The qibla is the direction that Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers (salah). It is one of the essential elements of Islamic worship, as it symbolizes the unity and orientation of Muslims towards Allah. But did you know that the qibla was not always facing Mecca, the city where the Kaaba, the sacred cube-shaped building, is located? In fact, for the first 17 months of Islam, the qibla was towards Jerusalem, the holy city of Judaism and Christianity.
Why did the qibla change from Jerusalem to Mecca? What is the significance of this shift? And how did Muslims determine the exact direction of the qibla in different places and times? In this blog post, we will explore the history and meaning of the qibla, and how it reflects the evolution and diversity of Islamic faith and practice.
The Qibla Towards Jerusalem: The Early Years of Islam
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) received his first revelation from Allah in 610 CE in Mecca, where he was born and raised. He started preaching Islam to his fellow Meccans, but faced persecution and hostility from the pagan tribes who dominated the city. In 622 CE, he and his followers migrated to Medina, a city about 450 km north of Mecca, where they established the first Muslim community (ummah).
In Medina, there were also Jewish tribes who had settled there centuries earlier. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) hoped to establish a peaceful and cooperative relationship with them, as he considered them to be People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), who shared a common monotheistic belief with Muslims. He also respected their holy city of Jerusalem, which was also revered by Christians as the place where Jesus (pbuh) preached and performed miracles.
Therefore, he instructed his followers to pray towards Jerusalem, which was also the qibla of the Jews. This was a gesture of goodwill and recognition of their common heritage. It also showed that Islam was not a new religion, but a continuation and completion of the previous revelations from Allah to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets (peace be upon them all).
The Qibla Towards Mecca: The Revelation and Its Implications
However, not all Jews welcomed the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his message. Some of them opposed him and tried to undermine his authority and credibility. They also mocked him for not having an independent qibla, and accused him of copying their religion. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) felt sad and distressed by their rejection and hostility. He also longed for his hometown of Mecca, where he had left behind his family, friends and the Kaaba, which he believed was built by Abraham and Ishmael (peace be upon them) as a house of worship for Allah.
He prayed to Allah for guidance and relief. He also looked at the sky, hoping for a sign or a revelation from Allah regarding this matter. Allah answered his prayers and revealed to him these verses in the Quran:
“Indeed We see the turning of your [Prophet Muhammad’s] face to heaven, so We shall surely turn you to a qibla which you shall like; turn then your face towards the Sacred Mosque [in Mecca], and wherever you are, turn your face towards it…” (Quran 2:144)
This verse changed the direction of the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca. It was a momentous event in Islamic history, as it marked a turning point in the relationship between Muslims and Jews, as well as between Muslims and Meccans. It also affirmed the special status of Mecca and the Kaaba as the spiritual center of Islam.
The change of qibla had several implications for Muslims:
- It showed that Allah is in control of everything, and that He can change His commands according to His wisdom and plan.
- It demonstrated that Islam is an independent religion, with its own identity and distinctiveness.
- It signified that Islam is the final and universal religion, which encompasses all previous revelations and messages from Allah.
- It expressed the love and loyalty of Muslims towards Mecca and the Kaaba, which are symbols of their faith and unity.
- It challenged Muslims to be flexible and adaptable to new situations and circumstances.
The Qibla Across Time and Space: The Methods and Challenges
The change of qibla also raised some practical questions for Muslims: How can they determine the exact direction of Mecca from different locations? How can they ensure that they are facing the right direction when they pray?
In the early days of Islam, Muslims used simple methods to find the qibla direction. They followed the example of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) or his companions when they were in the same place. They used landmarks or natural phenomena such as mountains or stars to guide them. They also used common sense and intuition to estimate the direction.
However, as Islam spread to different regions and countries, these methods became insufficient and inaccurate. Muslims needed more precise and scientific ways to calculate the qibla direction. They also faced new challenges and difficulties, such as different climates, terrains and time zones.
Therefore, Muslim scholars and scientists developed various methods and instruments to measure the qibla direction. They used mathematics, astronomy, geography and geometry to solve this problem. They also used tools such as astrolabes, compasses, sundials and maps to aid them. They wrote books and tables to record their findings and share their knowledge.
Some of the most famous Muslim scholars who contributed to this field were:
- Al-Khwarizmi (780-850 CE), who wrote a book on how to find the qibla using algebra and trigonometry.
- Al-Battani (858-929 CE), who improved the accuracy of the qibla calculations by using more precise astronomical data and observations.
- Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE), who devised a method to find the qibla using the latitude and longitude of a place, as well as the distance and direction of Mecca from that place.
- Ibn Battuta (1304-1369 CE), who traveled extensively across the Muslim world and beyond, and recorded his experiences and observations of the qibla in different places.
The qibla direction is not only a matter of physical orientation, but also a matter of spiritual connection. It is a way for Muslims to remember Allah and His blessings, and to feel closer to Him and to each other. It is also a way for Muslims to appreciate the diversity and beauty of His creation, and to respect the different cultures and civilizations that they encounter.
The qibla direction is a reflection of the history and evolution of Islam, as well as the challenges and achievements of Muslims. It is a symbol of faith and unity, as well as diversity and flexibility. It is a reminder of the past and a guide for the future. It is a source of inspiration and motivation for Muslims to seek knowledge and excellence in all aspects of life.