Growing up as a child, I can remember my mother telling me the amazing story of the ‘Al-Isra wal Miraj’ – the story of the night journey that the Prophet Muhammad PBUH was taken on. The two parts of the journey referred to the journey from Mecca to what is described in the Quran as the farthest mosque of Al Aqsa, where he led past Prophets in prayer; from here, he was taken on the winged beast al Buraq to the highest heavens, where he was greeted by past Prophets and received instructions from God to be relayed to his people. I’m not going to go into a theological conversation here as to whether this was a physical or spiritual journey – that’s a different conversation. But from a very early age Jerusalem and the Masjid al Aqsa has always been seen as an important part of my faith. When I went on the Hajj in 2008, one of the mosques that I visited during my 2 week stay was the Masjid al-Qiblatain – the mosque of two qiblas. It was in this mosque that as the congregation prayed, the Prophet was instructed to change direction from Jerusalem to Mecca. Until recent renovations, the mosque maintained both prayer niches.
I’m telling you this as way of an introduction to how I feel about Jerusalem and Al Aqsa. The image of the Golden Dome, built over the rock from where the Prophet is believed to have been taken up to heaven brings out very strong emotions in Muslims. I cannot describe how I felt to be standing on the ground, on the rock which has such religious and historical significance. The peaceful surrounds, the greenery, everything about the land is holy. And I believe this has to do with not just its significance for Muslims but Jews and Christians too. I write this with some caution now, but I say it with hand on my heart. When I went on the Hajj, I spent 2 weeks in the land of the Prophet, his holy sanctuary and his beloved Medina. But everywhere I looked I saw concrete blocks, high rise skyscrapers, hotels, shopping mall and western style fast food takeaways. The hajj was a religious obligation which I had an obligation to perform and pray it was accepted. However I got a deeper sense of God, of spirituality from being at Al Aqsa and Jerusalem. And I believe that has to do with the three Abrahamic faiths having such important links to this part of the world. God is in Jerusalem – He is at Al Aqsa, at the Western Wall, at the Holy Sepulchre. If we, as Muslims, Christians and Jews cannot stand and pray together in Jerusalem there is no hope for that happening anywhere else in the world. Our faiths are being tested in Jerusalem and I’m sad to say in my opinion we are failing abysmally. Whilst I was at Al Aqsa, non- Muslims were able to come into the grounds between 7.30-10.00am. However, they were not allowed to wear any overtly religious symbols nor were they allowed to pray. Something I failed to understand. Jews praying on Temple Mount would in no way be offensive to me – nothing would be more beautiful than to see Muslims Jews and Christians sharing this space and worshipping together. But of paramount importance in this would be that it would have to be explicit that no harm would come to Muslim prayer rights on the Mount, or to the Islamic holy spaces there.