Muhammad's Changing of the Qiblah

Sam Shamoun


Throughout Muhammad’s 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 turned against them and did away with some of these customs and practices he had originally adapted from them.

The Evidence

According to Muslim sources Muhammad at first adopted the Jewish day of fasting, which happened to take place on the Day of Atonement, when he arrived at Medina:

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbas:
The Prophet came to Medina and saw the Jews fasting on the day of Ashura. He asked them about that. They replied, "This is a good day, the day on which Allah rescued Bani Israel from their enemy. So, Moses fasted this day." The Prophet said, "We have more claim over Moses than you." So, the Prophet fasted on that day and ordered (the Muslims) to fast (on that day). (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 222)

Narrated Ibn Abbas:
When the Prophet arrived at Medina, the Jews were observing the fast on ‘Ashura’ (10th of Muharram) and they said, "This is the day when Moses became victorious over Pharaoh," On that, the Prophet said to his companions, "You (Muslims) have more right to celebrate Moses’ victory than they have, so observe the fast on this day." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 202)

Narrated ‘Aisha:
The people used to fast on ‘Ashura (the tenth day of the month of Muharram) before the fasting of Ramadan was made obligatory. And on that day the Ka’ba used to be covered with a cover. When Allah made the fasting of the month of Ramadan compulsory, Allah’s Apostle said, "Whoever wishes to fast (on the day of ‘Ashura’) may do so; and whoever wishes to leave it can do so." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 26, Number 662)

Narrated Ibn ‘Umar:
The Prophet observed the fast on the 10th of Muharram (‘Ashura), and ordered (Muslims) to fast on that day, but when the fasting of the month of Ramadan was prescribed, the fasting of the ‘Ashura’ was abandoned. ‘Abdullah did not use to fast on that day unless it coincided with his routine fasting by chance. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 116)

He 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. The Quran records the reaction of the people when Muhammad decided to change the prayer direction:

The fools among the people will say: "What hath turned them from the Qibla to which they were used?" Say: To God belong both east and West: He guideth whom He will to a Way that is straight. Thus, have We made of you an Ummat justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Apostle a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qibla to which thou wast used, only to test those who followed the Apostle from those who would turn on their heels (From the Faith). Indeed it was (A change) momentous, except to those guided by God. And never would God Make your faith of no effect. For God is to all people Most surely full of kindness, Most Merciful. We see the turning of thy face (for guidance) to the heavens: now Shall We turn thee to a Qibla that shall please thee. Turn then Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction. The people of the Book know well that that is the truth from their Lord. Nor is God unmindful of what they do. Even if thou wert to bring to the people of the Book all the Signs (together), they would not follow Thy Qibla; nor art thou going to follow their Qibla; nor indeed will they follow each other’s Qibla. If thou after the knowledge hath reached thee, Wert to follow their (vain) desires, - then wert thou Indeed (clearly) in the wrong. S. 2:142-145 Y. Ali

Carefully note that the above text states explicitly that Allah had also appointed the former qiblah (as a test).

The late Iranian Islamic scholar Ali Dashti wrote regarding Muhammad abrogating the Muslim observance of certain Jewish rituals:

The opening move was the change of the direction of the prayer from the Furthest Mosque (ol-Masjed ol-Aqsa) at Jerusalem to the Ka‘ba at Mecca. One result was that the Jews were thereafter taxed separately from the Moslems. Another was that the Arabs of Madina cast off their inferiority complex and that the Arabs in general were stirred to a sort of national fervor; for all the tribes revered the Ka‘ba, which from being an idol-temple became the house of Abraham and Ishmael, common ancestors of every Arab.

Similarly in the matter of fasting, Islam’s legislator ceased to follow the follow the example of the Jews and changed the duration of the first from the tenth day of month of Moharram, which was their practice, to a number of days in the month of Ramadan and later to the whole of Ramadan. (Dashti, Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, translated from Persian by F.R.C. Bagley [Mazda Publishers, Costa Mesa, CA 1994], p. 92)

Noted Sunni historian and commentator al-Tabari provided some of the background information for the above verses:

The Change of Qiblah

One of these is God’s changing of the Muslims’ Qiblah (the direction faced in prayer) from Syria (that is, Jerusalem) to the Ka‘bah. This was in the second year of the Prophet’s residence in Medina, in Sha‘ban (which began January 28, 624). The early scholars disagree as to the date at which the Qiblah was changed in this year; the majority say that it was changed halfway through Sha‘ban, eighteen months after the arrival of the Messenger of God in Medina.

Those who says this.

According to Musa b. Harun al-Hamdani – ‘Amr b. Hammad – Asbat – al-Suddi – Abu Malik and Abu Salih – Ibn ‘Abbas and Murrah al-Hamdani – Ibn Mas‘ud and some companions of the Prophet: People used to pray towards Jerusalem when the Prophet came to Medina, and for eighteen months after his Emigration. He used to raise his head to heaven when he prayed, to see what he would be commanded, he used to pray towards Jerusalem, and then this was abrogated in favour of the Ka‘bah. The Prophet used to like to pray towards the Ka‘bah, and God revealed the verse: "We have seen the turning of your face to Heaven…"

According to Ibn Humayd – Salamah – Ibn Ishaq: The Qiblah was changed in Sha‘ban, eighteen months after the arrival of the Messenger of God in Medina.

Ibn Sa‘d - al-Waqidi offers a similar account, adding: The Qiblah was changed to the Ka‘bah at midday on Tuesday, halfway through Sha‘ban.

According to Abu Ja‘far (al-Tabari): Others say that the Qiblah was changed to the Ka‘bah sixteen months after the beginning of the Hijrah era.

Those who have said this.

According to Al-Muthanna b. Ibrahim al-Amuli – al-Hajjaj – Hammam b. Yahya – Qatadah: They used to pray towards Jerusalem while the Messenger of God was in Mecca before the Hijrah. After the Messenger of God emigrated, he prayed towards Jerusalem for sixteen months and after that was turned towards the Ka‘bah.

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 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)

Al-Tabari had no problem admitting that it wasn’t until Muhammad heard the Jews making fun of him that he then decided to change his prayer direction.

Interestingly, Muslim sources assert that Muhammad had prayed towards Jerusalem already during his time in Mecca:

… 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: A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, with introduction and notes by Alfred Guillaume [Oxford University Press, Karachi, tenth impression 1995], p. 135)

On another occasion a man who prayed towards Mecca was corrected by Muhammad and pointed him towards Jerusalem!

Ma‘bad b. Ka‘b b. Malik b. Abu Ka‘b b. al-Qayn, brother of the B. Salima, told me that his brother ‘Abdullah b. Ka‘b who was one of the most learned of the Ansar told him that his father Ka‘b who was one of those who had been present at al-‘Aqaba and did homage to the apostle, informed him saying: ‘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 said, "But we will not." When the time for prayer came we prayed towards Syria and he prayed towards the Ka‘ba until we came to Mecca. We blamed him for what he was doing, but he refused to change. When we came to Mecca he said to me, "Nephew, let us go to the apostle and ask him about what I did on our journey. For I feel some misgivings since I have seen your opposition." So 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 (237).’ (Ibid., p. 202; bold emphasis ours)

In fact, this same source claims that Jerusalem was the very first prayer direction of the Muslims, not Mecca:

And when the qibla was changed from Syria to the Ka‘ba – it was changed in Rajab at the beginning of the seventeenth month after the apostle’s arrival in Medina – Rifa‘a b. Qays: Qardam b. ‘Amr, an ally of Ka‘b’s; al-Rabi b. al-Rabi‘ Abu’l-Huqayq; and Kinana b. al-Rabi‘ b. Abu’l-Huqayq came to the apostle asking why he had turned his back on the qibla he used to face when he alleged that he followed the religion of Abraham. If he would return to the qibla in Jerusalem they would follow him and declare him to be true. Their sole intention was to seduce him from his religion, so God sent down concerning them: ‘The foolish people will say: What made them turn their back on the qibla that they formerly observed? Say, To God belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He will to the straight path. Thus we have made you a central community that you may be witnesses against men and that the apostle may be a witness against you. And we appointed the qibla which thou didst formerly observe only that we might know who will follow the apostle from him who turns upon his heels,’ i.e. to test and find them out. ‘Truly it was a hard test except for those whom God guided,’ i.e. a temptation, i.e. those whom Allah established. ‘It was not Allah’s purpose to make your faith vain,’ i.e. your faith IN THE FIRST QIBLA, your believing your prophet, and your following him to the LATER qibla and your obeying your prophet therein, i.e. so that he may give you the reward of both of them. ‘God is kind and compassionate to men. ’ (Ibid., pp. 258-259; capital emphasis ours)

All sources, Quran, Sira and Tafsir, speak of only one change of qiblah, from the former Qiblah (Jerusalem) to the new Qiblah (Mecca). Apparently, Muhammad and his followers prayed towards Jerusalem (which is the same as the direction of Syria) from the very beginning of Muhammad’s prophetic career, i.e. for over thirteen years (all the time in Mecca, plus 18 months in Medina).

What is amazing about this is that Muhammad replaced these very monotheistic practices for those originating from the paganism of the Meccan Arabs!

Note that the change of the Muslim direction of prayer — away from Jerusalem and towards the Kabah in Mecca — happened at a time when it was full of pagan idols and the worship of false gods was the daily practice at this shrine, and would continue to be this way for a good number of years until Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca.

Muhammad sought to win the Jews to Islam, and adopting their direction of prayer was one of the tools employed in this endeavor. After it became clear that the Jews would never follow him, he turned against them, and abandoned the fasting at Ashura and the Qiblah that he had chosen to impress them and win them over. After Muhammad had lost hope that the Jewish and Christian communities would join his movement, the only groups he could still hope to unite in his religion were the various pagan tribes of Arabia.

Muhammad had followed various religious observances of the Jews to gain their favor. Apparently for similar opportunistic reasons he now changed the Muslim Qiblah towards the Kabah, the central shrine of the Arab pagan religion, despite the fact that it was full of idols. It is hardly unfounded speculation when one gets the suspicion that he gave their holy place an important position in his religion in order to make it more attractive for the Arabs to join Islam.

Concluding Remarks

It is quite obvious from the foregoing examples that the Quran contains the thoughts and feelings of Muhammad. Muhammad’s outlook towards certain people and events helped to shape the form and contents of the Quran. For instance, the Jewish rejection of Muhammad led him to abrogate specific observances such as the Muslim prayer direction (or qiblah) and to include these into the Quran in order to give them the appearance of a divine sanction. This shows the very human origin of the Quran, that the Quran’s commands and instructions were not sent down from on high but were the result of Muhammad’s feelings and experiences.

Muslims must contend with these issues by either concluding that the Quran contains the human thoughts and expressions of Muhammad, and is therefore not completely divine in origin. Or they must accept the fact that Allah changed his mind and practices in order to placate Muhammad’s desires and wishes, something which even the Quran itself asserts quite unapologetically:

O Muhammad, 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 is not unaware of what they do. S. 2:144 F. Malik

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 rather than a revelation coming from God?

Also, does it surprise the readers that individuals such as Christian writer and apologist Dr. Robert Morey could make the following statements about Muhammad abrogating the Muslim prayer direction?

4. At first Muhammad told his followers to face Jerusalem in prayer. Then he told them since God was everywhere they could face any way they wanted. Then he changed his mind yet again and directed them to pray Mecca (Sura 2:115 versus 2:144).

Many scholars believe that the changes in direction were dependent on whether he was trying to please the Jews or the pagans. (Morey, The Islamic Invasion: Confronting the World’s Fastest Growing Religion [Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon 1992], p. 146)

And is anyone really shocked that Muhammad’s own wife could make such an astute observation regarding how "revelations" often came down to suit Muhammad’s pleasures and fancies?

Narrated Aisha:
I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah's Apostle and I used to say, "Can a lady give herself (to a man)?" But when Allah revealed: "You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily)." (33.51) I said (to the Prophet), "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 311)

As Christians we are definitely not surprised or shocked by all this.

After seeing that the Jews and Christians would not believe in his message, Muhammad not only decided to change the qiblah but he also became very hateful and antagonistic towards them:

O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people. S. 5:51 Shakir

Certainly you will find the most violent of people in enmity for those who believe (to be) the Jews and those who are polytheists, and you will certainly find the nearest in friendship to those who believe (to be) those who say: We are Christians; this is because there are priests and monks among them and because they do not behave proudly. S. 5:82 Shakir

He started attacking them personally and threatened them with violence:

Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden -- such men as practise not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book -- until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled. S. 9:29 Arberry

Muhammad’s hatred for them reached to such an extent that he eventually wanted them expelled from Arabia:

Narrated Ibn 'Umar:
Umar expelled the Jews and the Christians from Hijaz. When Allah's Apostle had conquered Khaibar, he wanted to expel the Jews from it as its land became the property of Allah, His Apostle, and the Muslims. Allah's Apostle intended to expel the Jews but they requested him to let them stay there on the condition that they would do the labor and get half of the fruits. Allah's Apostle told them, "We will let you stay on thus condition, as long as we wish." So, they (i.e. Jews) kept on living there until 'Umar forced them to go towards Taima' and Ariha'. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 39, Number 531)

Yahya related to me from Malik from Ismail ibn Abi Hakim that he heard Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz say, "One of the last things that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said was, ‘May Allah fight the Jews and the Christians. They took the graves of their Prophets as places of prostration. Two deens shall not co-exist in the land of the Arabs.’" (Malik's Muwatta, Book 45, Number 45.5.17)

He told Muslims that the end would not come until they fought and killed the Jews:

Narrated ‘Abdullah bin 'Umar:
I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "The Jews will fight with you, and you will be given victory over them so that a stone will say, ‘O Muslim! There is a Jew behind me; kill him!’" (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 56, Number 791)

Muhammad even deliberately chose to do the opposite of the Jews and Christians out of spite for them:

Narrated Abu Huraira:
I heard Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) saying, "We (Muslims) are the last (to come) but (will be) the foremost on the Day of Resurrection though the former nations were given the Holy Scriptures before us. And this was their day (Friday) the celebration of which was made compulsory for them but they differed about it. So Allah gave us the guidance for it (Friday) and all the other people are behind us in this respect: the Jews' (holy day is) tomorrow (i.e. Saturday) and the Christians' (is) the day after tomorrow (i.e. Sunday)." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 13, Number 1; see also Number 21)

Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet said, "Jews and Christians do not dye their hair so you should do the opposite of what they do." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 72, Number 786)

He also granted Muslims the right to force Jews and Christians to the narrowest part of the road, and forbade his followers from greeting them first!

Narrated Abu Hurayrah:
Suhayl ibn Abu Salih said: I went out with my father to Syria. The people passed by the cloisters in which there were Christians and began to salute them. My father said: Do not give them salutation first, for Abu Hurayrah reported the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) as saying: Do not salute them (Jews and Christians) first, and when you meet them on the road, FORCE THEM TO GO TO THE NARROWEST PART OF IT. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, Number 5186)

Muhammad hated Jews so much that he commanded that if any person called another a Jew then that person had to be punished with twenty lashes!

Narrated Abdullah ibn Abbas
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "When a man calls another a Jew give him twenty lashes, when he calls someone a mukhannath give him twenty lashes; and kill anyone who has intercourse with a woman who is within the prohibited degrees."
Tirmidhi transmitted it, saying this is a gharib tradition. (Tirmidhi Hadith, Number 1024; ALIM CD-ROM Version)

Articles by Sam Shamoun
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