Changing the Qibla

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah/The Cow): 144

144. We have seen you turning your face towards the heaven. We shall surely turn you to a direction that shall satisfy you.

So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque (built by Abraham): wherever you are, turn your faces to it.

Those to whom the Book was given know this to be the truth from their Lord.
Allah is not inattentive of what they do.

145. But even if you brought those to whom the Book had been given every proof, they would not accept your direction, nor would you accept theirs; nor would any of them accept the direction of the other.

If after all the knowledge you have been given you yield to their desires, then you will surely be among the harm-doers.


It is a custom in some branches of Judaism to face towards the site of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem when one prays, a practice that is based upon verses from the Book of Kings and the Book of Daniel . Christians tend to build churches and dig graves facing to the east and the rising sun, as a symbol of the resurrection, although this is never seen as a religious requirement.


In Surah 2, the Qur’an devotes several verses to the subject of the ‘qibla’, literally ‘that which is facing’ or ‘opposite’, and universally understood as the direction to which believers should orient themselves when they pray. In {2.155} and {2.177} the Qur’an implies there is no significance to this direction:

{2.155} To God belong the East and West. Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God.

God is All-encompassing, Knowing.


{2.177} It is not piety to turn your faces towards east and west.

Rather piety is he who believes in God …

In {2.139-150}, by contrast, the physical direction that one faces whilst praying, becomes a divine mandate, although a variable one, presented as an indication not merely of the orthodoxy of one’s faith, but one’s ability to respond to a change in instructions. The issue is surprisingly complex:


{2.139-141} denies that Jews or Christians of the day were entitled to claim the legacy of the Jewish patriarchs to the exclusion of the other or of the Arabs: ‘Say you that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes were Jews or Christians? Say: ‘Do you know better or does God?’’,


{2.142} alludes to the fact that the Qur’anic community has changed its direction of prayer, to the mockery of ‘fools’. The phrase ‘To God belongs the east and west’ is used, but here, unlike in {2.155 & 177}, the significance seems to be not that the direction is of no consequence but rather that God, through His prophet, can command believers to pray in any direction that He chooses,


{2.143} refers to a qibla which had been previously fixed. The abandonment of this former qibla (‘Qibla 1’) is partially justified by the statement that it had only been appointed as a test, ‘to know those who would follow the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels.’ The reason why it was that praying in this direction had been such a challenge is not stated, but the verse acknowledges that so doing ‘was indeed difficult’,


{2.144} promises a qibla ‘well pleasing’ to the followers, namely towards the Masjid al-Haram (‘Qibla 2’), and comments that ‘those who have been given the book know that it is the truth from their Lord.’


{2.145-146} contrasts the new qibla with the practise of ‘those who were given the Book’ (Jews and/or Christians) who have different, ‘capricious’ qiblas, over which they disagree: ‘nor are they followers of one another’s qibla’,


{2.148} reflects in a general, possibly rather philosophical, way that ‘everyone has a direction toward which he turns’, and


{2.149 & 150} repeat, one after the other, the main point that the Masjid al-Haram is now the correct qibla, and require believers, wherever they are, to turn towards it when they pray ‘so that the people may have no argument against’ them.


The traditional Islamic understanding is that for a period of Muhammad’s time at Medina, and even before the hijra, Muhammad and his followers prayed towards Jerusalem. The revelation of {2.144-145} directed a change of prayer direction away from from Jerusalem and towards the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. This no doubt symbolising a change of direction for the religious movement as a whole away from seeking to attract Jewish support and forging a distinctly Arab identity.


According to one hadith, sometimes assessed as weak, Muhammad had initially prayed towards the Meccan Ka’aba . Although Muhammad is, of course, never described as having been a polytheist himself, he is described as participating in the rituals associated with the Meccan Ka’aba, attending and circled the Ka’aba, traversing between the two hills of Safa and Marwa and having kissed the black stone (see for example the extract from Ibn Ishaq produced at 〈32.〉 above). He is even said to have replaced the black stone personally, after the rebuilding of the Ka’aba when he was thirty-five . So the tradition that Muhammad had initially faced the Ka’aba as he prayed is entirely unsurprising. However, Ibn Ishaq himself does not assert this but instead he records a story that when Muhammad first began to attract interest from Yathrib, the leader of one group of Yathrib pilgrims to Mecca, asked Muhammad if it was permissible to pray towards the Ka’aba rather than towards Syria (‘al-Sham’) as all his travelling companions did, and received the reply: ‘You were on a qibla that you should have been patient (and pray) towards it’. The customary interpretation of this rather unclear but discouraging response is that Muhammad, like the bulk of the Yathrib pilgrims, prayed towards al-Sham – Syria – which may or may not have been used as a term for Jerusalem.


The Majid al-Qiblatayn (the ‘Mosque of the Two Qiblas’) in Medina is said to be the place where the change in the qibla was first announced, causing the congregation to abruptly turn about face to re-orientate themselves – almost 180° – away from Jerusalem and towards Mecca midway through their prayers. Subsequently, the mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of the Ka’aba) has become an important element in mosque design.

Early qibla evidence and theories

The reader will by now be familiar with the lack of explicit evidence for the existence of Mecca pre-741 and the factors linking the Qur’an’s ‘al-masjid al-ḥarām’ to Temple Mount in Jerusalem 〈2.〉, 〈34.〉 and 〈36.〉 (see also 〈56.〉). It has further been seen that it was around the rock of the temple that the Arabs constructed their first religious buildings.


The earliest reference to the Arabs facing a specific direction when they prayed comes in a letter from Jacob of Edessa (d. c.708) to John the Stylite. John had asked Jacob why the Jews prayed to the south, to which Jacob had replied:

‘Your question is vain … for it is not to the south that the Jews pray nor either do the Muslim. The Jews who live in Egypt and also the Muslims there, as I saw with my own eyes and will now set out for you, prayed to the east and still do, both people, the Jews towards Jerusalem and the Muslims towards the ka’ba. And those Jews who are to the south of Jerusalem pray to the north and those in the land of babel (Babylon?), in Hira and in Basra pray to the west And also the Muslims who are there pray to the west, towards the ka’ba and those who are to the south of the ka’ba pray to the north towards that place. So from all this that has been said it is clear that it is not to the south that the Jews and Muslims here in the regions of Syria pray, but towards Jerusalem or the Ka’ba, the patriarchal places of their races.

Jacob of Edessa observed Muslims at prayer face east from Egypt, west from Mesopotamia and ‘not to the south … but towards … the ka’ba‘ when in Syria. Based upon this, and the discovery of two early mosques in Iraq oriented almost due south west – i.e. well to the north of Mecca – Patricia Crone and Michael Crook in Hagarism proposed that there must have been ‘a sanctuary in north-west Arabia… (to which) the location of the Hagarene sanctuary in Mecca was secondary.


Further evidence of a possible north Arabian shrine may be found in the Khuzistani Chronicle, written sometime between 660 and 670, to describe the final years of the Sassanian Empire, which refers to a site of Arab worship as the ‘Dome of Abraham’. The chronicler believed that Arab worship at this site long preceded the conquests of the 630s (‘It was not new for Arabs to worship there’) but did not know where this site was, save that ‘(Abraham), because he wanted to distance himself from the jealousy of the Canaanites, opted to dwell in the faraway and open lands of the desert’. A more exciting account of an Arabian shrine appears in the Edifying Tales and Questiones of Anastasias of Sinai, (660-690) which records a story told by a Christian who had been captured by Muslims and taken to ‘the place where they who hold us in slavery have the stone and the object of their worship’. There he had seen the sacrifice of ‘innumerable myriads of sheep and camels’ whereupon a she demon emerges from the earth to devour the animals’ carcases.


Over the decade from 2010 to 2020, great advances in the analysis of the qibla directions of early Arab buildings were made by Dan Gibson who published Quranic Geography in 2011 and Early Islamic Qiblas: A Survey of Mosques Built Between 1AH/622 C.E. and 263 AH/876 CE in 2017. Gibson also maintains a website in which satellite photographs of the earliest post-conquest Arab buildings and directional indicators are combined with Google Earth interactive maps. Gibson’s findings demonstrate conclusively that almost all the earliest post-645 Arab buildings that one might expect to have a been built with a specific orientation, either towards Petra in Jordan or towards a point that he describes as the ‘Between’ position, a location about half-way between Petra and Mecca. Only one mosque is unambiguously oriented towards Jerusalem, and only three pre-750 mosques face Mecca, the earliest, with an inscription dating its construction to 727, being the Banbhore Mosque in Sindh. In North Africa, and Spain early mosques were invariably built facing south.


Gibson’s scenario for the true origin of Mecca

Dan Gibson has revised the history of early Islam to accommodate these facts that he discovered on the ground. The following is a summary of his thesis:


  • Petra (the geography of which matches many of Ibn Ishaq’s accounts of the life of Muhammad) was the true Mecca of the traditional Islamic narrative and early buildings of the Islamic conquest were built facing Petra.


  • After the Umayyad Caliphate had made Damascus its capital, an Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr led a twelve year rebellion, based around the original Ka’aba/Masjid al-Haram in Petra.


  • At some stage, fearing defeat, he destroyed the Ka’aba and sent the black stone from Petra south into the Hijaz for safe-keeping.


  • After al-Zubayr’s rebellion was finally crushed in 692, those who had been tasked with protecting the black stone established it as a new site of pilgrimage at Mecca. This moment, Gibson suggests, is evidenced by a rock inscription found near Ta’if, that commemorates the building of the Masjid al-Haram dated in the 78th year after the hijra, (i.e. 697).


  • After the black stone’s removal to the Hijaz, the Arab world entered a time of qibla confusion, with the builders of many mosques reluctant to build either facing the rebel/destroyed Ka’aba at Petra nor the rebel/unauthorised shrine at Mecca, and so pointing their mosques towards a location mid-way between the two. Leading this compromise was the Umayyad general who had defeated the rebellion, Abu Muhammad al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, who constructed one of the two mosques identified as pointing north of Mecca by Crone and Crook, the al-Wasit (which translates literally as ‘the Between’) mosque in southern Iraq.


  • Only after the Abbasid revolution in 750 was the new shrine at Mecca officially recognised, and Ibn Ishaq commissioned to write a biography of Muhammad with the relevant events relocated to the events to Mecca.


Ibn Zubayr’s rebellion is well attested and his destruction of the Ka’aba is referred to by Al-Tabari. Moreover, the centrality of the rebellion (‘the Second Fitna’) to the evolution of Islam is supported by the facts that it is upon the coins minted during or immediately after al-Zubayr’s rebellion that we find the earliest mention of Muhammad outside of the Qur’an and it was Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr’s brother, Urwa, who was a principal source for Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad and the earliest collection of hadith, see 〈5.〉. It is suggested that Gibson’s account for the otherwise unexplained mosque orientation and the emergence from obscurity of Mecca in the mid-eighth century are the most plausible yet articulated.