The Al Aqsa Mosque = The Holy Temple?

Can Judaism and Islam share this holy site?

Yesterday evening, my friend Yusuf, of the Palestinian village of Beit Umar, offered an amazing insight concerning the sanctity of the Temple Mount.

We were both participants in the Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogue group run by the Roots initiative, of which I am one of the founders. Roots, the Palestinian-Israeli grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence, and transformation, brings together local Israelis and Palestinians in the Gush Etzion-Bethlehem-Hebron area for authentic, deep encounters that challenge and change those who take part in them.

The topic we had chosen for this month was Jerusalem. I presented a short survey of verses in the Bible dealing with the significance of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. I pointed out that at the dedication of the First Temple, King Solomon made it very clear that it was meant to be a house of worship not only for Jews but also for “the stranger who comes from a far-away place for Your name’s sake” (I Kings 8:41).

I discussed the Jewish belief in the rebuilding of the Temple as a source of Divine light and blessing, and to close I read the beautiful verses in Isaiah 2:3-4:

Many peoples shall go and say, come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Before beginning his presentation about Jerusalem in the Muslim tradition, Yusuf reacted to what I had just taught. Greatly animated and yet a bit puzzled, he said that it sounds as if the Jews should see the Al Aqsa mosque that now stands on the Temple Mount as part of the fulfillment of their ancient dream to see a house of God erected on that holy mountain. Mosques in general, he said, are open to all believers for prayer. We Muslims should welcome you into al Aqsa. Why do we have to think in terms of a violent zero-sum game of Al Aqsa or the Temple? Can’t they be one and the same?

At that point, Rebecca, a haredi woman who is a regular participant in these dialogues and a force to be reckoned with, responded  — of course! When the mosque was first built by the Caliph Umar after he conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, that was pretty much the intention. He saw Jerusalem as a holy city and the Temple Mount as sanctified ground partially because Muslim tradition tells the story of the Holy Temple that had been built there by the Jewish King Solomon at the behest of God. He built the mosque as a continuation of Jewish tradition and not in opposition to it.

And the ten Jews and the ten Muslims in the room seemed to nod their heads in agreement! Khaled Abu Awwad, the Palestinian director of Roots, then interjected with a mind-boggling connection. The Al-Aqsa mosque, he pointed out, literally means the far-away mosque. Could it be, he asked, that the Koran calls it that in allusion to the verse in First Kings that talks about the Holy Temple being a house of prayer for “the stranger who comes from a far-away place”?

Indeed, for quite a while I have been toying with just such an idea of a radical change of Jewish perspective concerning the Al Aqsa mosque, although I have not had the audacity to say it out loud. Perhaps we have been a bit blind, unable to see that the beginning of the flowering of redemption is already out there in plain sight. The Rambam (Maimonides) already wrote almost a thousand years ago that Islam (as well as Christianity before it) may be seen as part of a Divine scheme to spread the word of monotheism throughout the world and to prepare the way for the messianic era. Perhaps we should see the Al Aqsa mosque as part of that process, and celebrate and embrace it instead of viewing it as something foreign.

Who knows what would begin to happen were Jews in Israel and the world over to begin to appreciate the role of Al Aqsa in our vision of the Temple Mount as a focal point for love of God and human harmony? Would Muslims ever respond positively? How would it affect our aspirations for the future rebuilding of the Temple? Might Al Aqsa be expanded to make room for us? Might a larger complex be built that included the mosque and much more, with Al Aqsa being seen as part of the Temple itself (And the Temple being seen as part of Al Aqsa?)?

Of course, it is in no one’s partisan interest to take such a proposal seriously. There are thousands of reasons to reject it out of hand. Many Jews might say that after a thousand years of maintaining our identity against the Muslim onslaught, now we are going selling out? Other Jews might respond that the mosque does not begin to fulfill any of the technical conditions related to the rebuilding of the Temple. Muslims will see this as a political plot to take over their beloved mosque. But above all, the real problem with the idea is that it challenges the ingrained hubris of exclusivity that is so foundational to both of our identities.

After all, this is really about identity, “us” and “them”, one in opposition to the other. Precisely in grappling with the idea presented here we may have an Archimedean point from which to build out to a broader shared identity that celebrates not only our particularity but also our commonality. In so doing we might come one step closer to the realization of the lofty vision of world peace put forth over two millennia ago by the prophet Isaiah.


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