Geographic setting


Surah 6 (Al-An’am /The Cattle): 99

It is He Who sends down water (rain) from the sky, and with it We bring forth vegetation of all kinds, and out of it We bring forth green stalks, from which We bring forth thick clustered grain.

And out of the date palm and its spathe come forth clusters of dates hanging low and near, and gardens of grapes, olives and pomegranates, each similar (in kind) yet different (in variety and taste).

Look at their fruits when they begin to bear, and the ripeness thereof. Verily! In these things there are signs for people who believe.

[‘Translation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an’, 2011, by Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali and Dr Muhammad Muhsin Khan, both of the University al-Madinah al-Munawwarah]


The Qur’an is short on clearly identifiable place names that may give clues to where it was composed. The early surahs, which for these purposes include Surahs 73-114, names several locations which cannot be ascertained and some of which may be imaginal. Moses encounters the burning bush ‘in the holy valley of Tuwa’, {79.16}, the ledgers of each man’s sins and virtuous deeds are preserved at Sijjin and Illyyun, {83.7-8 & 18-19} 〈97.〉 and on the Last Day ingrates shall be cast into Saqqar, {74.26-27 & 42} (also referred to in {54.48}) whilst the audience is repeatedly warned by references to the punishments that have previously been meted out to the inhabitants of ‘Ad, Thamud and Iram 〈26.〉 The only clearly identifiable geographical markers in these early surahs are:

Mount Sinai, {95.2} (which is also referred to in {23.20}),

Midian〈26.〉 located on the Jordan Plain, and

some uninhabited rock hewn dwellings, well known to the Qur’an’s audience, that it seems reasonable to associate with the famous ruined city of Petra 〈26.〉

In addition, {37.137} warns its audience of the consequences of sin by drawing their attention to some unspecified sign of God’s destruction of the people of Lot, which the Qur’an’s listeners are reminded that they ‘pass by … in the morning, and at night 〈68.〉 The Torah tells us that Lot’s People, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, lived on the Jordan Plain, and whatever sign the Qur’an was referring to – possibly the geographical feature known as the Pillar of Salt at Safi on the shore of the Dead Sea, or ‘Lot’s Tomb’ near Hebron on the West Bank – it was presumably in the Dead Sea region.


The name of Makkah appears only once in the Qur’an, in {48.24}, where it appears to be a geographical feature, ‘the valley of Makkah’. This verse recounts how it was in this valley that Muhammad met with some disbelievers over whom he was granted a victory without fighting, an encounter traditionally associated with the negotiation of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah 〈45.〉 The verse contains no indication that Mecca was the name of a settlement, still less that it was the prize over which the Quranic community was fighting. As mentioned in 〈1.〉 above there is no reliable historical evidence for the existence of Mecca prior to 741. Despite – or, for the more conspiratorially-minded, because of – extensive modern building work around the Ka’aba to accommodate the vast numbers of pilgrims making the annual Hajj pilgrimage, not one single archaeological object or trace of habitation from Muhammad’s time or earlier has ever been discovered there. In 1987 Patricia Crone published Meccan Trade And The Rise Of Islam which challenged the notion that Mecca, in a valley, far from any coast, major town or trade route, could have possibly sustained a trading centre in the seventh century.


It also seems inconceivable that some verses of the Qur’an could have been composed with a Meccan audience in mind. Several verses including {2.164}, {6.99} (produced above), {6.141}, {13.12}, {32.27} and {80.24-32} invite its audience to reflect upon the blessings of abundant rainfall and a fertile land as visible signs of God’s providence. This would have been a ludicrous argument to have deployed in one of the most arid places on earth. Where the Qur’an condemns idolaters for ‘slitting the ears of cattle’, {4.199}, which we must assume was some sort of pagan ritual, and refers to pasture land for their flocks, {80.32}, this tells us that the Qur’an’s first audience included livestock farmers. Similarly, its eight references to ships and their navigability as gifts from God, 〈13.〉, its citing of the ‘darkness of a fathomless sea, covered by waves’, {24.40}, and ‘the mixing of two seas‘, {55.19}, as yet more signs of God’s creative benevolence and repeated appeals to its audience’s experience of being caught in a storm at sea, ‘as waves come at them from every side, and they think that they shall be encompassed by them’, {10.22} (similarly {17.67}, {31.32}, see also {29.65}) all indicate the presence of sea-farers. One would hardly expect to find either cattle farmers or mariners to be among those one would frequently encounter in the Arabian desert. Later post-Quranic accounts of Muhammad’s life include details such as his grazing livestock as a young man, his praise for Mecca’s grass and his eating grapes from a vine, are similarly inconsistent with the Meccan climate and vegetation, as are several topographical details attributed to Mecca, which is described by Muhammad’s first biographer as a city overlooked by mountains and reached through upper or lower mountain passes with a nearby parallel valley. None of the above can be related to Mecca’s location which is in a wide valley, with the nearest mountain several miles away.


All considered, it seems to be an unavoidable conclusion that, at least in its earliest stages, the Qur’an was announced far away from Mecca and the story of its narration was transposed there by subsequent generations. Although the geographical references are meagre, those that are present in the text point to the Qur’an’s early surahs having been announced in the Ghassanid-occupied lands of Jordan and Syria. Since there is no one location where locals would both passed the ruins of Sodom daily and have the ruins of Petra visible to them, and neither the site of Sodom nor Petra would be likely to include seafarers, one might reasonably speculate that for part of the Qur’an’s announcement history, its author was travelling around Syria, Jordan and Palestine. This scenario may explain the frequent repetition of similar stories and the relaxed approach to internal consistency.


The Masjid al-Haram

Central to the Qur’an’s narrative is a place that it calls the Masjid al-Haram. This place also referred to as:

the House’, {2.127}, {8.34},

the Sacred House’, {5.97}, {14.37},

the Ancient House’, {22.26},

(in the divine voice) ‘My House’, {2.125} and {22.26},

the ‘station’ or ‘standing place’ of Abraham, {2.125} and {3.97}, and

the Ka’aba’ (literally ‘The Cube’), {5.95 & 97},

and linked to ‘the first house created for mankind … at Bakka{3.96}.


We are told that this place was ‘assigned for Abraham’, {22.26}, that the foundations of a building there were raised by Abraham and Ishmael, {2.127}, and that Abraham ’settled his progeny’ nearby {14.37}. It may be located within ‘the Mother of all Cities’, {6.92} and {42.7}. In the Qur’an, this place is described as the destination of the hajj and umrah pilgrimages 〈56.〉 and the direction towards which believers are told to face when they pray 〈39.〉 It was the departure point from whence the Qur’an’s announcer made a mysterious journey to ‘the furthest mosque〈34.〉 It was also a place from which the Qur’an’s audience has been expelled 〈36.〉 and from where it ultimately commands that its enemies be themselves prevented from entering on pain of death 〈50.〉 In short, it is a place that is central to the story of the Qur’an’s announcement.


Muslim tradition has no hesitation in holding that the Quranic ‘ka’aba’ stood on the site of the present-day, Ka’aba, the rectangular, black curtain-draped shrine, at the centre of a colonnaded sacred piazza called Masjid al-Haram, at the heart of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Qur’an’s reference to this shrine as being ‘the first house created for mankind’ and the multiple associations of it with Abraham are justified by imaginative traditions that:

Adam and Eve descended to the land where Mecca now stands, following their expulsion from Paradise 〈16〉, which, in some mystical way, still exists directly above the Ka’aba,

Abraham’s first-born son Ishmael was taken as a baby to the same spot by his mother Hagar, and it was there that Abraham later found them many years later, whereupon he and Ishmael together built the first Ka’aba, as a shrine to God, and

this shrine, that had once been established as a centre of monotheistic pilgrimage, had subsequently become corrupted by Arab polytheism.

The notion that first Hagar with the infant Ishmael and years later Abraham might have journeys for many hundreds of miles from Canaan to the desolate and inhospitable location of Mecca, is unexplained and must have struck people, even at the time that the tradition was first proposed, as being manifestly implausible.


In fact, many of the attributes associated with the Qur’an’s Masjid al-Haram are clearly intended to invoke the site of the Jewish Temple, or Beit Ha-Mikdad (‘the Sanctified House’). in Jerusalem. The First Temple had been built by King Solomon upon Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3.1 ), the same mountain upon which Abraham had been ordered to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22.2 ) 〈21.〉 Its inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, is described in the Hebrew Bible as a cube (‘twenty cubits long, twenty high and twenty wide’ per 1 Kings 6.20 ), as had been its forerunner, the portable tabernacle in the wilderness (based upon the figures provided in Exodus 26), and a mystical temple measured by Ezekiel (41.4 ). The temple was the site of three annual Jewish festivals, (Exodus 23.14 ), the word for which in Hebrew is ‘ḥaḡ’, which involved similar rituals to the Qur’an’s hajj, and the Quranic reference to Bakkah recalls the words of the pilgrimage hymn, Psalm 84 , composed to be sung during the journey to the Jerusalem Temple:

Happy are those who dwell in your house, continually they praise you,
Happy the men whose strength you are, their hearts are set upon the pilgrimage,
When they pass through the valley of Bakkah, they make a spring of it, the early rain clothes it with a generous growth.
They go from strength to strength, they shall see the God of gods in Zion.


Jerusalem was certainly grand enough to carry the epithet ‘Mother of all Cities’, which could never, realistically have been applied to the unremarked-upon desert trading post of Mecca. Moreover, the evidence is that it was Jerusalem not Mecca that the earliest Arab conquerors made the focus of their spiritual landscape. Within just a few years of the Arab capture of Jerusalem, its Christian patriarch, Sophronius (d. 638), described the conquerors immediate construction of a building upon ‘the Capitol’, presumably Temple Mount:

The godless Saracens entered the holy city of Christ our Lord, Jerusalem, with the permission of God and in punishment for our negligence, which is considerable, and immediately proceeded in haste to the place which is called the Capitol. They took with them men, some by force, others by their own will, in order to clean that place and to build that cursed thing, intended for their prayer and which they call a mosque (midzgitha).


In pseudo-Sebeos’s History (see 〈1.〉) it was said that it had been Jews who had initially ‘decided to rebuild the Temple of Solomon’ whereupon ‘the Ishmaelites being envious of them expelled them from that place and called the same house of prayer their own‘ . Little more than a decade after pseudo-Sebeos completed his Armenian chronicle (661), at the opposite side of Europe, Adomnán, the abbot of Iona, wrote down an account of the travels of a monk, Arculf , which included the following description of a rectangular Arab prayer hall on the site of the old Jewish temple.

However, in the celebrated place where once stood the temple, situated towards the east, near the wall, arose in its magnificence, the Saracens now have a quadrangular (quadrangulam) prayer house. They built it by erecting upright boards and great beams on some ruined remains the building it is said, can accommodate three thousand people at once.

Twenty years after that, and fifty years before the earliest mention of Mecca in any document other than the Qur’an, the Umayyads would make Temple Mount the site of the first great structure to be associated with Islam, the Dome of the Rock, adorned with a mosaic inscription dated 72 AH (692/3).


Possibly most significant of all is the name ’al-Masjid al-Harām’. Masjid derives from the root s-j-d, which indicates making oneself lowly or submissive, leading to its use in ‘masjid’ to indicate a place of worship. ‘Harām’ is one of many Hebrew words in the Qur’an, the word ‘herem’ referring, inter alia, to an expulsion from the Jewish community. As an adjective in Arabic it is generally translated as ‘forbidden’. In English translations, ‘al-Masjid al-Harām’ has been translated, with increasingly free licence, as ‘the sacred mosque‘, (per Yusuf Ali), ‘the inviolable place of worship’ (Pickthall), ‘the holy sanctuary’ (Kaskas) or ‘the restricted temple’ (the Monotheist Group). However, the simplest translation may be the most true to the Qur’an’s meaning, since Temple Mount had become, literally, the ‘forbidden temple’, not for Muhammad but for the Jews, owing to their exclusion from Jerusalem, first by the city’s Christian population, then by the Sassanians and finally by Heraclius.


It does not necessarily follow that every reference to the Masjid al-Haram in the Qur’an must be taken as a literal reference to Temple Mount. As will be seen, the Qur’an author can be surprisingly flexible with his forms of expression. One example of this creativity can be seen in his particular fondness for giving pairs of characters in a story, names that are identical other than for the initial letter. So for example:

in {2.102} two angels descend to earth to teach men magic who are called Hālūt and Mālūt 〈14.〉,

Aaron and Korah appear in the Moses narrative as Hārūn and Qārūn 〈22.〉,

two demons, who are known in the Old and New Testament by the names Gog and Magog, in the Qur’an become Yājūj and Mājūj, {18.94-98}, 〈29.〉 and 〈96.〉,

and King Saul is referred to in the Qur’an as ‘Ṭālūt’, a name which has no resemblance to Saul and which seems to have been given him for no other reason than that his name should rhyme with that of his enemy Goliath (in the Qur’an ‘Jālūt’, derived from the Hebrew ‘Golyat’).


Just as the Qur’an substitutes Saul’s name with that of Goliath but with a different initial, one may wonder, whether the Qur’an’s unknown ‘valley of Makkah’ may have been given a name that bears no relationship to its actual name, but which was adapted from the biblical valley of Bakkah. If so, the name Makkah would have been particularly liable to have been seized upon by later generations who wished to ‘Arabise’ the story of the Qur’an’s revelation and to redirect it away from the sanctuary of the Jews, towards the blank page anonymity of the faraway mountains and deserts of the Hijaz.



The second settlement that is principally associated with Muhammad in the traditional narrative is better substantiated. The tradition has it that Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca, whereupon he found sanctuary at a town called Yathrib (‘Yaṯrib’). Unlike Mecca, Yathrib has a well attested pre-Quranic existence, having been mentioned (as ‘Jathrippa’) in Claudius Ptolomy’s second century Geography. As with Mecca, Yathrib is mentioned only once in the Qur’an, in its case at {33.13}, but here the Qur’an is slightly more generous with context. The reference forms part of a dramatic account of a battle scene:

{33.10} When they came upon you from above you and below you and when yes swerved and hearts reached into throats and you thought many things regarding God,

{33.11} It was there that the believers were tried and shaken in a manner most severe

{33.12} And when the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease said; God and his messenger promised us naught but delusion

{33.14} And a group amongst them said: ‘O people of Yathrib, There is no stand for you, so turn back!’

Since members of the Qur’anic community, albeit uncommitted ones, address their fellow fighters as ‘O people of Yathrib’, this supports the traditional Islamic view that the Qur’an community was, at least for a time, based in Yathrib. The siting of the Qur’an’s revelation in Yathrib is also corroborated by the only document from Islamic history that is likely as old as the Qur’an, a treaty commonly known as the Treaty of Medina. This document draws up the rights and obligations of several Yathrib tribes, and the Jewish members thereof, see 〈39.〉, whilst investing the power to decide whether to go to war and the resolution of disputes with Muhammad.


Elsewhere, the Qur’an refers to its community as comprising the people of ‘al-madīnah’ and the Bedouin, {9.120}. In {63.8}, the Qur’an author imagines ‘hypocrites’ amongst its community, who in fact resent the believers in their midst, saying to one another: ‘If we return to al-madīnah, the mightier will surely expel the weaker therefrom’. The traditional Islamic narrative is that al-madīnah and Yathrib are one and the same place. This is not implausible. Usually ‘al-madīnah’ is translated in its modern usage of ‘the city’, but etymologically it is likely derived from the word ‘dīn’, meaning ‘religion’, see 〈87.〉, so that its original meaning may have been ‘the people of religion’ or, with a little extrapolation, ‘the place of religious rule’, see {9.101 & 120}.


However, whilst Yathrib/Medina is a natural oasis capable of supporting some modest amount of agriculture, it is hardly the rich and varied farmland of abundant rainfall described in the verses mentioned above. It produces no olives – a fruit that is mentioned six times in the Qur’an, {6.99 & 141}, {16.11}, {24.35}, {80.29} and {95.1} and at two hundred miles from the coast it is also unlikely to have attracted many sailors. One is left with the conclusion that whilst Yathrib was, for a time, the base for the Qur’anic community, it was probably not the original setting for the Qur’an’s revelation.



Further reading and viewing


Hagarism, The Making of the Islamic World, 1977, Patricia Crone and Michael Cook († book)

The Sacred City and (websites managed by Daniel Gibson, including many articles, videos, including The Sacred City (video) and the Qibla Tool)