The historic Masjid Al Aqsa is perhaps the most contentious place today. Built centuries ago in the Land Of Prophets, this has been one of the Holiest places of worship for the Muslims. They rank it the third holiest place, after the Masjid Al Haram and Masjid Al Nabvi, both in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Aqsa is an Arabic word which means the farthest. Masjid Al Aqsa is situated in the city of Jerusalem, currently under the illegal control of Israel. Although the Muslim world claims this place to be their third holiest place of worship, the Jews also have a claim on it, pretending it to be the Second Temple, per their belief.
That makes this place a point of contention between Muslim Countries and Israel. This conflict existed between the Jews and Muslims even before the creation of Israel in 1948. On the other hand, Muslims have a very strong claim on it, which the Quran and Hadith support.
Historical Background of Masjid Al Aqsa
The history of Masjid Al Aqsa goes back to the era of Prophet Ibrahim عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ. In addition to building the house of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى, Khana Kaaba in Mecca, he also established a place of worship in current day’s Israel. He called it the house of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى, most popularly known as Al Haram Al Sharif. This is a fact, as narrated in Hadith Number 3366 of Sahi Al Bukhari
Translation – I said, “O Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ)! Which mosque was first built on the surface of the earth?” He said, “Al- Masjid-ul-,Haram (in Mecca).” I said, “Which was built next?” He replied “The mosque of Al-Aqsa ( in Jerusalem) .” I said, “What was the period of construction between the two?” He said, “Forty years.” He added, “Wherever (you may be, and) the prayer time becomes due, perform the prayer there, for the best thing is to do so (i.e. to offer the prayers in time).
Years passed and then came the era of Prophet Sulaiman عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ. Per the Jewish traditions this place of worship is called the First Temple or Haikal-e-Sulaimani, whereas Muslims call it Masjid Al Aqsa. It was located on the Temple Mount on its southern side. Later on, it was demolished.
In 20 BCE, King Herod rebuilt it, known as the second temple per the Jewish traditions. Due to the uneven topography of this site, an artificial platform was created, supported by arches and the actual building sits on this platform. Masjid Al Aqsa still resides on this platform. It is not an isolated building but one of the buildings in a compound comprising some 35 acres of land, known as the Al Aqsa Compound. It is in the old city of Jerusalem.
During the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the second temple. Since then, it has not been rebuilt. Per the Jewish belief, they had to rebuild it as a third temple after demolishing Masjid Al Aqsa.
Masjid Al Aqsa Since the Known History
In the Islamic traditions, supported by the Quran and Hadith, this was where Prophet Muhammad started his Miraj (journey to the Heavens). Before that, all the Prophets of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى offered prayers on the site of Masjid Al Aqsa under the Imamat (leadership) of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
This event is narrated in Surah Al Isra verse number 1
Translation – Glory be to the One Who took His servant ˹Muḥammad˺ by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque whose surroundings We have blessed, so that We may show him some of Our signs. Indeed, He alone is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.
In the earlier days of Islam, Muslims used to offer prayers while facing towards the direction of Masjid Al Aqsa. That’s why it is given the name Qibla e Awwal. Later on, by the Command of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى, Muslims started to offer prayers, facing Masjid Al Haram (Khana Kaaba).
Masjid Al Aqsa and Hazrat Umer – Second Khaleefa Rashid
When the second Khaleefa Rashid Hazrat Umer رَضِيَ ٱللَّٰهُ عَنْهُ, got control of the old city of Jerusalem, he visited the site of the second temple. During his visit came the time of prayers. He wished to offer prayers. He was offered to recite his prayers on the site of the demolished second temple but he refused, saying that if he recited prayer at this place, Muslims would treat it as a Masjid. So, he offered the prayers slightly away from this place.
The current day’s Masjid Al Aqsa is believed to have been built on that particular location where Khaleefa Rashid Hazrat Umer رَضِيَ ٱللَّٰهُ عَنْهُ offered prayers. This place is commonly known as Gumbad-e-Sakhra (Dome of the Rock). It is right in the center of the Al Aqsa Compound. But Masjid Al Aqsa is situated currently alongside the Dome of the Rock.
Construction of Masjid Al Aqsa by Muslim Rulers
Subsequently, Masjid Al Aqsa was constructed by different Muslim Rulers at the same place where it currently stands, in the old city of Jerusalem. The first construction of Masjid Al Aqsa was done during the era of Khilafat e Umayyad, sometimes from 661 to 680 CE, most probably by Caliph Muawia. However, most historians think that the first construction was started by Khaleefa Abdul Malik in 691 CE.
During the reign of Khilafat e Abbasya, some renovation and redesigning work was done on Masjid Al Aqsa. During the Fatimid regime, this Masjid was badly damaged by an earthquake. So, reconstruction work was started by the then Fatimid ruler Al Zahir in the year 1034 CE and was completed in the year 1065 CE during the reign of Al Mustansar.
Masjid Al Aqsa – The First Crusade and Ayyubid Regime
In the year 1099 CE, due to the First Crusade, Jerusalem came under the reign of Christian rulers. They turned the Dome of the Rock into a church and Masjid Al Aqsa as a Royal Palace. Some historians narrate that it was also used as a horse stable. It is believed that the Masjid and the Dome of the Rock underwent structural changes. They constructed the Western and Eastern annexes currently used as women’s prayer hall and museum.
Eventually, in 1187 CE, Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi took hold of Jerusalem and started revamping Masjid Al Aqsa. A minbar was added to the Masjid in the same year. Thereafter, the northern porch of the Masjid with three gates was constructed in 1218 CE. Two new gates and naves were added to the Masjid Al Aqsa in 1345 CE.
Masjid Al Aqsa in Ottoman Empire
During the regime of Ottomans, the entire Al Aqsa Compound got the attention of different Governors of Jerusalem, locally. It is believed that the Ottoman Sultan did not order any renovation work, but the local Governors mostly did it independently. They tried to revamp the entire complex and added various new buildings such as the Fountain of Qasim Pasha. They also revamped the three free standing domes, including the Dome of the Prophet. Existing minarets were, however added by the order of the Ottoman Sultans.
Masjid Al Aqsa in 20th Century
In 1922 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem entrusted the revamping task of Masjid Al Aqsa to a Turkish Architect Kemaluddin Bey. The idea was to restore the Masjid in its actual form. The task was completed in 1925. An earthquake hit in 1927 and 1938, which resulted in the demolition of the roof of Masjid Al Aqsa. As a result, the Masjid underwent a major reconstruction phase.
Unfortunate Incidents in Masjid Al Aqsa
In 1959, King Abdullah of Jordan was shot dead while he was on a visit to Masjid Al Aqsa. The most unfortunate incident occurred on 21 August 1969. An Australian visitor Denis Michael Rohan set the Masjid on fire, hoping to burn down it completely. Resultantly the dome of the Masjid had to be rebuilt. It was eventually done replacing it with a concrete dome. This incident triggered the formation of OIC, a leading organization of Muslim Countries.
Masjid Al Aqsa – Arab Israel Conflict
The conflict started with the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Arthur Balfour was the British Foreign Secretary at that time, who floated the idea of a separate homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Palestine, at that time was under the Ottoman Empire. This was the first effort to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East. And later on, it resulted in an unending Arab-Israel conflict.
In 1947, the United Nations suggested dividing Palestine into two parts. The area was proposed to be divided into two independent nations, Israel and Palestine. It was further proposed that Israel would be getting 55% and Palestine 45% of the total area of the then Palestine. This entire area at that time was under the control of Britain. Till that point in time, Jerusalem was under the direct control of the United Nations, who also declared it a World Heritage Site due to its religious importance for the three major religions of the world: Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
However, the plan did not work as expected. Instead, a war broke out between Israel and Arab Countries when Israel declared itself a sovereign state in 1948. As a result, almost 78% of the area went under the control of Israel. In contrast, the remaining areas comprising the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem came under the control of Egypt and Jordan.
Triggered by the ever increasing instances of Israeli encroachments, another war between Arabs and Israel broke out in 1967. It resulted in Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City of Jerusalem and Masjid Al Aqsa.
Since then, the Palestine and Masjid Al Aqsa issue has been a cause of conflict between the Arab countries and Israel. Israel even declared Jerusalem as its Capital in 1980, but to date, the world community has not accepted this illegal step. In the future, Israel has been establishing Jewish settlements in Jerusalem to strengthen its hold on the area. Simultaneously, the oppressive actions against the local Palestinians are increasing manifold in an attempt to force them out of the city.
Later on, with the facilitation of the USA, an agreement was made between Israel and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), which gave a sort of self-administration rights to the Palestinians in the restricted areas comprising the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Yasser Arafat became the first head of this so-called state.
But unfortunately, the miseries of Palestinians never ended. They are still facing the Israeli oppression.
Importance of Masjid Al Aqsa in Islam
Masjid Al Aqsa has a very special status for the entire Muslim world for many reasons. Let’s have a brief look on how and why this place of worship is so important for Muslims.
Historical Affiliation With Muslims
The founder of Masjid Al Aqsa was the Prophet Ibrahim عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ It was then built by Prophet Sulaiman عَلَيْهِ ٱلسَّلَامُ. Then the second Khaleefa Rashid Hazrat Umer رَضِيَ ٱللَّٰهُ عَنْهُ, during his visit to this place, offered prayers near the Dome of the Rock. That was the place where Masjid Al Aqsa was built. Subsequently, many Muslim rulers paid special attention to the renovation and expansion of Masjid Al Aqsa. That’s why Muslims have a very close affiliation with this Masjid.
First Qibla in Islam
During the earlier days of Islam, Masjid Al Aqsa got the status of Qibla; hence often referred to as Qibla-e-Awwal, the first Qibla. So, they used to offer prayers while facing towards the direction of Masjid Al Aqsa. Later on, Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى commanded His Messenger Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to turn their faces towards the Masjid Al Haram (Khana Kaaba), which became the ultimate Qibla for Muslims, as narrated in Verse number 144 of Surah Al Baqarah.
Translation – Indeed, We see you ˹O Prophet˺ turning your face towards heaven. Now We will make you turn towards a direction ˹of prayer˺ that will please you. So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque ˹in Mecca˺—wherever you are, turn your faces towards it. Those who were given the Scripture certainly know this to be the truth from their Lord. And Allah is never unaware of what they do.
So, being the first Qibla in Islam, Masjid Al Aqsa is rated as the third holiest place for Muslims, after Masjid Al Haram in Mecca and Masjid Al Nabvi in Medina.
Special Rewards on Offering Prayers in Masjid Al Aqsa
There are many references in different Hadith Books about the importance of offering prayers in Masjid Al Aqsa. Hadith number 1189 of Sahih Al Bukhari is one of them.
Translation – The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Do not set out on a journey except for three Mosques i.e. Al-Masjid-AI-Haram, the Mosque of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) , and the Mosque of Al-Aqsa, (Mosque of Jerusalem).”
Another Hadith appears at number 1413, in Sunan Ibn Majah, about the rewards on offering prayers in Masjid Al Aqsa. According to this Hadith, one prayer offered in Masjid Al Aqsa is equal to 50,000 prayers.
Translation – “The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘A man’s prayer in his house is equal (in reward) to one prayer; his prayer in the mosque of the tribes is equal to twenty-five prayers; his prayer in the mosque in which Friday prayer is offered is equal to five-hundred prayers; his prayer in Aqsa Mosque is equal to fifty thousand prayers; his prayer in my mosque is equal to fifty thousand prayers; and his prayer in the Sacred Mosque is equal to one hundred thousand prayers.”
Many other Hadith in the books guarantee huge rewards for offering prayers at Masjid Al Aqsa.
Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ Journey to Heavens and Masjid Al Aqsa
Another significance of this Masjid is its association with the miraculous and sacred journey of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to the heavens, known as Miraj. It is also called Isra and Night Journey. It happened on the 27th night of the Islamic month of Rajab. By the command of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was miraculously taken to Masjid Al Aqsa from Masjid Al Haram on that night
Here, Prophet Muhammad led a special prayer, which was attended by all the Messengers and Prophets of Allah سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى. Thereafter Prophet Muhammad ﷺ ascended to the heavens and then came back to Mecca on the same night.
As part of their political strategies, Israel is gradually eliminating Palestinians from this region. Slowly and gradually, they are forcing the Palestinians out of their homeland. While the West Bank is already under their political influence, their immediate point of concern is Gaza. Gaza Strip has been resisting Israeli oppression for a long.
Eventually, Hamas recently retaliated severely by attacking military installations inside Israel. But obviously, Hamas cannot stay against the military might of Israel, which also gets full support from the US and Europe. Unfortunately, Palestine and Hamas are not being supported by the Muslims in general and Arabs in particular.
Gaza at this point, has been without electricity, water, food, and medicines for the last month or so. It is practically cut off from the world. Electronic media is not allowed to cover the events happening in this area.
During the last week, Israel has almost destroyed the entire infrastructure in Gaza through heavy bombing. No authentic reports are coming out of Gaza about the casualties. No Muslim or Arab Country is helping Palestine, neither morally nor politically. It looks as if the entire Muslim world has left Hamas and Gaza to face the oppressive acts of Israel all alone. Recently Hamas leaders pointed out that they have not got the support, as was promised by Hezbullah and Iran.
On the other hand, Jews have their own religious ambitions. They believe that the Masjid Al Aqsa must be demolished to give way to the construction of a third temple. Israel and Jews are slowly progressing towards this goal by eliminating Palestinians and establishing Jewish settlements in Jerusalem. In this scenario, the current upheaval in Gaza is not merely the Palestinian Cause; rather, the entire Muslim world needs to apprehend the ill designs of Israel.
If you don’t care for them, let the Palestinians alone, but how can you let Masjid Al Aqsa, at the hands of Israel? They have been after it for long. Palestine is fighting for your Cause; so, they deserve your political, financial, moral, and strategic help. And where are the human rights organizations of Europe and America? Don’t the Palestinians deserve your support; they are at the verge of elimination.