al masjid al haram in the Qur’an

The inviolable place of worship

This article is from The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation.

al masjid al ḥarām – the inviolable place of worship

To the Traditionalist the meaning of al masjid al ḥarām is more or less clear and uncontested. To him it comprises the environs of the box-like structure in the city of Makkah which he calls the kaʿaba. I will not concentrate here on the obvious problem he has with this definition such as the fact that said environs have expanded multiple times. I will also leave the question that if al masjid al ḥarām (not what he takes to be the kaʿaba) were truly the direction of prayer (which is a claim the Traditionalist assumes the Qur’an makes although that is not what the text says) how would one know where to face for prayer when one is within what he takes to be al masjid al ḥarām? While these are fair questions, they are a distraction from the broader picture, and it is on this broader picture that I wish to concentrate.

According to the Traditionalist the narrative pertaining to al masjid al ḥarām goes something like:

  • Built by Ibrāhīm (or even Ādam) in the city today called Makkah
  • Ibrāhīm founded the place of pilgrimage at al masjid al ḥarām
  • Muḥammad was told to pray towards it
  • It had become filled with idols by Muḥammad’s time
  • Muḥammad focused on that place and performed pilgrimage to it
  • Muḥammad was later prevented from going there
  • Muḥammad had trials and tribulations after which he reclaimed al masjid al ḥarām for ‘Islam’
  • All Muslims are meant to visit this place and perform pilgrimage there

The point on which I wish now to concentrate and will lay before the reader became clear to me only late in this project. It centres on 9:28.

The Traditionalist reading of this verse is as follows:

O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean, so let them not approach al-Masjid al-Ḥarām after this, their [final] year. And if you fear privation, Allāh will enrich you from His bounty if He wills. Indeed, Allāh is Knowing and Wise. (9:28)
[Saheeh International]

The underlined portion of the verse above indicates that part of the text which is rendered by the form I verb qaraba (to approach, draw near).

The total number of instances of the form I of this verb is 11. They occur at 2:35, 2:187, 2:222, 4:43, 6:151, 6:152, 7:19, 9:28, 12:60, 17:32, 17:34.

Any student who cares to review this list may confirm that all instances are in the plural and all cases are preceded by the negative particle .

In 10 of the 11 instances we have qaraba + + the jussive mood and one case (12:60) where is is followed by the imperfective mood. In all cases it provides a direct warning against approaching something or, as in the case of 12:60, provides a statement of limitation of access to something.

Only in the Traditionalist’s reading of 9:28 is the subject anything other than the second person (you) form (i.e. approach you not[…]). Instead, here we have the verb in the third person plural: […]they approach not[…].

The verse at 9:28, then, stands out as immediately conspicuous because:

  • all 11 instances of this verb form in the Qur’an are preceded by la
  • all 11 forms are in the plural
  • no less than 9 of the 11 are the second person plural imperative (approach you not) using the jussive
  • the one instance where the jussive is not used still uses the second person plural (you approach not)
  • it is only at 9:28 (which uses the jussive) where the Traditionalist has pointed the text not as second person plural (approach you not) but third person plural (let them not approach)
  • the difference between second person plural and third person plural is merely that of placing a diacritical point to achieve ya rather than ta (the placing of two dots below the stem rather than above it) – an arbitrary choice in any case and not one intrinsic to the original unadorned text

The grammatical point I am making here is not the only evidence in support of my claim that 9:28 directs the believers to forsake al masjid al ḥarām (although I do in fact claim that this is the right reading of the text). Rather, I am presenting a case, and the grammatical point above is one part of that evidence. However, if we place this current understanding within the broader context of what we know about al masjid al ḥarām from the Qur’an, the case becomes much stronger:

  • ḥajj (i.e. the yearly practice of participating in pan-tribal convocation to witness to and worship the One God) was instituted by Ibrāhīm (22:27)
  • Muḥammad told to focus on al masjid al ḥarām (2:145-150)
  • Muḥammad told to fight there as a last resort (2:191, 2:217)
  • Muḥammad to participate in ḥajj (beginning 2:196) where he witnesses to the truth of God
  • The believers are blocked from going there (5:2)
  • Those indifferent to warning forsake their modest duty there (8:34)
  • Victory (i.e. access to al masjid al harām for the believers) comes in the form of a treaty made with the idolaters at 9:7 (one which they keep with varying degrees of integrity)
  • Idolaters are not to frequent places of worship – i.e. they are now barred from al masjid al ḥarām – (9:17)
  • The believers hold al masjid al ḥarām (9:19)
  • There is a battle which the believers – initially at least – lose (9:25-27). It seems all is lost
  • That the believers are told to forsake al masjid al ḥarām at 9:28 makes far more sense than not to allow idolators near it; the believers are not to give up fighting to protect the law of God
  • (The verse at 17:1 treats of a night journey from al masjid al ḥarām at Petra to al masjid al aqṣā – which I regard as a strong contender for the place where Mūsā talked with God and is found at Jabal al Lawz about 120 miles away)
  • Verse 22:25 is a lament and lists further warnings against those who block the path to God and to the inviolable place of worship
  • The narrative at chapter 48 presents a battle (with all the attendant archetypes) in which the believers deliver a strong blow against those holding al masjid al ḥarām and which ends in a respectable stand-off (48:24-25)
  • At 48:27 the messenger promised in addition to entering al masjid al ḥarām “a near victory”. This, I assert, was not realised by turning the area into a new ‘Islamicised’ religious centre, but by the destruction of al masjid al ḥarām in Petra after the idolaters had taken it.

Taken together – the narrative as we have it in the Qur’an, the historical record free of the Traditionalist’s overlay (which shows Petra as the original centre of ḥajj – one later destroyed by the Muslims themselves) and the internal grammatical evidence – I can come to no other conclusion than that al masjid al ḥarām was abandoned at the direction of God. It had served its purpose. Muḥammad had warned the people. His job was done.

To return to 9:28, the reality, surely, is simpler than the Traditionalist would have us believe and the instance of jussive of the form I verb (q-r-b) at 9:28 correctly reads lā taqrabū and not lā yaqrabū. This reading brings all 11 instances of the form I verb (q-r-b) into harmony meaning exactly what it means at 2:35, 2:187, 2:222, 4:43, 6:151, 6:152, 7:19, 17:32, 17:34, namely: do not approach.

The implications of such a position are many and obvious. Bereft of the place of pilgrimage he loves so much and which he, in effect, worships, the Traditionalist is lost. He has no claims to specialness: no special prayer, no special city, no special centre for his Caliphate-building projects, nowhere to go every year to kill lots of animals – because we can now point to the Qur’anic narrative, to the integral grammatical structures and to historical facts and demonstrate that the messenger of God (like those before him) was not in the religion-creation business.

The Traditionalist is left with a choice. Either he can ignore the evidence, or he can content himself with what the Qur’an tells followers of the messenger to do; namely: to fear God, to do good works and to follow the messenger’s example of warning people by means of the Qur’an.

I would like to close this section with a few comments from a slightly different angle, drawing not upon what al masjid al ḥarām was geographically – since that episode is firmly closed – but, rather, its value and purpose symbolically both in the past and today.

One must not forget that the area of al masjid al ḥarām at Petra is peppered with cave tombs. Right burial was important in the ancient Middle East. The obligation to bury and visit the dead at family or tribal tombs was an integral part of the functioning of the site. In searching my mind for equivalents closer to home I can best suggest Westminster Abbey which is where England’s noblest sons are interred. When I, as an Englishman, visit Westminster Abbey I am not simply entering a house of God. I am entering upon a precinct imbued with the presence of my forefathers. I am made aware of their lives, of their achievements, of the fact of their deaths and of the inevitability of my crossing that threshold which they have crossed before me. It holds, however, a decidedly tribal and racial aspect for me. By virtue of my history and genetics in combination with the locale of this particular building I hold a greater connection to the place than any Chinaman or even any Texan ever could. And I think that this phenomenon is why al masjid al ḥarām had to be decommissioned in the lifetime of the prophet: to preclude any influence of that racial and cultural pride which is normal in human groups from colouring and defining men’s relationship with God.

Therefore, despite the fact that al masjid al ḥarām is now closed to us in geographical terms, the power of its symbology remains. In terms of archetype, due to its historical connotations al masjid al ḥarām contains within it an implicit connection with death – both that of our forefathers in faith, and our own.

When today we turn our faces – our countenances, our inner selves – towards al masjid al ḥarām we direct our inner vision towards the tomb. By so doing we transcend the mundane, the vain, the futile, the pointless and the temporary, and we bind ourselves to – and renew our communality with – the faithful of all ages. This act realigns us with what matters and places us mentally in the Day when we, like they, will stand before God and give account.

A final point in this regard is that the ḥajj which took place at al masjid al ḥarām provided Muḥammad and those with him a platform from which to call people to give up their idols and commit themselves to God alone and to seek his protection from the judgments to come. The imperative to call people to turn to God alone remains today.

In summary:

  • Ibrāhīm founded the place of pilgrimage at al masjid al ḥarām at Petra
  • Muḥammad focused on that place and performed pilgrimage there as the best place and time to witness to the Arabian tribes
  • Muḥammad fulfilled that mission
  • The mushrikūn took possession of al masjid al ḥarām, after which the site was abandoned
  • At a later date there was a battle and the site at Petra was destroyed by the Muslims
  • The key takeaways of the Qur’an’s coverage of al masjid al ḥarām are a general imperative to witness the truth of the Qur’an to the people of our time, some key arguments to use in debate, and moral and practical lessons arising in the narrative of this Qur’anic history – itself one history among many

References

2:144, 2:149, 2:150, 2:191, 2:196, 2:217, 5:2, 8:34, 9:7, 9:19, 9:28, 17:1, 22:25, 48:25, 48:27.

About the Author Sam Gerrans

Sam Gerrans is an English writer and speaker with professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications, and technologies. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and Realpolitik. He is founder of Quranite.com and author of The Qur’an: A Complete Revelation where his consistent, Qur'an-centric hermeneutical methodology is applied to the text of the Qur’an in its entirety. Read more...

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