- A Christian’s Experience of a Muslim Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
A Roman Catholic, I recently joined a Muslim group on their pilgrimage to the Holy Land, along with my Muslim husband of fifty years. The trip included visits to sacred sites in Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. Our first visit was to what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Haram esh-Sharif or the Al-Aqsa Compound. Located on a hill in the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by massive stone walls, it has for thousands of years been venerated as a holy site by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, religious sentiments associated with the site are being overshadowed by political tensions.
To Jews, God’s presence is manifested at this site more than anywhere else. They believe that this is the place where God created the world and Adam, the first human being, and where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son. According to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish temples stood on the site. The First Temple was built by King Solomon in 957 B.C.E. and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. The Second Temple was constructed in 516 B.C.E., significantly expanded by King Herod during the first century B.C.E., and destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 C.E.
For Christians, a number of events in the life of Jesus and his apostles took place at this site. For Muslims it is, after Mecca and Medina, the third holiest site in Islam. Its significance derives, above all, from the belief that the Prophet Muhammad’s Ascension to Heaven (Miʿrāj) started from the rock at its center, where his footprints are said to be still visible. In the seventh century, Umayyad Caliphs commissioned the construction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the site.
According to the Qur’ān and the Islamic traditions, Muhammad traveled on a Night Journey (Isra), guided by the angel Gabriel (Jibril) on a winged [End Page 125] horse called the Buraq, from the Kaaba in Mecca to Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. There he led other prophets in prayer and then proceeded from the first heaven through all seven levels to an encounter with God. Along the way, he met the prophets Adam, Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Mūsā), Joseph (Yūsuf), Idrīs, Aaron (Hārūn), John the Baptist (Yah. yā), and Jesus (ʿĪsā), who is considered a prophet in Islam. According to the Muslim traditions, God instructed Muhammad that Muslims must pray fifty times a day, but Moses told Muhammad that would be difficult for the people and urged him to ask for a reduction. God eventually agreed to reduce the requirement to five times a day.
The retaining wall that borders the Al-Aqsa Compound from the west is called the Buraq Wall, because Muhammad is believed to have tethered his winged animal to it. The Wailing Wall, a section on the outside of the Buraq Wall, is believed to be the only remnant of the Second Temple and is the holiest place of prayer and pilgrimage for the Jewish people. Jews bemoan the destruction of the Temple, and a Jewish tradition maintains that a third and final Temple will be built here.
The Old City of Jerusalem has been controlled by Israel since 1967. Following the Six-Day War that year between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, the Al-Aqsa Compound has been administered by Muslims under Jordanian custodianship. While maintaining external security control, Jews have no access to the site, and periodic infractions cause ongoing tensions between Jews and Muslims.
Our visit to Al-Aqsa happened to occur on the day the Prophet Muhammad’s Ascension (Miʿrāj) was commemorated. Miʿrāj was celebrated by a festival that had drawn thousands of Palestinian Muslims to the compound, with parades, family picnics, and a display of Muslim and Palestinian solidarity. As a non-Muslim, I was initially refused access to Al-Aqsa by the Palestinian guards, but I was allowed entry after explaining that my husband is Muslim, both our passports...