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).
(Mujir Al-Din Al-Hanbali, Al-Uns Al-Jalil fo Tarikh Al-Quds wal- Khalil, vol.2, p.24.)
More than 500 years ago, when Mujir Al-Din Al-Hanbali offered the above definition of Al-Aqsa Mosque in the year 900 AH/1495, there were no conflicts, no occupation and no contesting narratives surrounding the site. What is more remarkable for me is that when I published the above definition in a previous paper in Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade, I received a response from a senior non-Muslim medievalist professor who is very familiar with the literature of the period simply admitting that he was not aware of Al-Hanbali’s definition. I am convinced that knowledge about Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Holy Qur’an, the Prophetic traditions and Islamic literature would present a much-needed narrative with clear political implications. Meddling in the affairs of Al-Aqsa Mosque could destabilize the region and beyond. Any forced entry (i.e., without approval of Muslims) is tantamount to a clear violation of the sanctity of the mosque.
Not only do the Israeli occupation authorities prevent freedom of movement and freedom of worship, they interfere in defining Al-Aqsa Mosque by restricting the meaning of Al-Aqsa Mosque to the southernmost building, Qibli Mosque, rather than all 144 dunums or 36 acres. The Israeli occupation authorities consider the open yards within Al-Aqsa Mosque as belonging to public parks, with no jurisdiction for the Waqf. In doing so, the Israeli occupation authorities justify their own role in permitting and protecting extremist Israelis’ and others’ entry into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound against the will of the Waqf administration. Some of those extremists became lawmakers in the Israeli Knesset or members of the cabinet. These forced entries are usually protested by Muslims present at the mosque and often lead to Israeli occupation security forces attacking and arresting protesters and restricting their entry into the mosque to Muslim women from Sunday to Thursday during the early morning hours. There were many Fridays in 2014 when Muslims younger than 50 years of age were not allowed into Al-Aqsa Mosque. The security situation deteriorated with many unfortunate incidents that were linked to Israeli policies at Al- Aqsa Mosque. The climax was the occupation authorities’ decision to totally close Al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims at the end of October 2014, for the first time since 1967. Even Israeli commentators said that these policies could lead to a religious war! One commentator described the closure of Al-Aqsa Mosque as posing an existential threat to Israel.
If it weren’t for Jordan’s firm stance in the aftermath of the said closure, Al-Aqsa Mosque would have suffered from more destructive Israeli occupation policies. The immediate meeting between HM Jordanian King Abdullah II, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must have addressed the situation at Al- Aqsa Mosque, for there were practically no restrictions for a few weeks, before the occupation authorities went back to their old counterproductive and dangerous habits.
It should be known that all policies, actions and “facts on the ground” created by the Israeli occupation are null and void; they are in violation of international and humanitarian laws. Only Muslims have the right to define their own religious space and what to do with it, for they have exclusive rights to it.
The paragraph that preceded Al-Hanbali’s 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 (i.e., Lions’ Gate). The width was measured from the wall overlooking the cemetery of Bab Al-Rahmah (i.e., Golden Gate) to the western corridor, beneath the Tankaziyyah School. Today, the Israeli occupation authorities prevent the Waqf from having free access to the Golden Gate, and the Tankaziyyah School has been confiscated for the use of Israeli occupation security forces.
For the last 1,400 years, Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was under Islamic sovereignty except during the Crusades and Israeli occupation. While the Crusaders’ rule ended nine centuries ago, the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, including Al-Aqsa Mosque, is still ongoing since 1967. Israel continues to disregard United Nations resolutions according to which it should have ended its occupation. Rather, Israel resorts to managing the occupation, including the introduction of what came to be known as the status quo. It was established in the aftermath of the Israeli occupation for managing Al-Aqsa Mosque but it deteriorated after the second intifada, which Ariel Sharon ignited by intruding into Al-Aqsa Mosque, accompanied by a large number of Israeli occupation security forces. Today, Israel itself refuses to go back to the status quo ante. As mentioned earlier, its security forces permit and protect ever-growing numbers of extremists’ entry into Al- Aqsa Mosque, a policy that threatens to escalate tensions, while Palestinian Muslims do not have free access. Men often have to be 50 or older in order to be permitted into Al-Aqsa Mosque. Various measures make freedom of movement and worship a thing of the distant past. It is the extreme Israeli occupation policies and practices in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to a long list of violations of international law (land confiscation, building colonies, house demolitions as collective punishment, revocation of residency, etc.), that undermine prospects for peace.
Propaganda is also used in the assault on Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem, in spreading misconceptions and misinformation, about their status in Islam and in Islamic history, to lessen their importance. An example of such propaganda is that Jerusalem was never the capital of any Islamic state and therefore it is not important for Muslims. I use the same premise (i.e., “Jerusalem was never the capital of any Islamic state”) to reach the opposite conclusion.
Can anyone doubt the importance of Makkah (Mecca) for Muslims? One of the remarkable shared historical facts between Makkah and Jerusalem is that neither was the capital of any Islamic state, despite their holiness (or, rather because of their holiness!) and forming part of Islamic creed. They were both connected in the Holy Qur’an in “The Journey at Night” (Al-Isra’):
Glory be to (Allah) Who did take His Servant for a journey by night from Al-Masjid Al-Haram to 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 Holy Qur’an, 17:1).
It is like an extra spiritual twinning between two of the three holiest mosques in Islam, because the Prophetic tradition restricts extra merits to religious visitations and pilgrimages to Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Makkah, Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi in Medina and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The sites of these three mosques were divinely designated.
The first verse of Sura 17 “Al-Isra’/The Journey at Night” reflects holiness and blessedness that go beyond Al-Aqsa Mosque, for the land is both holy and blessed in the Holy Qur’an. But this holy land is not to be conflated with shifting modern geopolitical borders.
“Al-Isra’ “ is deeply etched in Islamic consciousness. As I write this paper, a book called Meditations on Sura Al-Isra’ stands out at eye level in my own library. I prayed recently, and for the first time, at the newly established magnificent mosque in Bethany, with the first verses of Al-Isra’ written in beautiful and massive golden Arabic calligraphy on a royal blue background above the niche. And these are the very same verses that were recited repeatedly by a Palestinian friend of mine when we prayed together in Boston 25 years ago, as if our subconscious was preoccupied with Al- Aqsa Mosque. The whole Sura Al-Isra’ is written on the drum of the golden Dome of the Rock. The Palestinian poet Tamim Al-Bargouthi equated it, in a poem called In Jerusalem, with the definition of beauty itself, adding that it is like a convex mirror in which you see the reflection of the heavens.
It is this deep conviction and celebration of the Prophet’s Night Journey that manifests itself in scholarship, art and architecture, but mostly in praying at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Before the Separation Wall, the number of Muslims who made it to Al-Aqsa Mosque on the last Friday of Ramadan reached close to 400,000 Muslims.
The Sunnah of the Prophet confirmed the special status of the three mosques, but there are more traditions dedicated to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem than the other two. These traditions talk about extra merit for prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, extra merit for initiating the minor pilgrimage from it, and a host of other traditions that link Jerusalem to numerous end times scenarios. One particular tradition encouraged Muslims to live in Jerusalem so that their offspring would frequent Al-Aqsa Mosque. Imam Ahmad (d. 855 CE) narrated in his Musnad (Hadith #16196) that his companion Dhu Al-Asabi` said: “I said, O Messenger of God! If were tested with remaining after you, where would you order us to live? He said: Go to Jerusalem, so that you may have offspring that goes forth and returns to Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem continued to be the focus of development and renovation ever since the second caliph Umar Ibn Al- Khattab arrived in Jerusalem in 638 CE. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab concluded what became known as the “Pact of Umar,” the first interfaith agreement of its kind with Patriarch Sophronius assuring Christians of their freedom to worship and the protection of their churches. No bloodshed and no ethnic cleansing. Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was echoing the moment Makkah was conquered when Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) issued general amnesty to the people of Makkah. Saladin showed the same magnanimity to the Crusaders in Jerusalem. Three major peaceful endings, one in Makkah and two in Jerusalem!
Ibn Al-Khattab went on to the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque, which was barren with no buildings. He built the first structure within the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound that is equated in ancient Islamic literature with the space. The Qur’anic reference to Al-Aqsa Mosque took place before Muslims arrived in the city of Jerusalem and before they carried out any projects to build structures.
Al-Aqsa Mosque has been exclusively Islamic for Muslim worshippers, for more than fourteen centuries, since the year 636 CE. Its use as a mosque was temporarily interrupted during the time of the Crusaders, but Muslims never gave up on Al-Aqsa Mosque until it was freed and restored to its previous use. It was, still is and will continue to belong to Muslims all over the world.
The Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and the Hashemites are among the major benefactors of Jerusalem, with the Hashemites continuing to be the custodians of Al-Aqsa Mosque and holy places in Jerusalem. They continue to provide crucial material, moral and political support to maintain, manage and defend Al-Aqsa Mosque. It should be noted that the general directorate of Waqf in Jerusalem is a department in the Jordanian Ministry for Waqf and Religious Affairs.
HM King Abdullah II and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed a legally binding agreement to jointly defend Al-Aqsa Mosque on March 31, 2013. This agreement recognizes King Abdullah II as the custodian of the holy places in Jerusalem.
Article “c” of the preamble, which is an integral part of the above agreement, offers the following definition of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif:
Recalling the unique religious importance, to all Muslims, of Al Masjid Al Aqsa with its 144 dunums, which include the Qibli Mosque of Al Aqsa, the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock and all its mosques, buildings, walls, courtyards, attached areas over and beneath the ground and the Waqf properties tied-up to Al Masjid Al Aqsa, to its environs or to its pilgrims (hereinafter referred to as “Al Haram Al Sharif”).
Jordanian and Palestinian diplomats were successful in getting UNESCO to recognize and use “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” a name that does not leave room for misinterpretation. Al-Aqsa Mosque equals Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which is equal to all 144 dunums, all four walls and all that is between the walls, the subterranean space and all that is above the ground.
Al-Aqsa Mosque was a center for Islamic learning throughout Islamic history, with massive endowments dedicated for the service of teachers and students. Today, three schools continue to function and serve students inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Various Jordanian educational programs were established at Al-Aqsa Mosque and in Jerusalem. In addition, Jordan supports other existing educational institutions.
Every mosque in the world is a waqf, an inalienable endowed Islamic property. The etymology of the word waqf signifies confining the property at hand to the specified use and prohibiting any change in status.
Places of worship are meant to be exclusive. Those in authority should never be blinded by their own powers to the degree they infringe on the religious space of the other. When invited by Patriarch Sophronius to pray at the Holy Sepulchre Church, Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab declined politely, citing his fear that future Muslim generations might claim this as a right. This is true leadership. This should be the prevailing ethos between those in power and the religious space of the other. It might help the powerful to show some humility if they could learn from history, and the history of Jerusalem in particular, that power could shift.