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14 March 2022, Dan Gibson
We have previously discussed how early mosques face Petra in southern Jordan. Below, we will consider another unexpected aspect of Islamic archaeology—a number of mosques, which we will refer to as the ‘between mosques,’ seem to be intentionally directed between Petra and Mecca.
In 87 A.H. (706 CE), a mosque was constructed in Wāsiṭ, Iraq which seemed to face an empty, deserted spot in Arabia, located in an area between Petra and Mecca. Over the ensuing decades, 35 further Umayyad mosques were constructed which also adopted this ‘between’ Qibla direction (which will hereon referred to as the ‘between’ Qibla). As research is ongoing, perhaps more of these between mosques will be discovered.
The unusual orientation of the Wāsiṭ mosque was very much a product of the politics of the Umayyad caliphate. The second civil war created numerous significant shifts in the Muslim world. As Ibn al-Zubayr resisted the hegemony of the Umayyad caliphs, he took desperate action during a lull in the fighting and, we would propose, moved the Black Stone from Petra to Mecca.
Ninth century historian Al-Ṭabarī records how “Ibn al-Zubayr demolished the sanctuary [Ka’ba] until he had leveled it to the ground, and he dug out its foundation…he placed the Black Cornerstone by it in an ark (tabut) in a strip of silk.” (i)
Ibn al-Zubayr not only demolished the Ka’ba, but rebuilt it: Ziyād ibn Jiyal told me he was in [the Holy City] on the day when Ibn al-Zubayr was overcome and heard him say, “My mother Asma bint Abi Bakr told me that the Messenger of God said to ‘Ā’isha: ‘If it were not that your people had only recently been in a state of unbelief, I would restore the Ka’ba on the foundations of Abraham and I would add to the Ka’ba part of the Ḥijr [stone wall].’” Ibn al-Zubayr gave the order for it and it was excavated, and they found rocks as big as a camel. They moved a boulder of them and a bright light flashed out. They re-established it on its foundation and Ibn al Zubayr rebuilt it, giving it two doors, from one of which it was entered and from the other vacated.(ii)
Demolishing the Ka’ba and ‘re-establishing’ it on the same site would be difficult to explain. But one needs to take note that the first Qibla facing Mecca in the south of Arabia only appears after the second civil war. If one allows that the original holy city was Petra, which the archaeological evidence supports, then Al-Ṭabarī has likely described the Ka’ba’s relocation from Petra to the distant and relatively secure location of Mecca in today’s Saudi Arabia.
Al-Ṭabarī’s history is alarmingly scant when it comes to the year when this could have occurred. He records that in 70 AH (689 CE) Muṣ’ab, a brother of Ibn al-Zubayr, brought horses and camels to the Holy City.(iii) Gibson argues that al-Zubayr took advantage of the Umayyad’s withdrawal to move women, children, the elderly, and the Black Stone to distant and safe Mecca, expecting that another siege would occur.
By relocating the Black Stone to Mecca while the Umayyads dealt with instability in Damascus, al-Zubayr was able to create strategic distance between the sanctuary and his enemies—but he also created a geographic crisis in Islam.
Once the situation in Damascus stabilized, the Umayyads were able to refocus on Ibn al-Zubayr. They sent the renowned general al-Ḥajjāj to put down the rebellion and restore law and order, and give access to the religious sites in the Holy City. Al-Ḥajjāj was an extremely capable and ruthless statesman, strict in character, but also a harsh and demanding master. He was widely feared by his contemporaries and became a deeply controversial figure, and later an object of deep-seated enmity due to his contrasting beliefs with the later Abbasid rulers.
Al-Ḥajjāj was born c. 41 AH (661 AD). His ancestry was not particularly distinguished: he came of a poor family whose members had worked as stone carriers and builders. As a boy, al-Ḥajjāj acquired the nickname Kulayb, or ‘little dog,’ a name he could never shake. He originally became a schoolmaster in his hometown, which was another source of derision from his enemies, who sought to be great warriors.
Soon after Marwan assumed the throne in 64 AH, al-Ḥajjāj left his home town and went to the capital, Damascus, where he entered the security force of the caliph. There he attracted Abd al-Malik’s attention by the quick and efficient way he restored discipline during a mutiny of the troops appointed to accompany the caliph in his campaign against Mus’ab ibn al-Zubayr in Iraq. As a result, the caliph entrusted him with command of the army’s rear-guard. He apparently achieved further feats of valor, so that after the defeat of Mus’ab, Abd al-Malik decided to entrust him with the expedition to subdue Mus’ab’s brother, Abdallāh ibn al-Zubayr, in the Holy City.
The caliph instructed al-Ḥajjāj to first demand Ibn al-Zubayr’s surrender with an offer of amnesty. But, if Ibn al-Zubayr refused to surrender, al-Ḥajjāj was permitted to siege the Holy City and starve him out. Al-Ḥajjāj was commanded not to shed blood in the Holy City.
When negotiations failed, al-Ḥajjāj lost patience, and sent a courier to ask for reinforcements and the permission to take the city by force. The caliph granted both requests. Thus, al-Ḥajjāj launched catapult and infantry attacks on the Holy City.
The siege continued for six months and seventeen nights. One witness said: “I saw the manjaniq [trebuchet] with which [stones] were being hurled. The sky was thundering and lightening and the sound of thunder and lightning rose above that of the stones, so that it masked it. The Ka’ba was so damaged that it looked like the torn bosoms of mourning women.” (iv)
In the end 10,000 men, among them two of Ibn al-Zubayr’s sons, had defected to al-Ḥajjāj. Ibn al-Zubayr and his youngest son were killed in the fighting in a ruined building near the ruined Ka’ba. General Ḥajjāj won the war. But many people were outraged with how violent the attack had been, and that blood had been shed in Masjid al Haraam–whose very name, ‘The Forbidden Gathering Place,’ meant that shedding blood was forbidden.
As a reward for his victory, the caliph made al-Ḥajjāj the governor of the Hijaz, Yemen, and al-Yamama. It was at this time he began to persecute the Companions of Muḥammad by making them wear a lead seal around their necks. During his lifetime, Al-Ḥajjāj killed four companions (ṣaḥaba) of Muḥammad. Further, Tha'ālibī (Laţ'āif) claims Al-Ḥajjāj was responsible for the killing of over a million men during his lifetime. (v)
Despite these actions, in 75 AH, Caliph Abd al-Malik appointed al-Ḥajjāj as governor of Iraq. This placed Ḥajjāj in a very powerful position, governing the entire eastern half of the caliphate. The following years were filled with bloody wars, quashing rebellions, and ruling with an iron fist.
So, we come to the construction of the city of Wāsiṭ in the year 83 AH, and Wāsiṭ al-Qaṣab in 95 AH. As these cities were erected, so were a number of mosques, and their qibla directions are fascinating.
Al-Ḥajjāj’s mosque in Wāsiṭ faced directly between Mecca and Petra. In fact, wasat in Arabic means “between” or “middle.” This was followed by other important mosques in Damascus, Boṣra, the desert palaces, the city of Ḥarrān, and even the main mosque in the city of Raqqa in Syria facing a similar direction. At the time of writing, Gibson’s Qibla Database contains 35 mosques that face the between position, most of them built under al-Ḥajjāj’s leadership.
It is untenable to propose that this is simply an accident, coincidence, or that Muslim architects had a sudden, extended lapse in their calculations. Gibson proposes the reasonable solution that al-Ḥajjāj would have disdained the original city of Petra, since he had fought against it and destroyed it—leveling the old temples, and destroying any heritage of Ibn Zubayr.
But likewise, the new location of the Black Rock in Mecca would have been problematic for al-Ḥajjāj—and he seems to have never taken the trouble to retrieve it. Soon some Muslims were embracing this new location and calling it Mashjid al-Haram, but al-Ḥajjāj chose his own Qibla, halfway between the two. As a great general, and the son in law of the Caliph, Al-Ḥajjāj appears to have had the power to make this radical decision. He was criticized for this decision, and this criticism extended to Caliph Walid. Later writers, such as Jāhiz, include the setting of the qibla of Wāsiṭ among the misdeeds of the caliph, as it began a dangerous precedent. (vi)
These criticisms were not unfounded: disorder regarding the Qibla direction of new mosques ensued. Many mosques built under the Umayyads faced this ‘between’ position. At the very same time, there were mosques built in Africa which faced south, and there were new mosques elsewhere which still faced the old Qibla of Petra. Finally, to further complicate matters, following the second civil war, some of the new mosques were constructed to face Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
The following well-known mosques adopted the ‘between’ position:
• Wāsiṭ Mosque in Iraq
• Umayyad congregational mosque in Damascus, Syria
• Umayyad mosque on Amman citadel, Jordan
• Mosque of ’Umar in Boṣra, Syria
• Aleppo Umayyad Mosque , Syria
• Palmyra Congregational Mosque, Syria
• Qasr Hayr al Gharbi in Syria
• Qasr Hayr al Sharqi in Syria
• Baalbeck main mosque in Lebanon
• Raqqa main mosque in Syria
• Ḥarrān mosque and university in Turkey
• Qaṣr Al-Fudayn in Mufraq Jordan
• ‘Azraq Fort Mosque in Jordan
• Yamama Great Mosque in Saudi faces north to the Between position
• Qasr Heraqlah in Syria
General al-Ḥajjāj had a remarkable influence on the development of Islam during his lifetime. However, after he died, his influence waned, and the popularity of the new Masjid al Haram in Mecca grew. Eventually, no new mosque faced the ‘between’ position–and this compromise was soon forgotten. This chapter of Qibla history remained forgotten until recently, when archeologists and historians began uncovering the ancient foundations of mosques and reconciled the archaeology with the historical records of the later Abbasids.
So, the city of Petra, the between mosques, and even the African qiblas were forgotten. Every Muslim believed that all mosque Qiblas always faced Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Yet, the archaeological data demands an explanation, and the conclusions presented here help to make sense of these important discoveries.
(i) Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari Volume XX: The Collapse of Sufyanid Authority and the Coming of the Marwanids, trans. G. R. Hawting (New York: State University of New York Press, 1989), 122-123.
(ii)Ṭabarī,, Volume XX, 176.
(iii)Abu Jafar Muhammad b. Jarir al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari Volume XXI: The Victory of the Marwanids, trans. Michael Fishbein (New York: State University of New York Press, 1990), 169.
(iv) Ṭabarī, Volume XXI, 224.
(v) Al-Tha'ālibī, The Lata’if al-ma’arif of Tha’alibi, trans. C. E. Bosworth (Edinburgh: University Press, 1968), 110. (vi) Al-Jāḥiẓ, Rasā’il al- Jāḥiẓ, ed. H. al-Sandubi (Cairo: 1933), 296, quoted in Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (London: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 173.