The “Holy Quran” of Islam, states that the Prophet Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem where he was ascended up into heavens then returned back at the Night of ‘Israa’ and Mi’raj’. The place in Jerusalem where, according to the Muslim’s tradition, the Prophet prayed on the night of Israa’, has become a spiritual center of Islam. Some devoted Muslims commemorate what they consider the Prophet miraculous voyage, on the twenty-seventh night of the lunar month of Rajab in the Islamic calendar as the night of “Israa’ and Mi’raj”.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam after the venerated shrine of Al-Ka’ba in Mecca and al-Masjed al-Nabawi in Medina. Mecca and Madina are cities in western Arabian Peninsula. Mecca was the birthplace of the Prophet, and Madina was where the Prophet was forced to migrate and establish the first Islamic state. But Al-Aqsa Mosque was the first “spiritual symbol” that Muslims faced in their five daily prayers during the early years of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad and his followers prayed towards Al-Aqsa Mosque for more than ten years before the Prophet was “commanded by Alla (God)” to pray toward Al-Ka’ba.
During the rule of Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab, Muslim armies conquered Persia and large parts of the Eastern Roman Empire including Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. One of the first things Caliph Omar did after the surrender of Jerusalem to his generals was building Al-Aqsa Mosque in 635 for the Muslims to pray on the area where legends claim the Prophet stopped and prayed on the night of Israa’. The Mosque was destroyed by earthquakes, rebuilt and expanded many times by ruling Islamic dynasties since then.
In 691, under the Umayyad Caliph Abdel-Malik Ibn-Marwan, Muslim architects were recruited to expand Al-Aqsa Mosque, design and build the Dome of the Rock Mosque next to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The work was treated by historians as the first distinctive Islamic architectural art that adopted and improved features from different countries in the Muslim Empire. The Dome of the Rock building was a square-shaped structure with vaulted ceiling and capped with a circular dome, and the interior was lavishly decorated with colored mosaics. The construction was completed in 705 under Caliph Al-Walid Ibn- Abdel-Malik. During the Abbasid caliphs, the Mosque and the Dome were rebuilt after strong earthquakes damaged the structures.
The history of Palestine including Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque has been tied to the history and power of the Muslims and Arabs. Whenever Muslims and Arabs are in decline, they lose control of Palestine.
In 1095, the Catholic Pope Urban invited all Christians to join in a war to take control of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem from “the wicked infidel Saracens.” This call inaugurated the first of what would be a series of military crusades. ‘Saracens’ was the name used by the Crusaders for ‘Arabs’. Pope Urban alleged that the Muslims were interfering with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thousands of European volunteers, rich and poor, mighty and humble, left their homes and fields in response to the papal call. Between 1095 and 1270, European Crusaders military campaigns led by the ablest European generals, financed by Europe’s royalties and sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church invaded Palestine and its surroundings. In June of 1099, an army of fifteen thousand Crusaders reached the walls of Jerusalem. The one thousand Fatimid troops guarding the City could not stop the invaders from breaking through the walls. Different historian accounts attest to the bloodbath that followed as thousands of noncombatant Muslims, Jews and native Christians were beheaded, shot with arrows, thrown from towers, or burned at the stake. Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were stripped of gold and silver candelabra. The Crusaders killed many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants especially the Muslims and Jews, used Al-Aqsa Mosque as a palace, defiled or destroyed other mosques and synagogues. Once the Crusaders colonized the land, they created the Kingdom of Jerusalem, an entity that was exclusively for fanatic European Christians hostile to the indigenous population, an alien body planted in the region that would eventually vanish.
The first turning point against the Crusaders was in 1144 when Salah al-Din, a Kurdish General in Egypt fended off a Crusader invasion of Egypt. He was awarded the position of Fatimid vizier, and the Muslims were back on the offensive against the Crusaders. When the Fatimid Caliph died in 1171, Salah al-Din, known to the West as ‘Saladin’ proclaimed himself Sultan of Egypt.
In 1187, the Kurdish General and ruler of Egypt, Saladin, declared war against the Crusaders’ kingdom and defeated their armies in a bloody battle near the Galilee. His battle cry was “Liberate Jerusalem!”. Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin, Al-Aqsa’s function as a mosque was restored after its recapture, and the Crusaders were expelled from the Holy Land. Christian cities of Syria opened their gates to Saladin and fought in his army against the Crusaders. Saladin restored religious freedom and allowed the Jewish community to return to their homes.
But why the Arabs did not put up stiff resistance to the Crusaders’ invasion and waited so long before driving them out?
Like the Arabs today, the Arabs of the eleventh century were divided into many states quarrelling with each other. The Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad were shamelessly helpless after losing control of their Empire. It was divided between the Turko-Persian Seljuqs (Sunni Muslims) in the north and the Fatimid Shi’a Muslims in Egypt and Southern Palestine. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shia’s cared to fight the Crusaders when they had been taking lands from the other. Some Muslim rulers even formed alliances with the Crusaders against their own co-religionists. The Egyptian Fatimids established close ties with the Crusaders because in lucrative trades between Alexandria and the Crusader’s ports on the Mediterranean.
Centuries later, Theodore Herzl tried to exploit the weakness of the Ottoman Empire. He was granted an audience with Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey in 1901 and proposed on behalf of the World Zionist Organization to establish a land colonizing company in Palestine in exchange for large amount of money. Despite the generous offer and Turkey’s need for funds to shore up its bankrupt treasury, Abdul Hamid turned down the proposal and offered protection for the refugee Jews who wish to live in different parts of the Ottoman Empire with the exception of Palestine. His stated reason was that “Palestine, home of Al-Aqsa Mosque, was the World-wide Muslim community Property, not his to sell.”
Even when the Ottomans State “the Sick man of Europe” was practically on life support, it did far better in defending Palestine than the Arab and Muslim states today! Israeli settlers today are imposing their wishes on the Palestinians and the Arab neighbors by force, and may even succeed in defining Palestine as the nation-state of the Jewish people while the Arab and Muslim leaders are just helpless spectators.