(First published on May 12, 2021)
After its history was manipulated, shrine rarely attracted Islamic attention
Reporting on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa compound, Western media depicts it as an exotic spiritual shrine revered by Muslims worldwide. Western media describes Al-Aqsa as the third most important shrine in Islam, and often refers to it the way Palestinians do, calling it al-Haram al-Sharif, as if this was some sort of a mythical or spiritual name.
Western media is too lazy to conduct any independent research, and ends up taking the Muslim word for history. But given the politics, what those Muslims say today about Jerusalem is a lot of spin, and requires a lot of debunking.
First, al-Haram Al-Sharif is not a name, but a description of any Islamic religious spot. The word Haram derives from a root that indicates prohibition, which means that in a holy spot, fighting, stealing or other illicit action is prohibited. Al-Sharif simply means honorable.
Second, the name al-Aqsa itself is questionable. Al-Aqsa compound includes two main shrines, the Omar Mosque (Masjid) and the Dome of the Rock. The name al-Aqsa is derived from a Quranic a verse that says God transported “his slave at night” from the Haram mosque, interpreted to be Mecca, to the Aqsa mosque, interpreted to be Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa.
Quranic exegetes also interpret “slave” to mean Prophet Muhammad, but that’s only a guess that is impossible to corroborate. If this “slave” was really Muhammad, then there was really no mosques whatsoever in Jerusalem. Muhammad died in 632. Jerusalem fell to Arab armies after 636. If Muhammad ever visited Jerusalem, it would have been a Byzantine Christian city with maybe some Jewish presence, but certainly not a single mosque. Al-Aqsa in the Quran, then, must have described a mosque that was not in Jerusalem.
Muslim exegetes argue that the word “al-Masjid,” in the verse that refers to “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” does not mean a mosque per se, but the spot where Muhammad performed “sujood” while praying. But such explanation has no precedent or parallel. In Islam, it is universally understood that masjid means a house of worship, not just any spot where people pray in the outdoors.
Third, Muslims say that the al-Aqsa was the spot of two events. The Isra’ (Muhammad’s trip from Mecca to Jerusalem atop a pegasus), and the Mi‘raj, when Muhammad made a roundtrip from Jerusalem to the heavens. Unlike the earthly trip, the trip to heaven is not found in the Quran, but only in the Hadith (prophet’s words), and Hadith is very controversial among the different Muslim schools.
So if Quran does not specifically say Jerusalem, and the Hadith is too unreliable, what made Jerusalem important to Muslims? The answer is that Jerusalem was important to proto-Muslims, a sect of Arab Christians that wrestled the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) from the hands of the Byzantines and created an independent state. The founding literature of this early Arab cult is scant. A few of their earlier coins have Christian crosses on them. The most important piece they left us is the Dome of the Rock, which is the first building with classic Arabic inscribed on it. It was constructed in 691 CE, by the Umayyad Caliph Abdul-Malik bin Marwan, who ruled between 685 and 705 form his capital Damascus. He inscribed on the interior of the dome proto-Quranic verses (that is verses that are very similar to Quran, but differ in minor ways of wording — which is not tolerated in Islam as the Quran is believed to have been the exact same text form the minute it was revealed to Muhammad and uttered by him).
It would take this Caliph another five years before he uses the name Muhammad for the first time, minting it on his coins, and even then, we are not sure that he was talking about the same Muhammad that Islam talks about today. Keep in mind that the name Muhammad means (in both Arabic and Hebrew) “the coveted one,” a very plausible description of a Messiah figure.
The historicity of Muhammad aside, the religion of the Umayyads was drastically reshaped by their successors the Abbasids. To appreciate how much forgery the Abbasids imposed on the Umayyad religion and history, consider that if you go to the Dome of the Rock today and look up the dedicatory inscription, you won’t find the name of Abdul-Malik as the caliph who constructed it, but that of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamoun (r.810-833) .
Over a century after it was built, al-Mamoun inscribed his name on top of Abdul-Malik’s. And al-Mamoun was the main sponsor of the main corpus of Islamic literature. He was famous for erecting a huge library in Baghdad with volumes that translated every book he could find to Arabic. The name of this library was “House of Wisdom” (which inspired the name of this Substack page).
The Dome of the Rock, belonging to the mythology of proto-Muslim Arab Christians, was integrated into Islam, and connected to the Quran and Muhammad, even though such connection is pure speculation.
The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque. It is an octagonal shrine (eight being the number that symbolizes rebirth, or ascending to the sky and returning), built around a rock, presumably by a religion whose claim to fame is the prohibition of idol worship. In Islamic mythology, this rock was about to follow Muhammad to the sky, but he told it to stay put, and hence it looks as if it is on its way up.
In ancient mythology, a rock that was the first self-created being, the cornerstone of the universe, fell form the sky, and was housed in a shrine called the “House of the Lord,” Bet El in the Semitic languages, anglicized as Bethel. This holy rock was then elevated to the sky as the believers await its return and the end of times. This is one of the oldest myths in the Levant and can be detected in the Phoenician myth of Zaphon and the Roman/Syrian cult of Elagabalus, which was a Blackstone housed in a cubical shrine in the Syrian city of Emesa.
With Christianization, it was Jesus (and his mother Mary) who were elevated to the sky. Neither one of them died, and they live in up above until his second coming. The spot of Jesus’s elevation was the rock under the dome. When the Crusaders took over Jerusalem, they planned to appropriate the Dome of the Rock, but ended up building a similar hexagonal building, a church, with a dome, a mile away, still standing today in Jerusalem and known as the Church of Ascension. In Christian mythology, under this church’s dome is the footprint of Jesus on a rock, the last footprint before he took off to the sky (after he had been crucified and had risen from the dead). Christian mythology says the print of Jesus’s other foot is the one under the Dome of the Rock. This ascension is what Islam recast as Muhammad’s quick roundtrip to heaven.
As for the other holy building in the Al-Aqsa compound, the Omar Mosque, it is associated with Muhammad’s second Rashidun Caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab. No archeology or literature from outside Islamic literature (which was written at least a century or more after the event) corroborates the account that a certain Omar from Mecca did visit Jerusalem. The current Omar Mosque in Jerusalem could have been named after any saint figure with the name Omar, real or mythological.
The founding history aside, until the rise of Zionism, Jerusalem did not feature as an important city in the history of Islam or in Islamic literature. Except for Saladin’s liberation of the city from the Crusaders, there are no reports that Muslim caliphs, anywhere or at anytime, held any special occasions in Jerusalem, or lavished Al-Aqsa with money. And unlike the famous religious seminaries in Baghdad’s Azamiyah, Cairo’s Azhar, Jerusalem did not sustain any religious seminaries that produced famous Islamic scholars. There is no record of organized Muslim pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa.
Most importantly, Jerusalem barely features in the literature of Shia Islam (the second largest Islamic bloc after mainstream Sunni Islam). If anything, the Shia hate the Umayyads (for killing their third Imam Hussein in 680), and as such, they curse anything associated with both Omar (the second caliph) and the Umayyads (who built the Dome of the Rock). As far as the Shia are concerned (Iran and Hezbollah), the Al-Aqsa compound was built by the Shia’s worst enemies. Why Iran and Hezbollah pretend it is their new Mecca must be pure politics.
So when Western media tries to highlight how historic Al-Aqsa is to Muslims, keep in mind that such reports convey the Islamic narrative, which is mostly mythological and cannot be substantiated by sources independent of Islamic literature. The rest is politics.