Al-Aqsa Mosque: Decoding controversy of the Holy Place

Al-Aqsa Mosque, or Temple Mount, whatever one calls it. This holy place in Jerusalem holds immense sacred importance for not one, or two but three religions. Yet at the same time, it has an even bigger share of controversies. The importance of this place can be understood by the fact that, just for establishing control over it, several rounds of wars, conflicts and bloodshed took, and a whole new country came into existence. So, let’s understand the whole history, significance and controversy around the Al-Aqsa mosque.

Al-Aqsa mosque is located in Jerusalem. For a better understanding of the controversy, it is very important to take a look at the current structure. First of all, Al-Aqsa mosque is a Muslim name (Aqsa means the farthest). While the whole 35-acre compound is referred to as Haram-al-Sharif. On the other hand, Jews call the place Har haBayīt, a Hebrew word, which means Temple Mount in English. As you can also see in the map below, all the religious structures lie inside the 35-acre compound. While the Al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock are structures with Islamic belief, the Western Wall is a crucial remains of the Jewish structures.

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A Picture depicting the current position of the disputed land (Photo: Israel Forever Foundation)

The Jewish belief

For understanding the chronology clearly, we should keep one thing in mind, out of the three religions here, Judaism happens to be the oldest (3000 years old), followed by Christianity (2000 years) and Islam (1500 years). As I said the Jews call the place Temple Mount. Their belief says that on this very spot, their almighty created that ‘mud’ which led to the creation of Adam, the first man on earth (Adam Eve story if you guys remember).

Another belief is regarding their Prophet Abraham. He had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. One day, the almighty asked for the sacrifice of his son Isaac, and Abraham obediently followed the demand. But, just when he was going to kill him, an angel came there along with a sheep. The belief says that god, looking at Abraham’s devotion saved his son and instead sent the sheep for sacrifice. The Jewish belief says that this religious event took place on the spot of Temple Mount only.

In addition to this, the Jews also present a Hebrew Bible. In it, there is a Book of Genesis, which mentions a covenant that was signed between “God and Abraham”. Citing it, the Jews say that Prophet Abraham used to live in Mesopotamia, but later, at God’s order moved to the Land of Canon in West Asia, and God themselves gave the land to the Jews and asked them to establish their own country there.

Now, cut to the present. The Israel, that we know today, even that is based on the Jewish belief. I gave the reference of Araham’s son Isaac in the story above. Isaac’s son was Jacob, whose other name was ‘Israel‘. Now, this Israel had 12 sons, who were called ‘The 12 Tribes of Israel‘. This very tribe eventually formed the land of Israel, and then subsequently modern Israel as we know it today. in 2023 | Sketchbook art inspiration, Horse drawings, Angel art

A visual depiction of the holy Jewish story (Photo: Pinterest)

History of Temple Mount

If we look at the very history of the present structure. In the holy Jewish place, King Solomon in 1000 BC built a huge temple, which was called ‘The First Temple’. But, after some years, the Babylonians demolished it. Around 500 years later, the Jews were again able to construct a temple at the same place, which was called ‘The Second Temple’. The inner sacred place of the temple was referred to as ‘Holy of Holy’, and only elite Jewish priests were allowed to enter there. The structure remained in existence for around 600 years, before the Romans demolished it again.

However, despite all these demolitions, one ‘wall’ of the temple still remains in existence. It is referred to as The Western Wall and is considered very sacred for the Jews, understandably so, as it’s the only remaining part of their temple. But, there is a small drill. The Jews today, know about the location of the western wall of their Second Temple, but they don’t know where exactly lies the ‘Holy of Holy’ place.

The Islamic Belief

For the Muslims, the whole 35-acre area is termed as Haram-al-Sharif. It is the ‘third holiest’ place in Islam after Mecca and Madina. As per the belief, in 621 AD, the Prophet Mohammad came to Jerusalem from Mecca on a flying horse and then reached heaven. In heaven, Allah told him about the major rules of Islamic tradition, such as offering Namaz five times a day. Now, the Muslims believe that the place where their Prophet landed is the current ‘Al Aqsa mosque’ and the place from where he flew towards heaven is the current ‘Dome of the Rock’. The Prophet Mohammad died in 632 AD. Four years later, the Muslims aiming to establish their holy place, attacked and invaded Jerusalem. They built a huge mosque and named it Al Aqsa Mosque (Aqsa means farthest in the Arab language). The dome at the top of the mosque is called ‘The Dome of the Rock’.

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 A visual depiction of the first Crusade War in Jerusalem (Photo: Catholic Answers)

The Christian Belief

The place of Jerusalem also holds significance for Christians. As per their belief, it is this very place, where Jesus Christ gave his teachings. He was crucified here only, and later he returned again among the people at the same place. The belief even says that Jesus Christ will return once again to the earth, and his returning spot also will be Jerusalem only.

The Era of Crusade Wars

Now, as I said above, Islam came after Christianity. So, once, the rise of Islam started, the Muslims attacked several sacred places belonging to the Christians. The Christians too carried out attacks to regain their control of Jerusalem. This led to a series of religious wars, which are known as the Crusade Wars (1095-1271). The first major crusade war was fought in 1099. Here, the Christians attacked Jerusalem to establish control over their sacred place and also came out victorious. However, after some time in 1187, the Muslims attacked again and this time won back the place. They established the Waqf Board to look into the jurisdiction of the ‘Haram-al-Sharif’ region, and no non-muslim was allowed to enter there. For many many years, this remained the status quo.

The Birth of Israel

Post the 1920s, a movement called Zionism started, which aimed for the Jews to return back to their holy land of Jerusalem. The rest of the work was done by the ‘great’ Adolf Hitler and his bloody holocaust. The Jews from all across Europe now started migrating towards Jerusalem, aiming to establish their own country. Finally, in 1948, Israel comes into existence on the Palestinian land.

(I have talked about the creation of Israel in detail in my earlier blog and you can/should read that).

At this time, Palestine objected to any other country being formed on their holy land. The Jews counter-claimed that this piece of land has “historically” belonged to their ancestors and they were deprived of it for all these years, and now they will reclaim it.

Resolutions and Conflicts

Israel always wanted to make Jerusalem as its capital. But, since the place was also sacred for Muslims, the situation created a dilemma not just for two communities, but also for the whole world. Finally, a Partition Resolution was formed under the UN. It was proposed to divide Palestine into two parts for Muslims and Jews. However, the holy place of Jerusalem was proposed to be kept under international control with the UN itself as the custodian. Now, Israel was ready to accept it, but not the Arab countries. This worsened the situation leading to a series of violent conflicts, the most famous of which is the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations. Israel ended up overpowering five big Arab nations and winning the war and also taking several parts of the Temple Mount under its control.

Here, another set of resolutions was formed. This time, Jordan was made the custodian of the Temple Mount area. Now, the Jews were given permission to enter the area, but only as spectators and they still weren’t allowed to worship or pray. However, this resolution too didn’t go down well with the extremists on both sides. While Muslims were not happy with non-Muslims entering the area (sacred belief) and the Jews were angry by not getting the right to perform holy practice at their sacred place. This led to further series of violent conflicts.

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A map of the Old City of Jerusalem (Photo: The Indian Express)

Tensions and Aftermath

Series of violence and religious attacks between Israel authorities and Palestinian people continued at regular intervals. For instance, in 1982, an Israeli soldier Alan Goodman entered the Temple Mount area and killed two Muslims with a machine gun. Similarly, several Muslims threw stones at the Jews while they were worshipping their holy Western Wall. This further infuriated Israel in exerting more control in the area.

In 2000, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon reached Temple Mount amid heavy security to exert Israeli control in the area. This was followed by a series of riots and violence between the two communities. In 2014, there was a murder attempt on an extremist Israeli by an extremist Palestinian. However, the attempt was foiled and he was killed by the Israeli forces. This aggravated the Muslims, leading to violence, after which Israel banned the entry of Muslims in the area for some time.

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Visual of Al-Aqsa mosque undergoing violent conflict (Photo: The Express Tribune)

A Holy Place with no Takers

Now, although Jerusalem has been kept outside the complete control of both Israel and Palestine. The junction of the two beliefs is so sensitive, that we keep on hearing one violent news after the other from the place. As it is clear, the extremist Muslims just can’t tolerate the Jews praying at the Western and resort to stone pelting and other attacks. The super-extremist Israeli government is no better, as they have frequently launched attacks and manhunts right through the mosque injuring and killing people.

A solution in this story is no Rocket Science. It’s very clear that both sides need to cede their ego and orthodoxy and agree upon a mutually acceptable way. While Israel clearly states that it will only hold discussions with PLO ruling the West Bank, and with Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip, it is clear that even discussions are a distant possibility. Especially, with the most right-wing government ever in teh history ruling Israel, the chances of any respite seem further bleak, as the recently ended month of Ramadan showed. Before concluding, I would like to point out one thing regarding the points of similarity between Judaism and Islam. Their historical belief and the holy place of worship, all tend to be so similar in nature, as if teh fate wanted to keep the two religions together always, if not the same. However, this very factor lead to completely opposite and unwanted results. I guess…that’s what we call Irony.

“It would be my greatest sadness if Zionist (Jews) do to Palestinian Arabs, much of what Nazis did to Jews”: Albert Einstein

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