Today’s reading starts with an interesting reference:

Glory to Him who made His servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship to the furthest place of worship, whose surroundings we have blessed, to show him some of Our signs. (17:1)

16th Century Persian miniature of Muhammad's Night Journey

Muslim tradition says that during the night of the 27th of Rajab (the seventh month of the Islamic calendar) around the year of AD 621, Muhammad woke from his sleep in the Kaa’ba in Mecca (“the sacred place of worship”) and rode a mythical steed called Buraq, a horse-like creature with the head of a woman, to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (the “furthest place of worship”).  After praying in Jerusalem, Muhammad ascends through the seven tiers of Heaven meeting the great prophets of old — Adam, John the Baptist, Jesus, and so forth.  Muhammad is then given visions of punishment and reward, and the Prophet returns to earth with a reduction in the number of daily prayers from fifty to five. 

This “Night Journey” (as the event is called and, thus, the name for this surah) seals Muhammad as the greatest of all Prophets, as none others have experienced such an honor.  The majority of Muslims believe this journey (isra) was a physical one, though there are some who would say he was only taken in the spirit.   

Al-Aqsa Mosque

The Al-Aqsa Mosque derives its name from this ayah.  “Aqsa” is Arabic for “furthest.”  Because of its connections to Muhammad, this mosque is considered the third most sacred mosque in the world behind those in Mecca and Medina.  There is a bit of a discrepancy concerning the accuracy of this legend.  Was there a mosque in Jerusalem to which Muhammad could be taken in AD 621?  All sources I have found say the actual Al-Aqsa Mosque was not built until after Muhammad’s death, but I guess there could have been some sort of earlier structure. 

The Dome of the Rock

Anyone who has watched the evening news and seen a segment from Jerusalem is familiar with the golden domed building that is modern Jerusalem’s most distinctive feature.  The Dome of the Rock, as it is called (not to be confused with the Al-Aqsa Mosque just to the south of the Dome of the Rock in the same complex on the Temple Mount), was built over the large rock from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven on his Night Journey.  There is even a legend that says the large crack that can be seen on this rock was caused by the sheer glory of Muhammad’s ascension (mi’raj). 

Inside the Dome of the Rock

Of course, Jewish tradition says this same rock is where Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, so it is doubly sacred and sought as an exclusive religious site by both religions.  Peace and coexistence in the Middle East is not that simple, is it?