Al-Isra and the “Temple” in the Islamic Sources: A Response to Sam Shamoun

Al-Isra and the “Temple” in the Islamic Sources: A Response to Sam Shamoun

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بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

“Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”

– The Quran, Surah Al-Isra, 17:1[1]

            This article is a response to the claim of a historical “error” in the Islamic sources concerning Prophet Muhammad’s night journey to the city of Jerusalem (Bayt al-Maqdis). The Christian apologist Sam Shamoun has claimed that the Quran and Ahadith claim that the Prophet visited the “temple” in Jerusalem when he was taken on his miraculous journey to the holy city (the “Night Journey” or “al-Isra”).[2] His confusion mainly revolves around the meaning of the word “masjid” in Islamic sources, but there is also some confusion regarding certain ahadith and commentaries of Islamic scholars which seem to suggest (at least to Shamoun) that the temple was still standing at the time Muhammad (peace be upon him) went to Jerusalem. This article will refute this claim by appealing to evidence from the Islamic sources as well as secular ones, inshaAllah.

Background – AlIsra and Al-Miraj

            Before we begin, providing a brief background of the Prophet’s journey to Jerusalem (“al-Isra”) is worthwhile. It is said to have occurred in the year 619 CE, during a particularly difficult time in the Prophet’s life. It was in that year that his wife Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with her) and his uncle Abu Talib both passed away.[3] The Prophet was still in Mecca at this time; the emigration to Medina was still a few years away.

            The “Miraj” occurred after the “Isra”; the Prophet ascended to heaven after leading some of the previous prophets in prayer in Jerusalem, at the site of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the “Noble Sanctuary” or “Haram Al-Shareef”. All of this happened in one night, which is what made many people in Mecca, including some Muslims, question the Prophet’s claim. As a result, many Muslims actually became apostates at the time because they could not believe such an incredible story.[4]

            Information about the Night Journey is found in the Quran and Ahadith, although more in the latter. The Quran briefly alludes to this miraculous journey in Surah Al-Isra, 17:1:

“Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”

The majority of the details, however, come from the Ahadith. Here are a few examples. These have been numbered since we will discuss them again later.

[1]. “It is narrated on the authority of Anas b. Malik that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: I was brought al-Buraq Who is an animal white and long, larger than a donkey but smaller than a mule, who would place his hoof a distance equal to the range of vision. I mounted it and came to Bayt al-Maqdis, then tethered it to the ring used by the prophets. I entered the mosque and prayed two rak’ahs in it, and then came out and Gabriel brought me a vessel of wine and a vessel of milk. I chose the milk, and Gabriel said: You have chosen the natural thing. Then he took me to heaven.”[5]

[2]. “Narrated Jabir bin `Abdullah: That he heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) saying, “When the people of Quraish did not believe me (i.e. the story of my Night Journey), I stood up in Al-Hijr and Allah displayed Bayt al-Maqdis in front of me, and I began describing it to them while I was looking at it.””[6]

[3]. “Anas bin Malik narrated that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: “I was brought an animal that was larger than a donkey and smaller than a mule, whose stride could reach as far as it could see. I mounted it, and Jibril was with me, and I set off. Then he said: ‘Dismount and pray,’ so I did that. He said: ‘Do you know where you have prayed? You have prayed in Taibah, which will be the place of the emigration.’ Then he said: ‘Dismount and pray,’ so I prayed. He said: ‘Do you know where you have prayed? You have prayed in Mount Sinai, where Allah, the Mighty and Sublime, spoke to Musa, peace be upon him.’ So I dismounted and prayed, and he said: ‘Do you know where you have prayed? You have prayed in Bethlehem, where ‘Eisa, peace be upon him, was born.’ Then I entered Bayt al-Maqdis where the Prophets, peace be upon them, were assembled for me, and Jibril brought me forward to lead them in prayer.”[7]

As we can see, these ahadith show that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was miraculously taken from Mecca to “Bayt al-Maqdis”, where he led the other prophets (peace be upon them all) in prayer before ascending to heaven with Gabriel (peace be upon him). Let us now examine Shamoun’s specific argument.

Shamoun’s Argument

            The bulk of Shamoun’s argument is built upon commentaries from Islamic scholars, which relate some narrations, and one specific hadith from the Kitab al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir by Ibn Sa’d.[8] The specific hadith states that some people asked Muhammad (peace be upon him) about the “doors” of the mosque in Jerusalem which, in Shamoun’s view, seems to imply that a mosque (or the temple itself) already existed there despite the fact that the temple had long been destroyed and the two future mosques (the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque) had yet to be built (emphasis ours):

“The narrator added: Many people who had embraced Islam and offered prayers went astray. (The Prophet continued,) I stood at al-Hijr, visualised Bayt al-Muqaddas and described its signs. Some of them said: How many doors are there in that mosque? I had not counted them so I began to look at it and counted them one by one and gave them information concerning them. I also gave information about their caravan which was on the way and its signs. They found them as I had related.”

            In addition to this narration, Shamoun also quotes from Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat, which states that the Night Journey was to the “temple” in Jerusalem:

“Ziyad b. ‘Abdullah al-Bakka’i from Muhammad b. Ishaq told me the following: Then the apostle was carried by night from the mosque at Mecca to the Masjid al-Aqsa which is the temple of Aelia [Jerusalem], when Islam had spread in Mecca among the Quraysh and all the tribes. […]

His companion (Gabriel) went with him to see the wonders between heaven and earth, until he came to Jerusalem’s temple. […]

In his story al-Hasan said: “The apostle and Gabriel went their way until they arrived at the temple in Jerusalem.”

Next, Shamoun appealed to Ibn Kathir’s commentary on Surah 17:1, which states that “Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa”:

“…means the Sacred House which is in Jerusalem, the origin of the Prophets from the time of Ibrahim Al-Khalil. The Prophets all gathered there, and he (Muhammad) led them in prayer in their own homeland. This indicates that he is the greatest leader of all, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him and upon them.”

In addition, the commentary also states that:

“[t]he truth is that the Prophet was taken on the Night Journey when he was awake, not in a dream, and he went from Makkah to Bayt Al-Maqdis riding on Al-Buraq. When he reached the door of the sanctuary, he tied up his animal by the door and entered, where he prayed two Rakahs to ‘greet the Masjid.”

Finally, Shamoun quotes the commentary of Yusuf Ali, which states that:

“[t]he Farthest Mosque must refer to the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem on the hill of Moriah, at or near which stands the Dome of the Rock, called also the Mosque of Hadhrat ‘Umar. This and the Mosque known as the Farthest Mosque (Masjid-ul-Aqsa) were completed by the Amir ‘Abd-ul-Malik in A.H. 68. Farthest because it was the place of worship farthest west which was known to the Arabs in the time of the Holy Prophet: it was a sacred place to both Jews and Christians, but the Christians then had the upper hand, as it was included the Byzantine (Roman) Empire, which maintained a Patriarch at Jerusalem. The chief dates in connection with the Temple are: it was finished by Solomon about BC. 1004; destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar about 586 B.C.; rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah about 515 B.C.; turned into a heathen idol-temple by one of Alexander’s successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, 167 B.C.; restored by Herod, B.C. 17 to A.D. 29; and completely razed to the ground by the Emperor Titus in A.D. 70. These ups and downs are among the greater Signs in religious history.”

Based on these sources, Shamoun makes the following assertions:

“[a]ccording to the Islamic literature the farthest Mosque is actually the Temple of Jerusalem, which is called Bayt ul-Muqaddas in Arabic… […]

The problem with these fables is that the first Temple was built by Solomon and subsequently destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian armies in 586 BC. Furthermore, general Titus and his Roman soldiers leveled the Second Temple in AD. 70, more than five centuries before this alleged night journey to Jerusalem took place. Moreover, the place that was eventually called Masjid al-Aqsa did not come into existence until AD. 690-691 when ‘Abd al-Malik bin Marwan built it (or, as some believe, reconstructed and expanded it).”[9]

Or to put it more succinctly, Shamoun victoriously states [in all caps]:


Important Definitions

            Before we analyze Shamoun’s arguments to see if he can really claim victory, it is important to clarify certain phrases and terms:

  1. Masjid – The Arabic word “masjid”, translated as “mosque” in English, has a complex meaning. It does not simply denote a building (although that is certainly one meaning), but any place of “sujood” (prostration). In other words, it can refer to any place a Muslim can pray, whether indoors or outdoors. The authoritative Lane’s Lexicon states this clearly:

Lane - masjid

Moreover, it is a well-established Islamic concept that the whole earth is a “masjid” and can be used for making one’s prayers, with the exception of any filthy places, such as restrooms, or graveyards. Ironically, Shamoun hilariously questioned my affiliation with Sunni Islam, and even claimed that I was “basically arguing like a Quran only Muslim…” even though it is an established Sunni belief that a masjid does not necessarily have to be a literal building! A hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) clearly says so:

“Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri narrated that: Allah’s Messenger said: “All of the earth is a Masjid except for the graveyard and the washroom.””[10]

So it is irrefutable that, according to Sunni Islam, a masjid can be any place where one performs prostration as an act of worship to Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He). In other words, with the exception of graveyards and restrooms, a Muslim may pray anywhere, even if it is not inside a literal mosque. For example, when I am at work, I regularly make my prayers in a small space in the office. The prayers are not made in a mosque, but they are still valid. Indeed, Muslims from all over the world pray wherever they can when a mosque is not available. These “places of prostration” include parks, office buildings, beaches and parking lots. Praying outdoors is very common, because the whole earth has been made into a masjid for Muslims.[11]

  1. Al-Masjid al-Aqsa – Mentioned in Surah Al-Isra, 17:1, it means “the Farthest Mosque”.[12] It is better known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in modern times. In the ahadith, it is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “Bayt al-Maqdis” (see below), but was also differentiated from it (e.g. it was also called the “mosque of Bayt al-Maqdis”).[13] However, that it refers to the holy site in the city of Jerusalem is firmly established and unanimously agreed upon by Islamic scholars.[14] Indeed, the mosque is also known as “the Noble Sanctuary” (Haram Al-Shareef).[15] In this regard, the entire site, known either as “the Noble Sanctuary” to Muslims and the “Temple Mount” to Jews, is actually “Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa”.[16] This, of course, makes sense, as there was no building on the site when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) visited it during Al-Isra, and everyone in his time would have known that. Thus, when they heard that he had travelled to “Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa”, it was implied that he traveled to the site. This view is further strengthened by the fact that the Arabic word masjid simply means “any place in which one performs the act of [sujood]”. This concept is elaborated upon by Professor Uri Rubin (Tel Aviv University), who explains that to Muslims, the site remains holy despite the fact that the former temple is no longer there. He states (emphasis ours):

“[e]ven after the destruction of the temporal Temple House, the masjid as a sacred locality has not disappeared; it has survived the Israelite Temple, and this post-Israelite sanctuary is the one referred to in the isra verse. Here it is not a specific building but rather the entire city as a holy unity which has survived the old and sinful city. This abstract sense of the sanctuary is inherent in the Arabic word masjid, a place of worship.[17]

Interestingly, “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” is mentioned in Surah 17:1 only a few verses before the chapter discusses the destruction of the original temple built by Solomon (peace be upon him). This further establishes that the masjid is not simply referring to any specific building, but to the site itself. As Rubin explains (emphasis ours):

“[t]he fact that the night journey is mentioned in close juxtaposition with the destruction of the Israelite Temple (al-masjid) seems to indicate that al-Masjid al-Aqsa stands for a sacred locality that survived the punitive destruction of the Temple…”[18]

  1. Bayt al-Maqdis – Also known as “Bayt al-Muqaddas”, it means “Sacred/Holy House”.[19] Another form of it is “al-Ard al-Muqaddasah”, which means “Sacred/Holy Land”,[20] a term that is used in the Quran in Surah Al-Maeda, 5:21, which relates to when Moses (peace be upon him) told the Israelites to “enter the Holy Land”:

“O my people, enter the Holy Land (الْأَرْضَ الْمُقَدَّسَةَ) which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back [from fighting in Allah’s cause] and [thus] become losers.”

As we saw above, Bayt al-Maqdis was used numerous times in the ahadith which mention al-Isra, but the English translations were inconsistent (see notes 5 and 6). Sometimes the English rendition was “temple” and sometimes it was “Jerusalem”. This actually makes sense since, as Khalid El-Awaisi (Al-Maktoum Institute Scotland) explains:

“…names carry different connotations and they are either general or specific and each must be read in context to understand to what it refers.”[21]

El-Awaisi provides a detailed discussion of the ahadith that mention Bayt al-Maqdis, and concludes on this basis that it was used by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) “interchangeably to refer to the mosque, the city, and the region”.[22] However, El-Awaisi explains that in most of the ahadith which mention Al-Isra, “Bayt al-Maqdis comes with reference to the city, within which lies the mosque.”[23]

Similarly, Professor Hatem Bazian (UC-Berkeley) explains that:

“[during the prophetic period, Bayt al-Maqdis was used in reference to Palestine on a number of occasions by the Prophet; it also seems that his contemporaries understood the term to refer to the land in Palestine because there are no reports of his companions inquiring about it.”[24]

Interestingly, different terms were used by the Prophet compared to his companions, although they did use the same terms. As discussed below (see the section on “Ilia/Ilya”, another Arabic name for Jerusalem was “Ilya” (from the Roman name Aelia), but this term was more commonly used by the companions and rarely by the Prophet himself.[25]

So, to understand what the ahadith quoted above meant when they referred to “Bayt al-Maqdis”, we need to:

  1. Examine whether it was the Prophet’s statement or of his companions, and
  2. Examine the context of the hadith.

When we use these criteria, we find that in those ahadith which directly quoted Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) verbatim and most others, Bayt al-Maqdis referred in most cases to either the Holy Land in Palestine, which of course includes Jerusalem, or Jerusalem itself, and only on a few occasions to the masjid itself (the site of the Temple Mount). Thus, Surah Al-Isra, 17:1, mentions “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” and its “surroundings” which have been “blessed” by God:

“Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.”

To demonstrate the importance of determining the two points above, let us look at three examples, as provided by El-Awaisi:

  1. A hadith reported by Al-Hakim:

“Al-Arqam Ibn ‘Abd-Manaf (d. 55AH/675CE) came to the Prophet and told him that he was leaving for Bayt al-Maqdis. Prophet Muhammad asked him the reason for going, was it for business? Al-Arqam replied no, he was going for worship; so the Prophet commanded him to stay put and pray in Makkah as the reward for the prayer was far more in Makkah…”[26]

Based on the above two criteria, El-Awaisi explains that when the term Bayt al-Maqdis was used in this narration by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it meant the city and not the mosque. The context makes this clear since, as El-Awaisi points out:

“…when al-Arqam told the Prophet that he was going to Bayt al-Maqdis, the Prophet asked if this was for business. Therefore the Prophet thought that he was referring to the markets in Bayt al-Maqdis and not the Mosque, until al-Arqam explained that he wished to go to Bayt al-Maqdis to pray.”[27]

  1. A hadith reported in Sahih Muslim:

“…the Prophet narrated to his companions in Madinah what had happened on the night of al-Isra. He states “I was brought al-Buraq … and rode it until I got to Bayt al-Maqdis, then I tied it to the same ring which the Prophets tie into, then I entered the masjid where I prayed … “”[28]

Again, when interpreting the hadith with the above two criteria, El-Awaisi rightly concludes that (emphasis ours):

“…it is clear from the saying of the Prophet that he reached Bayt al-Maqdis the city, and then entered the Mosque of Bayt al-Maqdis. Thus it refers to two different entities…”[29]

It should be noted that hadith #1 quoted in the above section titled “Background: Al-Isra and Al-Miraj”, is a version of the present hadith quoted by El-Awaisi. The context shows that when referring to Bayt al-Maqdis, the Prophet was referring to the city and not Masjid Al-Aqsa itself since he stated that he arrived in Bayt al-Maqdis and only entered the “mosque” after tying al-Buraq.

  1. A hadith reported in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim:

“Jabir narrates that he heard the Prophet say… When Quraysh rejected what I said, I stood in al-Hijir (within the al­-Haram Mosque in Makkah) and God [s]howed me Bayt al-Maqdis so I started telling them about its signs (Ayatih) while looking at it (ilayh)…”[30]

Another version, from Al-Tabarani, includes a dialogue between the Prophet and the pagans of Quraysh. When they asked him where he had been during the night of Isra, he replied “Bayt al-Maqdis”, to which they replied “Aelia”. The Prophet replied in the affirmative.[31] So here, coupled with another narration, the context of the report from Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim seems to suggest that Bayt al-Maqdis meant the city of Jerusalem, and not specifically the mosque. However, according to the report from Al-Tabarani, when the Prophet replied in the affirmative to the question about Bayt al-Maqdis being Aelia, the Quraysh then asked him to describe the mosque itself. Similar to the report from Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the report from Al-Tabarani then states that the Prophet was miraculously shown a vision which allowed him to describe the mosque. The only difference is that in the former narration, Bayt al-Maqdis was specifically mentioned, while in the latter, the “mosque” was mentioned (i.e. in the first narration, the Prophet said that he was shown Bayt al-Maqdis, whereas the second narration specifically mentions the mosque itself). So, it is possible that the report from Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim referred to the “mosque” as Bayt al-Maqdis, although it is possible that both the city and the mosque were implied.

Regardless, in most cases, when Bayt al-Maqdis was mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), he was clearly referring to the city of Jerusalem and not to the mosque.[32] Rubin concurs on this point (emphasis ours):

“[a]s for Jerusalem, the earliest isra versions do not specify any particular destination within the city, and only say that the Prophet arrived in Bayt al-Maqdis, i.e. Jerusalem.”[33]

As for the multiple meanings of Bayt al-Maqdis (i.e. the region, the city or the mosque), Jacob Lassner notes that this was common among Jewish sources as well, suggesting perhaps “a possible path of influence and common understanding.”[34] So, it was not unusual that the term meant different things in different contexts.     

  1. Ilia/Ilya – This is the Arabicized form of the name given to the city of Jerusalem by its inhabitants (originating from the name given to the city by the Romans),[35] and was also known to the Arabs during the prophetic period and afterward as well.[36] For example, when the Caliph Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) made a treaty with the Christians after conquering Jerusalem, the city’s name was written as “Ilia”.[37] This proper name for Jerusalem is also found in the ahadith literature, as seen in the following example:

“Narrated `Abdullah bin `Abbas: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) wrote to Caesar and invited him to Islam and sent him his letter with Dihya Al-Kalbi whom Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) ordered to hand it over to the Governor of Busra who would forward it to Caesar. Caesar as a sign of gratitude to Allah, had walked from Hims to Ilya…”[38]

According to Bazian, in the post-prophetic period, both Ilia/Ilya and Bayt al-Maqdis were used interchangeably by the Muslims to refer to the city of Jerusalem.[39] However, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) rarely ever used the term “Ilya” to refer to Jerusalem,[40] and instead referred to the city as “Bayt al-Maqdis”.

Analysis of Shamoun’s Argument

            Now that we have defined these important terms, we can now finally examine Shamoun’s argument. We will examine the narration by Ibn Sa’d last. First, let us examine the other sources Shamoun quotes from.

  1. Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat

As shown above, Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat states that the Prophet went to the “temple” in Jerusalem. But how could this be when the temple had been destroyed more than 500 years before?

To answer this question, it should be noted that Surah Al-Isra, 17:1, states that the Prophet was taken from the “al-Masjid al-Haram” (in Mecca) to “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” (in Jerusalem). Ibn Ishaq’s narration from Ziyad bin Abdullah also states this:

“…the apostle was carried by night from the mosque at Mecca to the Masjid al-Aqsa, which is the temple of Aelia…”

This is despite the fact that the “masjid” in Mecca (the Kaaba) was still under the control of the pagans and was full of idols. Not only that, but even when Muhammad (peace be upon him) conquered Mecca, the “masjid” was still not the elaborate building we know of in modern times. Rather, it was just the Kaaba itself. So where was the “masjid”? This illustrates the confusion some people have about what constitutes a “masjid”. As shown above, a “masjid” does not have to be a literal building, since the whole earth has been made into a “masjid” (i.e. a place of prostration). The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his followers prayed in Mecca, in the direction of the Kaaba (although originally, they prayed in the direction of Jerusalem), even though there was no literal “mosque” there yet. In the same way, when Ibn Ishaq’s narration mentioned the Prophet traveling to “Masjid al-Aqsa” (i.e. the “temple”), it does not mean that there was a literal building there. The reference to the “temple” simply refers to the site, not an actual building. As we will see later (see the Addendum), even to the Jews living under Persian rule (during the brief period in the early 7th century when the Sassanid Persians conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines), to whom rebuilding the temple was of paramount importance, the sacred status of the site itself was all that was needed for the temple sacrifices to restart.

  1. Ibn Kathir’s Commentary

Shamoun quoted from Ibn Kathir’s commentary on Surah 17:1, which referenced to some narrations about Al-Isra as well. To begin, Ibn Kathir stated that “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” refers to:

“…the Sacred House which is in Jerusalem, the origin of the Prophets from the time of Ibrahim Al-Khalil.”[41]

Based on this, Shamoun argues that there must have been a building there even though the building was destroyed centuries before. But as Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway (Al-Quds University) explains:

“Muslim scholars understood that the name ‘Al-Aqsa Mosque’ predates the structures, and that no one building could be called as such.”[42]

Abu Sway also quotes the 10th-century AH scholar Mujir Al-Din Al-Hanbali to define what “Al-Aqsa” really means. Al-Hanbali stated that (emphasis ours):

“…‘Al-Aqsa’ is a name for the whole mosque which is surrounded by the wall…for the building that exists in the southern part of the Mosque, and the other ones such as the Dome of the Rock and the corridors and other [buildings] are novel…”[43]

So we have a clear precedent among Islamic scholars that the Quran’s reference to “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” is to the entire Temple Mount area, known to Muslims as “Haram Al-Shareef”.

Shamoun then quoted a narration from Jabir bin Abdullah as mentioned in Ibn Kathir’s commentary. Ironically though, the very narration that Shamoun focuses on disproves his point! Here is the narration (notice the part in bold):

“Some people from Quraish went to Abu Bakr and said, “Have you heard what your companion is saying? He is claiming that he went to Bayt Al-Maqdis and came back to Makkah in one night!” Abu Bakr said, “Did he say that?” They said, “Yes.” Abu Bakr said, “Then I bear witness that if he said that, he is speaking the truth.” They said, “You believe that he went to Ash-Sham (Greater Syria) in one night and came back to Makkah before morning” He said, “Yes, I believe him with regard to something even more than that. I believe him with regard to the revelation that comes to him from heaven.” Abu Salamah said, from then on Abu Bakr was known as As-Siddiq (the true believer).”[44]

So, in this narration the skeptics among the Quraish first mentioned “Bayt al-Maqdis”, and then referred to it as “Ash-Sham” (Greater Syria)! In other words, in this case, Bayt al-Maqdis referred to the land of Palestine and Syria, which includes Jerusalem, and not specifically to the mosque/temple!

Finally, Shamoun quoted Ibn Kathir to show that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) “entered the Sanctuary” to pray and later “came out of” Bayt-Maqdis:

“The truth is that the Prophet was taken on the Night Journey when he was awake, not in a dream, and he went from Makkah to Bayt Al-Maqdis riding on Al-Buraq. When he reached the door of the sanctuary, he tied up his animal by the door and entered, where he prayed two Rak`ahs to `greet the Masjid’. […]

Some people claim that he led them [the prophets] in prayer in heaven, but the reports seem to say that it was in Bayt Al-Maqdis. In some reports it says that it happened when he first entered (i.e., before ascending into the heavens)…” […]

Then he came out of Bayt Al-Maqdis and rode on Al-Buraq back to Makkah in the darkness of the night. And Allah knows best. As for his being presented with the vessels containing milk and honey, or milk and wine, or milk and water, or all of these, some reports say that this happened in Bayt Al-Maqdis, and others say that it happened in the heavens. It is possible that it happened in both places…”[45]

But as we have already seen, “Bayt al-Maqdis” could refer to the land of Palestine or Jerusalem or the Temple Mount (depending on the context). Later on, it was also used interchangeably with “Ilia” to refer to Jerusalem itself. In addition, once again, Shamoun shoots himself in the foot with his own so-called “proof”. Notice that Ibn Kathir specifically referred to the Prophet “entering” the “sanctuary”, and not Bayt al-Maqdis. He then says that the Prophet “came out of” the latter. In other words, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon) “entered” the Temple Mount sanctuary (Haram Al-Shareef), not the temple, and then exited the holy land afterward.  This proves that Bayt al-Maqdis was the city of Jerusalem itself. 

As for the “door of the sanctuary”, this is very clearly referring to one of the gates which allowed people to enter the Temple Mount sanctuary. Some of these entrances have survived to modern times, such as “Barclay’s Gate”. The others are “Warren’s Gate”, “Wilson’s Arch” and “Robinson’s Arch” (named for the archaeologists who discovered them).[46] It is through one of these gates that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) most likely entered the Temple Mount sanctuary. Indeed, there is a gate known as the “Gate of the Prophet” which is thought to be the gate through which he entered. Here is how Andreas Kaplony (University of Zurich) describes the itinerary of the Night Journey (emphasis ours):

“When Muhammad came here on his Night Journey he tied his fabulous riding animal al-Buraq to a stone ring in the wall; then, as the earlier prophets had done, he entered the Temple at the Gate of the Prophet (as, much later, did ‘Umar and the patrikios/patriarch of Jerusalem), walked from the Aqsa Mosque to the Dome of the Rock, climbed the platform at the Ascent of the Prophet, saw the virgins of Paradise at the Dome of the Chain, led the ritual prayer of all prophets at the Dome of the Prophet while the archangel Gabriel took part in the prayer at the Standing-place of Gabriel. Muhammad mounted al-Buraq at the Dome of Gabriel, put his hand on the Rock, and ascended to heaven from the Dome of the Ascension, if not from the Rock.”[47]

According to the British scholar Guy Le Strange (d. 1933), the “Gate of the Prophet” is synonymous with the “Double Gate”,[48] which can still be seen even in modern times. However, the “Moroccan Gate” is also believed to be the gate through which the Prophet entered the sanctuary.[49]

  1. Yusuf Ali’s Commentary

To finish off his “victory”, Shamoun quoted the Muslim exegete Yusuf Ali:

“The Farthest Mosque must refer to the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem on the hill of Moriah, at or near which stands the Dome of the Rock, called also the Mosque of Hadhrat ‘Umar. This and the Mosque known as the Farthest Mosque (Masjid-ul-Aqsa) were completed by the Amir ‘Abd-ul-Malik in A.H. 68. Farthest because it was the place of worship farthest west which was known to the Arabs in the time of the Holy Prophet: it was a sacred place to both Jews and Christians, but the Christians then had the upper hand, as it was included the Byzantine (Roman) Empire, which maintained a Patriarch at Jerusalem. The chief dates in connection with the Temple are: it was finished by Solomon about BC. 1004; destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar about 586 B.C.; rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah about 515 B.C.; turned into a heathen idol-temple by one of Alexander’s successors, Antiochus Epiphanes, 167 B.C.; restored by Herod, B.C. 17 to A.D. 29; and completely razed to the ground by the Emperor Titus in A.D. 70. These ups and downs are among the greater Signs in religious history.”

Yet Shamoun once again shot himself in the foot. Notice that Ali clearly stated that the “Farthest Mosque” (emphasis ours):

“…must refer to the site of the Temple of Solomon…”

So, it is referring to the “site”, not the temple itself. Moreover, Shamoun ignored what Ali stated just before mentioning the “Farthest Mosque”, in reference to the definition of the word masjid. Referring to the “Sacred Mosque” (al-Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, Ali explained that:

“[m]asjid is a place of prayer: here it refers to the Ka’bah at Makkah. It had not yet been cleared of its idols and rededicated exclusively to the One True God.”[50]

Just as the Kaaba was referred to as a “masjid”, so to was “al-Masjid al-Aqsa”, since both are sacred places for worshipping Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He). So once again, there is nothing here to prove any so-called “gross historical blunder”, as Shamoun claims.

  1. Ibn Sa’d

Finally, let us discuss the interesting narration from Ibn Sa’d’s Kitab al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, which should now make more sense in light of the detailed discussion above. As mentioned above, the narration describes how some people asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about the “doors” of the “mosque”, after which he miraculously described them. According to Shamoun, this somehow proves that there is an “error” because Muhammad (peace be upon him) thought that the temple still existed. We have already seen why this is a false attribution.

First of all, we have already established that a “masjid” is any place of “prostration” and does not necessarily denote a literal building. Second, we have also established that the Prophet “entered” the Temple Mount sanctuary through one of its “gates”. Having established these two important points, we can now see that Ibn Sa’d’s narration makes perfect sense. The Prophet was describing the gates of the Noble Sanctuary! Thus, there is no “error” on the part of the Prophet, but rather the error is on the part of the missionaries and their poor research. Here endeth the lesson!  


            We have thoroughly analyzed Shamoun’s claim of an alleged “error” in the Islamic sources regarding Al-Isra. He claimed that the ahadith indicate that the “mosque/temple” still existed as a literal building at the time of Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous visit to Jerusalem. But upon analysis, Shamoun’s argument fell apart. This was the result of a failure to consider the linguistic complexity of the Arabic word “masjid”, as well as the proper context of the ahadith in question. Moreover, he failed to carefully examine the commentaries of prominent Islamic scholars such as Ibn Kathir and Yusuf Ali. We can thus conclude that there is no “error” in the Islamic sources at all.

            And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!

Addendum: The Temple Mount During the Sasanian Occupation – A (Partially) Rebuilt Temple?

            Even though we have conclusively refuted Shamoun using the Islamic sources to show that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) visited Jerusalem and “entered” the “masjid” (“a place of prostration”) through one of its gates (“doors”), it is still worthwhile to examine another possible explanation.

            It is well-known that the Sasanian Empire (Persia) conquered Jerusalem (Bayt al-Maqdis) in 614 CE.[51] This was during the long and brutal war between the Sasanians and the Byzantines, which ultimately culminated in the latter recapturing Jerusalem in the year 628.[52] But what is not as well-known is the wave of excitement among the Jews caused by the fall of Jerusalem in 614, and how close they came to actually rebuilding the temple. The hated Byzantines had been overthrown. But more importantly, the Jews had found a potential benefactor, very much like Cyrus the Great (who ruled the Achaemenid Empire, the older Persian empire), to support their aspirations to rebuild the ruined temple.

            In his account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Sasanians, the Christian chronicler Antiochus Strategos (or Strategius) described how the Jews delighted in the mass slaughter of the Christian population as well as the destruction of their churches.  According to Strategos:

“And when the unclean Jews saw the steadfast uprightness of the Christians and their immovable faith, then they were agitated with lively ire, like evil beasts, and thereupon imagined another plot. As of old they bought the Lord from the Jews with silver, so they purchased Christians out of the reservoir; for they gave the Persians silver, and they bought a Christian and slew him like a sheep. The Christians however rejoiced because they were being slain for Christ’s sake and shed their blood for His blood, and took on themselves death in return for His death. . .

When the people were carried into Persia, and the Jews were left in Jerusalem, they began with their own hands to demolish and burn such of the holy churches as were left standing. . .”[53]

            The hatred of Byzantine-Christian rule explains the Jewish euphoria at the Sasanian victory (although Strategos’ description of the mass slaughter and destruction of Christian buildings may have been exaggerated).

            Now with the Byzantines gone, the Jews could finally take control of the Temple Mount and perhaps start rebuilding the temple. And this is what seems to have happened. According to Jewish piyyut (synagogal poetry),[54] following the collapse of Byzantine rule, the Jews were apparently given permission by the Sasanians to rebuild the temple! As Professor Hagith Sivan (University of Kansas) explains (emphasis ours):

“[h]opes of revival focused on the resettlement of Jerusalem, the reconstruction of the Temple, and the recognition of Jewish autonomous leadership. The piyyut appears to indicate that steps were taken to ensure precisely that. An altar was constructed on the site of the Temple, sacrifices resumed, and the community bestowed its recognition on an unnamed man who appeared ex nihilo to claim the mantle of leadership.”[55]

Interestingly, even though the temple was not rebuilt just yet, the Jews had already begun offering sacrifices! And of course, in modern times, Jews still pray at the “Wailing Wall”. This illustrates the same concept as we have seen with the Muslim concept of a “masjid”. Despite the fact that there was no temple, sacrifices were still offered and prayers could still be made. Thus, a sacred area is sacred no matter if a building is literally there or not. Nevertheless, plans to eventually rebuild the temple may have been made by the Jews shortly after the Sasanians captured Jerusalem.

            So what does this have to do with the topic of this article? Well, perhaps there was some form of a building, even if only partially completed, by the time the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) visited Jerusalem in 619? Of course, proving the existence of a partially rebuilt temple is not necessary to make sense of the Islamic accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s visit to Jerusalem, based on the evidence shown above, but it is still an intriguing possibility.

            Of course, the Jewish euphoria came to a sudden halt when the Sasanians apparently had a change of heart around the year 617. The Jewish leader, who was apparently being seen in an increasingly messianic way, was executed by the Persians and the Christians were once again in control, albeit as Sasanian clients.[56] So if construction had begun on the temple, it was probably destroyed by the Christians and left in ruins. Jerusalem would remain under Christian control and was fully regained when the Byzantines, led by Heraclius, recaptured it in 628. This would be the status quo until the Muslims conquered the holy city.       

            Nevertheless, the possibility of a partially-rebuilt temple is an interesting one. Even though it is certainly not necessary in order to refute Shamoun, it could shed further light on some of the descriptions of Al-Isra in the Islamic sources.

[1] This is from the Saheeh International translation.


[3] The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York: HarperOne, 2015), p. 693.

[4] For more information, see The Study Quran, pp. 694-695.

[5] Sahih Muslim, 1:318, The English translation renders the Arabic phrase “بَيْتَ الْمَقْدِسِ” as “temple” but for now, we will leave it as “Bayt al-Maqdis”. Later on, we will discuss the meaning of this phrase, as there is some confusion as to its meaning in early Islamic history.

[6] Sahih Bukhari, 63:112, Here, the translation renders the same Arabic phrase as “Jerusalem”. The confusion will be cleared up when we examine the historical meaning of بَيْتَ الْمَقْدِسِ in early Islam, inshaAllah.

[7] Sunan An-Nasa’i, 5:3,

[8] This book is available online:


[10] Jami at-Tirmidhi, 2:169,


[12] Mustafa Abu Sway, “The Holy Land, Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Qur’an, Sunnah and other Islamic Literary Sources”, p. 1,

[13] Khalid El-Awaisi, “The Names of IslamicJerusalem in the Prophet Period,” Journal of IslamicJerusalem Studies 8, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 40,

[14] Uri Rubin, “Muhammad’s Night Journey (isra’) to al-Masjid al-Aqsa: Aspects of the Earliest Origins of the Islamic Sanctity of Jerusalem,” al-Qantara 29 (2008): 157,

[15] Ibid., p. 5.

[16] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[17] Rubin, op. cit., p. 155.

[18] Ibid., p. 164.

[19] Hatem Bazian, “Al-Quds or Jerusalem: What’s in a Name?”, Seasons 4, no. 1 (Autumn 2007): 62,

See also El-Awaisi, op. cit., p. 22.

El-Awaisi notes that al-maqdis is a noun, whereas al-Muqaddas is an adjective. Thus, when the word bayt is combined with the former, it means “the Holy House,” and with the latter, it means “the House of Holiness”.

[20] Ibid.

[21] El-Awaisi, op. cit., p. 50.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., pp. 49-50.

[24] Bazian, op. cit., p. 62.

[25] El-Awaisi, op. cit., p. 50.

[26] Ibid., p. 29.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., pp. 31-32.

[29] Ibid., p. 32.

[30] Ibid., p. 33.

[31] Ibid., p. 34.

[32] Ibid., p. 35.

[33] Rubin, op. cit., p. 158.

[34] Jacob Lassner, Medieval Jerusalem: Forging an Islamic City in Spaces Sacred to Christians and Jews (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Univesity of Michigan Press, 2017), p. 7.

[35] Bazian, op. cit., p. 73; El-Awaisi, op. cit., p. 22. The Roman name was “Aelia Capitolina”.

[36] Ibid., p. 60.

[37] Ibid., p. 64.

[38] Sahih Bukhari, 56:153,

Here, Ibn Abbas referred to the city as “Ilya”.

[39] Bazian, op. cit., p. 64.

[40] El-Awaisi, p. 50.


[42] Abu Sway, op. cit., p. 5.

[43] Ibid.




[47] Andreas Kaplony, “[Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade] 635/638-1099: The Mosque of Jerusalem (Masjid Bayt al-Maqdis),” in Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade, Jerusalem und Austin, eds. Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Z. Kedar (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), p. 108,

Of course, when Kaplony refers to the “Dome of the Rock” and “Aqsa Mosque”, he is merely referring to the sites before the actual buildings were constructed.

Kaplony also provides a useful diagram of the Temple Mount after the Umayyad construction of the mosques (p. 105). The “Gate of the Prophet” can be clearly seen in the diagram.

Also of interest is the fact that there is also a small mosque in a corner of the modern Al-Aqsa compound, on the opposite side of the “Wailing Wall” (for Jews), that is known as “Masjid al-Buraq”. It got this name because it is thought be the place where Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) tied the heavenly creature Buraq before entering the compound (



[50] See the commentary here:

[51] Hagith Sivan, “From Byzantine to Persian Jerusalem: Jewish Perspectives and Jewish/Christian Polemics,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 41 (2000): 283,

[52] Gideon Avni, “The Persian Conquest of Jerusalem (614 c.e.)—An Archaeological Assessment,” Bulletine of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) 357, no. 1 (2010): 35,


However, modern archaeologists have found no evidence to suggest such destruction.  According to Gideon Avni:

“…a careful survey of the available archaeological finds from Jerusalem reveals no clear evidence of destruction layers that can be associated with the Persian conquest. In many sites, evidence for destruction is ambiguous…” (Avni, op. cit., p. 36).

Interestingly, Strategos also described how some Christians attempted to flee the violence and hid on the Temple Mount, and more specifically, in the “Holy of Holies”:

“[s]ome had fled into the Holy of Holies, where they lay cut up like grass. And some were found of the slain who had in their hands the glorious and life-giving body of Christ, and in the act of receiving it had been butchered like sheep. Others were clasping the horns of the altars; others the holy Cross, and the slain were heaped on them.”

This is strange given that the “Holy of Holies” was the innermost and most sacred part of the temple, separated by a veil which only the high priest could enter once every year. Yet there was no temple there at the time! This illustrates the same concept found in Islam regarding a “masjid”. It doesn’t have to be a literal building. What matters is the sacred status of the land and not whether it has a roof, walls, and doors.

It is also strange that Strategos claimed that some Christians were found clinging the “horns of the altar”. Perhaps this was a confusion on his part due to the fact that the Jews did build the altar shortly after the Sasanians captured Jerusalem, whereas he thought it already existed before.

[54] Sivan, op. cit.,, p. 278.

[55] Ibid., p. 291.

[56] Ibid., p. 303.



8 thoughts on “Al-Isra and the “Temple” in the Islamic Sources: A Response to Sam Shamoun

  1. Pingback: Feature Article: Al-Isra and the “Temple” in the Islamic Sources – A Response to Sam Shamoun – Blogging Theology

  2. stewjo004

    Salamulakum wa rahma tu lahi wa barakatu.
    This was a really interesting article Faiz. I didn’t realize that Bayt Al Maqdis is interchangeable for Jerusalem it’s such a simple refutation and now I can’t unsee it lol. The only notes I can think of adding are:
    1. Abdullah Yusuf Ali is not a scholar and his commentary means nothing. He was simply the first Muslim from Ahlul Sunna to translate the Qur’an into English.
    2. To further strengthen your position:
    From Hadith: Awf bin Malik Al-Ashja’i said: “I came to the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) during the campaign of Tabuk, when he was in a tent made of leather, so I sat in front of the tent. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘Enter, O ‘Awf.’ I said, ‘All of me, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘All of you.’ Then he said: ‘O ‘Awf, remember six things (that will occur) before the Hour comes, one of which is my death.’ I was very shocked and saddened at that. He said: ‘Count that as the first. Then (will come) the conquest of Baitul-Maqdis (Jerusalem)…
    It’s also in Bukhari:
    Narrated Jabir (bin ‘Abdullah) (RA): A man said on the day of the Fath, “O Messenger of Allah, I have vowed that if Allah opens the conquest of Makkah at your hands I shall pray in Jerusalem (word used is bayt al maqdis)”
    Narrated Mu’adh ibn Jabal: The Prophet (ﷺ) said: The flourishing state of Jerusalem will be when Yathrib is in ruins
    This hadith has been narrated on the authority of Jabir with the same chain of transmitters but with this addition that Gog and Magog would walk until they would reach the mountain of al-Khamar and it is a mountain of Bait-ul-Maqdis ..
    “He (the Anti-Chrit) will prevail over all the earth, apart from al-Haram [in Makkah] and Bayt al-Maqdis.” (Narrated by Ahmad, 19665. Classed as saheeh by Ibn Khuzaymah, 2/327, and Ibn Hibbaan, 7/102).
    None of thee ahadith would make sense if Bayt Al MAqdis is not the city of Jerusalem. From James Carrol: “The earliest Arabic name for Jerusalem is Madinat Bayt al Maqdis…city of the Temple…”
    They may try to argue him if one reads Isam qanda’s Sheikh Munnajid he uses bayt al maqis for the city of Jerualem frequently:
    3. You touched on this a bit but I think you should emphasize the area around the site is holy more. For example, the Kaaba is “holy” and is inside Masjid al-Haram but Masjid Al Haram is not a temple or building. If we can find a pic of the old city or something that would be fantastic. Something like with marks to the point you mentioned:
    And then show Bayt al Maqdis encompassing all of Al Aqsa.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Al-Isra and the “Temple” in the Islamic Sources: Response to Sam Shamoun, Part II – The Quran and Bible Blog

  4. Pingback: Al-Isra and the “Temple” in the Islamic Sources: A Response to Sam Shamoun, Part II – Blogging Theology

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