Since the Kaaba is the first house built for worshipping, why did Masjid al-Aqsa become the qiblah in the first years of Islam?

Details of the Question

- ALLAH states in the Quran that the first house that was built was the Kaaba. I understand from it that prayer has existed since the first man and that the Kaaba has been the place to which believers turn in order to perform prayers. Is it true?
- However, I also know that Masjid al-Aqsa was also determined as the qiblah. Since the Kaaba is the first house built upon the order of ALLAH, why did Masjid al-Aqsa become the qiblah in the first years of Islam?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Answer 1:

The Kaaba is a rectangular building made of stone in the middle of Masjid al-Haram in Makkah; it is 13 meters high, 12 meters long and 11 meters wide. The Kaaba, which is the reason for hajj and the qiblah of all Muslims, is the first holy temple built in the world. It is also called Baytullah and Bayt al-Atiq. The following is stated in the Quran:

"The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka: Full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings." (Aal-i Imran, 3/96)

Answering the questions of Abu Dharr, the Prophet (pbuh) said the first mosque built in the world was "Masjid al-Haram", the second one was "Masjid al-Aqsa" and that there were forty years between them. (Bukhari, Anbiya. 10)

The verse and hadith above show clearly that the first mosque built in the world was the Kaaba.

It is Allah who orders us where to turn when we worship. It is also a deed of worship to turn to the direction He orders. Therefore, if He orders us to turn to the Kaaba, the Kaaba becomes the qiblah; if He orders us to turn to Masjid al-Aqsa, Masjid al-Aqsa becomes the qiblah. As a matter of fact, the Prophet (pbuh) performed prayers by turning to both of them.

Thus, Allah determined both the Kaaba and Masjid al-Aqsa as the qiblah. It is necessary to turn to the one that He orders. He ordered some ummahs to turn to the Kaaba while he ordered others to turn to Masjid al-Aqsa.

Answer 2:

The principles of belief conveyed to people by all prophets, from Hz. Adam to Hz. Muhammad (pbuh), are the same. It is a common quality of all of the true religions that the prophets conveyed to people. No prophet changed the principles of belief, nor did they make any additions. Hz. Muhammad (pbuh), the last prophet, called people to believe in the same principles as Hz. Adam did.  

There is no difference among heavenly religions in terms of principles of belief; there is no difference in terms of basic deeds of worship either.

Similarly, prayer, which is like the pillar of the religion, is a deed of worship rendered fard for all prophets and their ummahs. The difference is related to the number of times and rak'ahs. For instance, prayer was rendered fard fifty times a day for the ummah of Hz. Musa (Moses). It was rendered fard for us five times a day but we receive the thawabs of fifty times a day.  

It is stated in the Quran itself that payer was ordered to the previous ummahs too. For instance, it is stated in a verse that Hz. Ibrahim preformed prayers regularly and that he wanted his offspring to perform prayers too:

"O my Lord! Make me one who establishes regular Prayer, and also (raise such) among my offspring O our Lord! And accept Thou my Prayer." (Ibrahim, 14/40)

Hz. Musa was also ordered to perform prayers. It is stated in verse 12 of the chapter of al-Maida that Sons of Israel were made promise definitely that they would perform prayers. 

Hz. Shuayb performed prayers a lot. They even tried to insult him because of it. It is expressed in the Quran as follows:

"They said: ‘O Shu´aib! Does thy (religion of) prayer command thee that we leave off the worship which our fathers practised, or that we leave off doing what we like with our property?...’" (Hud, 11/87)

It is also stated in the Quran that Hz. Ishaq, Hz. Yaqub, Hz. Zakariyyya and Hz. Isa performed prayers.

On the other hand, fasting and zakah are not deeds of worship peculiar to the ummah of Muhammad (pbuh). As a matter of fact, it is stated in the Quran that they were rendered fard to other ummahs too. The following is stated in verse 183 of the chapter of al-Baqara:

"O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may (learn) self-restraint."

Yes, prayer, fasting, zakah and many other deeds of worship existed in the shari’ahs of the other prophets too. However, the Jews and Christians abandoned or changed those deeds of worship. Then, instead of saying, "Muslims took prayer from Jews", it is more appropriate to say, "Allah Almighty ordered prayer to Jews and other ummahs too."

Answer 3:

Masjid al-Aqsa

Qasimi, who is a famous tafsir scholar, makes the following explanation about the name Masjid al-Aqsa: The word Aqsa means “the farthest". Masjid al-Aqsa was given this name because of its distance from Makkah.

According to the narrations in tafsir books and historical records, Masjid al-Aqsa was first built by Hz. Sulayman. According to a sound narration included in the Sahihs of Bukhari and Muslim, Abu Dharr said,

"I asked the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) what the first mosque placed on earth was. He said, "Masjid al-Haram." I asked, "What is the next one?" He said, "Masjid al-Aqsa."

Masjid al-Aqsa has an important place in both Islam and the other heavenly religions. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) states the following in a hadith: 

"Do not set out on a journey but for the three mosques; this mosque of mine, Masjid al-Haram and Masjid al-Aqsa." (Muslim, Kitabul-Hajj, 15/415, 511, 512)

What is meant by journey here is a special journey with the intention of worshipping. Masjid al-Aqsa is regarded as the third haram mosques due to this hadith.  

One of the reasons for the exceptional place of Masjid al-Aqsa in Islam is that it was the place of Isra and Miraj for the Prophet (pbuh). Allah Almighty states the following in the first verse of the chapter of al-Isra by mentioning the blessed name of Masjid al-Aqsa:

"Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things)."

As it can be noticed, the phrase "whose precincts We did bless" is used for Masjid al-Aqsa. The precincts of Masjid al-Aqsa are Quds (Jerusalem) and the other land of Palestine.

When the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) was elevated to the sky, there was not a mosque like the one today in Quds. However, there were ruins of Masjid al-Aqsa, which was built by Hz. Sulayman and which was demolished and rebuilt later. It was called Bayt al-Maqdis. That was the place that the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) visited. The phrase Bayt al-Maqdis is used for Quds in some historical resources.

When the phrase "Masjid al-Aqsa" is explained in the tafsir of Qadi Baydawi, the following is stated: "What is meant by it is Bayt al-Maqdis because there was not a mosque there at that time." We see the same statement in the tafsirs of Nasafi and Hazin. The tafsir reported from Ibn Abbas is like that too. The following explanation is made in the tafsir of Elmalılı Hamdi Yazir about the phrase "Masjid al-Aqsa":

"Masjid al-Aqsa is Bayt al-Maqdis in Quds. As a matter of fact, the following is stated in the hadith of Isra: 'I mounted Buraq. I arrived at Bayt al-Maqdis.' Its precincts means Quds and the places around it." (For the hadith of Isra mentioned here, see Bukhari, Bad'ul-Khalq, 6; Muslim, Iman, 259, 264; Nasai, Salat, 10; Tirmidhi, Tafsiru Suratil-Isra 2, 17; Ahmad b. Hanbal narrated it in III/148, IV/208, V/387, 392, 394.)

The following is stated in the tafsir of the first verse of the chapter of al-Isra in Fi Zilalil-Quran:

"... Masjid al-Aqsa forms one end of this journey, which took place between two definite places. Masjid al-Aqsa is a place that is regarded as the heart of the holy land. Allah settled Sons of Israel there for a while and then expelled them."

The following is stated in the tafsir called Hulasatu'l-Beyan by Konyalı Mehmed Vehbi Efendi:

"What is meant by Masjid al-Aqsa in the verse is Bayt al-Muqaddas. It is called aqsa because it is far away from Makkah. The precincts of Masjid al-Aqsa are full of orchards and all kinds of boons; therefore, it is blessed in terms of both worldly boons and religion. For, Bayt al-Muqaddas is a residence of prophets, place of divine revelation and temple of righteous people. Allah Almighty declared it blessed because the miracles of most of the prophets and strange incidents took place there. Therefore, it deserves to be called blessed materially and spiritually."

Mawdudi states in his tafsir book called Tafhim al-Quran that the temple mentioned in the verse is Masjid al-Aqsa in Quds.

Sabuni states the following in the tafsir of the same phrase in his book called Safwatut-Tafasir:

"That is, Glory to Allah, who took him from Makkah to Quds. Since the distance between Masjid al-Aqsa and Masjid al-Haram is big, the mosque in Quds is called Masjid al-Aqsa."

It is stated also in this tafsir that the precincts of Masjid al-Aqsa were made blessed both materially and spiritually.

In some places of the Quran, Masjid al-Aqsa is meant without its name being mentioned. For instance, Allah Almighty states the following in verse 11 of the chapter of Maryam:

"So Zakariyya came out to his people from him chamber: He told them by signs to celebrate Allah´s praises in the morning and in the evening."

The mosque mentioned here is Masjid al-Aqsa, that is, Bayt al-Maqdis. The following is stated in verse 37 of the chapter of Aal-i Imran:

"Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariyya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: ‘O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?’ She said: ‘From Allah: for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.’"

The temple mentioned here is the same mosque. The following is stated in verse 39 of the same chapter:

"While he was standing in prayer in the chamber, the angels called unto him: ‘Allah doth give thee glad tidings of Yahya, witnessing the truth of a Word from Allah, and (be besides) noble, chaste, and a prophet,- of the (goodly) company of the righteous.’"

The place that is meant by the word chamber (mihrab) in this verse is Masjid al-Aqsa.

All of those verses show that there was a temple, that is, the old form of Masjid al-Aqsa, there when Hz. Zakariyya, his son Hz. Yahya, Hz. Maryam and her son Hz. Isa lived. That temple is the temple called Bayt al-Maqdis.

There are many hadiths about the virtue and importance of Masjid al-Aqsa. We quoted the most famous one above. According to a hadith reported from Abdullah Ibn Umar by Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Nasai and Hakim, the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) stated the following:

"Whilst Sulayman was rebuilding Masjid al-Aqsa, he asked three things from his Lord. His Lord gave him two of them. I hope that He gave the third one too. He wanted his judgment to be in harmony with Allah’s judgment. His Lord granted it. He asked for a kingdom that no one before or after him would have. His Lord granted it too. Finally, he asked Allah to forgive the sins of any person who visits Masjid Al-Aqsa and to make that person as pure as the day he or she was born. We hope Allah granted him this too."

According to what is stated in a hadith, Maymuna, the female slave of the Messenger of Allah, asked, “O Messenger of Allah! Tell us the legal injunction about visiting Masjid al-Aqsa.” The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, “Go there and pray in it.” The narrator of the hadith said, “It was dar al-harb then. That is, it was under the domination of non-Muslims.” The Messenger of Allah added, “If you cannot visit it and pray there, send some olive oil to be used in the lamps.(Abu Dawud, Kitabus-Salat, 14)

Olive oil is a symbol here. What is desired to do is to give importance to Quds and Masjid al-Aqsa, to try to enable Muslims to capture them as believers who are the real owners of Hz. Ibrahim’s hanif religion and to support the works done with the intention of preserving the identity of those blessed places fitting the religion of oneness.  

The most virtuous places in the world are mosques and the most virtuous mosques are Masjid al-Haram, Masjid an-Nabawi and Masjid al-Aqsa. It is stated in hadiths that the prayers performed in these three mosques are more virtuous than the prayers performed in other mosques. The following is stated in a hadith narrated by   Ibn Majah:

"A man’s prayer in his house is equal in reward to one prayer; his prayer in the mosque of his neighborhood is equal to twenty-five prayers; his prayer in the mosque in which Friday prayer is offered is equal to five hundred prayers; his prayer in Masjid al-Aqsa is equal to fifty thousand prayers; his prayer in my mosque is equal to fifty thousand prayers; and his prayer in Masjid al-Haram is equal to one hundred thousand prayers."(Ibn Majah, Iqamatus-Sala was-Sunna fiha, 5/198)

However, it is stated in az-Zawaid that the chain of narrators of this hadith is weak. Ibn Hibban states that a narration that will confirm this hadith is necessary for this hadith to be accepted as evidence. We do not know about another narration that will confirm those figures in this narration but there are other hadiths stating that prayers performed in those three mosques are much more virtuous than those performed in other mosques. Therefore, those figures might have been expressed in order to attract attention to the fact that there is a great difference of thawabs between prayers in those mosques and other mosques, not to express how many times more virtuous.  

As it is known, Masjid al-Aqsa is also the first qiblah of Muslims. Due to this fact, it has a different importance in Islam. According to what Bukhari and Muslim report, el-Bara Ibn Azib said,

"The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) performed prayers by turning toward Bayt al-Maqdis (Masjid al-Aqsa) for sixteen or seventeen months. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) wanted to turn toward the Kaaba in prayer. Allah Almighty sent down the following verse: " We see the turning of thy face (for guidance to the heavens: now Shall We turn thee to a Qibla that shall please thee. Turn then Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction." (al-Baqara, 2/144)

Many other hadiths confirming this one were narrated.

Masjid al-Aqsa is also one of the divine signs of Allah on the earth. The phrase "in order that We might show him some of Our Signs" quoted above in the verse related to Miraj about the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) being taken to Masjid al-Aqsa indicates it. If Allah had wished, He could have elevated the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) to Miraj from Masjid al-Haram. However, he was taken to Masjid al-Aqsa first so that some divine signs would be shown to him. Then, he was elevated to Miraj. Thus, it is one of the divine signs of Allah on the earth. Therefore, those who need to take care of Masjid al-Aqsa are Muslims. 

History of Masjid al-Aqsa

According to what is understood from historical resources, the first person to build Masjid al-Aqsa was Hz. Sulayman. The information given about the interpretation of verse 14 of the chapter of Saba indicates this. The following is stated in this verse:

"Then, when We decreed (Solomon´s) death, nothing showed them his death except a little worm of the earth, which kept (slowly) gnawing away at his staff: so when he fell down, the Jinn saw plainly that if they had known the unseen, they would not have tarried in the humiliating Penalty (of their Task)."

The following information is given in the interpretation of this verse: Sulayman made use of jinn in the construction of Masjid al-Aqsa. Jinn did the hard work that people could not do in the construction. However, one day Hz. Sulayman died leaning on his staff in mihrab while worshipping. Jinn thought he was worshipping and continued working. Finally, a moth gnawed away the staff from the inside and his dead body fell on the floor when the staff was broken. Thus, they realized that he was dead.

It is stated in some historical resources that Quds (Jerusalem) was destroyed in 70 AD and that Bayt al-Maqdis was also demolished then. However, that place was still known as a worshipping place and the ruins of Bayt al-Maqdis were kept. The wall that is called the "Wailing Wall" by Jews and "Buraq Wall" by Muslims is a remnant of the old temple. In 638 AD, Masjid al-Aqsa was built in the place of Bayt al-Maqdis after Quds was conquered during the caliphate of Hz. Umar. The reason why Hz. Umar built the mosque there was the holiness and importance of that place. Masjid al-Aqsa was expanded during the caliphate of Abdulmalik bin Marwan, who was an Umayyad caliph. The temple that is next to Masjid al-Aqsa and that has eight corners and called Qubbatus-Sahra was built upon the order of Abdulmalik bin Marwan.

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