The Kauthal Ma'arabeh in Jerusalem, the "Western Wall" of the Temple area, known to the ubiquitous American tourist as the "Wailing Wall," presents several of the many facets of that diamond religion which both enlightens and causes much sorrow for mankind — undying devotion to an heroic past, and fervent trust in divine succor, contrasted with the dark ray of bitter fanaticism. These fifty-odd feet of the southwestern wall of the sacred temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel, and Herod have become more important in international relations than was once the Great Wall of China. Behind it sit entrenched (by long possession and vested interest) the Moslems of Palestine and the Near East. They are wary night and day lest the Jews gain one unprecedented privilege. Little clashes there have spread into general rioting and bloodshed, as in the summer of 1929 and before again! One of the most powerful empires in history fights a small war to end the civil strife, and then appoints an august commission to investigate and adjust the vexed religious and racial differences.

Would it not remove one of the most dangerous points of friction in Palestine today if it could only be proved satisfactorily to Moslems that the "Wailing Wall" is not at all the correct part of the Haram enclosure which they should hold because of connection with the Prophet Mohammed? If only another portion of the generously expansive walls of the ancient temple area were shown to be the real "Wall of al-Buraq" of Mohammedan tradition?

For to the Jew and to the Moslem this historic spot has become a symbol jealously revered. To the Jew — even to the great majority who spend their time in modern Palestine in quite other activities than "wailing" on Sabbath eves too near the Moslem holy door of the Prophet and al-Buraq in the courtyard of the House of Abu Sa'ud — the wall is a symbol of a vanished glory which he hopes may live anew. To the Moslem, also, it is a symbol of his racial and religious security in a land where his fathers have dwelt for thirteen hundred years. For he sees this security now crumbling before a Jewish occupation and rehabilitation project, supported by contributions from practically every community of the world where there are Jews (and where not!) and countenanced by the powerful Allied nations who won the World War.

So the Moslem, disgruntled by the non-fulfillment of Allied military proclamations of coming peace and independence (as in 1918 in Palestine and Syria), and disturbed by the growing Jewish numbers of population (with 100,000 increase in ten years!), quite naturally argues with himself as follows: "If the Jews are given the liberty of their wishes outside the wall of the Haram ash-Shareef, by Allah! they will soon extend their desires inside the holy place and seek to rebuild a temple on the spot whence the Prophet ascended to Heaven!" (That the sacred area had really been sold to the Jews was, as is widely known, one of the propaganda cries in the summer of 1929.)

To be frank in the beginning, the writer of this article, who has both Jewish and Moslem friends in Palestine, and who has profound reverence for both Jews and Arabs because of their contributions to our Western civilization, is not in favor of a nationalistic Zionism in Palestine. He hopes, then, the reader will do two things: that he will observe well the qualifying word "nationalistic," and that he will see here assurance that this is not a mere propaganda article for a Jewish Palestine. Hence the arguments may be more acceptable and convincing, because they are free from bias.

For the writer honestly believes, on basis of extended study, that the Moslems venerate today the wrong portion of the Haram wall as the "Wall of al-Buraq" and as containing the "Gate of the Prophet." This seems inescapable from the descriptions of many of the earliest and most reliable Moslem historians themselves!

As indicated above, Moslem jealousy of the Kauthzal Ma'arabeh arises from its connection with a venerable and most transcendent tradition of the Prophet. That tradition is the celebrated, story of the "Night-Journey," which is based on verse one of Sura 17 of the Koran: "say the praise of Him, who transported His Servant by night from the sacred Temple (of Mecca) to the farthest temple (of Jerusalem)!" The "furthest mosque" is al-Masjid al-Aqsa, a term by which is meant the entire sacred area; but which, after the supposed construction of a mosque by the great caliph Omar (on the southern edge of the area) and its reconstruction by the Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705 A.D.), has been restricted to denomination of this one mosque. It need hardly be pointed out that al-Aqsa is a real mosque, while the Dome of the Rock (built also by Abd al-Malik, and by Omar) is not a mosque at all, though "the faithful" pray there, both above ground and in the cave beneath the conjectured former rock of sacrifice. The beautiful Dome has "stolen the show," in world interest at least, from the mosque itself!

The "Night Journey" story is well known. But perhaps it may be very briefly repeated here for those who have not handy a copy of Washington Irving's "Life of Mahomet," to read one of the best accounts in English. On a certain night, after Mohammed had prayed the evening prayer with his "Companions" in Mecca, Gabriel appeared to him with a wondrous steed, 'al-Buraq ("Lightning!"), smaller than a mule but larger than a donkey. The Prophet was directed by his angelic visitor to mount. He did so; and al-Buraq, speeding with such strides that her hoofs fell as far as the eye could see, took him to Jerusalem. On the way, the accompanying Gabriel bade Mohammed stop and pray in such sacred places as Medina (then Yathrib), Hebron, and Bethlehem, On the arrival in Jerusalem, Mohammed stopped at the temple enclosure where the prophets had stopped before him, tied up al-Buraq in that gate, and was directed by Gabriel in devotions at the holy place. All the Prophets of the past were assembled to greet Mohammed. He was then carried through the seven heavens into the presence of Allah himself, who communicated the ordinance of the five daily prayers (an ancient Jewish custom, of course!). Then he was carried back to Mecca, before the memorable night had brightened into dawn. And he quieted the scoffers by giving instances of salutations with travellers on the way who recognized his voice, and by predicting the arrival of a certain Mecca-bound caravan, even to the load and color of the leading camel!

To conceive rightly of the grip of this story on the imaginations of the orthodox Moslems, we should have to doff our rationalistic Occidental thought caps and put on their mental tarboosh or turban! At the same time, it must be realized there are many educated and cultured Moslems in many lands who regard the tradition as no more literal than the highly diverting story of Jack and the Bean Stalk. Further, the tradition has more than once been rationalized even by Mohammedan commentators on the Koran. A noted Egyptian scholar only recently published an interesting interpretation. He said: "The' word Isra, 'night-journey,' is used in several places in the Qur'an for the stealthy escape of prophets from persecution (for of course the Qur'an retells many of the Biblical stories!); and therefore, the word used in connection with the Prophet Mohammed, himself means his historic flight in 622 from the hostile Meccans to the arms of the friendly people of Yathrib, afterward called Medinat an-Nabi, 'City of the Prophet,' or simply Medina."

If such an interpretation could gain universal acceptance among Moslems, the "Wailing Wall" problem would immediately vanish. But this will not be the case. The book mentioned above was proscribed! So we must endeavor to show the Moslems they are bestowing special veneration on the wrong part of the Haram wall.

Let us recall the plan of the Herodian temple area, with its various entrances on the southwest and the south, as spoken of by Josephus and others. We may aid our imaginations by referring to such splendid reconstructions as that portrayed by De Vogüé in his "Le Temple de Jérusalem," etc., Paris, 1864. Now it is an amazing fact that despite the vicissitudes suffered by Jerusalem from Roman, Persian, Arab, Crusader and Turk since the magnificent but short-lived temple of Herod, at least traces of these temple-area gateways remain to our day! Entering from the southwest were three gates, two of them with high-raised causeways or bridges over the Tyropoeon ("Cheesemakers") Valley, and a third with a lower causeway. The northernmost was just below the middle of the western wall, now being marked by Wilson's Arch, very near the present Bab as-Silsila, "Gate of the Chain." The southernmost was near the southwest corner of the present walls, now being indicated by Robinson's Arch, with however, no further remaining traces of a doorway except a rather large window directly above, because the wall has since been built up solidly, and the southern minaret of the Haram is near here. The third southwestern gate, which is the important point here, was beneath the present Bab al-Maghariba ("Gate of the Moors"). This was most probably the second of the "suburban gates" mentioned by "Josephus. Because it was below the other Southwestern entrances, it became useless, as the filling up of the Tyropoeon Valley raised the level of the ground along the wall, and was walled up when the Haram walls were later rebuilt.

This old entrance was discovered by the American physician Barclay, and it is often called by his name. He tells of it in his antiquated but still interesting book "The City of the Great King." It is also thoroughly described by G. Rosen, once Prussian consul in Palestine in the little book, "Das Haram von Jerusalem." Being a lower level entrance, this passage was continued beneath the pavement of the Haram floor, with steps for egress inside the enclosure.

It is this former gate that is the mainspring of Moslem contention. It is called by them the "Gate the Prophet," or the "Gate of al-Buraq." They are exceedingly jealous of prowlers here, and have plastered over the immense solid, stone, closing but revealing the form of the ancient passage. Here, they say, the Prophet alighted and entered the Haram on his memorable Night Journey. Inside the wall, where there is a small "Mosque of al-Buraq," there is in one of the thick walls of the gateway an iron ring — which the privileged few are shown as the actual place where al-Buraq was tethered! Hence, the entire portion of the wall here is sacred to al-Buraq and the Prophet including of course that spot a few yards to the north where, with only occasional interruptions, the Jews have worshiped since renewal of permission by the Roman emperors, soon after the terrible destruction in 70 A. D..

In the southern wall there were also three entrances the "Double Gate," which I believe is the true "Gate of the Prophet" of tradition, now walled up under the mosque al-Aqsa; and, further east, the "Triple Gate," about the middle of the southern wall; and finally, the ancient "Single Gate" near the southeastern corner. All these old gates are clearly outlined, except that the "Double Gate" is more than half covered by the more modern structures which adjoin the Aqsa on the south.

Now it is true that a fairly old tradition points out this "Barclay’s Gate" underneath the "Gate of the Moors" as the "Gate of the Prophet" or of "al-Buraq." Some Moslem writers say the Prophet and Gabriel entered the Haram "through a gate through which the sun and the moon incline" — a phrase which would seem to mean a Western or southwestern gate. This expression is found, for instance, in the little religious guide-book for Moslems, "Arousing Souls to Pilgrimage to Jerusalem's Holy Walls," by Burhan ad-Din ibn al-Firkah, of Damascus, who died in 1329 A.D. A copy of this, belonging to the Landberg Collection of Arabic manuscripts at Yale University, has just been edited by the writer as a doctoral dissertation.1

But on the other hand, testimony of most of the standard Arab historians is in favor of the southern, "Double Gate" as the gate of the Prophet and al-Buraq. There is not, in fact, an entirely unambiguous reference to Barclay's gate as the holy spot of tradition until as late as Mujir ad-Din, 1496 A. D., whose book is almost entirely of borrowed material, and which is now being edited anew by Dr. Mayer, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.2

To go back to the earliest writers Ibn al Fakih (903 A.D.) says the place of the tying up of the steed was "in the angle of the southern minaret" (which as mentioned above was at the Southeastern corner of the Haram area) Ibn Abd Rabbih (913 A.D.) says it was "under the corner of the masjid, (the mosque)," which here probably means al-Aqsa, although it could mean the corner of the entire temple area. Now these very early historians prove nothing for the present wall and gate of al-Buraq and the Prophet. For the Double Gate is just as near the angle of the southern, minaret (the southwestern corner of the Haram) as the Gate of the Moors and the ancient gate beneath! And the Double Gate is under the masjid al-Aqsa, and fairly near one of its corners, while the Gate of the Moors is quite detached from it. (The Mosque of the Moors or Northwest Africans adjacent to the Gate of the Moors is of course much more recent, and has no place in the discussion.)

The evidence of Muqaddasi (985 A. D.), a citizen of Jerusalem itself, is unquestionably for the southern location. Muqaddasi speaks of the "Two gates of the Prophet," Babai an-Nabi, in such a way as to make the identification with the Double Gate quite positive. The descriptions of Nasir-i-Khusrau, a Persian historian who visited Jerusalem in 1047 A. D., is quite arresting. He says (as quoted by the English scholar Le Strange, in his very excellent book, "Palestine Under the Moslems," p. 178) "One such as these (gates) is called Bab an-Nabi (or the Gate of the Prophet) — peace and blessing upon him ! — which opens toward the Qiblah point — that is, toward the south (toward Mecca). ... The Prophet ... on the night of his ascent into heaven passed into the Noble Sanctuary through this passageway, for the gateway opens on the road from Makkah." What could be clearer? And from the hand of a Jerusalemite and reputable historian!

Both Muqaddasi and Nasir, as is pointed out by Le Strange (p. 181), called the present gate of the Prophet by the name of the "Hittah Gates" or "Gate of Remission of Sins," despite the fact that an earthquake occurred between the time of the two writers, changing the structure and nomenclature. It was perhaps during and after the disturbed times of the Crusades, when Jerusalem suffered assault and counter assault and several times exchanged masters, who carried on both destructive and building operations while in possession, that so much change in names of the various gates and other features of the Haram took place. The result was a veritable puzzle of identification. But Sir C. Wilson, the greatest authority on the subject, and Le Strange after him (p. 182), are led by their careful study to the most important conclusion that the gates "of the Prophet or of al-Buraq" as described by Ibn Fakih, Ibn Abd Rabbih, and Muqaddasi, are the same as that so clearly pictured by Nasir-i-Khusrau — the Double Gate in the southern wall.

The passageway to this gate, although closed from the outside, is still open underneath the mosque al-Aqsa. There is a splendid drawing of it in De Vogüé, plate IV, reproduced by Le Strange on page 182. Ibn Batutah, a very famous Arab traveller, wrote in 1355 as if this entrance were still in use, stating that, the imam entered there to lead the services in the holy places. What could be more natural than for the imam to use the same door believed to have been used by the Prophet?

The weight then of the evidence from Arab historians themselves, and of studies of Western scholars, is pronouncedly for the Double Gate on the south side of the Haram as the original Gate of the Prophet and al-Buraq, in the famous traditions. This makes the western portion of the southern wall, and not the southern portion of the western wall (adjoining so nearly the Place of Wailing), the proper place for the Moslems to guard with jealousy and regard with veneration. It may be suggested as probable that the shift from the southern gate to a western or southwestern came after the southern doorways had been closed up (after Ibn Batutah?) and the southern entrance ways therefore were no longer used.3

New Haven, Conn.

Editorial note by Answering Islam:

One needs to carefully distinguish between these two questions:
(1) Which gate was historically considered to be the door through which Muhammad entered?
(2) Did Muhammad enter any of these doors? In other words, was the event as such historical?

This present article investigates only question (1) which does not imply a positive answer to question (2).
Various aspects of this second question are discussed in the articles listed in our dictionary entry on Muhammad's Night Journey.

1 Ibn al-Firkah, however, in some other Statements leaves much room for uncertainty, giving possible justification for regarding his choice also as the southern entrance, the ancient Double Gate, as the historic entrance used by the Prophet and Gabriel.

2 Even Mujir ad-Din's reference is merely incidental, as he is speaking of another subject, Further he failed to include from his main source (Kamal ad-Din as-Suyuti 1471) a statement that the Gate of the Inspector (Bab an-Nazir) near the northern end of the western wall, was also known as the Gate of al-Buraq or of the Prophet. As-Suyuti's reference, added to the fact that the Gate of the Funerals (Bab al-Jana'iz, just south of the Golden Gate) was also known as the Gate of al-Buraq, portrays the very general uncertainty among Moslem authorities themselves.

3 Some of the arguments given above are to be found also in a "Memorandum" prepared in 1930 by Dr. Cyrus Adler, president of Dropsie College, Philadelphia, for presentation to the Special Commission of the League of Nations appointed to settle the "Wailing Wall" problem. I saw the very interesting Memorandum (not prepared for general publication) only after completing this article. It contains, in addition, the history of Jewish devotion to the wall as a relic of the ancient temples, from the first centuries of our era and, from the destruction of the temple, indeed, in the year 70. The present writer has a brief sketch of the "Wall of al-Buraq" problem in an article on the Journal of Biblical Literature, for June, 1932.

The Muslim World, vol. 22: 1932, pp. 331-339.

Answering Islam Home Page