Masjid Al-Aqsa (Bait Al Maqdis) or the Farthest Mosque is the third Holiest Masjid in Islam. First one is Masjid Al Haram (the Sacred Mosque) in Makkah City and the second one is Masjid Al Nabawi (the Prophet’s Mosque) in Madinah City, in Saudi Arabia.
It is the First Qiblah of Muslims (Qiblah is the direction in which muslims all over the world must have to face to while praying to the Only One God of all – Almighty Allah). Masjid Al Aqsa was the Qiblah in the early part of Final Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) Islamic Mission until that position was accorded to the Holy Kaaba (built by Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) 4,000 years before) by Almighty God Allah by a Divine Command (which is in the Holy Quran) in the second year of the migration of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) from Makkah to Madina in 623/624 AD.
It is also associated with the Mairaj (Celestial Ascension) of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He led the congregational prayer of all the Prophets (peace be upon them all) who had gathered by the Leave of Allah in the Bait Al Maqdis Mosque (in Jerusalem) which is, as mentioned before, the first Qiblah of Muslims.
The following saying of the Final Prophet Muhammad (SAW) signifies the sacred status of the Al Aqsa Mosque, Masjid-Un-Nabi and the
Sacred Mosque where Kaaba is in Makkah, which is accorded by God Himself: “Praying once in Al Aqsa Mosque is equal to praying 50,000 times, and praying once in My Mosque is also equal to praying 50,000 times but praying once in the Sacred Mosque is equal to praying 100,000 times”. (Hadith collection of Ibn Majah- or Book of the Traditions of Final Prophet Muhammad – compiled by Ibn Majah).
Masjid Al Aqsa (Al Aqsa Mosque) is situated in Jerusalem, the Holy City is also called Bait Al Maqdis or Bait Al Muqaddas or the Sanctified House or the House of Sanctuary and in short Al Quds as well. Therefore because of all the above mentioned reasons, one can easily note, how important Jerusalem and Al Aqsa Mosque are to Muslims all over the world.
Change of the Qiblah
The Prophet (peace be upon him) as well as the Muslims had been facing Bait Al Maqdis (in Jerusalem) while worshipping, that is, they regarded it as housing the Qiblah. This practice was followed for one year and four months after migrating to Madinah. It was the Prophet’s desire that the Kaaba be made the Qiblah for prayers as did the other Arab converts to Islam, for they had been holding the sanctuary at Makkah in a reverential regard since time immemorial. To them the house of worship built by Ibrahim and Ismail (peace be upon them both) was the holiest of the holy ones, incomparable in sanctity to any other sanctum or shrine. They were put to a severe test by being asked to face Jerusalem instead of the Kaaba and they withstood this trial by dutifully obeying the divine command.
“Prophet Muhammad used to supplicate to Allah and look at the sky, waiting for Allah’s command.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)
Such was their devotion to the Prophet (peace be upon him) that they always replied, whether they found anything to their linking or not.
“We hear, and we obey,” [Surah Al-Nur 24:51] and: “We believe therein: The whole is from our Lord,” [Surah Al’-Imran 3:7]
Thus, after the faith of the earliest Muslims had been brought to a test and they had defied it successfully, the Qiblah for the prayer was changed to the Kaaba.
“Thus, have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Apostle a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qiblah to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Apostle from those who would turn on their heels (from the Faith). Indeed it was (a change) momentous, except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful.” [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:143]
“We see the turning of thy face (for guidance to the heavens: now shall We turn thee to a Qiblah that shall please thee. Turn then Thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction. The People of the Book know well that that is the truth from their Lord, Nor is Allah unmindful of what they do.” [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:144]
The Muslims changed their direction promptly in prayer, in compliance with divine command, towards the Kaaba which was henceforth selected as the Qiblah for all the believers, living in any part of the World, for all times to come.
Sahih Bukhari :: Book #8, Hadith #392
Narrated Bara’ bin ‘Azib: Allah’s Apostle (saw) prayed facing Bait Al Maqdis for sixteen or seventeen months but he loved to face the Kaaba (at Makkah) so Allah revealed: “Verily, We have seen the turning of your face to the heaven!” (Quran 2:144) So the Prophet faced the Kaaba and the fools amongst the people namely “the Jews” said, “What has turned them from their Qiblah (Bait Al Maqdis) which they formerly observed”” (Allah revealed): “Say: ‘To Allah belongs the East and the West. He guides whom he will to a straight path’.” (Quran 2:142) A man prayed with the Prophet (facing the Kaaba) and went out. He saw some of the Ansar praying the ‘Asr prayer with their faces towards Bait Al Maqdis, he said, “I bear witness that I prayed with Allah’s Apostle facing the Kaaba.” So all the people turned their faces towards the Kaaba.
The Jews lash out against the Muslims
It preyed upon the minds of the Jews that Islam had established itself in Madinah and was making rapid strides day after day. They were sane enough to realize that if the popularity of Islam continued unabated for an extended period of time, it would be difficult for them to stand up against their potential enemies. So they decided to put up a front against the Muslims and launched a campaign to slight, vilify and ridicule them.
The Muslims, were however, not permitted to return the tirades hurled against them. They were commanded to be patient and forbearing as evidenced by the Quranic verse that says:
“Withhold your hands, establish worship.” [Surah Al-Nisa’ 4:77]
Such was the code of behavior enjoined upon them so that they might learn to disdain the world and its pleasures, become self-denying, get prepared to make nobler sacrifices, experiencing in the end obedience to Allah’s commands.
These are among what the Jews argued: If it was right, the Jews argued, that the Muslims should formerly face Jerusalem in their Prayers, then the new direction is wrong.
They also told the Muslims: “Your Prayers from now on would then be of no value. If, on the other hand, the new direction is right and the Kabah is the true qiblah, then your Prayers in the past were in vain.”
The Jews also argued that God, the Lord Who knows all, does not change His instructions in that manner. The change clearly showed, the Jews went on, that Muhammad did not really receive any revelation from God.Reassurance was needed and was, indeed, provided in a long passage in the Quran, which runs from verse 106 to verse 150 in the Surah Al-Baqarah.
Sahih Bukhari :: Book #60, Hadith #13
Narrated Al-Bara: “The Prophet prayed facing Bait Al Maqdis (i.e. Jerusalem) for sixteen or seventeen months but he wished that his Qiblah would be the Kaaba (at Makkah). (So Allah Revealed (Quran 2:144) and he offered ‘Asr prayers(in his Mosque facing Kaaba at Makkah) and some people prayed with him. A man from among those who had prayed with him, went out and passed by some people offering prayer in another mosque, and they were in the state of bowing. He said, “I, (swearing by Allah,) testify that I have prayed with the Prophet facing Makkah.” Hearing that, they turned their faces to the Kaaba while they were still bowing. Some men had died before the Qiblah was changed towards the Kaaba. They had been killed and we did not know what to say about them (i.e. whether their prayers towards Jerusalem were accepted or not). So Allah revealed:– “And Allah would never make your faith (i.e. prayer) to be lost (i.e. your prayers offered (towards Jerusalem). Truly Allah is Full of Pity, Most Merciful towards mankind.”” (Quran 2:143)
Corresponding the Jews asking why the change of Qiblah, Allah revealed: “And to Allah belong the east and the west, so wherever you turn (yourselves or your faces) there is the Face of Allah (and He is High above, over His Throne). Surely! Allah is All-Sufficient for His creatures’ needs, All-Knowing.” [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:115]
“To each is a goal to which Allah turns him; then strive together (as in a race) towards all that is good. Wheresoever ye are, Allah will bring you together. For Allah Hath power over all things. From whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque; that is indeed the truth from your Lord. And Allah is not unmindful of what ye do. So from whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness; so fear them not, but fear Me; and that I may complete My favours on you, and ye May (consent to) be guided; A similar (favour have ye already received) in that We have sent among you an Apostle of your own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new Knowledge. Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you. Be grateful to Me, and reject not Faith.” [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:148-152]
During Asr prayer, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) had led his Companions in praying two Rak’ahs (units), then he was commanded to face towards the Kaaba, so he turned around towards the Kaaba. The mosque where he offered this prayer became known as the mosque of the Two Qiblahs (Masjid AlQiblatain). This took place halfway through the month of Rajab in 2AH, two months before the great battle of Badr. Masjid Al Qiblatain (or the Masjid with two Qiblas), is situated in Madinah, a few kilometres from Masjid Al Nabawi. It is one of the oldest Mosques in the world, and uniquely contains thus two mihrabs – one in the direction of Bait Al Maqdis (Jerusalem), and the other towards Makkah.