Al-Aqsa on edge

Gihan Shahine , Friday 15 Mar 2024

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites for Muslims and a flashpoint in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is more important than ever in the holy month of Ramadan, writes Gihan Shahine

photos: Issa Qawasmi


A virtual tour of the Dome of the Rock, the most important part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex in Jerusalem, may be an enjoyable experience for the millions of Muslims who cannot visit the holy site due to the political upheaval surrounding it, especially during the time of additional spirituality that marks the holy month of Ramadan.

In a 360-degree virtual visit to the interior of the Dome of the Rock, visitors can experience going down a staircase into a cave known as the Prophet’s Chamber, also referred to as the Cave of Spirits. The dim lights of this shrine add to its spirituality, and one can easily imagine praying here under the sacred rock from which it is believed that the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven during his Night Journey and Ascension.

The rock is located at the centre of the Dome of the Rock and is an irregularly shaped stone.

The Dome of the Rock is one of the most important shrines for Muslims. It is located in the precincts of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The mosque is linked to the story of the Prophet Mohamed’s night journey or israa from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he is believed to have ascended into heaven (mieraj). The Dome of the Rock (qubat al-sakhra) is believed to house the rock from where the Prophet Mohamed physically ascended.

This virtual visit is only part of many three-dimensional visualisations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque now available on YouTube and mostly created in an attempt to preserve the site’s architectural heritage and religious status in the minds of Muslims worldwide.

“I felt it was my duty to document Al-Aqsa Mosque since this is part of my specialisation,” Abdallah Maarouf, a specialist in Al-Aqsa affairs and the creator of a three-dimensional visualisation of the sanctuary, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Maarouf hopes that his video will “allow millions of Muslims deprived of a chance to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque the opportunity to enjoy a virtual tour inside it and feel more attached to this important shrine.”

Documenting the mosque, however, was not easy, since the Israeli occupation would not allow taking photographs of some of its interior, according to Maarouf. “I hope, though, that watching these videos will make more Muslims yearn to visit the mosque one day,” he said.

The holy month of Ramadan and the months preceding it, particularly the 27th day of the holy month of Ragab that marks the israa and mieraj, is a season that ignites more passion towards Al-Aqsa Mosque among many devout Muslims, particularly those who are lucky enough to cross all barriers and actually pray inside it.

Palestinian writer, photographer, and author of many books on Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque Issa Qawasmi is among the lucky ones. His lens has captured the supernatural beauty of Al-Aqsa Sanctuary and reflected a recent spiritual experience he went through only a few weeks before the advent of Ramadan.

The tranquility of the tree-lined path to the golden dome that characterises the Dome of the Rock and the spirituality of dawn prayers inside the ancient mosque are vibrant in Qawasmi’s recent videos and photographs. The imposing golden dome of the mosque seems to be standing in solemnity, gazing from afar, peeping through lush greenery, as if in defiance of Israeli restrictions.

But if these are the impressions of a remote beholder, how did the person who took the photographs feel?

It was time for dawn prayers, and Qawasmi was relishing the positive energy reflected from the ancient walls of the sanctuary. Both men and women were hurrying to catch the prayers, and Qawasmi was engulfed in a wave of paradoxical feelings, having made it to the interior of the mosque through heartbeat-racing Israeli checkpoints.

Once past the Bab Al-Sahira Gate and inside the walls, Qawasmi said he was “spiritually liberated” and his initial sense of “deprivation and oppression” soon turned into “child-like feelings and a mix of fascination and astonishment coming from behind a silent wall.”

The sacred aura of the sanctuary, believed to have been host to successive prophets, and the grandeur of its architecture soon engulfed Qawasmi in a rare mix of awe and glee that at one point reduced him to tears. He knelt under the ancient trees until he could pray on the pavement of martyrs.

“I felt my body yearn, grow light, fly up, and disappear,” Qawasmi said on his Facebook page. “I did not return to my senses until the prayer was performed. I chose to pray on top of the Martyrs’ Terrace in front of Al-Qibli. I had given it this name after Al-Aqsa Massacre. The prayer ended, but my longing, the result of oppression, never ended.”

The terrace Qawasmi chose to pray on was also the inspiration of one of the books he wrote after the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in protest at the Israeli construction of electronic gates at the entrance of the mosque.

Today, Al-Aqsa is even more at risk as all eyes are turned to the Israeli genocide in Gaza. In the weeks preceding the holy month, there had been news of how those aiming to pray in the mosque will be restricted in number or even banned altogether by Israeli security.

“Israeli violations and desecration of Al-Aqsa Mosque have always been there, but they escalated even further after 7 October last year,” Qawasmi told the Weekly.

“The demolition of the Dome of the Rock Mosque is entrenched in the doctrine of the Israeli far-right, as part of plans to erect the Temple of Solomon in its place,” he explained. “A date has already been set for the demolition by next April, and cows have been brought to be burned in a special ritual on the Mount of Olives overlooking Old Jerusalem in order to scatter their ashes around the alleged Temple.”

The 7 October attacks on Israel, however, have disturbed those plans, according to Qawasmi. “Jerusalem, especially the Old City, was besieged from the beginning of the war, and worshippers were prevented from reaching Al-Aqsa for months,” he said. Military checkpoints were strengthened on the outskirts of Jerusalem, including the gates of the walls and the closure of Al-Aqsa to Palestinians coming from the north, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

“Many observers have documented these Israeli restrictions, as the Israeli occupation has been tightening its siege on Al-Aqsa even more before Ramadan for fear of the outbreak of a new Intifada in protest at the massacres in Gaza,” Qawasmi added.


THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AL-AQSA: the Masjid Al-Aqsa, or the “farthest Mosque”, is an important site in Islam located in the Old City of Jerusalem in Palestine.

It was the first qibla (direction) for Muslims, where they used to direct their prayers before this was changed to the Kaaba or the Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca. It is the second mosque ever to be built, and the third holiest site after the Kaaba and the Prophet’s Mosque where Muslims perform the pilgrimage.

It is believed that it was in the Dome of the Rock Mosque that the prophet led the prayers of all preceding prophets during the spiritual the israa and mieraj, when he ascended to heaven. The wider compound includes Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, 17 gates and four minarets, and it is usually referred to as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, or the “Noble Sanctuary”.

Many people confuse Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, but while both are part of the Noble Sanctuary, they remain two distinct buildings.

Historians have differed on when Al-Aqsa Mosque was built. According to professor of Islamic history and civilisation at Al-Azhar University and associate member of the History and Civilisation Committee of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars Al-Husseini Hassan Hammad, Al-Aqsa Mosque “existed even before Adam was born, or perhaps it was built at the hands of Adam.”

According to texts from the Islamic prophetic traditions, Al-Aqsa Mosque was built 40 years after Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca.

“It was named the ‘farthest mosque’ because it was far from Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca, because it was located far from people’s reach, or just because there was no other mosque behind it,” Hammad told the Weekly.

When the caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem and received it from the Patriarch Sophronius, he prayed in the vacant area of the Al-Aqsa Sanctuary and ordered a mosque to be constructed there in 15 AH/636 CE, four years after the death of the Prophet Mohamed, Hammad said.

“The mosque was built as a simple wooden construction of palm trunks covered with a roof of wood panels that could accommodate only 1,000 people,” he said. It was destroyed several times due to earthquakes and the political upheavals surrounding it, but it was also rebuilt and renovated multiple times over the centuries.

The current building, which still hosts daily and Friday prayers, largely dates to the 11th century. The wooden complex built by Omar Ibn Al-Khattab was expanded to accommodate 3,000 worshippers during the Umayyad Caliphate, first at the hands of Moawya bin Abi Sufiyan and later by Abdel-Malek Ibn Marwan and his son Al-Walid.

Then a mosque was built in the place where Omar Ibn Al-Khattab prayed called the Omar Mosque, according to Hammad.

“The Al-Aqsa Mosque stands on an area of 144,000 square metres within the walls of the Old City,” Hammad said. “It includes the Dome of the Rock Mosque, the Al-Qibli Mosque, the Al-Omari Mosque, and the Marwani Chapel, and the domes, minarets, avenues, corridors, spaces, and facilities surrounding it.”

“It currently has 14 doors, including four closed-off doors. The Dome of the Rock Mosque is one of the most prominent landmarks inside the Al-Aqsa Complex. It was established by the Umayyad caliph Abdel-Malik ibn Marwan in the place of the rock from which the Prophet Mohamed, may God bless him and grant him peace, ascended to heaven on the journey of the israa and mieraj,” Hammad elaborated.

“It was said that Abdel-Malik Ibn Marwan ordered its construction to begin in the year 66 AH/685 CE. Its construction was completed in the year 72 AH/691 CE, and Ibn Marwan was keen on making it architecturally beautiful and giving it artistic splendour due to the status of the rock in the hearts of Muslims.”

BED OF CONFLICT: The location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque may also stand behind the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem.

The complex, named by Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, is located on a plaza that Israel calls the Temple Mount. This is believed to be Judaism’s holiest site. The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall and sacred to Jews, is one side of the retaining walls of the Al-Aqsa Complex.

This has made the Al-Aqsa Complex a point of contention between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation.

But as Hammad makes clear, “there is only one fact that cannot be refuted and is not even open to debate: the Al-Aqsa Mosque existed even before humanity and thousands of years before the advent of the children of Israel.

“The Zionist Jews falsely claim the existence of what is called the Temple of Solomon under the Al-Aqsa Mosque and insist they must demolish the mosque to excavate for the alleged structure and restore it,” he added. These claims “are totally unfounded”.

“First, the Jews themselves disagree about the alleged location of the temple,” Hammad said. “The Samaritan Jews, a Jewish sect, believe it was built in the city of Nablus, and they do not acknowledge the claims of the other Jewish sects. Contemporary Jewish rabbis, scholars, and researchers, especially those coming from the US and Britain, believe that the temple built by Solomon is located in Palestine, but they differ among themselves on its location. Some of them believe that it is under the Al-Aqsa Mosque, others claim it is under the Dome of the Rock, and a third party says that it is outside the Al-Haram area altogether. There are also those who claim that it is in an area far from the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

According to Hammad, “the era of the Prophet Suleiman [Solomon] was in the 10th century BCE, that is, tens of thousands of years after the existence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

“This immediately refutes claims that there is any Solomonic construction beneath the mosque,” he said. “The temple that our Master Solomon, peace be upon him, built to hold rituals outside the Holy Mosque was completely demolished and removed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. When the Jews returned to Palestine and built a temple in its place, the Romans demolished it and completely removed it in 70 CE.

“Last but not least,” Hammad said, “all international archaeological studies and excavations carried out on the mosque’s soil have found no trace or evidence that Solomon’s Temple existed there and have refuted Jewish claims that it was next to the Buraq or western wall of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“Even the excavations carried out by Israel for decades under, inside, and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque could not prove the existence of any trace of the alleged structure.

“Such fabrications and false claims are only meant to demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque as an important sanctuary for Muslims and thus remove the Islamic identity of the blessed area,” Hammad said.

The holy site has thus always been a hotbed of conflict between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. It is almost the same scenario every year, particularly during Ramadan, when Palestinian protests erupt over the blockade of the Israeli forces and the far-right desecration of the mosque leading to Palestinian bloodshed.

“Although the Sanctuary’s administration and management was handed to Jordan following the 1967 War, the Jordanian custodianship remained only on paper and Israel has always been in full control of the Al-Aqsa Complex,” said Qawasmi.

Although according to the sanctuary’s regulations non-Muslims are not allowed to worship at Al-Aqsa, Jewish individuals and groups have long made repeated attempts to enter the Temple Mount, and such attempts gained momentum since the outbreak of the first Intifada in the late 1990s.

Jewish settlers started to claim land in East Jerusalem and surrounding areas, and this led to repeated clashes and tensions with Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa. The Israeli police reportedly backed the settlers.


GAZA GENOCIDE: The mosque, though geographically located far from the Israeli war on Gaza, stands at the centre of the Israeli war on the Strip.

“This may be my last video, but I want Muslims to know that Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa is as important as Mecca and Medina. Muslims should thus rise up to defend it,” a Palestinian blogger said on YouTube just a few seconds before he was killed and his camera extinguished during the first weeks of the Israeli war on the Strip.

That poignant video is only one of many showing how the mosque, though not involved in the war, stands in its background. After all, the Al-Aqsa Mosque has long been a flashpoint in the historical Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a unifier for all Arab and Muslim nationalists.

It is no wonder, then, that the Palestinian resistance groups called their military operations against Israeli settlers on 7 October the “Flood of Al-Aqsa”, saying that they were “in defence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Statements by the Hamas Resistance Group made it clear that Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank were the reason behind the 7 October attacks, in addition, of course, to the group’s general opposition to the existence of the Israeli occupation and the construction of settlements on Palestinian land.

However, the Al-Aqsa Mosque remains one main bone of contention in the war. Hamas said the attacks were also in reaction to the fact that Israel has “allowed Jewish groups to desecrate the Al-Aqsa Mosque” and that the Israeli government has plans to “erect their alleged temple on the ruins of the shrine of our Prophet Mohamed”.

“Palestinians see before their eyes the continuous encroachment carried out by the Israeli occupation on Al-Aqsa Mosque. They observe the Israeli attempts at sabotaging it, digging around and under it, in preparation for its demolition, all with the aim of obliterating the Islamic significance of the holy site,” Hammad noted.

“The 7 October attacks were a reaction to Israeli extremism towards worshippers, Mosque-goers and residents of the Holy City, amid global silence and inaction and support and complicity from the Western powers. They had the right to defend their sanctuaries and the sanctuaries of Muslims. After all, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the city of Jerusalem are the core of the Palestinian issue.”

At a time when all eyes are on the Israeli genocide in Gaza, little attention has been directed to the threats posed to Al-Aqsa Mosque.

However, an analysis published on the London-based news website the New Arab called “Israeli Extremists are Exploiting the Gaza War to upend Al-Aqsa’s Status Quo” has recently warned that “the extremist-Zionist Temple Mount movement has developed from a fringe group into a popular mainstream movement whose growing popularity has been even more sensed since the beginning of the war.”

The extremist group calls for removing the Jordanian custodianship of the Al-Aqsa Complex and reverse the status quo by imposing full Israeli control over the sanctuary that would also control Muslims wanting to pray at the mosque. Since the beginning of the war, Israeli Temple Mount groups like Beyadenu have shown an ideological shift, calling for the Israeli government to ban Palestinian Muslims altogether from Al-Aqsa Mosque rather than share it with them.

Abdallah Maarouf, an Islamic history professor at Istanbul 29 Mayis University and an ex-media official at Al-Aqsa, says this indicates the recent ideological shift in such movements.

“What we have come to is that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is now being opened freely for these extremist groups in order to perform their prayers there, and the Muslims are not allowed in their own Mosque anymore,” Marouf told the New Arab.

“Al-Aqsa is now a main target for the Israeli political system,” journalist and editor of the website’s Palestinian chronicle Ramzy Baroud noted. “They feel that by removing this symbol altogether from Palestinian collective consciousness, they can deny Palestinians the leverage to have something to fight for.”

Recent news reports have revealed that Israeli forces have banned Muslims, except for Old City residents above the age of 50, from visiting the holy site since 7 October for “security reasons”.

“Some 50,000 worshippers usually attend Friday noon prayers at Al-Aqsa, but this number has dwindled to a few thousand in the last two months,” according to the New Arab.

Analysts also view recent Israeli escalations at Al-Aqsa Mosque in the larger context of the so-called “deal of the century” declared by former US president Donald Trump in 2020.

The controversial deal condones an Israeli “peace plan” that includes three main changes that would reverse the centuries-old status quo at the Al-Aqsa Sanctuary. The plan aims at transferring the site to Israeli sovereignty, repealing Jordan’s custodianship over the sanctuary, and ending the ban on non-Muslim prayer. That is, it aims to achieve what Israel could not attain during the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem.

 “Such changes would not only mean that Muslims lose further access to their mosque, but they also would allow people of other faiths, particularly Jews, to share the site with Muslims in preparation for a full Jewish monopoly over the site and the building of a Jewish temple on its site,” explained a paper called “The Future of Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Light of Trump’s Deal of the Century” co-authored by Khaled Al-Awaisi and Cuma Yavuz at the Social Sciences University of Ankara in Turkey.

Those looming hazards take us back to the three-dimensional visualisations of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“The entire Al-Aqsa Complex, including its mosques, landmarks, squares, and facilities, must be documented legally, architecturally, and photographically under the auspices of international heritage organisations, especially in the light of this systematic policy and the malicious intent of the Israeli occupation to demolish the mosque and erase everything related to its Islamic identity,” Hammad warned.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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