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Al Aqsa (Arabic المسجد الاقصى, ) is "The furthest mosque" or "furthest place of worship," mentioned in the Quran as masjid al-Aqsa, the destination of Muhammad in his magical night journey (al Isra), in which, according to Muslim tradition, the angel Gabriel took him on the horse Al-Buraq from Mecca to the furthest mosque and thence to heaven and hell. However, there is some dispute as to whether the "masjid al-Aqsa" of the Qur'an refers to the mosque in Jerusalem, as no mosque or Muslim holy place existed there in the time of Muhammad, and many Muslim scholars assumed that the masjid al-Aqsa was a place inside Arabia.

Actually, the entire area of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount is considered to be the Al-Aqsa mosque. It is located in East Jerusalem, which is called Al-Quds, "the holy" in Arabic.

The mosque itself can supposedly  accommodate about 5,000  worshippers. The congregation building of Al-Aqsa Mosque is called Jami al-Masjid al-Aqsa or al-Masjid al-Qibli. Qibla is the direction of prayer. Originally, Muslims prayed toward Jerusalem, rather than Mecca. Therefore, Jerusalem was the first Qibla. 

The mosque was apparently built on or near the site of a church erected by the Emperor Justinian about 530 CE. The current structure of the al-Aqsa mosque reflects several reconstructions. It was begun by  'Abd al-Malik (685-705), at the end of the 7th century, and apparently completed by his son, al-Walid (709-715). Al Walid was the first to call it the "al-Aqsa mosque. The mosque was damaged by several earthquakes. It was renovated and reconstructed during the Abbasid period by Caliph al-Mahdi (775-785) and others.

It was again renovated or rebuilt during the Fatimid period, in the 11th century, by   the Caliph Al-Dhahir in 1033 AD. Al-Dhahir  had supposedly followed the previous architecture but narrowed the mosque. Subsequent renovations followed the same plan.

The Al-Aqsa mosque was renovated again in the 14th century.  However, as Jerusalem fell out of favor in Islam and was neglected, the Haram as Sharif compound and the mosques were neglected during most of the subsequent Muslim rule of Jerusalem.

In the 20th century, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husseini, understood the importance of Jerusalem to the Palestinian national cause, and enlisted the help of other Muslim leaders in beautifying and rebuilding the Al-Aqsa mosque and the nearby Dome of the Rock, also part of the Haram as Sharif.

From 1948 to 1967, East Jerusalem was held by Jordan. The Hashemite dynasty of Jordan was appointed custodians of the Haram as Sharif, the noble sanctuary of the Temple Mount. During that period, Jews were not allowed to worship at the Western Wall, considered holy to Judaism.  The Al-Aqsa mosque came under Israeli sovereignty when Jerusalem was captured by Israel in 1967. The government of Israel has given the Muslim religious trust, the Waqf, full rights to administer the site. The Waqf excavated beneath the Al Aqsa mosque to create a second very large mosque, in the process destroying a great deal of valuable archeological material, which dated from the period of the Jewish second temple and before. 

The mosque and the Temple Mount-Haram as-Sharif area have been the focus of violence and controversy. The followers of the extremist Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al Husseini, spread the rumor that the Jews were about to destroy the mosque, igniting riots in 1929. Arab pressure forced the British Mandate authorities to limit Jewish worship rights at the Western Wall. A Jewish extremist group, the faithful of the Temple Mount, wants to tear down the mosque and build a Jewish temple in its place. Israeli authorities foiled a plan by an Israeli terrorist group to destroy the mosque. 

On August 21, 1969 Michael Dennis Rohan, a deranged  Australian tourist of the Protestant faith, started a fire in the Masjid al-Aqsa. The fire gutted the southeastern wing of the mosque, destroying a priceless one-thousand-year-old wood and ivory minbar (pulpit) that was a gift of Saladin. A second minbar made at the same time is in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Rohan  was arrested by Israeli authorities two days later. Rohan was a Protestant follower of an evangelical sect known as the Church of God. He claimed that by setting fire to al-Aqsa, he hoped to hasten the coming of the Messiah. He testified in court that he acted as "the Lord's emissary" on divine instructions, and that he had tried to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque in order to rebuild the Jewish Temple. He was institutionalized in a home for the mentally ill, found to be insane and subsequently was deported from Israel. Arab sources frequently claim that Rohan is Jewish.

In September of 2000, Ariel Sharon, then an Israeli opposition politician, visited the Temple Mount. He did not enter the mosque. The visit was an attempt either to assert the right of Jews to visit the site, or to demonstrate that the government of Ehud Barak was incapable of asserting Jewish rights there. Riots broke out. Marwan Barghouthi, a Palestinian leader, later wrote that he saw an opportunity to kindle an uprising against Israel, and deliberately urged his followers to incite and amplify the violence.

Synonyms and alternate spellings: 

Further Information: See Al-Quds

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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