Why does the Al-Aqsa Mosque Matter?
The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem has been at the centre of recent conflicts between Israeli forces and the Palestinian people. It is Islam’s third holiest site and this has made it’s use and governance one of the key points of controversy in a society already deeply divided. To understand why Jerusalem descended into violence it is important to understand the Al-Aqsa Mosque, so here is a short guide to understand this holy Islamic site.
- The Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam, and the holiest site outside of Saudi Arabia. It is believed to be the location where Mohammed was transported during the Night Journey (a spiritual journey in which Mohammed received instructions from God). The Al-Aqsa became the heart of a complex in Jerusalem, known as the al-Haram ash-Sharif, in which the mosque lies alongside the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s most iconic buildings.
- The area is not only sacred to Muslims, but also to Jews, as it is believed to be the site of the First Temple. As a holy site for both Jews and Muslims this has raised great controversy over who should have access to the site and who should have authority in Jerusalem’s religious heart.
- Following the Fall of Jerusalem in 1187, the Islamic forces of Saladin took back control of Temple Mount from the Christians. During the Crusader period the Al-Aqsa Mosque was used as a headquarters of the Knights Templar.
- Since this period the Islamic authorities have held Temple Mount as a Waqf. A Waqf is an inalienable religious endowment in Islamic law and under this authority Temple Mount and thus the Al-Aqsa Mosque has been under the control of Islamic authorities. In the case of the Al-Aqsa Mosque the authority and control lies with the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf.
- During the Six-Day War between Israel and its Islamic neighbours, control of the Al-Aqsa Mosque came under threat and violence erupted over its disputed future. In the end, the Israeli Prime Minister made a concession to the Islamic authorities and granted control back to the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf.
- Ever since Israel took control of East Jerusalem the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Temple Mount has become a flashpoint for violence. People have tried to attack the area on several different occasions. In 1969 an Australian, Denis Michael Rohan (a Christian), tried to burn down the Al-Aqsa Mosque. This was followed by attacks in 1974, 1977 and 1983 led by right-wing Jewish nationalists, an attack in 1982 and an attempt in 1984 to blow up the site by another right-wing Jewish group. These attacks have occurred against a backdrop of violent clashes between the Israeli security forces and Islamic worshipers.
- Today the Al-Aqsa Mosque is protected by Islamic security forces rather than the Israeli Defence Forces and they control access to the site. Muslims have unrestricted access to the site. They can enter through any of the gates controlling access to the site and they can enter at any time to pray. Jews are told that they should not enter the site and if they do they will not be allowed to pray. Other groups, including Christians, are allowed to enter the site but only through the Moroccan Gate and only at specific times.
- Control, access and the right to worship have been used as political weapons by both sides. The Jewish authorities have sought to restrict access to the site every time the hostilities flare up and visits by senior Israeli politicians (such as Ariel Sharon’s visit in 2000) have been used to demonstrate Israel’s continued dominance over the Palestinian and Islamic communities. Meanwhile the Islamic community of Jerusalem fights back. The Mourabitat (a group of Palestinian women) campaign every day against the threat of Israeli settlement and development of Temple Mount. Their actions are often aggressive and they are unrelenting in their protection of the Islamic holy site.
The politics of the Al-Aqsa Mosque are infinitely more complex and complicated than these eight points, but within these eight points are the bare bones of the issue; the history of the world’s most contested religious site and the modern day political and security concerns that lie at the heart of the contemporary conflict between Israel and Palestine. If we seek to understand the roots of the regional conflict then we have to start with the Al-Aqsa Mosque.