Makkah is the centre of a cult created after Muhammad

Why Makkah fails

Modern-day Makkah strikes even Traditionalist Muslims who make pilgrimage there by its lack of correspondence with the place described in the Qur’an.

Dan Gibson is a historian and a Middle-East specialist. While he and I may differ in our conclusions, we have a common belief that truth should be relentlessly pursued, and we share the dubious distinction of finding ourselves cast as iconoclasts as a result.

Unlike me, Gibson does not accept the Qur’an as a revelation from the Living God. He, like the Orientalist, speaks of the Qur’an as something which Muḥammad directed and shaped (i.e. wrote). The Qur’an refutes that position, and so do I. He also, in his capacity as a historian, ascribes the ḥadīth literature a relevance which I as a theologian deny it. But these are matters of conscience and professional and academic emphasis.

Gibson’s book, Qur’ānic Geography, is a tour de force of the subject it treats. He examines in detail the tribes of the descendants of Shem and thence of Ibrāhīm, thereby addressing a longstanding imbalance of emphasis in favour of the line of Isḥāq to the almost complete exclusion of the line of Ismāʿīl. He convincingly places Muḥammad in Nabatea at Petra – at least during some part of his mission – and cites geographical, architectural and Qur’anic evidence as well as evidence from non-Qur’anic traditions in support of his thesis.

He points to Petra, not Makkah as both the place of the origin of the revelation and the centre of pilgrimage to which the various tribes repaired twice a year to meet and, importantly, bury and visit their dead. He also asserts that the Qur’an (which, as mentioned, generally exhibits a paucity in place names) rehearses the story of the (named) ʿĀd and Thamud so frequently because these empires were local to the Nabataean Arabs and known by them.

I certainly accept that Petra was the place of pan-regional pilgrimage. Where Muḥammad lived and grew up and where he received the bulk of his revelation – whether at Petra, or further down the Arabian Peninsula as per the various theses outlined here – I cannot say for certain. As a common believer, it is a matter of burning interest. As a theologian, it does not matter to me hugely;  there are other, more pressing, concerns.

The evidence Dan Gibson presents is fascinating and well-argued, and I direct the interested student to his book.

I will limit my references to Qur’ānic Geography to two fronts. Firstly, I quote verbatim below Gibson’s work as it treats of the direction of early mosques since that evidence is empirical and – to my mind – irrefutable. Following that, I summarise some of the book’s other findings which support the identification of Petra as a place in which the prophet operated.

All text and photographs in the section below are from Qur’ānic Geography, by Dan Gibson (Independent Scholars Press) and are reproduced with the author’s kind permission.

Early mosques

1 AH 622 AD

The Quba Mosque just outside of Medina. The mosque was originally built around 622 AD, but subsequent renovations and rebuilding have so changed it that it is not possible to examine the original foundations and determine the direction of the original qibla.

1 AH 622 AD

The Mosque of the Prophet which would later be called al-Madina al-Munawara. […]Because the mosque has undergone such extensive renovations at multiple times, it is impossible to make out the original floor plan and the original direction of prayer.

5 AH 626 AD

Masjid al-Qiblatain. […]When the old mosque was torn down, the foundation stones of the earlier mosque revealed that the original building faced north towards both Petra and Jerusalem which were in almost exactly the same direction.

6 AH 627 AD

The Great Mosque of Guangzhou, known also as Huaisheng Mosque (Memorial of the Holy Prophet) or the Guangta Mosque (Light Tower Mosque) is thought to be the earliest surviving mosque in China. This mosque faces 12 degrees north of where the qibla should be, meaning that it directly faces Petra. Because of its great distance from Arabia, local Muslims feel that it is close enough to Mecca.

20 AH 641 AD

The Mosque of ’Amr ibn al-’As was founded by the Muslim conqueror of Egypt in 641near his house in the town of Fusṭāṭ, outside of Cairo. This mosque was rebuilt and enlarged in 673 during the reign of Mu’āwiya, who is said to have added a minaret to each of its four corners. Today the mosque does not exist in its original form, having undergone numerous restorations so that the original foundation is no longer evident. However, the original ground-plan of the mosque shows that the qibla pointed too far north and had to be corrected later under the governorship of Qurra ibn Sharīk. (Creswell 1969, pages 37,150) Interestingly this agrees with the later Islamic tradition compiled by Aḥmad ibn al-Maqrizi that ’Amr ibn al-’As prayed facing east, and not more towards the south. (al-Maqrizi 1326 page 6; Crone-Cook 1977 pages 24,173).

80 AH 700 AD

The Umayyad Palace (qaṣr) at Ḥumeima was built during the early Islamic era by Alī, a grandson of ’Abbās, a paternal uncle of the prophet Muḥammad. It would have either included a prayer room or the central court would have been used for prayer, therefore the alignment of the entire building should have been according to the qibla. The building is oriented northeast. Mecca is not in this direction, nor is Jerusalem, but it does correspond with Petra, only 27 miles to the north. Later a smaller outside mosque was built with a qibla pointing closer to Mecca.

 81 AH 700 AD

The Great Mosque of Ba’albek in Lebanon is an Umayyad mosque dating back to 81 AH. It has suffered from deterioration due to dampness, salt, and structural degradation. The last renovation was conducted with special attention to archaeological remains, as it is believed that the mosque may have been built upon several older structures dating back to antiquity. Lime mortar and traditional materials were used to preserve the building’s character. As you can see[…] the Ba’albek Mosque (to the right of the main Ba’albek ruins) has an orientation closer to Petra than to Mecca.

82 AH 710 AD

The first Islamic buildings on the Amman, Jordan citadel were built around 700 AD[…]. So far, it has not been possible to absolutely date the time of construction of these buildings, but they were built early during Umayyad rule. […]the first set of buildings pointed south. The later buildings were built around 740 AD (above the earlier buildings) and clearly demonstrate a new focus and direction. The original buildings faced Petra, but the newer buildings (built some 40 years later) faced Mecca. […]during the period between these two constructions ’Abdallah ibn Zubayr completely destroyed the Ka’ba and rebuilt it, possibly in a new location.

86 AH 705 AD

The Great Mosque of San’ā is in the capital city of Yemen. According to early sources, the Prophet Muḥammad commanded the construction of this mosque, including its location and dimensions, sometime around 630 AD. While the validity of this claim lacks certainty, the mosque remains one of the early architectural projects in Islam. Sometime between 705 and 715 AD, the Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd I rebuilt and enlarged the mosque. Like the previous examples, this mosque points towards Petra, but since it is south of Mecca it could be argued that it also points in the general direction of Mecca[…].

87 AH 706 AD

Qaṣr Khirbat al Minya is in Khirbat al-Minya, Israel (also known as ’Ayn Minyat Ḥishām). This is an Umayyad-built palace located in the eastern Galilee region about 200 meters (660 ft) west of the northern end of Lake Tiberias. It was erected as an Umayyad palace complex with a palace, mosque and bath built by al Walīd. (The date of construction is based on an inscription set into a gateway.) The palace contained a room that was constructed for the purpose of being a mosque. It was the room with pillars in the bottom right corner. Because it is almost directly north of Petra, the mosque and the entire building points directly at Petra, not Mecca which is southeast. We were unable to obtain satellite photos of this site, but the original plans can be obtained from showing the layout of the building.

87 AH 707 AD

The Wasiṭ Mosque in Iraq has been the center of much discussion. Originally, Creswell and Fehervari studied the ground plans of this mosque and claimed that this mosque pointed to Jerusalem. (Creswell, 1969 pg 137 & 1989, pg 40; Fehervari, 1961, pg 89; Crone-Cook 1977, pgs 23 & 173) However, further research has shown that this mosque does not point to Mecca or Jerusalem, but somewhere in between. In their Internet article Islamic Awareness, The Qibla of Early Mosques, Jerusalem or Makkah? M S M Saifullah, Muḥammad Ghoniem, ’Abd al Raḥmān, Robert Squires and Manṣūr Ahmed clearly demonstrate that the qibla of the Wasiṭ mosque points to neither Jerusalem (too far north) or Mecca (too far south). Instead they discovered that the qibla pointed 155°02’ of north (which is directly towards the Petra region).

89 AH 708 AD

Immediately after Zubayr’s rebellion and consequent rebuilding of the Ka’ba, the miḥrab mark or niche was introduced. It is said that during the reign of the ’Uthmān ibn Affan (644-656), the caliph ordered a sign to be posted on the wall of the mosques at Medina so that pilgrims could now easily identify the direction in which to address their prayers. This seems to be a strange development, since up until this time there was no question as to which direction the faithful should pray. The entire building faced the qibla. Now, however, a sign was provided in the older mosques, seeming to indicate that a new qibla had been introduced.

During the reign of Al-Walīd ibn ’Abd al-Mālik (Al-Walīd I, 705-715), the Mosque of the Prophet (the Masjid al Nabawi) was renovated and the governor (wali) of Medina, ’Umar Ibn ’Abdul Azīz, ordered that a niche be made to designate the qibla. ’Uthmān’s sign was then placed inside this niche. Eventually, the niche came to be universally understood as identifying the qibla direction, and so came to be adopted as a feature in other mosques. A sign was no longer necessary.

It is most interesting to notice that the miḥrab niche was developed right after the time we are suggesting the qibla changed. Evidently since there was confusion over which way to pray, older mosques began to adopt the miḥrab so that the faithful could pray in the new direction.

90 AH 709 AD

The Al Aqṣa mosque in Jerusalem has undergone multiple stages of construction and renovations over the years. It is generally agreed that ’Abd al- Mālik, (685-705) the Umayyad Caliph who was the patron of the Dome of the Rock, started the construction of al-Aqṣa Mosque at the end of the 7th century. A major building phase took place during the time of the caliphate of his son, al-Walīd (709-715). The building suffered from several major earthquakes and was renovated and reconstructed during the Abbāsid period by Caliph al-Mahdī (775-785), and possibly by Caliph al-Manṣūr (754-775). This mosque in Jerusalem does not point to Mecca but rather points 169.23° which is towards Petra, only 160 miles away.

The Al Aqṣa mosque is located on the bottom center of the photo just below the arrow indicating the direction of Petra. None of the buildings on the Jerusalem citadel point towards Mecca.

 90 AH 709 AD

Umayyad Damascus Mosque. This mosque holds a shrine which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist. The head was supposedly found during the excavations for the building of the mosque. There are also many important landmarks within the mosque for the Shī’a. Among them is the place where the head of Ḥusain (the grandson of Muḥammad) was kept on display by Yazīd I. There is also the tomb of Ṣaladīn, (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn) which stands in a small garden adjoining the north wall of the mosque.

Construction of the mosque was based on the house of Muḥammad in Medina. This mosque had many functions: it was a place for personal and collective prayer, religious education, political meetings, administration of justice and relief for the ill and homeless. The new mosque was the most impressive in the Islamic world at the time. The interior walls were covered with fine mosaics considered to depict paradise or possibly the Ghouta, which tradition holds, so impressed Muḥammad that he declined to enter it, preferring to taste paradise in the afterlife. The Damascus Mosque was considered one of the marvels of the world because it was one of the largest in its time. The exterior walls were based on the walls of the temple of Jupiter and measured 100 meters by 157.5 meters.

This mosque was one of the first mosques (the other being al-Aqṣa Mosque in Jerusalem) to be shaped in such a way so that visitors could easily see the miḥrab and each other. The interior of the mosque is mainly plain white, although it contains some fragmentary mosaics and other geometric patterns. It is thought that the mosque used to have the largest golden mosaic in the world at over 4,000 m2. The mosque has been rebuilt several times due to fires in 1069, 1401, and 1893 AD. Many of the early mosaics were lost, although some have been restored since.

The minaret in the southeast corner is called the Minaret of Jesus, as many Muslims believe that this is where Jesus will appear at the end of the world. The mosque does not face Mecca.

95 AH 724 AD

The Khirbat al Mafjar Mosque is located near Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The Khirbat al Mafjar Mosque is located near Jericho in the Jordan Valley. (31°52’41.07N, 35°27’29.97 E) Khirbat al-Mafjar remains one of the most highly sophisticated Umayyad palaces known for its elaborate mosaics, stucco carvings and overall sculptural magnificence. Khirbat al-Mafjar was built during the reign of Ḥishām Ibn ’Abd al-Māli, and it was abandoned around 744 AD when the Umayyads dynasty collapsed and the Abbāsids rose to power. The Abbāsids never rebuilt the palace. Once again this is a palace that contained a mosque. It was located almost directly north of Petra, so the mosque (bottom center room) faces south as shown in the floor plan, rather than towards Mecca.

95 AH 714 AD

The Anjar Mosque is located 58 kilometers from Beirut, just a short distance from the Litani River. Anjar is the only exclusively Umayyad site in Lebanon. Its name originates from the term “’Ayn Gerrah” which means “the source of Gerrah” in Arabic, referring to an ancient fortress in the region. Commissioned by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd, son of ’Abd al-Mālik ibn Marwān in the early 8th century, it prospered as a trading city, situated strategically at the crossroad of the north-south and east-west trade routes. However, by the conclusion of Umayyad political domination, no more than thirty years later, Anjar fell rapidly into disrepair and eventually was abandoned. Historically, it remains unique as the only inland commercial center in Lebanon. The entire complex including the palace and mosque are built with an orientation pointing towards Petra.

Summary in support of Petra

Here, then, is a summary of those key points from Dan Gibson’s Qur’ānic Geography which have a direct bearing on the present work and support – or appear to support – Petra as the core focus for Muḥammad’s activities:

  • Makkah as Mother of All Cities (i.e. a major trading city) is not sustainable historically, but fits Petra
  • Makkah is not found on any map until 900 CE, 300 years after Muḥammad’s birth
  • Makkah does not have a distinct valley or substantial mountains (part of the Qur’anic concept of the holy site) yet Petra has both
  • The Jews have no record of Ibrāhīm in Makkah, or even of journeying anywhere near it
  • The Jewish Bible places Ismāʿīl growing up in Paran, the traditional home of the Thamudic or Nabataean people in northern Arabia
  • Pilgrimages were traditionally made to Petra from across the Arab region from ancient times
  • A zodiac dated to the second century CE indicates that there were two annual pilgrimages to Petra
  • Petra was a holy burial city to which Nabataean Arabs would repair to eat a ritual meal in the place of the tombs of their ancestors (tribal burials took place at Petra and Hijra with Petra being the more important of the two by far)
  • In Petra today one can see gathering halls attached to many tombs
  • All the earliest mosques for which we have evidence of orientation in the first 100 years from the Qur’anic revelation point towards Petra (over the next 100 years there is confusion: 12% towards Petra, 50% towards Makkah and 38% follow parallel orientations)
  • It is only 200 years after the Qur’anic revelation that all mosques are built facing Makkah
  • The holy city is referred to as bacca (48:24) which indicates sorrow or calamity. Petra experienced earthquakes in 363 CE and 551 CE. Such an association could come from its role as a burial city
  • The Qur’an focuses on northern Arabia: ʿĀd, Thamūd and Madyan are all north Arabian civilisations; the cities of Lūṭ are claimed to be nearby
  • Dr. Robert Hoyland contends that the Arabic script developed from Nabataean Arabic script, which supports the thesis that Islam rose in the north of Arabia
  • Petra is entirely missing from the early Islamic literature and yet corresponds in myriad instances in the same literature’s description of Makkah (a point which Gibson takes to indicate that they are the same place)
  • Gibson identifies a large precinct (the Great Temple) at Petra as al masjid al ḥarām
  • Stone boards for games of chance such as those mentioned in the Qur’an have been found at Petra, never at Makkah
  • The Quraish are said to have attacked Medina from the north, which makes sense if they came from Petra but not if they came from Makkah
  • Gibson places key battles close to Petra
  • Makkah was never a major city on a caravan route whereas Petra was both
  • The written record of kingdoms neighbouring Makkah such as Yemen does not substantiate the existence of an ancient city at Makkah (in over 1,700 years of literacy prior to the Qur’anic revelation)
  • Extensive evidence exists over this period for pilgrimages to Petra from Yemen but none for Makkah
  • During the civil war with Ibn Zubayr (64AH, 683 CE) the Syrian army attacked the holy city with trebuchet stones; there is no evidence of trebuchet stones at Makkah whereas hundreds exist in Petra

In his work Gibson ascribes the ḥadīth literature a value which I do not and on that basis covers many points I have ignored in the short summary above.

Gibson is a historian and archaeologist and operates according to the dictates of those disciplines. Unlike myself, he seems to agree with the majority of the Traditionalist’s claims for Islam, differing from him only to the extent that he sees an original religion later transposed from Petra to Makkah. For example, like the Traditionalist, he regards 2:138-158 as directing Muḥammad toward a place of prayer and then instituting a change in that direction, whereas I contest that assessment in any form. These are details which can be thought about and debated over time.

In any case, given my analysis of 9:28 such questions are purely academic and there is no sense in which there is or could be any Qur’anic justification for resurrecting al masjid al ḥarām in its correct geographical setting.

Leaving these points to one side, the unavoidable and immediate conclusion, given that Dan Gibson is right in his general thesis – and I am sure that he is – is that at the very least the Traditionalist is praying toward a place which formed no part in the Qur’anic backstory, and that Makkah is a later construct.

To summarise my attitude toward Dan Gibson and his excellent book: my emphasis is different to his; I am focused on theological results which survive the furnace of my own reason. To do my work I must, like him, preserve the integrity of the rational environment according to the dictates of that discipline to which I am committed – namely that of Quranite thinker and theologian – and that means treating the Qur’an on the terms it claims for itself: those of a complete revelation from God. That requirement necessitates the rejection of the Traditionalist’s entire library of extra-Qur’anic postulations. I do not engage with Gibson’s findings based on the ḥadīth literature not because I can demonstrate that he is sometimes or always wrong – or even because I think he is sometimes or always wrong – but because to stray into the realms of ḥadīth is anathema to my founding principles.

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 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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