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2 May 2022 Dan Gibson
The earliest Mecca facing qibla that Gibson located is found at Jebels Says (or Usays) in a qasr built by caliph Walid. This Qibla was used 88 (i) years after the founding of Islam, or around 707 CE. This fascinating location features two concentric volcanic cones in the desert, about 100 km southeast of Damascus (33.303148° 37.359571°). It is approximately 20 km northeast of a large area of unbroken lava flows known as Ṣafā.
The high inner cone of the volcano surrounds a crater that can be entered at ground level on one side. From the upper rim of the volcano, one finds a panoramic view of the surrounding desert.
This magnificent vista, in combination with the presence of water at the top of the volcano, made it a popular location to visit for centuries. The rim of the inner cone is covered in Safaitic, Greek, and Arabic inscriptions, as well as numerous rock-drawings.
At the foot of the volcano are many Umayyad qasrs and earlier manor houses. The earliest large houses here date from 528 CE onward—that is, 42 years before the traditionally accepted birth date of Muḥammad. As expected, the pre-Islamic structures do not seem to have any clear Qibla direction. The post Islamic structures clearly have qibla directions integrated into their design.
This collection of a dozen large manor houses or qasrs all in close proximity is unique in the Middle East. It appears that once the Umayyads moved their capital to Damascus, this location was a favorite getaway for the Islamic elite. Crucial to our study, we find pre-Islamic qasrs without qiblas, early Islamic qasrs with Petra-facing qiblas, later qasrs with Between qiblas, and finally the prominent qasr built by Caliph Walid which faces Mecca—the oldest structure we have found thus far with a clear Meccan qibla.
It is surely no coincidence that the Huma al-Numur inscription informs us that in 78 AH (697 CE) Masjid al-Harām was constructed in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Such a major construction project would have required the caliph’s permission if not his funding. And so, ten years later, we find caliph Walid’s new rural residence facing the Saudi Qibla.
The next surviving Mecca-facing structure was built in 101 AH (720 CE) in Resafa, Syria (35.628606 38.759662). Resafa is situated 25 km from the Euphrates at the edge of the ‘Syrian Desert’ in northern Syria. This site began as a large Roman fort on the Roman Limes, or walls, across Syria. It was the site of the martyrdom of Saint Sergios, and during the 5th and 6th centuries, grew into one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Under Islamic rule it became the principal residence of caliph Hisham b. Abd al-Malik (who reigned 105-125 AH) and continued to be of central importance in the early Islamic period.
Construction of the Great Mosque began in the second quarter of the 8th century, commissioned by caliph Hisham b. Abd al-Malik. (ii) Later, the city suffered several major earthquakes, which helps date its various buildings.
This location is significant because this is the first large mosque with a Mecca-facing Qibla. Before this, the only example of a Meccan Qibla is caliph Walid’s rural residence described above.
After Rasafa, the next Mecca-facing mosque was built in Banbhore, Pakistan in 109 AH (727 CE, 24.752318° 67.521944°). By this time, it seems that more and more mosques were slowly developing Mecca-facing Qiblas. In 112 AH (730 CE) the Caliph’s Palace in Amman Jordan (31.955517° 35.934136°) adopted the Meccan Qibla, and in 122 AH (740 CE) a new Friday mosque in Tiberias was built, using the Mecca Qibla (32.776276° 35.543996°). A few years later in, 131 AH, the Mecca-facing Qibla was adopted for the major mosque in Kufa (32.028611° 44.400833°).
Why did qasrs have an incorporated Qibla direction?
The Muslim faithful always tried to face Masjid al-Harām when they prayed. This was a direct command from Allah, recorded in the Qur’an Sura 2 (al-Baqarah) verses 144, 149, and 150. Due to this command, the Qibla direction became important in the construction of all Islamic buildings. From Sunan An-Nasai, Salman tells us: “the idolaters said ‘We see that your companion teaches you how to go to the toilet.’ He said: ‘Yes, he forbade us from cleaning ourselves with our right hand, and from facing toward the Qibla.’” (iii) As we can see, Muslims were forbidden from facing the Qibla when using the toilet, which is still an important consideration for the Muslim world until today. Therefore, it was crucial for Muslims to be aware of the Qibla direction wherever they were.
So when constructing a large residence like a qasr, aligning it with the Qibla simply made religious life simpler. The residents knew which direction to face when praying. There was no question about which direction to not face when using the toilet. And when slaughtering an animal in the central courtyard, there was no question which direction the animal should face when it was killed. Orienting qasrs towards the Qibla made it much easier for Muslims to correctly follow the religious rules and regulations of Islam. We will have much more to say about the pivotal importance of the qasrs in Qibla development in a following chapter.
What about mosques in Medina?
There are three early mosques in Medina which Islamic historians tell us originally faced ‘sham,’ or north. (ii) The Fiqh us Sunnah suggests that the ‘sham’ direction for prayer was changed early in Islam’s history:
Ibn ‘Umar reported that the people were praying the morning prayer in the Qubā’ mosque when a person came to them and said, “Allah has revealed some of the Qur’ān to the Prophet in which we have been ordered to face the Ka’ba, so face it.” They immediately turned their faces from Sham to the Ka’ba. (iii)
Clearly the earliest Muslims were praying toward a particular location to the north, but curiously, we are not told what that location was.
Bukhari, writing 300 years after the founding of Islam, continued to use the term ‘sham’ while also not mentioning an actual location:
while the people were offering the Fajr prayer at Qubā, someone came to them and said: “It has been revealed to Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) tonight, and he has been ordered to pray facing the Ka’ba.” So turn your faces to the Ka’ba. Those people were facing Sham so they turned their faces towards Ka’ba. (iv)
It has always been assumed that this original direction for prayer, sham, was toward Jerusalem. But, the closest approximation to a mention of Jerusalem in this context is as follows:
Narrated Al Bara: we prayed along with the Prophet facing [Bayt al Maqdus (the holy house)] for sixteen or seventeen months. Then Allah ordered him to turn his face towards the Qibla: “And from whence-so-ever you start forth (for prayers) turn your face in the direction of al-Masjid al-Harām. (v)
Jerusalem is not named directly. Rather, tradition is to interpret “the holy house” as a reference to Jerusalem. The earliest example of this interpretation appears 300 years after the founding of Islam, in al-Walid b. Hammad al-Ramli’s Fada’il Bayt al-Muqadis. (vi)
Despite repeated records of this shift in Qibla, we are never presented with any details. We are simply told the direction of prayer changed from ‘sham’ to the Ka’ba or Masjid-al-Harām. We do not know which cities were involved in this transition, or even the year it happened—only that al-Bara prayed for sixteen months, with the prophet, facing north. We also do not know if these prayers started in the first year of the Muslim calendar, or if the sixteen months started earlier, when Muḥammad was preaching to the Quraysh.
Our only point of reference is that several writers tell us that they were praying in the Quba mosque when the command came to change direction. But crucially, there is also nothing here to explicitly connect the new direction of prayer to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. From the archaeological record, it appears that the Mecca Qibla was developed a century after the founding of Islam in Medina.
The oldest mosques in Medina are the Prophet’s Mosque, the Quba Mosque, and the Qiblitain Mosque. Upon examination, none of these mosques provide any clear archeological record of when their Qiblas were changed to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
As we have mentioned previously, when the Qiblatain mosque was rebuilt in 1987, the architect ’Abd el Wahīd el Wakīl had opportunity to observe the foundation, which seemed to have a Qibla wall facing north toward either Jerusalem or Petra. Unfortunately, the builders removed the early foundation when they constructed the new mosque. The foundations of the other two mosques have never been uncovered and are now obscured by huge modern buildings and paved courtyards.
The Prophet’s Mosque covers over 5000 square meters. It is rectangular, oriented along the cardinal directions, with the south wall facing directly south at 180 degrees. A Qibla facing Mecca would be 174.8 degrees, which is 5.2 degrees to the south-east. The entire building is out of alignment with Mecca.
The interior of the Prophet’s Mosque presents further problems. A section of the mosque built in 1817 contains an even older site with three graves. One of these graves is said to be the grave of Muḥammad. This area is not accessible to visitors, who are restricted to view the graves through several windows known as the mawajaha. There is a wall around the graves visible through the windows. The wall appears to face 20 degrees away from the viewer.
Complicating matters further, it is impossible to say how much the early mosque and tomb structure was changed from its original construction. The many walls and strange angles are especially suspect, and would appear to indicate that the building had been adjusted radically.
The arrangement of the graves themselves also present a problem. Today there are three graves, staggered, facing north or south. Muslims are buried on their side facing toward the Qibla, so it is not readily apparent whether these graves have a north or south orientation. Contrary to what we see in The Prophet’s Mosque today, al-Qasm ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr provides us with this early description of these graves:
Narrated Al-Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr: I said to Aisha! Mother, show me the grave of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and his two Companions (Allah be pleased with them). She showed me three graves which were neither high nor low, but were spread with soft red pebbles in an open space. Abu ‘Ali said: It is said that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) is forward, Abu Bakr is near his head and ‘Umar is near is feet. His head is at the feet of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). (viii)
Ibn Abu Bakr’s description of these graves does not at all resemble what we find in the Prophet’s Mosque.
If Ibn Abu Bakr’s account is accurate, then the original tomb may have resembled the drawing above before reconstructions changed the tombs and the structure.
Such an adjustment is concerning, but is not without precedent. Al-Baqi is a large graveyard just east of the Prophet’s Mosque. Al-Baqi was renovated in April 1926 - the builders leveled the graveyard and then rearranged and re-positioned the stone grave markers. These stones were not usually engraved, so the renovators could easily move the stones and align then in straight rows.
As we can see, the graveyard and its shrines were bulldozed and rearranged to make it look neater and more presentable to the public. If the leaders of Islam could make such drastic changes to Al-Baqi, there is the possibility that at some point over the centuries the Prophet’s grave was also adjusted. While we cannot discern the original ‘sham’ Qibla direction used in Medina nor even the first mosque which used this Qibla, it seems that by 108 AH the Mecca Qibla was broadly accepted. Below is a list of 19 of the earliest Mecca facing mosques.
• 108 AH, Banbhore, Pakistan
• 112 AH, Amman Palace, Jordan
• 122 AH, Tiberias Friday Mosque
• 125 AH, Qasr Bayir, Jordan
• 131 AH, Kufa Mosque, Iraq
• 145 AH, Mansur Mosque, Baghdad
• 147 AH, Qasr Ukhaydir, Kufa, Iraq
• 155 AH, Isfan, Iran
• c. 185 AH, Qasim Mosque, Sind, Palistan
• c. 185 AH, Qasr Aseikhin, Jordan
• c. 185 AH, Beni Hasn Mosque, Jordan
• c. 185 AH, Al Baleed Mosque, Oman,
• c. 185 AH, Siraf Mosque, Iran
• c. 185 AH, Magokki Attor, Uzbekistan
• c. 185 AH, Beer Ora, Negev
• 202 AH, Imam Riza Shrine, Iran
• 212 AH, Qasr Hallabat, Jordan
• 233 AH, Samarra Great Mosque, Iraq
• 263 AH, Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo,
Manuscript evidence of Qibla change is sparse, but there are a few extant passages which may speak to a change in Qibla direction amongst these mosques. First, during the second civil war, the people of Kufa changed allegiance and sided with Ibn Zubayer in his rebellion against the caliphs in Damascus. Al-Ṭabarī records:
When Bujayr b.
Abdallah al-Musli-it is said that he was a mawld of theirs-was brought to Musab together with many of al-Mukhtar’s men, he said to Mus`ab, “Praise be to God, who has tested us with shackles, and tested you by your forgiving us. There are two stations: one of them is God’s good pleasure, the other His wrath. Whoever forgives, God forgives him and increases him in might; whoever punishes is not safe from retaliation. Ibn al- Zubayr, we are people who turn to the same qiblah as you and hold your creed. (ix)
Historians have long assumed that this report indicated that the people of Kufa were declaring their shared convictions about the civil war with Ibn Zubayer, and that the mention of the Qibla was metaphorical. But, when considered in the context of the shifts in Qibla orientation which occurred at the time, it is much more natural to read Al-Ṭabarī’s record as a literal change in Qibla direction. Al-Ṭabarī wrote the following about the change of the Qibla wall in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina in 88 AH:
Al-Walīd b. ‘Abd al-Malik ordered the pulling down of the mosque of the Messenger of God, may God bless and preserve him, and the pulling down of the rooms of the wives of the Messenger of God, may God bless and preserve him, and the incorporation of them into the mosque. Muḥammad b. ‘Umar mentioned that Muḥammad b. Ja’far b. Wardan al-Banns ‘said: I saw the messenger sent by al-Walīd b. ‘Abd al-Malik. He arrived in the month of Rabi’ I in the year 88 [February-March 707 CE] with a turban wound round his head. He entered into the presence of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-’Azīz bearing al-Walīd’s letter ordering him to incorporate the rooms of the wives of the Messenger of God, may God bless and preserve him, into the mosque, and to buy (the land) behind it and beside it so that it might [measure] two hundred cubits by two hundred cubits. He also said to him [in the letter]: “Change [move] the Qibla if you are able, and you are able, because of the standing of your maternal uncles…” (x)
Al-Ṭabarī wrote 39 volumes of history, filled with crucial events and the most important figures of Islam. This lengthy description of a mosque renovation seems unusual. Many mosques were torn down and rebuilt over the centuries, but Al-Ṭabarī seems particularly concerned with the changes made to the Prophet’s Mosque. Perhaps the last sentence above is especially crucial: the Qibla was changed.
Al-Ṭabarī wrote at a time when the Abbasids dominated the Muslim world. Histories were written with an Abbasid bias. Potentially embarrassing details were often projected backward onto the earlier Umayyads. Thus, even Al-Ṭabarī must be treated with some incredulity. Al-Ṭabarī would not be free to elaborate on the meaning of the change of the Qibla of the Prophet’s Mosque—especially given the political climate, and the implications for the Abbasid version of the history of Islam.
The remaining archaeological evidence from these two centuries seems to indicate that the original Qibla direction was Petra. However, by 75 AH, three other Qiblas were used: Mecca used in Arabia, a Between Qibla used in Iraq and Syria, and the Parallel Qibla used in North Africa and Spain. From this evidence we can conclude that Mecca in Arabia was the last Qibla to be developed, and that its supremacy eventually overshadowed and then eclipsed all the others, until all the others were ignored and ultimately forgotten.
For centuries Muslims have been told that the Qibla faces Mecca in Saudi Arabia. They have never heard that there were previous Qiblas, and they have never heard that Petra was the first Qibla direction. These various Qiblas need to be explained in a serious and meaningful way—including the transition to the now dominant Mecca Qibla.
We have argued that the evidence suggests that the Mecca Qibla was adopted relatively late in Muslim history. While we are sadly unable to prove exactly when the transition took place, Mecca’s late adoption as the universal Qibla is a crucial component in explaining the existence of the previous Qiblas and is a key development in the transition away from Petra.
i Year one of the Islamic calendar is used for the founding of Islam: 15 July 622 CE.
ii ‘Sham’ is also the word for Syria, Palestine, and the city of Damascus. See: Joshua Prawer, and Haggai Ben-Shammai, eds., The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period (638-1099), (New York: NYU Press, 1996), 350.
iii Fiqh us Sunnah 115, and repeated word for word in al-Muwatta Hadith 14.6. See: As-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh us-Sunnah, Muhammad Sa’eed Dabas and Jamal al-Din Zarabozo trans., (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1991), 115.
iv Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 1.397, https://sunnah.com/bukhari:403 al-Bukhārī , Sahih al-v Bukhāri, 6.19
vi Tamar Mayer, and Suleiman A. Mourad eds., Jerusalem: Idea and Reality Tamar Mayer; Suleiman Ali Mourad (2008). Jerusalem: idea and reality. Routledge. p. 87
vi The History of Jerusalem – The Early Muslim Period 638-1099, eds Joshua Prawen and Haggai Ben-Shammai, Jerusalem, New York 1996, chapter 11 by Izhak Hasson. Page 350
vii “Grave and Tomb of the Prophet Muhammad (The Sacred Chamber),” Hajj & Umrah Planner, accessed April 4, 2022, https://hajjumrahplanner.com/prophet-muhammad-grave/
viii Abu Dawud Sulayman ibn al-Ash’ath as-Sijistani, Sunan Abi Dawud, 20.3214, https://sunnah.com/abudawud/21
viii Sunan Abu Dawud 3220, Book 20, Hadith 3214
ix Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari Volume XXI: The Victory of the Marwanids, trans. Michael Fishbein (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 107.
x Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari Volume XXIII: The Zenith of the Marwanid House, trans. Martin Hinds (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 141