Blake jacobsladder
Jacob’s Dream by William Blake (c. 1805, British Museum, London), via Wikimedia Commons

© 2017 D. Catherine

In Genesis 28:11-12, the rock that Jacob rested his head on and then ‘dreamed’ of the ascending “ladder” is located at the northern peak of Mount Moriah, which is the Jewish Temple Mount, Har HaBayit, called in Arabic Ḥaram ash-Sharīf ‘the Noble Sanctuary’. The rock itself became the sacred rock upon which the Jewish ‘Holy of Holies’ (qodesh ha-qodāshîm) of the Jewish Temple was founded, and this is the same “rock” (Arabic ṣakhra) that—through the restorative efforts of the Islamic Caliph Umar—was unearthed from under the rubble of the ruins of the Roman temple of Jupiter Capitolinus that was built subsequent to the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple. Later (c. 691 CE) this rock was protectively enshrined within the ‘Dome of the Rock’ (qubbat as-ṣakhra). At this stage we should also keep in mind that the city of Jerusalem as al-Quds (the Holy) gains that distinction and is qualified as such in relation to Qodesh ha-Qodāshîm (the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple).

Islam’s primary holy sanctuary—towards which every Muslim is instructed to pray[1]—is the Kaʿaba in Mecca, which is enshrined within the inner precincts of “the Sacred Mosque” (Masjid al-Ḥarām).

The Ka‘aba within Masjid al-Ḥarām constitutes the southern sanctuary. It could be argued that the Dome of the Rock—the Rock, as Foundation, being the domain of original Temple worship in Judaism—on the Temple Mount constitutes the northern sanctuary. Thus there is a sacred North-South (or Jerusalem-Mecca, or Judaic-Islamic) Axis of worship that I’m confident was recognised and honoured by Muhammad and probably Umar as well.

When circa 638 CE Umar built a rudimentary prayer house on the southern end of the Temple Mount complex (later reconstructed as “al-Aqsa” Mosque), I have to wonder if this southern location on the sacred Mount was in symbolic recognition of the southern pole of the sacred North-South (or Jerusalem-Mecca or Judaic-Islamic) Axis; and that Muhammad’s divine miʿrāj ‘ladder/ascent’ should accord—both metaphysically and geospatially—with the divine ladder that Jacob saw “ascending” from the ṣakhra rock=foundation of the Holy of Holies (currently enshrined within the Dome of the Rock on the northern peak of the Temple Mount)? Although the Quran (17:1) places the location of Muhammad’s miraj=ascent at “al-Aqsa” (meaning ‘the Farthest’) Mosque, it could be argued that the “al-Aqsa” of Muhammad originally referred to the northern Holy of Holies (AKA Bayt al-Maqdis ‘the Holy House/Temple’) that was founded upon the sacred Rock that we hear about in the Jacob ascent narrative in Genesis 28:11-12?

In fact, many Muslims consider the original al-Aqsa as synonymous with Ḥaram ash-Sharīf (the Temple Mount) in its entirety and with the Rock as its centre, which was Muhammad’s original qiblah (direction of prayer) before later reorienting it toward the Ka‘aba in Mecca. This is corroborated by the fact that Ka‘ab al-Ahbar—whom Umar consulted with on where to build the mosque—wanted to build the mosque north of the Rock so that the two qiblahs (the Rock and the Ka‘aba) would align with one another. This suggestion however was rejected by Umar, who argued that it was tantamount to following the Jewish religion (with reference to the Temple Foundation Stone) with Umar finally insisting: “We were not commanded to venerate the Rock [the place of Muhammad’s miraj], but we were commanded to venerate the Ka‘aba.”[2]

Consider also the following commentary by the French philosopher, theologian and Professor of Islamic studies, Henry Corbin:

This great “rock” is designated by the Arabic term sakhrah, and it is so essentially allied to the Imago Templi and to the tradition of the Temple that, as we shall see, it is at the origin of the denomination of the Knights of the Order of the Temple. It has given its name to the building constructed on the site of the Temple and which is still called, even today, Qubbat al-Sakhrah, the “Dome of the Rock”. Thus the Imago Templi, in Suhravardi also, is rooted in the deepest traditions concerning the Temple. Very ancient Jewish traditions tell us that this holy rock was the initial point—the starting-point—of Creation, the original Centre around which the earth developed concentrically. Jacob rested his head on it while he slept and dreamed of the ladder linking Heaven and Earth, which the Angels ascended and descended (Gen. 28). It corresponds to the position of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple. This is why the place marked by the rock is seen as the entrance to the higher world or, rather, as already part of it. It is through the holy rock as the foundation stone that Heaven and Earth exist and communicate with each other.[3]

If Umar considered the current location of mosque to have been sacred according to Muhammad’s miraj=ascent, then why did he ask a new convert (one of his travelling companions) to advise him on where he could build a mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? The subsequent dialogue and disagreement between the two of them about the qiblah (direction of prayer) has everything to do with the location of the Kaʿaba in Mecca, and nothing (at least from Umar’s side) to do with marking Muhammad’s place of ascent at al-Aqsa (Quran 17:1). That Umar’s mosque later becomes known as “al-Aqsa” is not in doubt here, but I’m convinced that Mohammad’s location of ascent accords not with the current mosque location on the southern part of the Temple Mount, but rather with Jacob’s ascending divine “ladder” (Genesis 28:11-12) upon the Rock (on the northern peak of the Temple Mount) that was also subsequently the Foundation Stone for the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple and is currently enshrined within the Dome of the Rock, known to the Crusader Knights as Templum Domini (the Temple of the Lord).

Why else would that Rock be considered important and sacred, unless considered—at the very least symbolically—as a key isthmus/gateway between the Earth and the Heavens, the Seen and the Unseen, and thus a place of “ascent”—identified and distinguished as such by Muhammad himself, hence his Night Journey all the way from Mecca to Jerusalem and not simply an ascent at Mecca. Furthermore, it is unlikely within an economy of symbolism—a manifest focal point—that there are two divine ascending points within an earshot distance of one another; it makes sense that Muhammad’s place of ascent accorded with Jacob’s place of ascent (the Rock), with the original al-Aqsa as synonymous with the entire Ḥaram ash-Sharīf (within which the Rock is considered “central”). The bifurcation comes later as a result of the usual religious polemics.


[1] The first Islamic qiblah=direction for prayer was towards Jerusalem, soon after changed by Muhammad to the Kaʿaba in Mecca, but what I am proposing is that the Jerusalem qiblah and Muhammad’s place of miraj were oriented towards the ṣakhra=rock as Foundation for the Holy of Holies at the northern peak of Mount Moriah, not the current mosque placed at the south of the Temple Mount complex, which may have been instated by Umar simply as the Muslim symbolic complement to the southern sanctuary that is the Ka‘aba.
[3] Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (transl. Yohanan Friedmann), The History of al-Tabari, Vol. 12, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992, p.195.
[3] Henry Corbin, Temple and Contemplation, Series of five lectures delivered at the Eranos Conferences in Ascona, Switzerland. Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, pp.281-282.

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