If you have a Muslim co-worker, friend, or neighbor, you might have caught them one time or another slipping away to complete one of their five daily prayers. Because Muslims are required to pray in the direction of the Kaaba, or Holy Mosque, in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, you might find them awkwardly facing the wall or crunched behind their desk in an effort to follow the practice of the Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) in praying toward the most revered mosque in Islam.
But before Muslims, or even the Prophet Muhammad himself, ever began praying toward Mecca, they prayed in the direction of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. This place of worship is described in the Quran as blessed precincts, making it the third holiest site for Muslims (after the mosques in Mecca and Medina). Its status dates back to the times of many great prophets such as Abraham, Solomon, Moses, and Jesus. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad once traveled on a winged-creature to Jerusalem overnight. It was there that he was greeted by all the prophets to have ever walked this earth and it was there that he led them all in prayer. Hence, this mosque, built upon the Mount of Solomon, is especially important to all Muslims for its significant historical tradition that commemorated all prophets and Abrahamic religions.
Later during the life of Muhammad, the direction of prayer was changed to Mecca because God sensed His Prophet’s love for the sanctuary in his birthplace. So why, one might ask, was the direction not toward the Kaaba from the very beginning? For one, the original direction was a symbolic representation of the shared beliefs and heritage of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Muhammad regarded all preceding prophets as his brothers and it was through Jerusalem he could honor their legacies. The direction of prayer changed later in order for Islam to uniquely contribute to that prophetic heritage, but for the rest of history, Jerusalem and its sanctuaries would continue to be revered by Muslims for the value they had for all of God’s messengers.
Muhammad inspired his followers to share in his love for both Jerusalem and Masjid al-Aqsa through numerous sayings: completing one prayer in the mosque is worth five hundred prayers in merit; if you were to travel anywhere in the world, let the mosque in Jerusalem be a priority; if your intention is pure in visiting the mosque, all of yours sins are forgiven; and so on and so forth. But perhaps the most resounding narration of the Prophet is one that states: if you are not able to visit Masjid al-Aqsa, then at the very least, send oil to light its lamps. In other words, do all that you possibly can to support the mosque and its congregants, no matter where you are in the world.
A few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Umar bin al-Khattab eventually became the Caliph. It was during his time that Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. Umar ultimately made his way to the holy land in order to officiate the transfer of power. When he arrived, the patriarch invited him to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Umar refused because he feared that if he prayed in the church, Muslims would eventually want to honor him by converting the church into a mosque. Out of respect for the Christian sanctuary, Umar prayed nearby instead. And, just as he predicted, later Muslims eventually built a mosque named after him that stands to this day in the area he chose to pray in.
It was also during this visit that Umar contracted a covenant with the people of Jerusalem, promising their physical well-being, and the safety of their property, churches, and the community at large; none would be harmed or forced to leave their religion, and just as importantly, sanctified places and items would not be desecrated. These values were upheld throughout much of historical Muslim rule of Jerusalem from as early as the reconquest of Salah al-Din to Ottoman administration over the land for close to five hundred years.
Salah al-Din, for example, despite the years of bloodshed throughout the Crusades that preceded his reconquest of Jerusalem, mercifully spared thousands of civilians and left almost all religious sanctuaries undamaged. Similarly, under the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, the Western Wall was greatly expanded and refined, eventually becoming a place of devotion for many Jews in Jerusalem. Tribunal records during the Ottoman era also demonstrate Jewish participation in Islamic courts as plaintiffs and witnesses, as well as serving in administrative positions.
Muslims throughout history have honored the Prophet’s genuine love for Jerusalem and all it symbolizes. It was a tradition of love and veneration, from the sanctuaries it guarded to the experiences of countless prophets who journeyed to its holy sites. We Muslims believe that Jerusalem is not only sacred because it is revered by all religions, but because we have actively sought to protect its status as a symbol of brotherhood between messengers and nations. Above all else, we love Jerusalem because our Prophet Muhammad cherished it for the divine heritage it carries through the often-untold stories of some of the greatest prophets.