Al-Aqsa Mosque

Al-Aqsa Mosque
Al-Aqsa Mosque
Masjid al-Aqsa
Coordinates: 31°46′34″N 35°14′09″E / 31.77617°N 35.23583°E / 31.77617; 35.23583Coordinates: 31°46′34″N 35°14′09″E / 31.77617°N 35.23583°E / 31.77617; 35.23583
Location Old City, Jerusalem
Established 705 CE
Branch/tradition Sunni
Administration Waqf
Leadership Imam(s):
Muhammad Ahmad Hussein
Ekrima Sa'id Sabri
Architectural information
Style Early Islamic, Mamluk
Capacity 5,000+
Dome(s) 2 large + tens of smaller ones
Minaret(s) 4
Minaret height 37 meters (121 ft) (tallest)
Materials Limestone (external walls, minaret, facade) stalactite (minaret), Gold, lead and stone(domes), white marble (interior columns) and mosaic [1]

Al-Aqsa Mosque (Arabic:المسجد الاقصى al-Masjid al-Aqsa, IPA: [ʔælˈmæsʒɪd ælˈʔɑqsˤɑ] ( listen), "the Farthest Mosque,") also known as al-Aqsa, is the third holiest site in Sunni Islam and is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The site on which the silver domed mosque sits, along with the Dome of the Rock, also referred to as al-Haram ash-Sharif or "Noble Sanctuary,"[2] is the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, the place where the Temple is generally accepted to have stood. Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to al-Aqsa during the Night Journey. Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad led prayers towards this site until the seventeenth month after the emigration, when God directed him to turn towards the Ka'aba.

The al-Aqsa Mosque is believed by Muslims to have been built in ancient times, 40 years after the construction of the Kaabah.[3][Full citation needed] In the seventh century its walls were renovated by the Rashidun caliph Umar, who also built a small building to the south. A major rebuilding of the Mosque Compound was commissioned by the Ummayad caliph Abd al-Malik, and included the addition of the basement, gates and other structures such as the Dome of the Rock. The work was completed and finished by his son al-Walid in 705 CE.[4] Other ruling dynasties of the Islamic Caliphate also constructed additions within al-Aqsa Mosque’s enclave, such as its dome, facade, its minbar, minarets and the interior structure. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they used parts of al-Aqsa Mosque as either residences, stables or churches, but its function as a mosque was restored after its recapture by Saladin. More renovations, repairs and additions were undertaken in the later centuries by the Ayyubids, Mamluks, the Supreme Muslim Council, and Jordan. Today, the Old City is under Israeli control, but the mosque remains under the administration of the Palestinian-led Islamic waqf.



Masjid al-Aqsa translates from Arabic into English as "the farthest mosque." The name refers to a chapter of the Qur'an called "The Night Journey" in which it is said that Muhammad traveled from Mecca to "the farthest mosque," and then up to Heaven on a heavenly creature called al-Buraq al-Sharif.[5][6] Until the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem in the 16th-century, "al-Masjid al-Aqsa" referred not only to the mosque, but to the entire Noble Sanctuary (Temple Mount). The sanctuary complex has since come to be known as al-Haram ash-Sharif, and the mosque itself as al-Jami' al-Aqsa (al-Aqsa Mosque).[7]

Al-Aqsa Mosque as a whole is confused with a particular building within it, also known as al-Jami' al-Aqsa or al-Qibli or Masjid al-Jumah or al-Mughata, these names refer to the southern building with the silver lead dome.

For centuries, al-Masjid al-Aqsa referred not only to the mosque, but to the entire sacred sanctuary. This changed during the period of Ottoman rule (c. early 16th century to 1918) when the sanctuary complex came to be known as al Haram ash-Sharif, and the mosque founded by Umar came to be known as al-Jami' al-Aqsa or al-Aqsa Mosque.[7]



The al-Aqsa Mosque is located on the Temple Mount, referred to by Muslims today as the "Haram al-Sharif" ("The Noble Sanctuary"), an enclosure expanded by King Herod the Great beginning in 20 BCE. The mosque resides on an artificial platform that is supported by arches constructed by Herod's engineers to overcome the difficult topographic conditions resulting from the southward expansion of the enclosure into the Tyropoeon and Kidron valleys. At the time of the Second Temple, the present site of the mosque was occupied by the Royal Stoa, a basilica running the southern wall of the enclosure.[8] The Royal Stoa was destroyed along with the Temple during the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Emperor Justinian built a Christian church on the site in the 530s which was consecrated to the Virgin Mary and named "Church of Our Lady." The church was later destroyed by Khosrau II, the Sassanid emperor, in the early 7th-century and left in ruins.[9]

Analysis of the wooden beams and panels removed from the mosque during renovations in the 1930s shows they are made from Cedar of Lebanon and cypress. Radiocarbon dating indicates a large range of ages, some as old as 9th-century BCE, showing that some of the wood had previously been used in older buildings.[10]

Construction by the Umayyads

The mosque along the southern wall of the The Noble Sanctuary

It is known that the current construction of the al-Aqsa Mosque is dated to the early Ummayad period of rule in Palestine. Architectural historian K. A. C. Creswell, referring to a testimony by Arculf, a Gallic monk, during his pilgrimage to Palestine in 679–82, notes the possibility that the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, Umar ibn al-Khattab, erected a primitive quadrangular building for a capacity of 3,000 worshipers somewhere on the Haram ash-Sharif. However, Arculf visited Palestine during the reign of Mu'awiyah I, and it is possible that Mu'awiyah ordered the construction, not Umar. This latter claim is explicitly supported by the early Muslim scholar al-Muthahhar bin Tahir.[11]

According to several Muslim scholars, including Mujir ad-Din, al-Suyuti, and al-Muqaddasi, the mosque was reconstructed and expanded by the caliph Abd al-Malik in 690 along with the Dome of the Rock.[11][12] Guy le Strange claims that Abd al-Malik used materials from the destroyed Church of Our Lady to build the mosque and points to possible evidence that substructures on the southeast corners of the mosque are remains of the church.[12] In planning his magnificent project on the Temple Mount, which in effect would turn the entire complex into the Haram al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary"), Abd al-Malik wanted to replace the slipshod structure described by Arculf with a more sheltered structure enclosing the qibla, a necessary element in his grand scheme. However, the entire Haram al-Sharif was meant to represent a mosque. How much he modified the aspect of the earlier building is unknown, but the length of the new building is indicated by the existence of traces of a bridge leading from the Umayyad palace just south of the western part of the complex. The bridge would have spanned the street running just outside the southern wall of the Haram al-Sharif to give direct access to the mosque. Direct access from palace to mosque was a well-known feature in the Umayyad period, as evidenced at various early sites. Abd al-Malik shifted the central axis of the mosque some 40 meters (130 ft) westward, in accord with his overall plan for the Haram al-Sharif. The earlier axis is represented in the structure by the niche still known as the "mihrab of 'Umar." In placing emphasis on the Dome of the Rock, Abd al-Malik had his architects align his new al-Aqsa Mosque according to the position of the Rock, thus shifting the main north–south axis of the Noble Sanctuary, a line running through the Dome of the Chain and the Mihrab of Umar.[13]

In contrast, Creswell, while referring to the Aphrodito Papyri, claims that Abd al-Malik's son, al-Walid I, reconstructed the Aqsa Mosque over a period of six months to a year, using workers from Damascus. Most scholars agree that the mosque's reconstruction was started by Abd al-Malik, but that al-Walid oversaw its completion. In 713–14, a series of earthquakes ravaged Jerusalem, destroying the eastern section of the mosque, which was subsequently rebuilt during al-Walid's rule. In order to finance its reconstruction, al-Walid had gold from the dome of the Rock minted to use as money to purchase the material.[11] The Umayyad-built al-Aqsa Mosque most likely measured 112 x 39 meters.[13]

Earthquakes and re-constructions

In 746, the al-Aqsa Mosque was damaged in an earthquake, four years before as-Saffah overthrew the Ummayads and established the Abbasid Caliphate. The second Abbasid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur declared his intent to repair the mosque in 753, and he had the gold and silver plaques that covered the gates of the mosque removed and turned into dinars and dirhams to finance the reconstruction which ended in 771. A second earthquake damaged most of al-Mansur's repairs, excluding those made in the southern portion in 774.[12][14] In 780, the successor caliph Muhammad al-Mahdi had it rebuilt, but curtailed its length and increased its breadth.[12][15] Al-Mahdi's renovation is the first known to have written records describing it.[16] In 985, Jerusalem-born Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi recorded that the renovated mosque had "fifteen naves and fifteen gates".[14]

The doors of the Saladin Minbar, early 1900s. The minbar was built on Nur al-Din's orders, but installed by Saladin

In 1033, there was another earthquake, severely damaging the mosque. The Fatimid caliph Ali az-Zahir rebuilt and completely renovated the mosque between 1034 and 1036. The number of naves was drastically reduced from fifteen to seven.[14] Az-Zahir built the four arcades of the central hall and aisle, which presently serve as the foundation of the mosque. The central aisle was double the width of the other aisles and had a large gable roof upon which the dome—made of wood—was constructed.[11] Persian geographer, Nasir Khusraw describes the Aqsa Mosque during a visit in 1047:

The Haram Area (Noble Sanctuary) lies in the eastern part of the city; and through the bazaar of this (quarter) you enter the Area by a great and beautiful gateway (Dargah)... After passing this gateway, you have on the right two great colonnades (Riwaq), each of which has nine-and-twenty marble pillars, whose capitals and bases are of colored marbles, and the joints are set in lead. Above the pillars rise arches, that are constructed, of masonry, without mortar or cement, and each arch is constructed of no more than five or six blocks of stone. These colonnades lead down to near the Maqsurah.[17]

Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, during the First Crusade. Instead of destroying the mosque—which they called "Solomon's Temple"—the Crusaders used it as a royal palace and as a stable for horses. In 1119, it was transformed into the headquarters for the Templar Knights. During this period, the mosque underwent some structural changes, including the expansion of its northern porch, and the addition of an apse and a dividing wall. A new cloister and church were also built at the site, along with various other structures.[18] The Templars constructed vaulted western and eastern annexes to the building; the western currently serves as the women's mosque and the eastern as the Islamic Museum.[14]

After the Ayyubids under the leadership of Saladin reconquered Jerusalem following the siege of 1187, several repairs and renovations were undertaken at al-Aqsa Mosque. In order to prepare the mosque for Friday prayers, within a week of his capture of Jerusalem Saladin had the toilets and grain stores installed by the Crusaders at al-Aqsa removed, the floors covered with precious carpets, and its interior scented with rosewater and incense.[19] Saladin's predecessor—the Zengid sultan Nur al-Din—had commissioned the construction of a new minbar or "pulpit" made of ivory and wood in 1168–69, but it was completed after his death; Nur ad-Din's minbar was added to the mosque in November 1187 by Saladin.[20] The Ayyubid sultan of Damascus, al-Mu'azzam, built the northern porch of the mosque with three gates in 1218. In 1345, the Mamluks under al-Kamil Shaban added two naves and two gates to the mosque's eastern side.[14]

After the Ottomans assumed power in 1517, they did not undertake any major renovations or repairs to the mosque itself, but they did to the Noble Sanctuary as a whole. This included the building of the Fountain of Qasim Pasha (1527), the restoration of the Pool of Raranj, and the building of three free-standing domes—the most notable being the Dome of the Prophet built in 1538. All construction was ordered by the Ottoman governors of Jerusalem and not the sultans themselves.[21] The sultans did make additions to existing minarets, however.[21]

Modern era

The dome of the mosque in 1982. It was made of aluminum (and looked like silver), but replaced with its original lead plating in 1983

The first renovation in the 20th-century occurred in 1922, when the Supreme Muslim Council under Amin al-Husayni (the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) commissioned Turkish architect Ahmet Kemalettin Bey to restore al-Aqsa Mosque and the monuments in its precincts. The council also commissioned British architects, Egyptian engineering experts and local officials to contribute to and oversee the repairs and additions which were carried out in 1924–25 by Kemalettin. The renovations included reinforcing the mosque's ancient Ummayad foundations, rectifying the interior columns, replacing the beams, erecting a scaffolding, conserving the arches and drum of the main dome's interior, rebuilding the southern wall, and replacing timber in the central nave with a slab of concrete. The renovations also revealed Fatimid-era mosaics and inscriptions on the interior arches that had been covered with plasterwork. The arches were decorated with gold and green-tinted gypsum and their timber tie beams were replaced with brass. A quarter of the stained glass windows also were carefully renewed so as to preserve their original Abbasid and Fatimid designs.[22] Severe damage was caused by the 1927 and 1937 earthquakes, but the mosque was repaired in 1938 and 1942.[14]

The mosque seen from the Western Wall plaza, 2005.

On August 21, 1969, a fire occurred inside al-Aqsa Mosque that gutted the southeastern wing of the mosque. Among other things, the fire destroyed Saladin's minbar.[20] Initially, Palestinians blamed the Israeli authorities for the fire, and some Israelis blamed Fatah, alleging they had started the fire so as to blame the Israelis and provoke hostility. However, the fire was started by neither Fatah nor Israel, but a tourist from Australia named Denis Michael Rohan. Rohan was a member of an evangelical Christian sect known as the Worldwide Church of God.[23] He hoped that by burning down al-Aqsa Mosque he would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus, making way for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. Rohan was subsequently hospitalized in a mental institution.[24] In response to the incident, a summit of Islamic countries was held in Rabat that same year, hosted by Faisal I, the late king of Saudi Arabia. The al-Aqsa fire is regarded as one of the catalysts for the formation of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC, now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) in 1972.[25]

In the 1980s, Ben Shoshan and Yehuda Etzion, both members of the Gush Emunim Underground, plotted to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Etzion believed that blowing up the two mosques would cause a spiritual awakening in Israel, and would solve all the problems of the Jewish people. They also hoped the Third Temple of Jerusalem would be built on the location of the mosque.[26][27] On January 15, 1988, during the First Intifada, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters outside the mosque, wounding 40 worshipers.[28][29] On October 8, 1990, 22 Palestinians were killed and over 100 others injured by Israeli Border Police during protests that were triggered by the announcement of the Temple Mount Faithful, a fringe group of religious Jews, that they were going to lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple.[30][31]

On September 28, 2000, then-Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon and members of the Likud Party, along with 1,000 armed guards, visited the al-Aqsa compound; a large group of Palestinians went to protest the visit. After Sharon and the Likud Party members left, a demonstration erupted and Palestinians on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif began throwing stones and other projectiles at Israeli riot police. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd, injuring 24 people. The visit sparked a five-year uprising by the Palestinians, commonly referred to as the al-Aqsa Intifada.[32] On September 29, the Israeli government deployed 2,000 riot police to the mosque. When a group of Palestinians left the mosque after Friday prayers (Jumu'ah,) they hurled stones at the police. The police then stormed the mosque compound, firing both live ammunition and rubber bullets at the group of Palestinians, killing four and wounding about 200.[33]


The rectangular al-Aqsa Mosque and its precincts are 144,000 square metres (1,550,000 sq ft), although the mosque itself is about 35,000 square metres (380,000 sq ft) and could hold up to 5,000 worshipers.[34] It is 272 feet (83 m) long, 184 feet (56 m) wide.[34]


The silver-colored dome consists of lead sheeting

Unlike the Dome of the Rock, which reflects classical Byzantine architecture, the Al-Aqsa Mosque is characteristic of early Islamic architecture.[35] Nothing remains of the original dome built by Abd al-Malik. The present-day dome was built by az-Zahir and consists of wood plated with lead enamelwork.[11] In 1969, the dome was reconstructed in concrete and covered with anodized aluminum instead of the original ribbed lead enamel work sheeting. In 1983, the aluminum outer covering was replaced with lead to match the original design by az-Zahir.[36]

Al-Aqsa's dome is one of the few domes to be built in front of the mihrab during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, the others being the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (715) and the Great Mosque at Sousse (850).[37] The interior of the dome is painted with 14th-century-era decorations. During the 1969 burning, the paintings were assumed to be irreparably lost, but were completely reconstructed using the trateggio technique, a method that uses fine vertical lines to distinguish reconstructed areas from original ones.[36]


The mosque has four minarets on the southern, northern and western sides. The first minaret, known as al-Fakhariyya Minaret, was built in 1278 on the southwestern corner of the mosque, on the orders of the Mamluk sultan Lajin. It was named after Fakhr al-Din al-Khalili, the father of Sharif al-Din Abd al-Rahman who supervised the building's construction. It was built in the traditional Syrian style, with a square-shaped base and shaft, divided by moldings into three floors above which two lines of muqarnas decorate the muezzin's balcony. The niche is surrounded by a square chamber that ends in a lead-covered stone dome.[38]

The Ghawanima Minaret, 1900

The second, known as the Ghawanima minaret, was built at the northwestern corner of the Noble Sanctuary in 1297–98 by architect Qadi Sharaf al-Din al-Khalili, also on the orders of the Sultan Lajin. Six stories high, it is the tallest minaret of the Noble Sanctuary.[39] The tower is almost entirely made of stone, apart from a timber canopy over the muezzin's balcony. Because of its firm structure, the Ghawanima minaret has been nearly untouched by earthquakes. The minaret is divided into several stories by stone molding and stalactite galleries. The first two stories are wider and form the base of the tower. The additional four stories are surmounted by a cylindrical drum and a bulbous dome. The stairway is externally located on the first two floors, but becomes an internal spiral structure from the third floor until it reaches the muezzin's balcony.[40]

In 1329, Tankiz—the Mamluk governor of Syria—ordered the construction of a third minaret called the Bab al-Silsila Minaret located on the western border of the al-Aqsa Mosque. This minaret, possibly replacing an earlier Umayyad minaret, is built in the traditional Syrian square tower type and is made entirely out of stone.[41] Since the 16th-century, it has been tradition that the best muezzin ("reciter") of the adhan (the call to prayer), is assigned to this minaret because the first call to each of the five daily prayers is raised from it, giving the signal for the muezzins of mosques throughout Jerusalem to follow suit.[42]

The last and most notable minaret was built in 1367, and is known as Minarat al-Asbat. It is composed of a cylindrical stone shaft (built later by the Ottomans), which springs up from a rectangular Mamluk-built base on top of a triangular transition zone.[43] The shaft narrows above the muezzin's balcony, and is dotted with circular windows, ending with a bulbous dome. The dome was reconstructed after the Jordan Valley earthquake of 1927.[43]

There are no minarets in the eastern portion of the mosque. However, in 2006, King Abdullah II of Jordan announced his intention to build a fifth minaret overlooking the Mount of Olives. The King Hussein Minaret is planned to be the tallest structure in the Old City of Jerusalem.[44][45]

Facade and porch

The facade and porch of the mosque. They were constructed and expanded by the Fatimids, the Crusaders, the Mamluks and the Ayyubids

The facade of the mosque was built in 1065 CE on the instructions of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir. It was crowned with a balustrade consisting of arcades and small columns. The Crusaders damaged the facade during their era of rule in Palestine, but it was restored and renovated by the Ayyubids. One addition was the facade's covering with tiles.[14] The second-hand material of the facade's arches includes sculpted ornamental material from taken from Crusader structures in Jerusalem.[46] There are fourteen stone arches along the facade,[5] most of which are of a Romanesque style. The outer arches added by the Mamluks follow the same general design. The entrance to the mosque is through the facade's central arch.[47]

The porch is located at the top of the facade. The central bays of the porch were built by the Knights Templar during the First Crusade, but Saladin's nephew al-Mu'azzam ordered the construction of the porch itself in 1217.[14]


The al-Aqsa Mosque has seven aisles of hypostyle naves with several additional small halls to the west and east of the southern section of the building.[15] There are 121 stained glass windows in the mosque from the Abbasid and Fatimid eras. About a fourth of them were restored in 1924.[22]

Interior view of the mosque showing the central naves and columns

The mosque's interior is supported by 45 columns, 33 of which are white marble and 12 of stone.[34] The column rows of the central aisles are heavy and stunted. The remaining four rows are better proportioned. The capitals of the columns are of four different kinds: those in the central aisle are heavy and primitively designed, while those under the dome are of the Corinthian order,[34] and made from Italian white marble. The capitals in the eastern aisle are of a heavy basket-shaped design and those east and west of the dome are also basket-shaped, but smaller and better proportioned. The columns and piers are connected by an architectural rave, which consists of beams of roughly squared timber enclosed in a wooden casing.[34]

A great portion of the mosque is covered with whitewash, but the drum of the dome and the walls immediately beneath it are decorated with mosaics and marble. Some paintings by an Italian artist were introduced when repairs were undertaken at the mosque after an earthquake ravaged the mosque in 1927.[34] The ceiling of the mosque was painted with funding by King Farouk of Egypt.[47]

The minbar ("pulpit") of the mosque was built by a craftsman named Akhtarini from Aleppo on the orders of the Zengid sultan Nur ad-Din. It was intended to be a gift for the mosque when Nur ad-Din would capture Jerusalem from the Crusaders and took six years to build (1168–74). Nur ad-Din died and the Crusaders still controlled Jerusalem, but in 1187, Saladin captured the city and the minbar was installed. The structure was made of ivory and carefully crafted wood. Arabic calligraphy, geometrical and floral designs were inscribed in the woodwork.[48] After its destruction by Rohan in 1969, it was replaced by a much simpler minbar. In January 2007, Adnan al-Husayni—head of the Islamic waqf in charge of al-Aqsa—stated that a new minbar would be installed;[49] it was installed in February 2007.[50] The design of the new minbar was drawn by Jamil Badran based on an exact replica of the Saladin Minbar and was finished by Badran within a period of five years.[48] The minbar itself was built in Jordan over a period of four years and the craftsmen used "ancient woodworking methods, joining the pieces with pegs instead of nails, but employed computer images to design the pulpit [minbar]."[49]

Ablution fountain

The mosque's "al-Kas" ablution fountain

The mosque's main ablution fountain, known as al-Kas ("the Cup"), is located north of the mosque between it and the Dome of the Rock. It is used by worshipers to perform wudu, a ritual washing of the hands, arms, legs, feet, and face before entry into the mosque. It was first built in 709 by the Ummayads, but in 1327–28 Governor Tankiz enlarged it to accommodate more worshipers. Although originally supplied with water from Solomon's Pools near Bethlehem, it currently receives water from pipes connected to Jerusalem's water supply.[51] In the 20th-century, al-Kas was provided taps and stone seating.[52]

The Fountain of Qasim Pasha, built by the Ottomans in 1526 and located north of the mosque on the platform of the Dome of the Rock, was used by worshipers for ablution and for drinking until the 1940s. Today, it stands as a monumental structure.[53]

Religious significance in Islam

In Islam, the term "al-Aqsa Mosque" is not restricted to the mosque only, but to the entire Noble Sanctuary.[54] The mosque is believed to be the second house of prayer constructed after the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. Post-Rashidun-era Islamic scholars traditionally identified the mosque as the site referred to in the sura (Qur'anic chapter) al-Isra ("the Night Journey"). The specific passage reads "Praise be to Him who made His servant journey in the night from the sacred sanctuary to the remotest sanctuary." Muslims identify the "sacred sanctuary" as the Masjid al-Haram and the "remotest sanctuary" as the al-Aqsa Mosque. This specific verse in the Qur'an cemented the significant religious importance of al-Aqsa in Islam. Initially, Rashidun and Umayyad-era scholars were in disagreement about the location of the "remotest sanctuary" with some arguing it was actually located near Mecca. Eventually scholarly consensus determined that its location was indeed in Jerusalem.[55]

I asked the beloved Prophet Muhammad which was the first mosque on Earth? 'The sacred house of prayer' he said. And then which, I asked? 'The farthest house of prayer,' he said. I further asked, what was the time span between the two? 'Forty years', Prophet Muhammad replied.

Imam Muslim quoting Abu Dharr[56]

According to Islamic tradition, during Muhammad's night journey (al-isra) he rode on al-Buraq who took him from Mecca to the site of al-Aqsa. After he finished his prayers, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) took Muhammad to Heaven, where he met several other prophets and led them in prayer.[55]

First qibla

Interior view of the mosque showing the mihrab, indicating the qibla

The historical significance of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Islam is further emphasized by the fact that Muslims turned towards al-Aqsa when they prayed for a period of sixteen or seventeen months after migration to Medina in 624, thus it became the qibla ("direction") that Muslims faced for prayer.[57] Muhammad later prayed towards the Ka'aba in Mecca after receiving a revelation during a prayer session.[Quran 2:142–151][58] The qibla was relocated to the Ka'aba where Muslims have been directed to pray ever since.[59]

The altering of the qibla was precisely the reason the Rashidun caliph Umar, despite identifying the Rock—which Muhammad used to ascend to Heaven—upon his arrival at the Noble Sanctuary in 638, neither prayed facing it nor built any structure upon it. This was because the significance of that particular spot on the Noble Sanctuary was superseded in Islamic jurisprudence by the Ka'aba in Mecca after the change of the qibla towards that site.[60]

According to early Qur'anic interpreters and what is generally accepted as Islamic tradition, in 638 CE Umar, upon entering a conquered Jerusalem, consulted with Ka'ab al-Ahbar—a Jewish convert to Islam who came with him from Medina—as to where the best spot would be to build a mosque. Al-Ahbar suggested to him that it should be behind the Rock "... so that all of Jerusalem would be before you." Umar replied, "You correspond to Judaism!" Immediately after this conversation, Umar began to clean up the site—which was filled with trash and debris—with his cloak, and other Muslim followers imitated him until the site was clean. Umar then prayed at the spot where it was believed that Muhammad had prayed before his night journey, reciting the Qur'anic sura Sad.[60] Thus, according to this tradition, Umar thereby reconsecrated the site as a mosque.[61]

Because of the holiness of Noble Sanctuary itself—being a place where David and Solomon had prayed—Umar constructed a small prayer house in the southern corner of its platform, taking care to avoid allowing the Rock to come between the mosque and the direction of Ka'aba so that Muslims would face only Mecca when they prayed.[60]

Religious status

Jerusalem is recognized as a sacred site in Islam according to the Qur'an, tafsir, and hadith. Muslims believe that numerous passages in the Qur'an refer to Jerusalem.[62] Jerusalem is also mentioned many times in the Hadith. Some academics attribute the holiness of Jerusalem to the rise and expansion of a certain type of literary genre, known as al-Fadhail or history of cities. The Fadhail of Jerusalem inspired Muslims, especially during the Umayyad period, to embellish the sanctity of the city beyond its status in the holy texts.[63] Others point to the political motives of the Umayyad dynasty which led to the sanctification of Jerusalem in Islam.[64]

Later medieval scripts, as well as modern-day political tracts, tend to classify al-Aqsa Mosque as the third holiest site in Islam.[65] For example, Sahih Bukhari quotes Abu al-Dardaa as saying: "the Prophet of Allah Muhammad said a prayer in the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) is worth 100,000 prayers; a prayer in my mosque (in Medina) is worth 10,000 prayers; and a prayer in al-Masjid al-Aqsa is worth 1,000 prayers", more than in any other mosque. In addition, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, refers to the al-Aqsa Mosque as the third holiest site in Islam (and calls for Arab sovereignty over it).[66]

Current situations


The Waqf Ministry of Jordan held control of the al-Aqsa Mosque until the 1967 Six-Day War. After Israel's victory in that war, instead of the government taking control of the al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel transferred the control of the mosque and the northern Noble Sanctuary to the Islamic waqf trust, who are independent of the Israeli government. However, Israeli Security Forces are permitted to patrol and conduct searches within the perimeter of the mosque. After the 1969 arson attack, the waqf employed architects, technicians and craftsmen in a committee that carry out regular maintenance operations. The Islamic Movement in Israel and the waqf have attempted to increase Muslim control of the Temple Mount as a way of countering Israeli policies and the escalating presence of Israeli security forces around the site since the al-Aqsa Intifada. Some activities included refurbishing abandoned structures and renovating.[67]

Muhammad Ahmad Hussein is the head imam and manager of the al-Aqsa Mosque and was assigned the role of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in 2006 by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.[68] Ownership of the al-Aqsa Mosque is a contentious issue in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Israel claims sovereignty over the mosque along with all of the Temple Mount (Noble Sanctuary), but Palestinians hold the custodianship of the site through the Islamic waqf. During the negotiations at the 2000 Camp David Summit, Palestinians demanded complete ownership of the mosque and other Islamic holy sites in East Jerusalem.[69]


Sign in Hebrew and English outside the Noble Sanctuary stating what the Torah says about entering the area

Muslim residents of Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are normally allowed to enter and pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque without restrictions.[70] Israel occasionally prevents certain groups of Muslims from reaching al-Aqsa; the restrictions vary from time to time. At times restrictions have prevented all men under 50 and women under 45 from entering, but married men over 45 are allowed. Sometimes the restrictions are enforced on the occasion of Friday prayers,[71] other times they are over an extended period of time.[71][72][73] Restrictions are most severe for Gazans, followed by restrictions on those from West Bank. Israel states that the restrictions are in place for security reasons.[70]

Many rabbis, including Israel's chief rabbinate since 1967, have ruled that Jews should not walk on the Temple Mount due to the possibility of their stepping on the site of the Holy of Holies.[74] Israeli governmental restrictions only forbid Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, but allow Jews as well as other non-Muslims to visit for certain hours on certain days in the week. Several rabbis and Zionist leaders have demanded the right of Jews to pray at the site on Jewish holidays.[75] Although the Israeli Supreme Court has supported individual (as opposed to group) prayer, in practice Israeli police bar a Jew from praying "in any overt manner whatsoever on the Temple Mount, even if he is just moving his lips in prayer."[76]


Several excavations outside the Temple Mount took place following the 1967 War. In 1970, Israeli authorities commenced intensive excavations outside the walls next to the mosque on the southern and western sides. Palestinians made false accusations that tunnels were being dug under the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to undermine its foundations, while the closest excavation to the mosque is some 70 meters to its south.[77] The Archaeological Department of the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs dug a tunnel near the western portion of the mosque in 1984.[31] According to UNESCO's special envoy to Jerusalem Oleg Grabar, buildings and structures on the Temple Mount are deteriorating due mostly to disputes between the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian governments over who is actually responsible for the site.[78]

The Islamic Waqf, which has custodial rights over the Temple Mount and is responsible for overseeing any construction work there, built an emergency exit for the Marwani Mosque (Solomon's Stables) in 1999. The move raised concerns from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that, due to the use of bulldozers by the Waqf, damage was being done to structures dating from the early Muslim period. A number of Israeli archaeologists, however, accused the Waqf of destroying building material dating from the First Temple Period in Jerusalem, while Ehud Olmert, the mayor of the city at that time, alleged that any construction on the Temple Mount without the supervision of Israeli authorities undermined Israel's claims to the religious complex. Adnan al-Husayni, then head of the Waqf, responded by stating "We never asked for permission from the occupation."[79]

In February 2007, the Department started to excavate a site for archaeological remains in a location where the government wanted to rebuild a collapsed pedestrian bridge. This site was 60 metres (197 ft) away from the mosque.[80] The excavations provoked anger throughout the Islamic world, and Israel was accused of trying to destroy the foundation of the mosque. Ismail Haniya—then Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority and Hamas leader—called on Palestinians to unite to protest the excavations, while Fatah said they would end their ceasefire with Israel.[81] Israel denied all charges against them, calling them "ludicrous."[82]

See also


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