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Where Is the Real Al-Aqsa Mosque?

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As is well known, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, based in Damascus, planted his flag on the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism and the site from where, he wanted Muslims to believe, Muhammad had ascended to Heaven on his winged steed Buraq, in his famous Night Journey. Abd al-Malik built what he called the “Al-Aqsa Mosque,” meaning that this was the “farthest mosque” (al-masjid al-aqsa) referred to in Qur’an 17:1, from which Muhammad took flight on Buraq. Not everyone agrees. A Saudi lawyer and journalist has just offered what he believes is the site of the real Al-Aqsa Mosque; a report on his claim is here.

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Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, is not located on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Saudi lawyer and journalist Osama Yamani is claiming.

In an article in the Saudi news outlet Okaz, Yamani claims that the mosque is actually located in Al Ju’ranah, near Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Yamani writes that the confusion between the two sites stems from the fact that many history books state that Al-Aqsa is located in Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem is not Al-Aqsa, which is not cited in the missions that Allah gave Muhammad and the caliphs. Similarly, Jerusalem is a city, and Al-Aqsa is a mosque,” he states.

Jerusalem, as Osama Yamani notes, is not mentioned by Allah in his command for Muhammad to go on his Night Journey. He is told only to go to the “farthest mosque” – al-masjid al-aqsa – but the city is not specified. In fact Jerusalem is not mentioned even once in the Qur’an. Muhammad made his Night Journey, according to Muslim sources, around 621 A.D.; he died in 632 A.D. It would have been impossible for him to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; that mosque wasn’t finally completed until 715 A.D., some 94 years after his Night Journey and 73 years after his death.

Jerusalem was selected to be the site of the “farthest mosque” because the Umayyad Caliph in Damascus, Abd al-Malik, wanted to appropriate for Islam, and for his own power and glory, the Temple Mount. He was at the time engaged in war with Byzantium and its Syrian Christian allies on the one hand, and with the rival caliph Ibn al-Zubayr, who controlled Mecca, on the other. Scholars suggest that by building these two structures on top of the Temple Mount – the Dome of the Rock, between 685 and 691, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, which he began in about 695 (some sources claim It was completed in 705, but others say it was not fully completed until 715, by his son al-Walid I), Abd al-Malik was laying claim to a site that had once been important in Christianity, remained the holiest site in Judaism and, he hoped, might for Muslims become a kind of lesser Mecca, which his enemy Ibn al-Zubayr controlled. It was not Muslim texts that placed Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, but the geopolitical considerations of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik.

Yamani adds that originally, Muslims did not face in the direction of Al-Aqsa while praying.

Muslims in Arabia first prayed in the direction north-northwest, which was taken to mean that the qibla was Jerusalem. Some scholars, such as Len Gibson, believe that there was another city lying in the same north-northwest direction from Mecca and Medina, that was the first qibla: the ancient Nabataean capital of Petra. The controversy over Petra as the first qibla remains. And now Osama Yamani suggests another site, also in a north-northwest direction from Mecca and Medina, Al Ju’ranah, which is near Mecca.

Yamani backs up his argument with historic facts, such as the fifth caliph from the Umayyad dynasty, Abd al-Malik, building the Dome of the Rock in the year 691 CE. Al-Malik built the dome nine years after Abd Allah Ibn al-Zubayr rebelled and prevented local residents from fulfilling the obligation to make the haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

If local residents in Abd al-Malik’s domain, including Damascus and Jerusalem, were prevented by his political rival Ibn al-Zubayr from making the hajj to Mecca, then Abd al-Malik would make Jerusalem into an alternative site for Muslims to visit, by building two important edifices: the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The latter would be identified as the “farthest mosque” that Muhammad visited before ascending into Heaven on his Night Journey, without anyone having the bad taste to point out that when Abd al-Malik began building that “farthest mosque,” Muhammad had been dead for 64 years.

“At that stage, he changed the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem,” Yamani says, referring to al-Malik.

Yamani explains that “There are stories influenced by political considerations that served purposes of that time, and sometimes claims are made that they have nothing to do with faith or following religious dictates.”

According to Yamani, then, the real “farthest mosque” was in Al-Ju’ranah, close to Mecca, which unlike Jerusalem, apparently had a mosque during Muhammad’s lifetime. As a matter of political self-aggrandizement, Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, and the mosque he called “Al-Aqsa” (that was completed by his son Walid I), to endow Jerusalem with religious significance for Muslims and at the same time, to appropriate the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, for Islam.

Why should we care about what some may see as quibbles over qiblas? If enough Muslims were to become convinced that Jerusalem is not where the real Al-Aqsa Mosque was located – which means they would be willing to recognize the embarrassing fact that during Muhammad’s lifetime, and for more than three-quarters of a century after his death, there was no mosque on Temple Mount nor anywhere else in Jerusalem – the effects could be startling, and salutary.

If Jerusalem were reduced in its religious significance for Muslims, this could – one hopes — lessen the level of fury among Believers at Israel’s possession of the city. What would it take to convince Muslims of this version of history? They already know that Muhammad died long before he could have visited a mosque in Jerusalem, but simply suppress that thought and what it signifies. Now the archeological evidence for locating the “farthest mosque” elsewhere needs to be presented by Osama Yamani. If there are ruins of a mosque in al-Ju’ranah, is there any way to date them (carbon dating only works if the material was once part of a living organism)? Is there any evidence that al-Ju’ranah was in the 7th century a place of some significance? Is it mentioned, for example, anywhere in the Hadith, possibly even as a place that Muhammad might have visited? It’s not enough to point out that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem could not have been, given when it was built and despite what is called, the Al-Aqsa Mosque that existed in Muhammad’s lifetime. One must build the case for alternative sites. We need to know much more from Yamani about al-Ju’ranah, and whether, at the time of the Night Journey in 621, the mosque in that settlement was indeed farther from Mecca, where Muhammad was then living, than any other.

Were Jerusalem, as a result of this research on the real site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, to diminish in religious significance for a considerable number of Muslims, that would be one way to possibly lessen tensions with Israel. It won’t affect the Palestinians, whose hysteria and rage are not susceptible to appeals to history and common sense. For them, Israel would still be an enemy, holding onto “Palestinian” land. But the extreme passion that other Muslims now feel because Jerusalem is in Israeli hands might be reduced, especially as several Arab states clearly want to improve their relations with the Jewish state.

If Al-Aqsa has been misplaced on Temple Mount, so, too, has the Dome of the Rock, for that is supposed to cover the “rock” that marks the very spot from which Muhammad, on Buraq, ascended into Heaven. If the “farthest mosque” is elsewhere – say, at al-Ju’ranah — then so must be the “rock,” which necessarily would be next to that “farthest mosque.”

And there is one other geopolitical consideration. Saudi Arabia has an obvious interest in researching and promoting this claim by Saudi lawyer Osama Yamani. If the “farthest mosque” Is determined by researchers to be within Saudi Arabia, this would give the country the three most important sites in Islam: Mecca, Medina, and now, Al-Ju’ranah. What Saudi would not be delighted with that result? And how many billions of dollars might Riyadh spend to sponsor conferences, publish books, subsidize sermons and broadcasts, all over the Muslim world, in support of a Saudi site for “the farthest mosque”? And the U.A.E. and Bahrain, the Saudis’ closest Arab allies, that have their own obvious reasons for wanting to tamp down anti-Israel passions now that their normalization of relations with the Jewish state is in full spate, should also welcome a finding that the “Mosque Formerly Known As Al-Aqsa” in Jerusalem, however impressive as a feat of architecture, is without religious significance.

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