By Zafar Bangash
Masjid al-Aqsa has a rich history. It is intimately linked with Prophetic history, not of one but numerous prophets. It was first built by the Prophet Abraham (peace be upon Him) years after he built the Kaâ€˜aba with his first son Ishmael (peace be upon Him). Muslims have always been its true custodians despite illegal Zionist encroachments.
Glorified by He [Allah] who transported His servant [Muhammad(upon Him peace and blessings)] by night from Masjid al-Haram to Masjid al-Aqsa whose surroundings He has blessed, so that We may show him of Our [Godâ€™s] signsâ€¦ (Al-Qurâ€™an: 17:01).
Masjid al-Aqsa holds immense significance in Islamic religious tradition as well as history. It is known as the first qibla of Muslimsâ€”the direction toward which Muslims face to offer their salat (prayer) â€”as well as the third holiest site in Islam. It is built on the site where the noble Messenger (upon Him peace and blessings ) led all the earlier Prophets in prayer when he was transported by night from Masjid al-Haram (in Makkah) before his miraj (ascension to Heaven) to the point referred to in the Qurâ€™an as Sidrat al-Muntaha (53:10-16).
In contemporary history, it has become a contested place because the Zionists claim it is built on the site where their first and second temples originally existed. A great deal of myth is interwoven into this narrative despite the fact that the temple was destroyed repeatedly by invading forces. The Babylonian king Bakhtnasr (Nebuchadnezzer) attacked Jerusalem in 587 BC and destroyed the temple (Beyetel). The Israelites were enslaved and suffered greatly for more than 70 years.
There were several phases of rebuilding and destruction of the temple the last being the Romansâ€™ destruction of it in 70 CE. No trace of the temple has ever existed. While the some hard-core Zionists are currently trying to encroach on the Haram al-Sharif (the noble Sanctuary) and are even demanding the right to worship there, Rabbinical law prohibits Jews from setting foot on the Temple Mount for fear of desecrating the â€œholy of Holiesâ€ in Jewish religious tradition. There is in fact a board erected near the Haram al-Sharif that houses both the Masjid al-Aqsa as well as Dome of the Rock and numerous madrassas (religious schools) and other smaller structures, prohibiting Jewish trespassing of the Haram al-Sharif.
Let us first consider who built Masjid al-Aqsa: was it the father-and-son Prophets Dawud (David, peace be upon Him)and Prophet Sulaiman (Solomon, peace be upon Him), as claimed by the Zionists, or built even earlier? We know from the Qurâ€™an (2:127-128) that the father and son Prophets, Ibrahim and Ishmael (peace be upon them) built the Kaâ€˜aba in conformity with the command of God. The Kaâ€˜aba in Makkah is the first House of worship for God on earth. Prophet Abraham (peace be upon Him) had settled his first son Ishmael (peace be upon Him) and his mother, Hajar (peace be upon Her) there, again according to the command of God.
Prophet Abraham (peace be upon Him), however, did not live in Makkah; he lived in Palestine in the place that takes its name from him: al-Khalil (Hebron). Is it conceivable that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon Him) would build a place of worship in Makkah but not have a place of worship in Jerusalem that is right next to Hebron? As the Patriarch of all the Prophets of God, Abraham (peace be upon Him) also built a place of worship in Jerusalem. This came to be known as Beteyel (meaning the House of God in Hebrew).
When Ibrahimâ€™s (peace be upon Him) second son Isâ€™haq (Isaac) was born and grew up in Hebron, he would go to worship in Beteyel. Interestingly, Isâ€™haq (peace be upon Him) who was also a noble Prophet of God, also prayed in the Kaâ€˜aba in Makkah and performed the Hajj pilgrimage there together with his father (Abraham (peace be upon Him) and brother (Ishmael (peace be upon Him), again according to the commands of God. It was Abraham (peace be upon Him) that named Beteyel as Masjid al-Aqsaâ€”the farthest mosqueâ€”in deference to the Ka â€˜aba, from which it was located far away to the northwest.
Yaqub (peace be upon Him), known in the Bible as Jacob who was the son of Isâ€™haq (peace be upon Him), was also a noble Prophet who opened Beteyel as a place of worship for all those that accepted the One true God, God. Naturally in the land of Palestine many other tribes resided. The land takes its name from the Philistines, the people that lived there. Among the other tribes were the Moabites and Hittites. The latter tribe was the one to which the mother of Solomon belonged. It needs recalling that Abraham (peace be upon Him) was born in Ur (present-day Iraq) and was forced into exile because of the oppression and persecution he faced at the hands of the tyrant Nimrood. After a long journey, Abraham (peace be upon Him) finally settled in al-Khalil (Palestine).
Prophetic history takes many turns and it is no different with the Prophets from the lineage of Abraham (peace be upon Him). Prophet Joseph (peace be upon Him) [Joseph] was greatly loved by his father Yaqub (peace be upon Him). This created huge jealousy among his step-brothers who plotted to kill him but finally decided to throw him a well.
He was rescued from the well and sold into slavery ending in Egypt where the ruler employed him. The rulerâ€™s wife had a crush on him because Joseph (peace be upon Him) was a very handsome young man but God protected him from committing sin and despite being innocent, he ended up in prison where he spent many years. When he was finally released, the king appointed him to the important post of the kingdomâ€™s treasury and he became the de facto ruler of Egypt. The story of Joseph (peace be upon Him) is narrated in exquisite detail in the noble Qurâ€™an in the surah by the same name (Surah Yusuf).
Once Joseph (peace be upon Him) had attained power in Egypt, he invited his familyâ€”father, mothers and brothersâ€”to live with him in Egypt. They readily accepted the offer as narrated in the chapter on Genesis 46 in the Torah. No one from Yaqubâ€™s (peace be upon Him) family was left to take care of Beteyel/Masjid al-Aqsa. Thus, he gave charge of the masjid to the local inhabitants, the Palestinians. The children of Yaqub (peace be upon Him), referred to as Bani Israel in the noble Qurâ€™an lived in Egypt for more than 400 years. There was never a hint that they should return to Palestine to reclaim ownership/custodianship of Masjid al-Aqsa.
Many generations later, the Bani Israel were taken as slaves by the pharaohs and it was not until God raised Moses (peace be upon Him) [Moses] among them that he led them out of slavery and across the Red Sea into the Sinai Peninsula. When God ordered them to enter Palestine, they refused, incurring Godâ€™s wrath to wander in the desert for 40 years. During this time, Moses (peace be upon Him) died and God raised another Prophet, David (peace be upon Him) who was a soldier in the army of Saul. Because of his courage, David (peace be upon Him) was made king and entered Palestine to establish his kingdom there.
It was Solomon who rebuilt the temple (Masjid al-Aqsa) with the support and help of the indigenous people, principally the Palestinians. The father-son rule, however, lasted a total of 73 years. Thereafter, his sons divided the kingdom and power once again slipped from their hands. A chain of Prophets emerged among their progeny but the Bani Israel (Children of Israel) were always argumentative and refused to abide by the teachings of the Prophets. The Qurâ€™an narrates that they killed many of their prophets among them Zakariya (peace be upon Him) as well as his son Yahya â€“ John the Baptist (peace be upon Him).
As mentioned earlier, the Babylonian king Bakhtnasr (Nebuchadnezzer) laid siege to Jerusalem and took over the city and Palestine in 587 BC. He destroyed the temple/Masjid al-Aqsa and enslaved all the people. This story is narrated in detail in the Bible in Kings 2 Chapters 24 and 25. The Torah also says that the Israelites were enslaved in both the Nile (Egypt) and in the Euphrates (by the Babylonians).
The Persian King Cyrus the Great rescued the Bani Israel after seventy years of slavery in Babylon. He also permitted them to return to Palestine from where the Babylonians had driven them out. The Persian Empire faced a rival in the Roman Empire and constant battles occurred between them. In the year 70 CE, the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the temple one more time. Barely 65 years later in what is referred to as the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Romans massacred the Bani Israel (Children of Israel) and even dug out the foundations of the temple in the year 135 CE. By now, the Romans had accepted Christianity as their religion and their enmity toward the Jews intensified as killers of Prophet Isa (Jesus – peace be upon Him).
The Romans, however, faced a constant threat from the Persians and in the year 614 CE, the latter took control of Jerusalem from the Romans. In Makkah where the noble Messenger (peace be upon Him) had started his mission of propagating Islam, the polytheists made fun of Muslims because the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians had vanquished the Christian Romans. The Qurâ€™an narrates this in the opening verses of Surah al-Rum in which God says that not only the Romans but Muslims too would be victorious within a period of less than 10 years.
Given the plight of Muslims at the timeâ€”their numbers were small and they faced great persecutionâ€”the Makkah polytheist made great fun of the Qurâ€™anic verses but Godâ€™s Word came trueâ€”as it was bound toâ€”within the stipulated timeframe and not only the Romans defeated their Persian rivals but the Muslims also triumphed over their Makkah foes in the Battle of Badr.
It is also pertinent to note that when Muslims migrated from Makkah to Madinah, for the first 17 months, they faced toward Masjid al-Aqsa in their prayer. It was during dhuhr salat (the mid-day prayer) in the second year of the hijrah that Godâ€™s revelation about the change of qibla (direction of prayer) from Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem to Masjid al-Haram in Makkah came. This is narrated in the Quran (2:142-43). The mosque in Madinah where the Prophet (peace be upon Him) was leading the Muslims in salat is today called Masjid Qiblatain (Masjid of the two qiblas).
Jerusalem, however, came into Muslim possession only during the Khilafah of Umar (Allah be pleased with Him) in the year 638 CE. The Christian Patriarch, Sophronius had insisted that he would hand over the keys of Jerusalem only to the ruler of Muslims. The second Khalifah Umar was on a campaign in the Golan Heights and when word reached him, he hurried to Jerusalem to take possession of the keys without causing any bloodshed in the city.
When he entered the city, Umar (Allah be pleased with Him) located the place where the noble Messenger (peace be upon Him) had led all the Prophets in prayer before his ascension of Heaven on his miâ€˜raj. After cleansing the place thoroughly, he led the Muslims in prayer and a makeshift mosque was erected there. This simple structure later developed into what is called Masjid al-Aqsa today and has been in Muslim possession ever since.
There is also another more impressive structure that emerged on the Haram al-Sharif. This is called the Dome of the Rock and has a huge gold dome. The Ummayyad ruler Abdul Malik built this about 50 years later over the rock where the Heavenly stead, the Buraq was tethered when the Prophet (upon Him peace and blessings) led the other Prophets in prayer. After mounting the Buraq that started to ascend, the rock followed. The Angel Gabriel asked the noble Messenger (upon Him peace and blessings) to order the rock from rising.
The noble Messenger (upon Him peace and blessings) put his foot on the rock ordering it to stop. To this day, there is a footprint on the rock and it remains suspended except for very thin metal rods underneath it. This is the place where the Dome of the Rock Mosque exists.
The Muslims lost Masjid al-Aqsa and Jerusalem to the Crusaders in the year 1099 CE. Muslim rulers surrounding Palestine had become corrupt, much like the rulers today and had lost the will to defend Islam or Muslims. It was not until another 88 years before Salahuddin Ayyubi (Saladin) liberated Masjid al-Aqsa and Jerusalem from the clutches of the Crusaders.
Unfortunately the decline in Muslim rule and corruption in their ranks has led to the loss of Masjid al-Aqsa one more time. It occurred in several phases. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated and dismembered, the British colonialists took control of Palestine and in typical colonial style started to disburse Muslim lands to others. The Europeans had never tolerated the Jews in their midst; the frequent pogroms against them being a constant reminder of the intolerance of the Europeans. In 1918, when Britain occupied Palestine, they conspired to hand it over to the Jewsâ€”actually the Zionists â€” as a permanent homeland totally ignoring the rights of the indigenous Palestinian people. At the time the Zionist state was created in Palestine in 1948, more than 60 percent of Palestinian land was handed over to the Zionists. The rest was grabbed by the Zionists in 1967 together with East Jerusalem that houses the Masjid al-Aqsa as well as the Dome of the Rock.
That is where the situation stands today:
Masjid al-Aqsa, indeed the entire Haram al-Sharif is under Zionist occupation and threat of destruction. Even while Muslims throughout their history provided sanctuary to the Jewish people after they suffered persecution elsewhere, the Zionists have turned out to be the worst kinds of oppressors in history. They act with impunity and are extremely hostile toward the indigenous Palestinian people. Heavily armed, they shoot at the slightest pretext and have no regard for Palestinian life.
The corrupt Muslim rulers are totally subservient to the imperialists and Zionists. Reposing hope in them to rescue the Muslims is a waste of time. It would require a figure like Salahuddin Ayyubi to rise among the Muslims to liberate Masjid al-Aqsa and Palestine from another group of Crusaders, this time of the Zionist variety.
Until then, Muslims can pray and prepare for that day. A good starting point would be to become better informed about their history that seems to have been largely forgotten.