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Al Quds
Holy City of Islam
Al Quds-The Holy
In Arabic, since the Middle Ages, Jerusalem is
referred to as Al-quds: “the Holy (City).”
For Muslims, Jerusalem is one of three “holy
cities:” Mecca, Medina, and Al Quds.
Mecca-Medina-Al Quds
Mecca represents the origins of Islam in the
biography of its founder, the prophet Muhammad.
Pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca is one of
Islam’s “five pillars.”
Medina was the first capital of the umma or nation of
But what does Jerusalem represent to Muslims and
in the Islamic tradition?
In 610 C.E. Muhammad Ibn Abdallah begins to recite
what were to become the suras of the Qur’an,
teaching that Allah, the high god of the Arabian
pantheon, was none other than the God of Jewish and
Christian monotheism.
Medina becomes the first city organized on
the basis of the new dispensation when, in
622, the prophet and his companions are
driven out of Mecca (their message having
caused civil unrest). The city of Yathrib,
better known as Medina (meaning “the city”)
later served as the first capital of the Muslim
The year of the flight from Mecca, known as
the Hijra, marks the beginning of the Muslim
calendar (A.H.= after the Hegirah/hijra).
The first qibla of prayer
In contrast to the real biographical and political
meaning of Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem’s role
for the early Muslims is more ephemeral or
In order to turn the attention of the newly converted
Muslims away from the pagan shrine in Mecca,
the prophet commands the believers to turn to the
city that once housed the great temple of Allah, or
bayt al-maqdis.
After 622, in Medina, however, the Muslims are told
to turn toward Mecca in prayer.
Al Quds
Though no longer the qibla of prayer, the city of the
“holy house” (madinat bayt al-maqdis) or (later) Al
Quds continues to be important to Muslims today. But
Jerusalem fell to the Arabs in 635 or 638 but it was not
a major strategic position. There is nothing sensational
in the early accounts of the conquest, as recorded by
Muslim historians.
J’lem in the Qur’an
• Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Qur’an.
• What is mentioned is a “Night Journey” (alisra, Sura 17:1).
The Night Journey (al isra)
Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by
night from the holy mosque (masjid alharam) to the further mosque (masjid alaqsa) whose surroundings We have blessed,
so that We might show him some of Our
signs. He is the all-hearing, the All-seeing.
(The Holy Qur’an, Sura 17:1)
Al-masjid al-aqsa
Muslims understand the “distant sanctuary” or
“further mosque” (al masjid al aqsa) of Sura 17:1
to refer to the area in J’lem Jews refer to as the
“Temple Mount,” i.e., the Herodian platform that
once supported the Jewish temple.
Originally, the qur’anic verse most likely referred to
a mystical ascent to heaven. Tradition still affirms
this mystical ascent (al miraj) but distinguishes it
from the “night journey” (al isra) that took the
prophet from Mecca to Al Quds.
Al miraj: The Ascent
• The ascent (al miraj) authenticates Muhammad as
a prophet.
• On his path he encounters the other prophets (esp.
• Muhammad is given command of 50 prayers (then
reduced to 5).
• Upon return to Mecca, Muhammad proves that he
had been taken on his night journey (predicts
arrival of caravan).
Like biblical prophets Isaiah (ch. 6) and Ezekiel
(ch. 1-3), apocalyptic figures (e.g. Enoch), and
the Hekhalot mystics of Jewish tradition,
Muhammad is given a mystical vision of God
and a tour of paradise and hell.
In this, as in many other respects, early Islam
absorbs and reworks well-known spiritual
traditions. While to moderns this may appear as a
kind of plagiarism, in late antiquity stepping into
existing traditions and unveiling their true
meaning was a form of authentication.
Jerusalem under the Umayyad Caliphs
Under the Umayyad rulers of Damascus, Iliya begins
its (partial) transformation into madinat bayt almaqdis.
In 688, Caliph Abd al Malik commissions the first
monumental building of Islam: the Dome of the
In architectural beauty and ideology, this building
communicates to the Byzantines of SyriaPalaestina (and beyond) that a new age has begun.
The Dome of the Rock,
completed c. 691.
The Herodian platform with its many
buildings and holy places, is referred to
as Al Aqsa or al-masjid al aqsa. The
second largest building (here in a 15th
century Muslim manuscript from the
Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris) is the
“Friday Mosque,” which is also often
referred to as the “Al Aqsa Mosque.”
The entire area is also known as the
Noble Sanctuary or Al-haram ashsharif. Christian sources often refer to
the Dome of the Rock as the “Mosque
of Omar” though it is neither a mosque
nor was it built by or for the Caliph
Umar who, according to legend, is said
to have refused to pray in Constantine’s
Martyrium (Church of the Holy
Sepulchre), yet prayed next to it.
Aerial view of
the from the