The Qibla Question

Commonly accepted Islamic history states that the Ka’ba was a major shrine, and Mecca was a major city and the focus of pilgrimage in Arabia. As we have already seen, the archaeology of Mecca casts some doubt on it being Islam’s original Holy City. But what can we learn about pilgrimages from other sources in Arabia?


The importance of holy places in ancient Arabia

From ancient times, Middle Eastern religions have equated gods with locations rather than peoples. Modern readers of history have long been influenced by monotheistic ideas and have often failed to realize the significance that the ancient people applied to “regional gods.” In other words, rather than thinking in terms of tribes or clans who had their own gods, many gods were recognized as having regional significance and were respected by visitors passing through their area. Thus the Mesopotamians had their gods, the Egyptians had their gods, the Greeks and Romans respectively had their gods, and so the Arabs also had their own gods. Arab gods were understood as having sacred locations, and so often a particular god was mainly worshiped in a particular place, not universally throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

As great nations and empires rose to power, they sometimes tried to export the worship of their local gods to other places. This can be seen in the story of the invasion of Sennacherib’s army into Judah. The Assyrian king sent his representative (rabsheqeh) to Jerusalem to challenge the Jews into submission. He refers to several local gods during his speach in which he shouts his message to the Jewish people on the city walls:

“Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ’Jehovah will deliver us.’ Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can Jehovah deliver Jerusalem from my hand?” (Isaiah 36:18-20)

When considering pre-Islamic Arabia, it is important to recognize that the Nabataeans did not so much universally worship a pantheon of gods as much as multiple gods each attached to a specific location. Therefore the gods worshiped in Petra were not necessarily the same gods worshiped in Hijra or Tā’if. For instance, worship of the God Hubal was mostly restricted to Hijra (Healy, 2001, page 37) Likewise al-Kutba is distinctively North Arabian, and al-Uzza of the Ḥijaz. Originally each deity had its own temple and religious practices attached to it. In time however, the worship of some of the Arabian deities spread to nearby areas. The Nabataeans seemed content with their practice of worshiping local gods, and never attempted to actively export the worship of any of their deities to other peoples.

There was a good reason for this particular view of the sacred. The Nabataeans were merchants. They traveled widely, and one would assume that to please their hosts in foreign lands, they would leave a token of respect at the foreigner’s temples. Thus, when in Edom, one would leave an offering at the temple of Dushara, the god of the Edomite mountains. When in Egypt, they might leave an offering at the temple of Isis. Respecting local gods would go a long ways towards building trust which would lead to business relations. Thus, early in Nabataean history, gods were considered local gods and one must respect them when passing through their territory.

Such a view of religion naturally leads to accepting territories and locations as being sacred to specific gods. Thus, the area around a temple, a specific valley or remote desert location, could be considered as sacred. When modern tourists enter the majestic beauty of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, they marvel at the unique splendor of that remote location. Many tourists are so taken in by the wild desert scenery as it stands in stark contrast to the rugged rocks and mountains, that they miss the Nabataean temple dedicated to the goddess Lat (Allat). When viewing Arabia as a whole, it is possible to deduce that throughout the Arabian peninsula the gods of Arabia each had particular places where they resided. These were sacred precincts, and were places of refuge and security where regular activities ceased and violence was forbidden.

Ḥaram places in Arabia

The Qur'ān, Ḥadīths and Islamic histories often refer to the mosque in the original Islamic Holy City as masjid al ḥaram (the forbidden gathering place).

An example of this is found in Sūra 17:1: “Glory be to him who took his devotee one night from Masjid-al-Ḥaram to Masjid-al-Aqṣa, whose vicinity we have blessed, so that we may show him some of our signs: surely he is the one who is the hearer, the observer.” (Qur'ān 17:1, Mālik)

Indeed the entire area around the Holy City was seen as ḥaram (forbidden). This had several implications. First, killing was forbidden within this area. “Ibn al-Hanafiyyah said to them “I do not deem it lawful to fight in God’s sacred precinct.” (Al Ṭabarī XXI, 654, page 61).

This ban extended even to the killing of animals: “The horse of one of them began to drop dung and the pigeons of the sanctuary (al-ḥaram) area started to scavenge in the droppings. Al-Ḥuṣayn reigned back his horse from them and Ibn al-Zubayr said ’What is the matter with you?” He replied “I am afraid lest my horse kill the pigeons of the sanctuary area.” Ibn al-Zubayr said, “You would refrain from this sin, and yet you wish to kill Muslims?” Al-Ḥuṣayn answered “I will not fight you, allow us to perform the ritual circumambulation of the sanctuary (al-bayt) and then we will leave you.” He did so, and they departed.” (Al Ṭabarī Volume XX, 430, pg 2)

Abū Shuraih said, “When ’Amr bin Sa’īd was sending the troops to Mecca (to fight ’Abdullāh bin Az-Zubair) I said to him, ’O chief! Allow me to tell you what the prophet said on the day following the conquests of Mecca. My ears heard and my heart comprehended, and I saw him with my own eyes, when he said it. He glorified and praised Allāh and then said, “Allāh and not the people has made Mecca a sanctuary. So anybody who has belief in Allāh and the Last Day (i.e. a Muslim) should neither shed blood in it nor cut down its trees. If anybody argues that fighting is allowed in Mecca as Allāh’s Apostle did fight (in Mecca), tell him that Allāh gave permission to his apostle, but he did not give it to you. The prophet added: Allāh allowed me only for a few hours on that day (of the conquest) and today (now) its sanctity is the same (valid) as it was before. So it is incumbent upon those who are present to convey it (this information) to those who are absent.” Abū- Shuraih was asked, “What did ’Amr reply?” He said ’Amr said, “O Abū Shuraih! I know better than you (in this respect). Mecca does not give protection to one who disobeys (Allāh) or runs after committing murder, or theft (and takes refuge in Mecca).” Ṣaḥīḥ Al Bukhārī Ḥadīth 1.104

The prophet said, “Allāh has made Mecca a sanctuary (sacred place) and it was a sanctuary before me and will be so after me. It was made legal for me (to fight in it) for a few hours of the day. None is allowed to uproot its thorny shrubs or to cut its trees or to chase its game or to pick up its fallen things except by a person who announces it publicly.” On that Al-Abbās said (to the Prophet), “Except Al- Idhkhir for our goldsmiths and for our graves.” And so the Prophet added, “Except Al-Idhkhir. “ And Abū Huraira narrated that the Prophet said, “Except Al-Idhkhir for our graves and houses.” And Ibn Abbās said, “For their goldsmiths and houses.” (Ṣaḥīḥ al Bukhārī Ḥadīth 2.432)

Prof. Michal Gawlikowski, who spent 40 years excavating and researching the ancient city of Palmyra, writes the following in his paper “The Sacred Space in Ancient Arab Religions” (Gawlikowski, 1982): “The notion of ḥaram (forbidden) was, in the Arabic traditions, attached to both sanctuaries and burials. In both cases, these places could serve as an asylum and were considered sacred; the same name was also used to describe their character.” He later notes: Several foundation inscriptions from Hijra put it quite clearly that the family rock-cut tombs there were considered ḥaram….There is every reason to believe that the rockcut tombs of Petra did not differ in character from those of Hijra….

Besides the foundation inscription of the Qabr et-Turkman in Petra which is the only one on this site except the late epigraph of Sextius Florentinus, irrelevant for our purpose, is written in exactly the same terms as the Hijra inscriptions, with one notable difference: there are no names except for the divine…”

I have expressed the supposition that there was an interdiction of religious character barring the founders of tombs in Petra from putting their names on their monuments. The fact that the only inscription engraved on a façade there carefully omits these names, but not the mention of consecration to Dushara and other ods
seems to prove the point.”

Gawlikowski goes on to point out that from the Greek historian Diodorus (History XIX, 94, 2-5) we learn that the Nabataeans were forbidden under penalty of death to build houses. He suggests that this was limited to the site of Petra alone, the original ḥaram or “forbidden” area of Arabia. (Gawlikowski, 1982, page 301-303)

So while there were several sacred places in Arabia, two of them, Hijra and Petra, stand out as sacred places where burials also took place. But which of these was the more important of the two? First, Petra is many times larger than Hijra with over 1000 funerary monuments. Second, pilgrimages were made to Petra, thus denoting the importance of Petra as the primary holy place or “forbidden sanctuary” in ancient Arabia.

Pilgrimages

In his book on Nabataean names, Doctor Avraham Negev of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey suggested that much of the Nabataean graffiti found throughout the Negev and southern Jordan was written by people on pilgrimages to Petra. In his detailed study he notes the variety of names that occur in Thamudic, Safaitic, and other early Arabian dialects. (Negev, 1991) The discovery of a zodiac dated to the second century AD leads us to believe that there were two Nabataean pilgrimages. Zodiacs were well known throughout the ancient world. They expressed a belief in the cyclical passage of time and the power of the stars and planets to affect earthly events.

The Nabataean zodiac has many images similar to Roman zodiacs of the time. However, one of the symbols portrays Allat, the female goddess of fertility, with a lance or sword which can faintly be seen above her left shoulder. This may have symbolized an ancient festival which was celebrated by the Nabataeans and their nomadic neighbors when the birthing of lambs marked the spring season. It was a time when grazing was good and the earth was green from the spring rains. The Nabataean equivalent of Sagittarius is rendered as the bust of a jovial youth, possibly al-Kutbay, the god of learning and commerce. Capricorn is shown in the Nabataean panel as the damaged bust of a human figure rather than the traditional Roman fish/goat that was common throughout the Roman Empire. The remaining symbols of the Nabataean zodiac conform to their Roman counterparts, but they are enlivened with original touches of artistic creativity. However, by far the most significant difference in the Nabataean zodiac is the arrangement of the order of the houses within the zodiacal circle.

The Roman version follows the traditional order known today. Beginning at the top and going counter-clockwise, the Roman zodiac runs as follows: (1) Aries, (2) Taurus, (3) Gemini, (4) Cancer, (5) Leo, and (6) Virgo. Then there is a break at the bottom after which the succession resumes with (7) Libra, (8) Scorpio, (9) Sagittarius, (10) Capricorn, (11) Aquarius, and finally (12) Pisces. The Nabataean zodiac found at Khirbet Tannur is different in that it begins counter-clockwise with (1) Aries, (2) Taurus, (3) Gemini, (4) Cancer, (5) Leo, and (6) Virgo. Then there is a break by the nikés head. So far, this is like the Roman version. Following the traditional order, one would expect (7) Libra to be next in the counter-clockwise progression. But this is not so! This space is occupied by (12) Pisces! Instead, the Nabataean Libra appears at the top, beside Aries. This begins a clockwise progression around the zodiacal circle’s opposite (left) side; beginning clockwise from (7) Libra at the top, the progression follows in order from (7) to (12) to end at the left side of the niké caryatid’s head.

Thus, the Nabataean zodiac is extraordinary in its two opposite and completely separate halves. Some archeologists think that this denotes the existence of two New Year celebrations, one in the spring and the other in the fall, and this might help explain why there were two great festivals at Petra each year.

Al Ṭabarī, the great Islamic historian of 900 AD, notes in volume VI of The History of al-Ṭabarī (page 12) that during the days before Islam, there were two pilgrimages. The lesser was known as ’umrah. He notes that ’Abd al-Muttalib (Muḥammad’s grandfather) performed ’umrah on one occasion. This was at a time when the forbidden sanctuary held many pagan idols, among them Hubal (Ṭabarī VI, 1075 page 3) and Isaf and Na’ilah (pg 4). The Qur'ān tells us that these pre-Islamic pagan pilgrimages were known respectively as ḥajj (Qur'ān 2:158, 196) and ’umrah, commonly called the greater and lesser pilgrimage.

From ancient time the Arabian pilgrimage was always to the religious center of Arabia, the forbidden sanctuary, the holy burial city of Petra. It was in this city that the Nabataean dead were buried, and it was in this city that the living gathered to eat a ritual meal with their extended family in the presence of the long departed ancestors. This custom was part of the cultural and ethnic make-up of the Nabataeans, and was the glue that held them, a nomadic merchant people, together as a society. In Petra today visitors can see the gathering halls that are attached to many of the tombs where family gatherings celebrated the living and the dead.

The importance of the direction of prayer (qibla)

Today all mosques are not only aligned to face the direction of prayer, but they all have an architectural feature built in to emphasise it. The direction of prayer is called qibla and every mosque today has a niche (miḥrab) built in the qibla wall to provide clear indication of the direction of Mecca. The very earliest mosques however did not have the miḥrab niche, but were simply aligned in such a way that when the faithful faced the qibla wall they automatically faced the Holy City of Islam.

Christians today take little notice of the direction they might face when praying. For them, God is present everywhere, and they are free to pray in any direction. Jews also have no prescribed direction of prayer, although some choose to face towards the temple site in Jerusalem based on the words of King Solomon’s prayer when he dedicated the temple to Jehovah. (I Kings 8:38-48)

In Islam, it is universally understood that the qibla was changed and this change is referred to in the Qur'ān. The text of the Qur'ān itself does not give the name of the place to which prayer was originally made, nor to which it was switched, nor when the switch occured. According to Al Ṭabarī, (Volume VI, 1218, page 132) when the subject of qibla came up during pre-Hijra days, Muḥammad directed them to pray towards Syria. The Qur'ān, early ḥadīths and early Islamic histories never say that the qibla was towards Jerusalem.

Mention of Jerusalem as the qibla doesn’t appear in Islamic literature until over 300 years after Muḥammad died. All of the early records simply state that Muḥammad prayed towards Syria. If he did pray towards Jerusalem, it would seem strange that the records would not state Jerusalem, since it was a known and important center at the time. Muḥammad continued with his original qibla until February 624 when Islamic sources note that Muḥammad changed the qibla towards Mecca. (Al Ṭabarī Volume 6, page 131 footnote 209) and (Al Ṭabarī Volume VII, page 25) Al Ṭabarī’s record mentioning Jerusalem being the focus of prayer was written around the year 920, almost 300 years after the qibla had been changed. By this time the idea of Jerusalem was being circulated, but the Qur'ān and the early histories all say that it was towards Syria that Muḥammad prayed.

The changing of the Muslim qibla

The Qur'ān clearly tells us that the qibla was changed during Muḥammad’s lifetime.
Thus have we made of you an Ummah justly balanced that ye might be witnesses over the nations and the apostle a witness over yourselves; and we appointed the qibla to which thou wast used only to test those who followed the apostle from those who would turn on their heels (from the faith). Indeed it was (a change) momentous except to those guided by Allāh. And never would Allāh make your faith of no effect. For Allāh is to all people most surely full of kindness most merciful. We see the turning of thy face (for guidance) to the heavens; now shall we turn thee to a qibla that shall please thee. Turn then thy face in the direction of the sacred mosque; wherever ye are turn your faces in that direction. The people of the book know well that that is the truth from their Lord nor is Allāh unmindful of what they do. Even if thou wert to bring to the people of the book all the signs (together) they would not follow thy qibla; nor art thou going to follow their qibla; nor indeed will they follow each other’s qibla. If thou after the knowledge hath reached thee wert to follow their (vain) desires then wert thou indeed (clearly) in the wrong.
(Sūra 2.143-145, Yusif Alī)

Since Muḥammad revealed the Qur'ān, then this text from the Qur'ān indicates that the qibla was changed during Muḥammad’s lifetime. However, no place names are given, and it seems to be assumed that all religions have qiblas. Archeology backs up the changing of the qibla. There are many early mosques that faced a direction other than where Mecca is today. In the next chapter these early mosques are individually examined, photographed, and dates assigned to their construction.

Surprising Results

I began my study of early mosques thinking that I would be able to use the first handful of mosques built during Muḥammad’s lifetime to determine the original focus of Muḥammad’s prayers. As I studied early mosques I was shocked to discover that for over a hundred years after Muḥammad’s death, many new mosques pointed to Syria. Using these mosques I was able to draw lines on a map to discover where they intersected. We will examine each of the mosques in question in the next chapter.


By examining the dates of the construction of these mosques, I also realized that the Islamic date of February 624, during Muḥammad’s lifetime, seemed incorrect as archeology showed the qibla was changed much later. My mind was filled with questions such as when and how the qibla could have changed at such a late date. I then began to carefully examine Islamic history from around the time of the qibla change to determine if there was any historical evidence that pointed to any change in the qibla at this late time. The information in the timeline

Chart showing the change of the Qibla over time


Conclusion

In the following chapters we will examine archeological, historical and literary evidence to support the theory that Islam’s Holy City was originally in the region of modern day Petra. We will then look at how the qibla change might have happened and why it may have been forgotten and misunderstood over the years. Finally we will look at some of the issues and controversy that surface when assigning such a late date to the changing of the qibla.

 
   
Names for Petra  Timeline of the Qibla change
Problems with Mecca  Map of Petra Comparing it with Mecca.
The Qibla Question The Development of the Qur'an Timeline
 Sura 2, a troublesome history. How did Becca change to Mecca?
   Qur'anic Geography