Two years ago, I had written a brief essay on Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) mystic Night Journey to Jerusalem and then further into Heaven which is commemorated by many Muslims today, 27 Rajab, al-’Isrā’ wal-Mi‘rāj. According to the Holy Qur’an (Q17:1) and aḥādīth the Prophet was taken to the “furthest mosque”, al-masjid al-aqsa,by al-Buraq, the mythical white-winged mare, and ascended to heaven from the Rock on the Temple Mount. The journey took place about one year before the Prophet’s hijra, 621 CE, and he testified afterwards to the Quraysh of Makkah what he had seen in Jerusalem. But what had he actually seen?
Fact of the matter is that during a rather short period of time, between 614 and 629, Christian almost three centuries long control over Jerusalem had been adjourned by Persian rule. In 614 Jerusalem had been besieged for 21 days by the army of Shah Khosrau II’s General Sharbaraz and after the city’s surrender most Christian inhabitants were massacred and all churches destroyed. Even the True Cross was taken as a trophy to the Capital Ctesiphon. But Persian reign lasted only until 629 when the Byzantine emperor Heraclius reconquered the city and returned the True Cross to the rebuilt Holy Sepulchre.
What the Prophet of Islam might have seen when for the first and last time in Jerusalem I had mainly derived from Oleg Grabar’s book on early Islamic Jerusalem, The Shape of the Holy (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1996) which provides some computer-generated images of the city around 600 CE, one and a half decade before the Persian conquest. One has to assume that in 621, the year of the mystical Night Journey, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of Resurrection, and the Church on Mt. Zion commemorating the Last Supper and the large Church Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos laid in ruins.
A few decades after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 638 CE, around 700 CE, the Umayyad Caliphs Abd’ al-Malik and his son al-Walid erected, in commemoration of Muhammad’s Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock (from where he ascended to Heaven) and the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s First and post-Babylonian exile Second Temple, and Herod’s reconstruction which had finally been destroyed in 135 CE by the troops of Roman Emperor Hadrian.
Oleg Grabar, who has deceased last year, has co-edited with Benjamin Z. Kedar of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Where Heaven and Earth Meets: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade (Yad Ben-Zvi Press, Jerusalem and the University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas 2009) which assembles an impressive panel of Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars who present many unknown facts in three thousand years’ history and stunningly illuminate the unique historical, religious, spiritual, cultural, and political importance of this true interface between, focus of, the three monotheistic, revealed, religions (the not less-charged significance for Christians is derived from Jesus’ relation with and acts in Herod’s Temple). The for Jews significant Western Wall of the Esplanade is not forgotten in the account.
Due to the unsolved political situation of Israel occupying East Jerusalem, al-Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, is seriously endangered. But there is hope. Grabar, in a personal statement, concludes:
“There are legal and technical mechanisms for the preservation of what is deemed beautiful and historically significant, but the implementation of these mechanisms requires decisions about governance and responsibility which cannot be exclusively in the hands of political and religious authorities. Alternate possibilities, through UNESCO for instance, have failed so far. But, if one mediates on the eschatological component of the Haram as the space where Go[o]d will be made prevail and man will be judged, one can perhaps imagine that a space shaped by the Antique world long gone and constantly enhanced by the living culture of Islam could become a place for reconciliation and mutual understanding rather than of strife and contest. Hope springs eternal.” (Emphasis added.)
June 17, 2012 @ 17:20
Last modified June 17, 2012.
Al Aqsa (Arabic المسجد الاقصى, ) is “The furthest mosque” or “furthest place of worship,” mentioned in the Quran as masjid al-Aqsa, the destination of Muhammad in his magical night journey (al Isra), in which, according to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel took him on the horse Al-Buraq from Mecca to the furthest mosque and thence to heaven and hell. However, there is some dispute as to whether the “masjid al-Aqsa” of the Qur’an refers to the mosque in Jerusalem, as no mosque or Muslim holy place existed there in the time of Muhammad, and many Muslim scholars assumed that the masjid al-Aqsa was a place inside Arabia.