October 2, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 583

Egyptian Ministry of Culture Publication: The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock were Built to Divert The Pilgrimage from Mecca; Jerusalem was Not the Center of Worship for the Followers of the Prophet Muhammad

October 2, 2003
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 583

On August 5, 2003 Ahmad Muhammad 'Arafa, a columnist for the Egyptian weekly Al-Qahira, which is published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, wrote an article rejecting the established Islamic doctrine that the Prophet Muhammad's celebrated "Night Journey" (Koran 17:1) took him from Mecca to Jerusalem. 'Arafa, presenting a new analysis of the Koranic text, asserts that the Night Journey in Surat Al-Isra' (that is, "the Sura of the Night Journey") in the Koran does not refer to a miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, but to the Prophet's emigration (Hijra) from Mecca to Medina . [1]

Two weeks later, 'Arafa published another article [2] in the same weekly questioning the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam. The following are excerpts from this article:

The Change in 'Qibla' Means Jerusalem Lost its Former Priority in Islam

"…Palestine was conquered [by the Muslims] in the year 17 A.H. [638 A. D.] in the time of 'Umar Ibn Al-Khattab, and in his day, the people [of Palestine] were beginning to adopt Islam. Hence, how could there have existed in Palestine, at the time of the Prophet [i.e. before Palestine was conquered by Islam], a mosque, be it called 'the most distant' [Arabic: al-aqsa] or not…

"Therefore, the mosque known today as the Al-Aqsa Mosque is not the one referred to by the Koranic words: 'From the Al-Haram Mosque [in Mecca] to the most distant mosque (al-aqsa).' It is true that the Prophet did direct himself in prayer, according to Allah's instructions, toward Iliya [i. e., Aelia] – the name of Jerusalem in that period – for 17 months, and then, instructed by Allah, he redirected himself to the Al-Haram Mosque in Mecca. Aelia was the center of worship for the Jews, as it continues to be. This means that, for a while, the Prophet shared with them their direction of prayer (qibla), and then he turned away from it toward another qibla

"The change of qibla from Jerusalem to the Al-Haram Mosque [in Mecca] meant that Jerusalem was no longer the center of worship for the followers of Muhammad and that it no longer deserved to be respected by Muslims beyond what any historical city in their domain deserved. If this is not understood in this way [namely, that the change of qibla signifies that Jerusalem lost its previous religious status], then the change of qibla has no meaning…"

The Al-Aqsa Mosque was Built and Promoted in the Context of Political Rivalry

"When 'Abd Al-Malik Ibn Marwan became caliph and [his rival] Ibn Al-Zubayr held control of Hijaz, he [Caliph 'Abd Al-Malik] feared that the people would be inclined towards him [Ibn Al-Zubayr] when they made pilgrimage [to Mecca], because the only way they could enter Mecca and Medina was with Ibn Al-Zubayr's permission and under his control. And if he [Ibn Al-Zubayr] received them hospitably… then he would win the allegiance of many of them…. Therefore, 'Abd Al-Malik prevented people from making pilgrimage until [Ibn Al-Zubayr was defeated and] the war ended. He [Abd Al-Malik] began to build a large mosque in Jerusalem, which had been the first qibla. It is from this point in time that some transmitters of traditions started to promote the religious significance of this mosque and turn it into the 'third to the two holy mosques [of Mecca and Medina]' [3] ….

"The new mosque [in Jerusalem] was first called 'the Mosque of Aelia,' and prophetic traditions were invented mentioning this name [so as to invest it with Islamic significance]. Then the name 'Al-Aqsa' was stolen for it [from the mosque in Medina], because it [i.e. the mosque of Aelia] was the most distant from Mecca and Medina. It was claimed that the Koranic expression 'the most distant mosque' referred to it [i.e. the mosque of Aelia] because the mosque of the Prophet [in Medina] was neither 'distant' nor 'most distant' for the people of Medina… [4]

"In sum, the mosque of Jerusalem, known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, began to be built in the year 66 A.H. at the time of 'Abd Al-Malik Ibn Marwan, and construction was completed in the year 73 A. H. The religious connection of Muslims to Jerusalem ended with the change of the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. When 'Abd Al-Malik Ibn Marwan prevented the people of Syria and Iraq from performing pilgrimage for a number of years, so they should not be inclined towards Ibn Al-Zubayr, and began to build a large mosque in Aelia, religious traditions appeared glorifying this mosque and the Dome of the Rock. And it was called at first the Mosque of Aelia, and then the name of the mosque Al-Aqsa was stolen for it from the mosque of Medina. And what facilitated this [transfer of the name 'Al-Aqsa'] is that the people of Medina did not call [their mosque] 'distant' or 'most distant,' because it is a geographical term [which was not relevant to them]…. We inherited these [traditions promoting the sanctity of Jerusalem] as if they were part of [the Islamic] religion."

[1] For the previous article by 'Arafa, see Egyptian Ministry of Culture Publication: The Prophet Muhammad's 'Night Journey' was Not to Jerusalem but to Medina

[2] Al-Qahira (Egypt), August 19, 2003.

[3] The author is repeating a particular theory, expounded by I. Goldziher in 1890 (See Muhammedanische Studien, II, pp. 35-37; English translation: Muslim Studies II, pp. 44-45), that in building the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque 'Abd al-Malik was motivated by his desire to divert the Pilgrimage from Mecca to Jerusalem, as part of his campaign against Ibn al-Zubayr. This theory, which had been widely accepted, found its way into textbooks on Islamic history. It should, however, be noted that this theory was reexamined and refuted by S. D. Goitein (see "The Sanctity of Jerusalem and Palestine in Early Islam," in his Studies in Islamic History and Institutions, Leiden, 1966, pp. 135-137) and is no longer accepted in modern scholarship.

'Arafa begins this article with a quotation from Al-Uns al-jalil bi-ta'rikh al-quds wa'l-khalil, by Mujir al-Din 'Abd al-Rahman al-'Ulaymi al-Hanbali al-Maqdisi (810/1456-928/1522), stating that the Ummayad Caliph 'Abd Al-Malik Ibn Marwan decided to build the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to divert the pilgrimage away from Mecca – at that time controlled by his rival Ibn al-Zubayr – to Jerusalem, which was under his control and close to Damascus, his own capital. 'Arafa notes that he borrowed this quotation from an article by Ahmad 'Uthman on the dispute over Jerusalem's holy sites 'Awda ila 'l-khilaf 'ala muqaddasat al-aqsa, al-ha'it wa'l-masjid, published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, November 19, 2000.

[4] The author explains that once the name Al-Aqsa was appropriated for the mosque in Jerusalem, this new name was incorporated into the various traditions that were disseminated in order to promote the Islamic significance of Jerusalem.

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