According to Hadith, many Muslims believe that around the year 621 CE, Muhammad traveled on the back of a winged baby horse like a white beast, called Buraq, (الْبُرَاق al-Burāq “the lightning”) to Masjid Al-Aqsa. By tradition, this mosque was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The verse from the Quran that is used to justify this account is the following:
[17:1] Most glorified is the One who summoned His servant (Muhammad) during the night, from the Sacred Masjid (of Mecca) to the Masjid Al-Aqsa, whose surroundings we have blessed, in order to show him some of our signs. He is the Hearer, the Seer.
سُبحانَ الَّذي أَسرىٰ بِعَبدِهِ لَيلًا مِنَ المَسجِدِ الحَرامِ إِلَى المَسجِدِ الأَقصَى الَّذي بارَكنا حَولَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِن آياتِنا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّميعُ البَصيرُ
One of the many problems with this interpretation is that the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was built in 705 CE, almost 100 years after this event. So how could Muhammad travelled to this location before it was even built?
The reality is that the expression المَسجِدِ الأَقصَى (al-masjid al-aqsa) is not in reference to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem that was built in 705 CE. To understand the location of this place it helps to understand the true meaning of the term. The the word masjid comes from the root سَجَدَ (sajad) and means to prostrate, and by adding the م at the beginning of the word it makes this in reference to a place of prostration. So while in Arabic the word masjid is typically translated as mosque, the literal meaning of this word is “the place of prostration.”
The word الأَقصَى comes from the root قصَى wich means “far” by adding suffix أَ before the word it means “farthest.” Therefore, the literal translation of the phrase al-masjid al-aqsa would be the “farthest place of prostration.” If we are to ask where is the farthest place of prostration, we see that this is not even limited to the planet Earth. God informs us that everything in the heavens including the sun, moon, and stars all prostrate to God.
[16:49] To GOD prostrates everything in the heavens and everything on earth — every creature—and so do the angels; without the least arrogance.
وَلِلَّهِ يَسْجُدُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِنْ دَابَّةٍ وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ وَهُمْ لَا يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ
[22:18] Do you not realize that to GOD prostrates everyone in the heavens and the earth, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the mountains, and the trees, and the animals, and many people? Many others among the people are committed to doom. Whomever GOD shames, none will honor him. Everything is in accordance with GOD’s will.
أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَسْجُدُ لَهُ مَنْ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَنْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَالشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ وَالنُّجُومُ وَالْجِبَالُ وَالشَّجَرُ وَالدَّوَابُّ وَكَثِيرٌ مِنَ النَّاسِ وَكَثِيرٌ حَقَّ عَلَيْهِ الْعَذَابُ وَمَنْ يُهِنِ اللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُ مِنْ مُكْرِمٍ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَفْعَلُ مَا يَشَاءُ
Notice that in verse 22:18 the term the term “heavens” is used in the plural form السَّمَاوَاتِ (l-samāwāti). Additionally, we know there are seven heavens or universes according to the Quran. Many people make the faulty assumption that these are in reference to the layers in the atmosphere, but we see in the following verse that this referring to universes because God is indicating that each of these universes have their own physical laws.
[41:12] Thus, He completed the seven universes in two days, and set up the laws for every universe. And we adorned the lowest universe with lamps, and placed guards around it. Such is the design of the Almighty, the Omniscient.
فَقَضَاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ فِي يَوْمَيْنِ وَأَوْحَىٰ فِي كُلِّ سَمَاءٍ أَمْرَهَا وَزَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِمَصَابِيحَ وَحِفْظًا ذَٰلِكَ تَقْدِيرُ الْعَزِيزِ الْعَلِيمِ
[2:29] He is the One who created for you everything on earth, then turned to the sky and perfected seven universes therein, and He is fully aware of all things.
هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ لَكُمْ مَا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ فَسَوَّاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
The following verses indicates that each of the universes are layered on top of one another.
[67:3] He created seven universes in layers. You do not see any imperfection in the creation by the Most Gracious. Keep looking; do you see any flaw?
الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ طِبَاقًا مَا تَرَىٰ فِي خَلْقِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ مِنْ تَفَاوُتٍ فَارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ هَلْ تَرَىٰ مِنْ فُطُورٍ
[71:15] Do you not realize that GOD created seven universes in layers?
أَلَمْ تَرَوْا كَيْفَ خَلَقَ اللَّهُ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ طِبَاقً
Therefore, if we are in the innermost universe we can consider the Earth is in the seventh universe, while the outermost universe would be the first universe. This means that the farthest place of prostration would be somewhere in the first universe.
Now with this information let’s look the the verse where God took Muhammad to the high horizon and see how it corresponds with these findings.
[53:1] As the stars fell away. [53:2] Your friend (Muhammad) was not astray, nor was he deceived. [53:3] Nor was he speaking out of a personal desire. [53:4] It was divine inspiration. [53:5] Dictated by the Most Powerful. [53:6] Possessor of all authority. From His highest height. [53:7] At the highest horizon. [53:8] He drew nearer by moving down. [53:9] Until He became as close as possible. [53:10] He then revealed to His servant what was to be revealed. [53:11] The mind never made up what it saw. [53:12] Are you doubting what he saw? [53:13] He saw him in another descent. [53:14] At the ultimate point. [53:15] Where the eternal Paradise is located. [53:16] The whole place was overwhelmed. [53:17] The eyes did not waver, nor go blind. [53:18] He saw great signs of his Lord.
The stars fell away as Muhammad’s soul was traveling faster than the speed of light from our universe to the first universe at the ultimate point at the highest horizon. Then God moved down as close as possible and revealed to Muhammad’s heart the Quran. The reason the mind could not make up what it saw is because in this other location with its own unique physical laws the senses and vocabulary of this worldly body lacks the ability of being able to articulate these kinds of details. Verse 53:14 describes this as the ultimate point. When we look at the Arabic we see that this is the point of understanding.
The direction of all our prostration is to God.
[41:37] Among His proofs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Do not prostrate before the sun, nor the moon; you shall fall prostrate before the GOD who created them, if you truly worship Him alone.
وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ الَّيْلُ وَالنَّهَارُ وَالشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ لَا تَسْجُدُوا لِلشَّمْسِ وَلَا لِلْقَمَرِ وَاسْجُدُوا لِلَّهِ الَّذِي خَلَقَهُنَّ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ إِيَّاهُ تَعْبُدُونَ
Because of this, the farthest location for Muhammad for prostration would be the closest location that Muhammad could prostrate to God. Therefore, al-masjid al-aqsa (the farthest place of prostration) for Muhammad is the location where he could be in the closest proximity to God (53:9).
So the Al-Aqsa Mosque is not in Jerusalem, and not in this world, but is where the eternal Paradise is located (53:15) at the ultimate point.