The Qur'an is replete with historical errors, an interesting fact given that Muslims believe it to be the very word of God who should know his history. One such error concerns the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Temple Mount is the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. The religious claim to the Temple Mount is based on an historical error in the Qur'an.

Sura 17:1 says, "Glorified be He who took His servant for a journey by night from Al-Masjid Al-Haram to Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, the neighborhood whereof We have blessed, in order that We might show of him our Ayat. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer."

This verse has its origin in an event which took place around 620 AD, near the end of Muhammad's time in Mecca. As the story is told, one night Muhammad is mounted on a human/mule hybrid creature with wings called Buraq and taken to the Al-Aqsa mosque on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. From there he ascends into heaven and passes through seven levels of heaven. At the seventh level he communicates with Allah who tells him Muslims are obligated to pray five times a day. Muhammad then descends back to the Temple Mount and returns to Mecca on the back of Buraq, all in the span of one night.

But here's the problem: The Al-Aqsa mosque was not built for decades later, long after the death of Muhammad! How could Muhammad have visited a place that did not exist?

 

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

The background behind this verse (known as "The Occasion of Revelation") is well documented in several sources. Though the following seem dry and uninteresting, they are needed to clearly establish, via Islamic sources, that Islam indeed teaches that Muhammad visited the Al Aqsa mosque in 620AD.

BIOGRAPHERS WHO WRITE ABOUT MUHAMMAD'S JOURNEY

Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Yasar (aka Ibn Ishaq - son of Isaac) wrote the earliest biography of Muhammad known to exist, around 760AD. Regarding this particular incident, Ibn Ishaq records the oral tradition passed to him from several diverse sources. He relates that no fewer than seven different and distinct sources from which this story is told:

  • Abdullah bin Mas'ud
  • Abu Sa'id al-Khudri
  • Aisha, Muhammad's youngest wife
  • Mu'awiya bin Abu Sufyan
  • al-Hasan al-Basri
  • Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri
  • Umm Hani d. Abu Talib

Clearly, all the narrators of this event say Muhammad went to Jerusalem. Here is a sample from Ibn Ishaq's biography.

"According to what I have heard Abdullah bin Mas'ud used to say: Buraq, the animal whose every stride carried it as far as its eye could reach on which the prophets before him used to ride was brought to the apostle and he was mounted on it. His companion (Gabriel) went with him to see the wonders between heaven and earth, until he came to Jerusalem's temple." (Underline mine)

"In his story Al-Hasan said: 'The apostle and Gabriel went their way until they arrived at the temple at Jerusalem. ...Then the apostle returned to Mecca and in the morning he told the Quraysh what had happened. Most of them said "By God, this is  a plain absurdity! A caravan takes a month to go to Syria and a month to return and can Muhammad do the return journey in one night?" Many Muslims gave up their faith; some went to Abu Bakr and said, "What do you think of your friend now, Abu Bakr? He alleges that he went to Jerusalem last night and prayed there and came back to Mecca."

The 14th century historian and Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir quotes Abu Bakr as saying, when questioned about Muhammad's journey, "I give him credence in communication from heaven, early in the day or in the evening, so how should I not believe him regarding Jerusalem?"

Furthermore, in addition to the traditions mentioned above from Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Kathir's biography includes additional traditions not mentioned by Ibn Ishaq. 

"Also, Al-Hakim related, from al-Asamm, from Ahmad b. Abd al-Jabbar, from Yunus b. Bukayr, from Asbat b. Nasr, from Isma'il al-Suddi, who said, "The five daily prayers were enjoined upon the Messenger of God (SAAS) at Jerusalem the night of his journey there, 16 months prior to his emmigration."

Some had doubts Muhammad actually made this journey, as can be seen from Al-Hasan's narration above. Ibn Kathir addresses these doubts in a test put to Muhammad by Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad's earliest converts to Islam:

"In his account al-Hasan recounts that Abu Bakr asked him to describe Jerusalem, and that the Messenger of God (SAAS) did so."

Modern biographers also attest to the fact of this event. Martin Lings, a British convert to Islam who wrote a biography of Muhammad published in 1983, says the following:

"The prophet then told how he mounted Buraq, for so the beast was named; and with the Archangel at his side, pointing the way and measuring his pace to that of the heavenly steed, they sped northward beyond Yathrib and beyond Khaybar, until they reached Jerusalem. Then they were met by a company of Prophets -- Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others -- and when he prayed on the site of the Temple, they gathered together behind him in prayer."

Thus, Muhammad led communal prayers in Jerusalem at 'the Temple' which must be a reference to a mosque, the only place communal prayers take place.

Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri, another modern biographer, wrote his book "When the Moon Split: A Biography of Prophet Muhammad" which was published in 2002. He says of this event:

"Perhaps two of the most significant and remarkable events in the Prophet's life were his 'Israa" (Night Journey) and 'Mi'raaj' (Ascension). Israa refers to how one night Allah took Muhammad from the Ka'bah to Bait Al-Maqqdis (the "Sacred Mosque of Worship," i.e., Solomon's Temple) in Jerusalem, and 'Mi'raaj' refers to the Prophet's actual ascension to heaven from Jerusalem." (Parentheses in original)

That Islam and the Quran teaches that Muhammad actually visited Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque is well established in Islamic historical sources. But scholars of the Qur'an and hadith (traditions attributed to Muhammad) also agree as to the historical fact of this journey.

COMMENTARIES OF THE QUR'AN ON MUHAMMAD'S JOURNEY

Ibn Kathir wrote an extensive commentary (tafsir) on the Qur'an. In his exegesis of Sura 17:1 he says:

"to Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa means the Sacred House which is in Jerusalem, the origin of the Prophets from the time of Ibrihim Al-Khalil. The Prophets all gathered there, and he (Muhammad) led them in prayer in their own homeland. This indicates that he is the greatest leader of all, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and upon them." (Parenthesis in original)

Abdullah Yusuf Ali, author of the most popular English translation of the Quran, has the following footnote regarding this verse:

"The Farthest Mosque must refer to the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem on the hill of Moriah, at or near which stands the Dome of the Rock. This and the mosque known as the Farthest Mosque (al Masjid al Aqsa) were completed by by the Amir Abd al Malik in A.H. 68."

In "The Message of the Qur'an" published in 2003 by Muhammad Asad we find the following comment to the first verse of Sura 17:

"The above short reference to the Prophet's mystic experience of the "Night Journey" (al-isra) to Jerusalem and the subsequent "Ascension" (mi'raj) to heaven is fully discussed in Appendix IV at the end of this work. ... "The Remote [lit., 'farthest'] House of Worship", on the other hand, denotes the ancient Temple of Solomon - or rather, its site - which symbolizes here the long line of Hebrew prophets who preceded the advent of Muhammad and are alluded to by the phrase "the environs of which We had blessed". The juxtaposition of these two sacred temples is meant to show that the Qur'an does not inaugurate a 'new' religion but represents a continuation and the ultimate development of the same divine message which was preached by the prophets of old"

In other words, Asad says there is religious significance in that Muhammad worshipped at the Temple Mount because it ties Islam, which Muslims believe to be a continuation of true monotheistic Judaism, back to the original Jewish temple.

Sayyid Qutb, a leader in the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood wrote "In the Shade of The Quran," a commentary on the Quran from an Egyptian prison in the 1950s. In it he comments on this verse:

"The story of the night journey by the Prophet from the Sacred Mosque in Makkah to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and then his ascension from there to the highest heaven and the world of which we know nothing, is mentioned in several reports. It has been the subject of of much controversy, which continues even today."

Qutb goes on to describe the controversies, none of which question that Muhammad actually visited the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Most of the controversies surround where the journey originated from in Mecca. That Muhammad actually visited Al Aqsa in Jerusalem in unquestioned.

AN EMBARRASING PIECE OF HISTORY

What are we to make of all this? The Quran says in verse 17:1 that Muhammad went to Jerusalem and specifically the Al Aqsa mosque during his lifetime. Muhammad died in 632 AD. Authoritative Islamic scholars, both ancient and modern, all agree Muhammad made a visit in one night to the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, during an even historically set around the year 620AD, 16 months prior to his emigration to Medina in 622AD.

Yet we know historically that the Al Aqsa mosque did not exist during the lifetime of Muhammad. Abd Al Malik built the Dome of the Rock in 691AD and completed the adjacent Al Aqsa mosque in 712AD. How then could Muhammad have visited a place which was not to exist for another 72 years in the future? And how could the author of the Qur'an, the all intelligent Allah, have made such a blatant and bone headed historical error?

RESOLVING THE EMBARASSMENT?

Muslim apologists are quick to point out a historical reference to Muslims in Jerusalem as early as 670AD, decades prior to the construction of Al-Aqsa. In an article on the website of Islamic Awareness, the author notes:

In 49-50 AH / 670 CE, Bishop Arculfus, a Christian visitor in Jerusalem, reported:
 
On the famous place where once stood the temple, the Saracens worship at a square house of prayer, which they have built with little art, of boards and large beams on the remains of some ruins..
 
 
The article goes to great lengths to make the point that the term 'masjid' simply means a place of prostration, or place of prayer, and not necessarily a physical building.
 
But this still does not resolve the problem. No doubt there were Muslims in Jerusalem in 670AD gathering for prayer, and they could have been doing so on the Temple Mount. Muslims became part of the religious landscape of Jerusalem when the area was invaded and conquered by Caliph Uthman in 637AD. But prior to 637, there were no Muslims in the city. The article on Islamic Awareness even admits this, stating the area was predominately Christian. So which Muslims were prostrating at the Masjid Al-Aqsa in 620 when Muhammad made his journey there?
 
At least one Islamic scholar has recognized this problem and has attempted to rescue Allah's reputation and that of all previous scholarship.

Dr. Shabbir Ahmed wrote his version of the Qur'an, "The Quran as it Explains Itself." In the preface to Sura 17, Ahmed makes the comment:

"ASRA (Night Journey) is often mixed up with MI'RAJ (ascension). Since Allah is Omnipresent, the notion of going to meet with Him over the skies does not stand up to reason. 'ASRA' signifies the night journey and it refers to the beginning of the exalted Messenger's emigration from Makkah to Madinah by night. Verses 20:77 and 26:52 use the same term for migration of Prophet Moses along with his followers across the sea. Also consider 17:2. Masjid Al Aqsa means, the Remote Mosque and refers to the 'Remote Mosque' in Madinah, the place where Muslims used to establish congregational prayers before the Prophet's arrival at the city."

"The famous Masjid Al Aqsa, (the so-called Qiblah Awwal, or the supposed First Holy Sanctuary, also known as Haram Sharif) in Jerusalem was, in fact, built in 72AH (691 C.E.) by the Umayyad Ruler, Abdul Malik bin Marwan, about 60 years after the exalted Messenger passed on."

"Jerusalem, until the Muslim conquest under the second Caliph of Islam in 637 C.E., had been under the control of the Byzantine Christians for centuries, and there was no person worshipping in a Masjid anywhere in the world except Madinah. Hence, the question of a presence of a Masjid in Jerusalem during the life times [sic] of the exalted Prophet should not arise." 

Indeed, how could Muslims have conducted prayers, and how could Muhammad have led a communal prayer in Jerusalem when the mosque did not exist, nor were there even any Muslims in Jerusalem at that time?

Unfortunately for Shabbir Ahmed, his is a lone voice kicking against centuries of solid Islamic scholarship. He has been dismissed as irrelevant; Wikipedia recently removed an article about his translation of the Quran with the comment, "Article has been marked as lacking notability for almost 2 years. I can't find any reliable sources that discuss it. Seems to be just one random translation of the Quran, with no particular notability."

Indeed.

But it gets even worse. If we accept the Muslim argument that the masjid simply indicated a place of prayer and prostration, and even if we accept the fact there were Muslims in Jerusalem in 620, that still leaves a glaring problem. Muslims were NOT ORDERED to pray UNTIL this event occured. It is during this night journey that Muhammad receives instructions from Allah to pray five times daily. So again, which Muslims were praying on the Temple Mount PRIOR to Muhammad's night journey where he supposedly visited the Temple Mount and received the command to pray regularly to Allah?

Thus, Islamic claims of religious significance to the Temple Mount are invalid and illegitimate. They are based on an event that NEVER could have happened.

Side note: Muslims likely will point to the definition of masjid givven in the article on Islamic Awareness, where it is defined simply as a place of prostration. They will equivocate on this term and suggest that the Jews used to prostrate on the Temple Mount; thus the Qur'an is still correct because the site is designated a place of prostration. Yet every time the word masjid is used, it always refers to a place of Islamic worship, where Muslims gather to pray. To validate this, just ask any Muslim today if a Jew would be allowed into the local masjid to prostrate and pray.

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