By Lateef Shah
THE religious and historical significance of Masjid al Aqsa, (The Farthest Mosque), also known as Bait al Maqdis is not lost on any Muslim. It occupies an important place in Muslim history, heritage, culture and religion. Located in Jerusalem, it is the third holiest place for Muslims. In fact it is important and sacred for followers of all the three Abrahimic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The Mosque with a silver colour dome is situated on the Temple Mount. Throughout its history, the city of Jerusalem has been ruled by Muslims, Christians and now Jews.
For Muslims, Al Aqsa is not only their first Qibla, the place facing which they would offer prayers, but is significant also because Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh), started his miraculous night Journey, Al-Isra from Mecca to Masjid al Aqsa and then his heavenly ascension. This journey has linked Masjid al Aqsa and Jerusalem to the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide. As Quran says, Glory to Allah who did take His Servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque (in Makkah) to the Al-Aqsa (in Jerusalem) whose precincts We did bless – (Al-Isra 17:1).
Its importance for Muslims has been impressed upon by making Al-Aqsa an important part of Prophet’s journey. As per the Muslim tradition, before his ascension, Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) led congregational prayer in the mosque in which all previous Prophets of Allah participated. Al-Aqsa therefore holds the unique distinction of being the only mosque where all the prophets performed their Namaz in congregation. The importance and sacredness of Jerusalem is emphasised in the Quran and various Muslim traditions. For Muslims, like Masjid al Haram and Masjid al Nabwi, the virtues of praying in Al-Aqsa are also exalted. It also holds the distinction of being the second mosque on the surface of the earth, after the Sacred Mosque in Makkah.
Muslims laid siege to Jerusalem, during the rule of Umar ibn Al Khatab. But he was not leading the army. The inhabitants of the city agreed to surrender if Umar ibn al Khatab himself came to the city in person. He arrived in the city and received the keys to the city in 637 CE. He concluded a peace treaty with the people of the city which allowed the Jews to enter the city who were denied access to the city by its Christian rulers. Under the Muslim rule the city became free to followers of all the three faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The Muslim rule really helped the city to remain prosperous and peaceful where followers of all the religions lived with peace and harmony and were free to perform their religious duties and obligations.
But after Israel occupied east Jerusalem in 1967, Palestinian Muslims have got restricted access to the mosque. The Waqf Ministry of Jordan had control of the Masjid till the 1967 war between Israel and the Arabs. After their victory, the Israeli authorities didn’t take direct control of the mosque, but transferred it to the Islamic Waqf Trust. But this transfer did not stop the Israeli Security Forces, IDF from conducting searches and patrol within the premises of Al Aqsa. Israeli authorities have also enlarged the prayer plaza at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s old city. Despite a Jerusalem court order against such a move, which the court said would violate the status quo, Israeli authorities went ahead with the expansion. Various encroachments by Israel on the Islamic authority at the site have triggered clashes between clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians. In 1996, Prime Minister Netanyahu opened the Western Wall tunnel, another excavation close to the mosque compound, resulting in clashes in which 75 Palestinians and 15 Israeli soldiers were killed. Knowing its importance and sensitivity to Muslims, Israel has often acted provocatively and added to the anger and frustration of Palestinian Muslims.
Given its importance, it is incumbent upon Muslims worldwide, not only in Palestine to remain observant of Israeli designs regarding the Holy Mosque and use all resources at its disposal to thwart any Israeli attempts to undermine Muslim religious feelings. But it is a sad commentary on the affairs of Muslims worldwide, that despite such historical and religious significance, they have forgotten and almost given up their claims on the Al Aqsa.
Common Muslims take out processions and impress upon the world on the last day of Ramazan by observing it as the Al Quds Day. It was initiated in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to express solidarity with the people of Palestine and oppose Zionism and Israeli occupation, most notably that of Jerusalem. Iran is perhaps the only Muslim country where the Govt sponsors rallies and protests on this day. Given how close the Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia have come to Israel, one cannot expect them to take any lead in making a case for liberation of Al Quds from Israeli occupation. Muslim by and large seem to be proactive in many cases where a Muslim cause is involved, but unfortunately in case of Al Aqsa, despite its religious and historic importance, Muslim leaders and even commoners have largely remained indifferent. If this indifference and insensitivity continues, future generation of Muslims will not even know the tragic history of Al-Aqsa under Israeli occupation.
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