Masjid al-Aqsa and the Mi‘raj: Context and Significance

Masjid al-Aqsa and the Mi‘raj: Context and Significance
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By Mohammed Yaseen Gada

Al-masjid al-Aqsa or the farthest place of prayer also identified as bayt al-muqaddas or maqdis, is unanimously regarded as the third holiest site in Islam and is located on the eastern edge of the Old City of Jerusalem (al-Quds). More precisely, indeed, al-Aqsa is a compound that houses a complex of buildings and monuments of what is commonly known in Islam al-haram al-sharif (The Noble Sanctuary).
The place and importance of al- Aqsa to the Muslims is obvious from the fact that the name of the masjid is itself attested in the seventeenth chapter of the Qur’an. According to the Qur’an, Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) was taken on a miraculous Night Journey (Isra’) from Makkah to the place called masjid al- Aqsa (Qur’ān, 17:1): “Glory be to him Who carried His Servant (Prophet Muḥammad – SAW) by night, from the sacred place of prayer (al-masjid al-haram) to the furthest place of prayer (al-masjid al-aqsa), The precincts of which We have blessed, That We might show him some of Our signs. He is the All – Hearing, the All – Seeing”. Further, it is mentioned in the prophetic tradition (hadith) that explains the Isra’ verse by reporting that it is from this masjid that Prophet Muḥammad (SAW), who was riding on a heavenly creature called al-Buraq to the farthest Masjid, ascended to heaven (mi’raj).
Since then Muslims called the city (Jerusalem) “the gate to the heavens”. In this journey, it is reported that Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) led all the prophets in a nightly congregational prayer in al-Aqsa. Moreover, a number of prophetic traditions further raise its status for the Muslims. Since, it was the first direction of prayer, the Messenger of Allah (SAW) for sixteen or seventeen months (a Qur’anic injunction later commanded the Prophet to direct the prayer toward Makkah).  According to another prophetic tradition, Muslims are encouraged to do journey to al-Aqsa masjid. For, a single prayer at al-Aqsa is regarded as the equivalent of 500 prayers at other masjids and inferior in value only to prayer at the masjid al-haram in Makkah and at the Prophet’s masjid in Madina. Yet it is also reported that when the Prophet Muḥammad (SAW) was asked about the first masjid built on earth for mankind. He replied that the first masjid was al-masjid al-haram in Makkah; he was subsequently asked about the second, to which he is reported to have replied “al-masjid al-Aqsa with forty years between them”.
For a long period of about 13 centuries, from 637 CE to 1917 CE, al- Aqsa remained under Muslim control except from 1099 to 1187 and 1229 to 1239 C.E.). During all these centuries of Muslim control, al-Aqsa enjoyed peace, freedom and security. Al-Quds was first conquered, as we know, by the second caliph Hadrat ‘Umar bin Khattab (RA) Cin 637 CE/16 AH. But, in 1099 CE, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders with all their barbarity; Ibn Athir reports that the crusaders slaughtered about 70,000 inhabitants in Jerusalem without any discrimination – young and the aged, men and women and healthy and the sick – Muslims and Jews.  After about ninety years of Christian rule (from 1099-1187), al-Quds, for the second time, was re-conquered by another magnanimous and charismatic Muslim military General, Salahuddin Ayubi (RA) in 1187 CE. The day he conquered the Jerusalem it was the 27th of Rajab of 583 Hijri, i.e., it fell on the blessed night—Laylat ul-Mi’raj- the Muslims celebrate with great fervour and enthusiasm.
Therefore, the blessed night reminds us of the great favours Allah bestowed on the beloved  Prophet Muhammad (SAW) by taking him to the heavens and on the other hand by obligating namaz on the Muslims to grant them ample opportunity to meet Him through this act of worship. However, today Muslim world is in a deep crisis – political, social, and economic – for we did not fulfil the commitment we had made with Almighty Allah. Ours is a life of materialistic pursuit; we do not regularly offer and respect this basic Islamic pillar – namaz. It was on this blessed night that namaz was made obligatory on the Muslims. Whenever our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAW) would face any difficulty, he would seek Allah’s help through namaz. But, today what is our attitude towards the namaz? The picture is clear before us; how many Muslims do offer fajr namaz (morning prayers) in congregation or at least in time? Through the namaz, we are commanded to seek Allah’s help to solve our problems-private and public. In Islam, the prominent events like Mi‘raj are not for mere celebrations rather the objective behind each and every Islamic event is to invigorate in its followers the spirit of faith, commitment, juctice.
We also know today that al-Aqsa is one of the most passionately contested pieces of land in the world after the Israel illegally occupied it in 1967 CE. Since then, it served as the symbol of resistance and focal point for the Palestinians against the occupation, aggression and oppression.

—The author is a research scholar at AMU, Aligarh, and can be reached at myyaseenm2@gmail.com

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