Jerusalem: In the Prayers of Islam

By Dajani-Shakeel, Hadia | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Jerusalem: In the Prayers of Islam


Dajani-Shakeel, Hadia, Queen's Quarterly


HADIA DAJANI-SHAKEEL teaches Medieval history and Arabic literature in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilization at the University of Toronto.

In AD 1099, the Islamic world was rocked as Jerusalem fell to the Christian armies of the First Crusade. For Muslims, this could only be interpreted as a divine rebuke, resulting from their own failure to fulfil the obligations of the faith. Until this time, Islam had enjoyed centuries of spectacular success, spreading quickly, winning converts, and nurturing great centres of wealth and knowledge. Flushed with such achievement, Muslims seemed destined to lead humanity in all matters of the arts, science and, most important, faith. The shock of Jerusalem's loss cannot be overstated.

JERUSALEM found its place in Islamic piety in the early years of the faith, some time around AD 619. The Prophet Muhammad was taken up on what has become known to Muslims as al-Isra' ("the nocturnal journey") and al-Mi'raj ("the ascension to Heaven"). This experience is celebrated in the verse of the Qur'an:

Glory to God who did take His servant for a journey by night from the al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One who hears and sees. (Qur'an: XV 11,1).

One night, during the month of Rajab, the Prophet was carried away, to al-Masjid al-Aqsa ("the furthest place of worship"), later identified as Jerusalem, where he paused at a rock for prayer, then was taken to Heaven (al-Mi'raj), where he encountered all the earlier prophets of monotheism, and reached the highest place in Paradise. It is here, at Sidrat al-Muntaha ("the Lote tree of Heaven"), that he found himself in the presence of God. Finally, at the conclusion of his heavenly journey, he was carried back to Jerusalem, then to Mecca.

Muslim scholars' interpretation of the nature of the nocturnal journey has been diverse. Some have insisted that this was a journey that actually involved both body and soul, while others assert that it was a purely spiritual experience; a third group takes the view that the journey from Mecca to Jerusalem was a physical one, while the ascension from Jerusalem to Heaven was spiritual.

Since al-Masjid al-Aqsa of the Qur'an was identified by the Prophet Muhammad and accepted by the majority of Muslims as geographic Jerusalem, the city earned a special place in Islamic piety and became identified as al-Quds ("the Sacred One"), and as Bayt al-Maqdis ("the House of Holiness"). But parallel to the geographic Jerusalem is the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place where the Mi'raj took place.

The nocturnal journey introduced Jerusalem into Islamic history and faith, and linked it with certain Islamic acts of worship. The Prophet explained that it was during the Mi'raj, in Heavenly Jerusalem, that the Islamic obligation of five prayers a day was instituted, and for this reason he instructed Muslims to pray in the direction of Jerusalem and so established Jerusalem in Islamic piety as the first Qibla (direction of prayer) in Islam.

The early Muslims prayed in the direction of Jerusalem for several years before they were instructed by the Prophet to pray in the direction of the Ka'ba in Mecca (in AD 623). The shift was the result of several factors, the main one being the dispute between the Prophet and the Jews of Medina over Jerusalem as a Muslim Qibla and the establishment of his authority in Medina, where they were very influential. The issue of Qibla was solved within a year, through a revelation stating that, "To God belongs the East and the West. He guides unto His straight path whomsoever He wills." Soon after this revelation, Muslims turned their faces toward Mecca during prayer. A practice that has continued to this day.

Since the number of daily prayers was instituted in Heavenly Jerusalem, several of the Prophet's quotations emphasizing the merits of prayer in Jerusalem circulated among Muslims, and were later compiled and recorded. …

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