For many years now, emails and graphics that purport to reveal the “True Masjid al Aqsa” have disseminated themselves widely across the internet. “Dear Muslims, Please make sure you and your children know which is the real Masjid Al Aqsa,” a message would typically read, alongside an accompanying graphic that boldly highlights certain buildings within the Haram al Sharif compound in Jerusalem(Al Quds). It laments that “many Muslims think the Al-Sakhrah Mosque, also known as the “Dome of the rock,” is the Al-Aqsa Mosque!!” before proceeding to boldly assert – with the assistance of visual aids – the differences between ‘Masjidul Aqsa’ and the ‘Dome of the Rock’. People can check Graphically if they need the best graphic related information.

The message usually concludes with a warning: “Please make sure you and your children, your friends all know which is the real Masjid Al Aqsa. Check your house for pictures!! many people have picture in there homes showing the wrong mosque!!”

At the heart of such campaigns, lies an apparent desire to thwart an alleged Zionist strategy that seeks to play up the importance of the Dome of the Rock Mosque, particularly in photographs, in order to draw the public’s attention away from ‘al-Aqsa mosque.’ “Israel wants to eliminate the picture of Al-Aqsa mosque from the minds of people, so that when the time comes for it to destroy it and build its temple, it can show the Dome of the Rock and claim that Al Aqsa is intact,” is one rationale that is repeatedly offered.

As noble and well-intentioned such initiatives may be, at this juncture in the history of Masjidul Aqsa, they can also be deeply problematic. Most messages are far too simplistic in their conclusions, fail to grasp the complete Islamic guidelines on Masjidul Aqsa, and potentially even play into the schemings of the Zionists whom these campaigns purportedly seek to expose.

The problematic graphic

The problematic graphic

Much of the confusion arising from this matter can arguably be traced back to the onomastics, or the names that human beings themselves have lended to buildings within the Holy City with the passage of time. Referring to the Isra, or the miraculous night journey of the Prophet(PBUH) from Makkah to Jerusalem, Allah says: “Glory be to Him Who made His servant to go in a night from the Sacred Mosque[Masjidul Haram] to the Remote Mosque [Masjidul Aqsa] of which We have blessed the precincts, so that We may show to him some of Our signs; surely He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”

Quoting from the book “Baitul Maqdis and Masjidul Aqsa” by Mohammed Hassan Sharab, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Occupied Palestine 1948, Sheikh Raed Salah, highlights that The Aqsa Mosque mentioned in the Surat Isra’ refers to all of the Haram Al-Sharif, and that the rewards promised in the Ahadeeth for praying in it can be achieved by praying in any part of the land surrounded by the wall.”

The classical Hanbali scholar, Mujir ad-Din al-Hanbali expounds on the constituents of the Quranic Masjidul Aqsa even further. “al-Aqsa is the name of all what is within its compound inside the walls, the building in the foremost area and others, the Dome of the Rock Mosque, the corridors, etc.; al-Aqsa means all that is within the walls,” reads the explanation in his book al-Uns al-Jaleel.

Thus, Islamically speaking, the entire enclosed area, also known as the Haram al Sharif, is to be designated as the al-Aqsa Mosque. In practical terms this encompasses more than 200 buildings, domes, schools, wells, fields, walls and pavements. Quite clearly, this would include not only the mosque with the golden dome, the Dome of the Rock, nor the mosque with black lead dome, Al Masjid Al Qibli. Rather, both would constitute mere sections of the larger Al Aqsa mosque compound.

A comprehensive and authentic understanding of what constitutes Masjid al Aqsa

A comprehensive and authentic understanding of what constitutes Masjid al Aqsa (Courtesy Friends of al Aqsa)

As the aforementioned messages demonstrate, it is not uncommon to encounter references to the black domed Masjid in the foremost area of the Haram al Sharif compound as ‘Masjid al Aqsa’. These are not entirely frowned upon. However, it should more rightfully be titled Masjid Al-Qibly, stemming from its nearness to the Qiblah. This structure constitutes the nucleus of Islamic activity within the Haram al Sharif, and is undoubtedly most significant comprising both a Mimbar and Mihrab. Still, its can lay no claim to nobility in isolation, but is rather dependent on its affiliation to the wider Masjid al Aqsa, for its sacredness.

The current structure of Masjid Al-Qibly(the black-domed Masjid) was certainly non existent at the time of the Miraj. It’s origins can be traced back to 637 when the Muslim conqueror of Al Quds, Umar bin al Khattab RA first erected the structure. Faced with the dilemma of being unable to build an enclosed structure that would encompass the entire area of Masjidul Aqsa, Umar RA had to settle for a simple crude mosque, which had to be positioned on a specific location orientated southward towards the Ka’bah in Makkah. Umar RA consulted some people as to an appropriate site for the mosque and Ka’b al-Ahbar, a Yemenite Jew who converted to Islam, proposed that the mosque be placed behind the Rock so that the old and new directions of prayer (qiblah) merge, as it were, with one another. However, Umar RA disapproved, reasoning that such a course of action would imply imitation of the Jewish religion. Hence, the mosque was erected in the front of the Rock, that is, the southern part of the original al-Aqsa Mosque, thus making those who pray turn their faces towards the qiblah and their backs towards the Rock. “We were not commanded to venerate the Rock, but we were commanded to venerate the Ka’bah”, he explained.

Umayyad Khaliphs subsequently adapted the building making them the first to erect the Masjid al Qibly according to its current configuration. Renovations and additional structures were added later on by succeeding Abbasid, Ayyobian, Ayoubi, Mamluke, and Ottoman Khaliphs.

The Umayyads were also first to erect a Dome over the famous Rock situated at the centre of the Masjid al Aqsa compound. This rock, itself, was the Qiblah of the Prophets of the Children of Israel – peace be upon them – and is presumed to be the departure point for the ascention of Muhammed SAW into the heavens on the journey of Miraj. However, its significance truly lies in being just another part of the blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque; and its eminence shouldn’t be exaggerated.

According to Islamic teachings, a prayer in Al Masjid Al Aqsa – whether inside the Dome of the Rock, Al Masjid Al Qibli, underneath any of its trees, or beneath any of its domes – is equivalent to many prayers elsewhere. This is because all the walled area is actually Al Masjid Al Aqsa, and the sacredness is not confined just to the Dome of the Rock and Al Masjid Al Qibli, or either.

Inaccurate references to the southern musalla of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Qibly Prayer Hall) as “Al-Aqsa” or failure to recognise the position of the Dome of the Rock within the wider Al Aqsa, may in fact further Zionist claims for other parts of this holy compound, a strategy that is now being actively pursued. Having seen previous attempts at destroying or invading Masjidul Aqsa frustrated, there is a currently a determined drive to divide the mosque into Jewish and Muslim sections – a plan modeled on a similar division of the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron where the Prophet Ibrahim(AS) is buried. Under the guise of religious pluralism and freedom of worship at the Temple Mount, an Israeli member of parliament has drafted a bill that mandates separate hours for Jewish and Muslim prayer at the holy site. An Israeli judge also recently ruled in favour of Jews performing Talmudic rituals inside al-Aqsa Mosque, asserting that Jews have the “right to pray in the courtyards of al-Aqsa mosque,” in defiance of the protests of Muslims.

In this treacherous climate, the most worthy service that those seeking to educate the public on Masjid al Aqsa should embark on is realising the distinction between the Al Aqsa sanctuary, and what is now commonly referred to as Masjid al Aqsa, and disseminating these findings widely. As Ismail Adam Patel writes, “It is extremely important to appreciate that it is the land of the Al Aqsa sanctuary that is most precious and blessed. When the Quran refers to Masjid al Aqsa, it is this land of al Haram al Sharif(al-Aqsa sanctuary) that is implied, and not any of the buildings. Although the buildings within the noble sanctuary, like the black domed Masjid al Aqsa and gold domed Dome of the Rock are of great historical significance, however, one must understand that it is the land that is holy and blessed and not the bricks and mortar.”

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