In his November 13, 2020 column in the Saudi state daily 'Okaz, Osama Yamani made striking comments under the headline "Where Is Al-Aqsa Located?". In the article he questioned the consensus regarding the centrality and sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam, which is based on the belief that it is the "first qibla," i.e., the direction in which Muslims initially prayed, and the location of the Al-Aqsa mentioned in the Quran. The source of the latter belief, he said, is many history and exegesis books that name Jerusalem as the location of Al-Aqsa. However, others believe that the Al-Aqsa mentioned in the Quran was actually located in the vicinity of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula. He cites the opinion of Islamic historian Al-Waqidi who contends that the Al-Aqsa visited by the Prophet Muhammad was in the village of Al-Ju'arnah near Mecca. In an attempt to downplay the importance of Jerusalem in Islam, Yamani also argued that there is no consensus regarding the identity of Jerusalem as the first qibla, and cited historians and Quranic commentators who stated that the Kaaba in Mecca, rather than Jerusalem, was the Muslims' first direction of prayer.
Yamani states further that the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built in 691 by the fifth Umayyad caliph, 'Abd Al-Malik bin Marwan, as an alternative destination of pilgrimage because Mecca at the time was under the control of a rebel ruler who made difficulties for pilgrims wishing to visit it.
In conclusion Yamani noted that the multiple opinions and narratives found in the Islamic sources indicate that the attribution of sanctity to particular places, such as Jerusalem and the present-day Al-Aqsa mosque, is often politically motivated and has nothing to do with religion or worship.
It should be noted that Yamani's article sparked an uproar among Arabs on social media, with many users, including prominent journalists, attacking him and the 'Okaz daily and accusing them of spreading deviant "nonsense" that contradicts the Quran and the Sunna. Some even called Yamani "sick" or "crazy," or accused him of serving the Zionist agenda and the attempt of Jewish orientalists to deny the miracle of Muhammad's ascent to heaven and the claim that Al-Aqsa is located in Jerusalem. Others stated that the publication of the article was motivated by the political goal of justifying the normalization with Israel. 
Mahmoud Habbash, the chief Palestinian qadi and advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 'Abbas on religious affairs, likewise criticized the article, claiming that it served the enemies of the Islamic nation. There is only one Al-Aqsa, he said: the one in Jerusalem that millions of Muslims have recognized since the dawn of Islam as the first direction of prayer and the place from which the Prophet ascended to heaven.
Osama Yamani (Source: Nabd.com, October 17, 2020)
The following are translated excerpts from Yamani's column:
"Where is the Al-Aqsa mosque located? The answer, as far as millions of Muslims are concerned, is that the Al-Aqsa mosque that is mentioned in the Quran, in the Surah of the Night Journey [Surah 17], is located in Palestine. Many don't know that the city of Al-Quds [Jerusalem] was not called by that name in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and in the time of his Companions. In the past its name was Ilyaa, after Ilyaa son of Aram son of Shem son of Noah. Later it was called Aelia after the chief Roman god. The name was changed in the time of the [Roman] emperor Constantine [the Great], who died in 337, and who was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity as the official religion of the empire and its people. He removed the name Ilya and restored the city's Canaanite name.
"In fact, the city's original name was Ursalim, or Urshalim, which means 'city of peace.'
"The reason many people think that the Al-Aqsa mosque [of the Quran] was in Jerusalem is that many history books and books of exegesis, especially later ones, claim that Al-Aqsa is in Al-Quds, and this is the origin of the confusion between Al-Quds and the [first Muslim] direction of prayer and the Al-Aqsa mosque.
"Al-Quds is not Al-Aqsa, for [the city] was not called that in the time of the Prophet Muhammad's mission or in the time of the Righteous Caliphs [i.e., the first four caliphs]. Moreover, Al-Quds is a city and Al-Aqsa is a mosque, and there is no connection between the Al-Aqsa mosque and the first direction of prayer. [In fact,] there is no consensus as to what the first direction of prayer was. There are two opinions regarding [this]. Many claim that the first direction of prayer was towards the Kaaba. They state that 'the Prophet prayed in Mecca in the direction of the Kaaba, and later, after the migration [to Medina], he commanded [the Muslims] to pray in the direction of the Foundation Stone in the Temple [of Jerusalem]. (See the following books of tafsir [Quranic exegesis]: Al-Kashaf, by Al-Zamakhshari, Part I, p. 100; Tafsir Al-Bidawi, Part I, p. 416; Tafsir by Al-Nishapuri, Part I, p. 355; and Fath Al-Qadir, by Al-Shawkani, Part I, p. 234).
"[The commentator] Al-Qurtubi summarizes the disagreement as follows: "While in Mecca, [the Prophet] was first commanded to pray. There are two opinions on the question of whether he prayed towards the Temple [in Jerusalem] or towards [the Kaaba in] Mecca. One group [of commenters] says that [he prayed] in the direction of the Temple, [and continued to do so] during his 17 months in Medina, and later Allah pointed him towards the
This is also inferable from the tradition [narrated by] Ibn 'Abbas, who said that the first [direction of prayer] was towards the 'ancient house' [i.e., the Kaaba]; later it was changed to the Temple and then changed back to the Kaaba… (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Part I, p. 218)… [In fact,] some explicitly call the Kaaba 'the first of the two directions of prayer' (Tafsir Al-Bidawi, Part I, p. 420; Tafsir Ibn 'Ajiba, Part I, p. 115).
"The statements of our forefathers quoted above indicate that there is no consensus that the Temple was the first direction of prayer, even though this claim is often made by people and in writings today. 'Abd Al-Malik bin Marwan [the fifth Umayyad caliph, 646-705] built the Dome of the Rock in 691 CE so that people would make pilgrimage to it instead of to Mecca, after people became frustrated that they could not make the pilgrimage to Mecca because [the rebel ruler of Mecca, 'Abdallah] Ibn Al-Zubayr, demanded that pilgrims swear allegiance to him…
"[Arab Muslim historian] Al-Waqidi [747-823] claimed that Al-Aqsa was in [the village of] Al-Ju'aranah [in the Mecca area]. He said: 'The Prophet Muhammad came to Al-Ju'aranah… and stayed there for 13 [days], until he wanted to leave and migrate to Medina… He entered a state of holiness in order to make the pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa, i.e., the 'farthest,' mosque, which was across the wadi on the farther slope. The Prophet's place of prayer was thus in Al-Ju'aranah. This mosque… was built by a member of the Quraish [tribe], and a wall next to it was used [to tether Muhammad's steed, Al-Burak]. Al-Ju'aranah is a place that is not sacred, between Mecca and Al-Taif, 18 miles northeast of Mecca… There are two markers [there] marking the boundary [of the sacred district of Mecca], where the Prophet made himself holy… before his third pilgrimage, as recounted in the traditions. It is also the location of the mosque where he prayed and where he made himself holy himself when he returned from Taif after the conquest of Mecca…
"The lesson we learn from the differences between these [various] traditions and stories is that political issues were exploited for the sake of political events, issues and positions that have nothing to do with faith and worship."
 Twitter.com/YZaatreh, twitter.com/drmerajmirza , twitter.com/man1432h1, twitter.com/Dr_aljezza, November 13, 2020; /twitter.com/fadiramia, November 14, 2020.
 Alwatanvoice.com, November 14, 2020.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 13, 2020.
 The claim regarding the name Ilyaa is unclear. In Genesis (10:12-13) the names of the sons of Aram are given as Uz, Hul, Gether and Mash. The Roman name of Jerusalem was Aelia Capitolina; "Aelia" came from Hadrian's nomen gentile, Aelius, whereas "Capitolina" is a reference to the Roman god Jupiter.
 This is apparently based on claims made by Ahmad Al-Ya'qubi, a renowned Shi'ite Arab historian of the 9th century.