A Jewish acquaintance asked a question and when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he continued to press his point until he prompted me to research the topic and formulate a response. He asked me, “Why did Muhammad ﷺ move the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca?”
I first told him from an Islamic perspective, Muhammad ﷺ never set the location of the qibla. It was Allah ﷻ Who established the qibla in the first place. Allah ﷻ later changed the qibla during the Prophet’s lifetime before declaring the religion complete. For me, this was a good enough answer. But I soon realized my acquaintance thought he was holding a smoking gun, and he was not going to let me off the hook so easily.
A quick Google search revealed the moving of the qibla as “talking point” for critics of Islam. Here is the argument distilled in an article published on Answering Islam:
Throughout Muhammad’s ﷺ ministry he often tried to appease Jews and Christians in the hope of convincing them that he was a true prophet like the prophets of the Holy Bible. Some of the ways in which he went about it was by adopting certain Jewish or Christian practices such as fasting, purification rites, dietary restrictions etc. When he saw that the Jews and Christians were not embracing him, that they were not accepting his prophetic claims, Muhammad ﷺ turned against them and did away with some of these customs and practices he had originally adapted from them. ~Muhammad’s ﷺ Changing of the Qiblah
From an Islamic perspective, Muhammad ﷺ adopted certain Jewish and Christian practices because the revelation he received was a continuation of the message received by his Jewish and Christian predecessors.
I do not dispute his assertion that the Prophet tried to spread the message of Islam to Jews and Christians. It was his mission to propagate the message of Islam to all mankind. I suspect if he had excluded the Jews, Christians, or both from his target audience, that also would have sparked criticism by Islam’s relentless detractors.
It is not true, as the article seems to imply, that all Jews and all Christians rejected Islam. Some of them became Muslims, and I’ve seen no evidence Muhammad ﷺ ever gave up and stopped preaching to Christians and Jews.
The article goes on to say:
“[Muhammad ﷺ] had also commanded Muslims to pray towards Jerusalem, the prayer direction of the Jews, but then rescinded this and told them to pray towards the Kabah in Mecca.”
Not exactly. Islamic scholar Muhammad Assad explains:
Before his call to prophethood, and during the early Meccan period of his ministry, the Prophet-and his community with him-used to turn in prayer towards the Ka`bah. This was not prompted by any specific revelation, but was obviously due to the fact that the Ka`bah-although it had in the meantime been filled with various idols to which the pre-Islamic Arabs paid homage -was always regarded as the first temple ever dedicated to the One God (cf. 3:96). Since he was aware of the sanctity of Jerusalem – the other holy centre of the unitarian faith – the Prophet prayed, as a rule, before the southern wall of the Ka`bah, towards the north, so as to face both the Ka`bah and Jerusalem ….
Early Muslims were not forced to choose between the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem and Ka’aba in Mecca. They were able to pray facing both simultaneously, as long as they remained in Mecca. The geographical location of the city made this possible:
… While he was in Mecca he faced Syria in prayer, and when he prayed, he prayed between the southern corner and the black stone, putting the Ka‘ba between himself and Syria… (The Life of Muhammad ﷺ: A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, tenth impression 1995], p. 135)
It was not until the Muslims were forced to flee Mecca and take refuge in Yathrib (Medina) that they had to choose between Jerusalem and Mecca. Assad continues:
After the exodus to Medina [Muhammad ﷺ] continued to pray northwards, with only Jerusalem as his qiblah (direction of prayer). About sixteen months after his arrival at Medina , however, he received a revelation (verses 142-150 of this surah) which definitively established the Ka`bah as the qiblah of the followers of the Qur’an. This “abandonment” of Jerusalem obviously displeased the Jews of Medina, who must have felt gratified when they saw the Muslims praying towards their holy city; and it is to them that the opening sentence of this passage [2:142] refers…
The Jewish acquaintance who challenged me on the moving of the qibla was continuing a very long tradition. Even during the life of the Prophet, the Jews expressed their displeasure when the Muslims turned their faces to Mecca. They tried to confuse the Muslims by saying that if Jerusalem had been the correct qibla, then all their future prayers facing Mecca would be invalid. But if Mecca was the correct qibla, then all their past prayers facing Jerusalem were invalid. And what of the Muslims who had already died, having offered prayers facing Jerusalem? The Qur’an subsequently addressed these issues:
2:142 THE WEAK-MINDED among people will say, “What has turned them away from the direction of prayer which they have hitherto observed?” Say: “God’s is the east and the west; He guides whom He wills onto a straight way.”
2:143 And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that [with your lives] you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you. And it is only to the end that We might make a clear distinction between those who follow the Apostle and those who turn about on their heels that We have appointed [for this community] the direction of prayer which thou [O Prophet] hast formerly observed: for this was indeed a hard test for all but those whom God has guided aright. But God will surely not lose sight of your faith-for, behold, God is most compassionate towards man, a dispenser of grace…
Assad explains that moving the qibla was hard for the Muslims of Medina, who were accustomed to praying facing Jerusalem, and who associated that sacred city with the teachings of the earlier prophets. They were now called upon to face the Ka’ba, which was at the time a shrine dedicated to pagan idols. But the true believers would accept the command, recognizing the divine wisdom of turning their faces toward the sacred ka’ba. With regard to the original qibla, Assad writes:
If one considers the matter from the historical point of view, there had never been any change in the divine commandments relating to the qiblah: there had simply been no ordinance whatever in this respect before verses 142-150 were revealed. Their logical connection with the preceding passages, which deal, in the main, with Abraham and his creed, lies in the fact that it was Abraham who erected the earliest structure of the temple which later came to be known as the Ka’bah.
It is true the Qur’an never established Jerusalem as the qibla in the first place. In fact, one of the “talking points” meant to diminish the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims is that the city is never explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Muhammad’s ﷺ preference was to pray facing Mecca (2:144).
So when Muhammad ﷺ arrived in Medina and was confronted with a choice between Jerusalem and Mecca, why did he choose Jerusalem?
I have not yet found a definitive answer. However, it may be that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was indeed observing a command from Allah ﷻ. Islam recognizes the Torah as divine revelation, along with Psalms and the Gospel. From the Hebrew Bible:
Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.
If thy people go out to battle against their enemy, whithersoever thou shalt send them, and shall pray unto the LORD toward the city [of Jerusalem] which thou hast chosen, and toward the house that I have built for thy name …
We know that observant Jews faced Jerusalem to pray before the advent of Islam and still pray facing Jerusalem today.
Muhammad ﷺ may have continued to observe Allah’s ﷻ earlier command to pray facing Jerusalem until Allah ﷻ issued a superseding command, which is precisely the behavior we would expect from a prophet, who would never override God’s laws, regardless of his personal preferences.
According to the article published on Answering Islam, the Jews themselves said they had directed Muhammad ﷺ to face Jerusalem:
According to Yunus b. ‘Abd al-A‘la – Ibn Wahb – Ibn Zayd: The Prophet turned towards Jerusalem for sixteen months, and then it reached his ears that the Jews were saying, “By God, Muhammad ﷺ and his companions did not know where their Qiblah was until we directed them.” This displeased the Prophet and he raised his face toward Heaven, and God said, “We have seen the turning of your face to Heaven.”
(The History of Al-Tabari: The Foundation of the Community, translated by M. V. McDonald, annotated by W. Montgomery Watt [State University of New York Press (SUNY), Albany 1987], Volume VII, pp. 24-25; bold emphasis ours)
Of course, account was not cited to bolster the case for Muhammad ﷺ recognizing the earlier revelation given to the Jews, but rather to imply ridicule was a probable catalyst for Muhammad ﷺ to move the qibla:
Al-Tabari had no problem admitting that it wasn’t until Muhammad ﷺ heard the Jews making fun of him that he then decided to change his prayer direction.
In a rebuttal of the same Answering Islam article, Bassam Zawadi says scholars agree the source of this information is weak. Whether that is really the case or not, Al Tabari admitted no such thing. He merely reported Muhammad ﷺ had heard this gossip. He did not state this was the reason the qibla was moved. That is a leap the author made on his own.
There is no evidence ridicule was all, or even part, of the reason Muhammad ﷺ looked to the sky for answers. Qur’anic revelation was often a direct response to issues Muhammad ﷺ was facing at the time. Evidence suggests the Prophet’s dilemma regarding the qibla was ongoing once the Muslims arrived in Medina, until the matter was definitively resolved through revelation.
Next the accuses ﷺ of contradicting himself by directing the faithful to pray facing Jerusalem after the qibla was changed to Mecca, and provides misleading, cherry-picked evidence to support his claim:
On another occasion a man who prayed towards Mecca was corrected by Muhammad ﷺ and pointed him towards Jerusalem!
… ‘We went out with the polytheist pilgrims of our people having prayed and learned the customs of the pilgrimage. With us was al-Bara’ b. Ma‘rur our chief and senior. When we had started our journey from Medina al-Bara’ said, “I have come to a conclusion and I don’t know whether you will agree with me or not. I think that I will not turn my back on this building” (meaning the Ka‘ba), “and that I shall pray towards it.” We replied that so far as we knew our prophet prayed towards Syria and we did not wish to act differently. He said, “I am going to pray towards the Ka‘ba.” …We blamed him for what he was doing, but he refused to change. When we came to Mecca …we went to ask the apostle… Al-Bara’ said, “O prophet of God, I came on this journey God having guided me to Islam and I felt that I could not turn my back on this building, so I prayed towards it; but when my companions opposed me I felt some misgivings. What is your opinion, O apostle of God?” He replied, “You would have had a qibla if you had kept to it,” so al-Bara’ returned to the apostle’s qibla and prayed with us towards Syria. But his people assert that he prayed towards the Ka‘ba until the day of his death; but this was not so. We know more about that than they.’
(Ibid., p. 202; bold emphasis ours)
Crucial information is missing from this account. The following recounts the same story, with this preface:
Ibn Ishaq, one of the classical biographers of the Prophet related an interesting episode: While the Prophet was still in Makkah some people from Madinah had accepted Islam on one of them was al-Bara…..
Read the full account here: Virtues of Jerusalem: An Islamic Perspective
The qibla was not established as Mecca until after the Prophet’s arrival in Medina. The entire point of the story is that Jerusalem was the qibla at the time, but al-Bara had a special reverence for Mecca and did not want to turn his back on the Ka’ba, so he prayed facing Mecca instead–while everyone else was still facing Jerusalem. Therefore, this is no evidence of a contradiction on the part of the Prophet.
In his “concluding remarks,” which appear nowhere near the end of the article, the author writes:
Muslims must contend with these issues by either concluding that the Quran contains the human thoughts and expressions of Muhammad ﷺ , and is therefore not completely divine in origin. Or they must accept the fact that Allah ﷻ changed his mind and practices in order to placate Muhammad’s ﷺ desires and wishes, something which even the Quran itself asserts quite unapologetically:
O Muhammad ﷺ , many a time We noticed you turning your face towards heaven; now We will make you turn towards a Qiblah THAT WILL PLEASE YOU. Turn your face during Salah towards the Sacred Mosque (Ka’bah); wherever you are turn your face in that direction. The people of the Book know this to be the truth from their Rabb. Allah ﷻ is not unaware of what they do. S. 2:144 F. Malik
The author offers a false choice based on a faulty premise. The verse does not assert that Allah ﷻ changed his mind. For all we know, it was always the plan to establish the final qibla in Mecca and nothing in my reading of the relevant text suggests otherwise. Allah ﷻ did not indicate Muhammad’s ﷺ preference was the reason for His decision. He merely acknowledged that His decision would please Muhammad ﷺ. The author also concludes:
In light of all of this, is it any wonder that many scholars and writers see the Quran’s abrogation of specific monotheistic practices in place of heathen customs and rites as evidence that the Quran is really the product of Muhammad ﷺ rather than a revelation coming from God?
Who are these “many scholars and writers”? How does the Qur’an abrogate “monotheistic practices”? Does one become a polytheist by praying to the same one God because he or she is facing a different direction? The author never mentions the alleged “heathen customs and rites,” plural, so even if we accept that praying facing the ka’ba was one such practice, what are the rest of these “customs and rites”?
The article seems to be a jumble of half-formed thoughts, leaving me to wonder who the author is trying to convince. I don’t care even if it is true that “many scholars and writers” doubt the divine origin of the Qur’an. If they agreed it is divine revelation, I suppose they would be Muslims.
I don’t think Allah’s ﷻ decision to establish the final qibla in Mecca presents any challenges for Muslims. I doubt the qibla would have become an “issue” at all, were it not for a well-funded coterie of agenda-driven “critics” making mischief.
The straightforward answer to the question posed in the title of this article is that Allah ﷻ moved the qibla. And Muslims are fine with that.
Whatever good has come from me is due to Allah ﷻ and solely to Allah ﷻ. Whatever bad has come from me is from the whisperings of Shaytan, and from my own sins. All praise is due to Allah ﷻ, and may Allah’s ﷻ Peace and Blessings be upon His Final Messenger Muhammad ﷺ , his pure family, his noble companions, and all those who follow them with righteousness until the Day of Judgment. Ameen.