are many other traditions that extol the importance of Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Islam, which for brevity I did not include in this essay. Jerusalem will continue to be coveted for its deeply rooted religious and spiritual meanings, for the archaeology and history of this Canaanite Jebusite city, and for its distinct civilizational force and cultural heritage. The only aspect that is ever-changing and short-lived is the authority of the sojourner.
 For more prophetic traditions about Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem see: Mustafa Abu Sway, “The Status of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem in the Prophetic Traditions,” in Antti Laato, ed., Understanding the Spiritual Meaning of Jerusalem in Three Abrahamic Religions (Leiden: Brill, 2019), pp. 191-204.