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The Al-Aqsa Mosque Through the Ages

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock was built at the very summit of the Haram complex, and is thus one of the most impressive and notable buildings of the city. It has an octagonal footprint, from which rises a 20 meter dome that was originally covered in lead sheets. Calligraphy adorned both the inside and outside of the building, with some of the oldest existing Quranic inscriptions being inside the dome of the building.

Given the magnificence of the building, some modern historians have argued that ‘Abd al-Malik intended the building to be a rival to the Ka’bah in Makkah. Had he intended to do so, Muslim scholars of the time would have no doubt expressed outrage and recorded his blasphemous intentions in books written during that time.

However, there exists no contemporary account of him having such an intention, and the earliest mention of this idea was written 200 years later, by someone with a strong anti-Umayyad bias.

After the fall of the Umayyads in 750, Jerusalem came under the control of the ‘Abbasid Dynasty. The new ‘Abbasid caliphs had their capital in the Iraqi city of Baghdad, and did not put as much emphasis on Jerusalem as the Umayyads had. As such, the Haram did not receive the attention and money it had during the Umayyad period.

Nevertheless, despite the neglect it received from the caliphs, Jerusalem continued to be an important place of pilgrimage, and the al-Aqsa Mosque itself remained as the center of Islamic life in the city from the 600s through the 900s, despite many earthquakes during this period, which required numerous renovations.

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Decline Under the Fatimids

Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif began a tumultuous few centuries in the late 900s. The Fatimid Empire, which was based in Egypt, took control of Jerusalem in 970, after defeating ‘Abbasid troops in nearby Ramla.

The Fatimids belonged to the Ismaili sect of Shi’ism, which many Islamic scholars historically have classified as outside of the fold of Islam itself. Periods of Fatimid rule had catastrophic repercussions for the al-Aqsa Mosque.

The interior of the Aqsa Mosque. The area near the mihrab (distant) dates to the Umayyad construction, while the pillars date to the Fatimid period.

The interior of the Aqsa Mosque. The area near the mihrab (distant) dates to the Umayyad construction, while the pillars date to the Fatimid period.

Since the beginning of Muslim rule over Jerusalem, the mosque and the Haram in general had been centers of Islamic knowledge. Scholars regularly established schools in the mosque to educate students from the basics of Arabic grammar to advanced topics in Islamic law and theology. During the Fatimid period, these educational endeavors were curtailed by the Fatimid governors and replaced with official Shi’a establishments.

The geographer al-Muqaddasi wrote in 985 that in Jerusalem, “jurists remain unvisited, pious men have no renown, and the schools are unattended for there are no lectures.”1He goes on to lament the lack of Islamic education in the city that had been frequented by scholars such as al-Shafi’i in the past.

The worst period of Fatimid rule ended up being the reign of al-Hakim, which began in 996. He went far beyond previous Fatimid rulers in his oppression of orthodox Islam. He declared himself divine, demanding that his name replace the name of God in Friday sermons, outlawed the Muslim fast of Ramadan, and prevented Muslims from going to Makkah for pilgrimage.

By the end of his rule in 1021, the city of Jerusalem had all but lost its status as a center of Islamic scholarship. Beyond that, he also oppressed Christians and Jews in Jerusalem, and destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in direct conflict with Islamic law and the promises of ‘Umar in 637.

After the disastrous reign of al-Hakim came some more moderate Fatimid leaders, who were more accommodating the mosque itself and its Islamic history. In the 1030s, after a disastrous earthquake, the al-Aqsa Mosque was renovated by the Fatimids.

The resulting structure had a central nave and 7 grand arches on its facade that supported the massive roof. This was down from the massive 14 arches that were originally built by the Umayyads. Today’s mosque is more or less unchanged from the Fatimid construction.

In 1073, Jerusalem was conquered by the Seljuk Turks, who were recent converts to mainstream Sunni Islam from Central Asia. From an Islamic perspective, al-Aqsa was now back in the capable hands of a powerful Sunni state, which brought back Islamic scholarship to the city. Schools were established in the Haram area teaching the Shafi’i and Hanafi schools of Islamic law, and intellectual life in the city began to flourish again.

Scholars began to emigrate to the city to learn as well as to teach from across the Muslim world. Notably, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali moved to the city in 1095. He lived in the Haram along the eastern wall of the city, and spent the next few years in prayer and seclusion in the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. During this time, he wrote the incredibly influential The Revival of the Religious Sciences, which revolutionized the way Muslims approached topics such as spirituality, philosophy, and Sufism.

The revival of intellectual Muslim life around the al-Aqsa Mosque would not last, however.

The Haram’s Islamic nature itself would soon be erased in 1099 with the coming of the Crusaders, as we will see in Part 2 of this article.


Republished with a kind permission from lost islamic 

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