The Qur’an implies that Muhammad severed his relationship with the Jews in 624 AD, soon after the Hijra (migration to Mecca). At that time the direction of prayer, the Qibla, was moved from Jerusalem to Mecca (Sura 2:144, 149-150).
However, non-Muslim sources, the Doctrina Iacobi and the Armenian Chronicle of 660 AD, maintain the Arabs and the Jews were allies as late as 640 AD, during the conquest of Palestine. Muhammad established a community of Ishmaelites and Jews based on their common birthright to the Holy Land. This relationship endured at least 15 years beyond the qur'anic date.
According to the Qur’an, Mecca was the first and most important city in the world. Adam placed the black stone in the original Ka’ba (sanctuary) there, while Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Meccan Ka’ba centuries later (Sura 2:125-127). Mecca was allegedly the centre of Arabian trading routes before Muhammad’s time.
Yet there is no archeological corroboration for this. Such a great ancient city would surely have received a mention in ancient history. However, the earliest reference to Mecca as a city is in the Continuato Byzantia Arabica, an 8th century document. Mecca is certainly not on the natural overland trade routes- it is a barren valley requiring a one hundred mile detour. Moreover, there was only maritime Graeco-Roman trade with India after the first century, controlled by the Ethiopian Red Sea port Adulis, not by the Arabs. If Mecca was not even a viable city, let alone a great commercial centre until after Muhammad’s time, the Qur’an is seriously in doubt.
According to the Qur’an, the direction of prayer (Qibla) was canonized towards Mecca for all Muslims circa 624 AD, two years after the Hijra (see Sura 2:144, 149-50). Yet the earliest archaeological evidence from mosques built at the beginning of the 8th century suggests their sanctuary was located a long way north of Mecca, closer to the vicinity of Jerusalem.
The Qibla of the first mosque in Kufa, Iraq, constructed in 670 AD, pointed west instead of due south. Likewise, floor plans from two later Umayyad (650-750 AD) mosques in Iraq, demonstrate their Qiblas were oriented too far north. The Wasit mosque is off by 33 degrees, the Baghdad mosque by 30 degrees. The ‘Amr b. al ‘As mosque near Cairo, again pointed too far north and had to be corrected under a later governor.
Jacob of Odessa, a Christian writer and traveller, was a contemporary eye-witness writing in Egypt around 705 AD. His letter in the British Museum maintains the ‘Mahgraye’ (Greek term for Arabs) in Egypt prayed facing east, towards their Ka’ba, the place of their patriarchal origin- in other words towards Palestine, not Mecca.
Thus the evidence points to a sanctuary located not in Mecca, but in northern Arabia or even Jerusalem, until the early 8th century. It cannot be that the early Muslims wrongly estimated the direction of Mecca. They were desert traders and caravaners, adept at travelling by the stars. How else did they perform the obligatory Hajj, which was also canonized at this time? There is a serious discrepancy between the Qur’an and modern archaeology. Crucially, Walid I, who reigned as Caliph between 705 and 715, wrote to all the regions ordering the demolition and enlargement of all mosques. Could it be the Qibla only then shifted to Mecca?
Dome of the Rock
A possible answer as to why early mosques face towards Palestine is found in Jerusalem
In the city centre lies the ‘Dome of the Rock’, an imposing structure built by ‘Abd al-Malik in 691 AD. It is considered the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. It seems to have been intended as a sanctuary rather than a mosque, as there is no Qibla and its octagonal design indicates it was used for circumambulation. Muslims believe it commemorates the Mi’raj, the night Muhammad went up into heaven to speak to Allah and Moses regarding the number of prayers required of believers.
Yet the inscriptions on the walls of the building say nothing of the Mi’raj but are polemical qur’anic quotations, aimed primarily at Christians. Perhaps this imposing building was built instead as the early sanctuary of Islam, before the adoption of Mecca. This is logical given Muhammad’s intention to reclaim the land of his birthright.
Certainly Muslim tradition suggests the Dome of the Rock may have been the early religious centre for Islam. The caliph Suleyman, who reigned up to 717 AD, went to Mecca to ask about the Hajj. He was not satisfied with the reply, and chose instead to follow ‘Abd al-Malik, travelling to the Dome of the Rock.
Could it be that the Qiblas of the early mosques were aligned to the Dome of the Rock until the edict of Walid I in the early 8th century?
The late Yehuda Nevo from Jerusalem University extensively surveyed Arabic rock inscriptions, scattered over the Negev and Syro-Jordanian deserts. His research gives a useful picture of the historical Muhammad from contemporary non-Muslim sources.
In the Arab religious texts from the earliest Sufyani period (661-684 AD) there is a monotheistic creed but a complete absence of any reference to Muhammad. His name is only found on Arab inscriptions after 690 AD. The formula Muhammad rasul Allah (Muhammad is God’s prophet) occurs first on an Arab-Sassanian coin from 690 AD, struck in Damascus. More importantly, the first appearance of the Triple Confession of Faith including the Tawhid (God is one), Muhammad rasul Allah (Muhammad is his prophet) and rasul Allah wa-’abduhu (the human nature of Jesus) is in ‘Abd al-Malik’s inscription at the Dome of the Rock, dated 691 AD. Before this the Muslim confession of faith cannot be substantiated.
Hence, for a full 60 years after the death of Muhammad, the official Arab religious confession did not include Muhammad in its set formulae. Instead it revealed a monotheistic belief, developing Judaeo-Christian concepts in a particular literary style. When the Muhammadan creed is introduced, during the Marwanid period (after 684 AD) it appears almost overnight as the only form of official religious declaration in formal documents. It seems that Muhammad’s elevation to the status of universal prophet did not occur until the late 7th century, long after his death.
Evidently the Qur’an underwent a transformation during the 100 years following the Prophet’s death. Recognisable qur’anic writings appear on coins and on the Dome of the Rock during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik from 685 AD, but they differ from the official qur’anic text today. The Qur’an cannot then have been canonized during Muhammad’s lifetime, but must have undergone a process of evolution. Indeed the earliest reference to a book called the Qur’an from outside Islamic literature does not occur until the mid-8th century
It has been suggested that the Qur’an may have been compiled by editing materials from a plurality of traditions. The governor Hajjaj of Iraq is said to have collected all the old Hagarene writings, circa 705 AD, replaced them with others according to his taste, and spread them throughout the nation. It is possible the evolution of the Qur’an began at this time, to be canonized later.
Much of what the Qur’an maintains is at odds with historical data from the 7th-8th centuries. Specifically:
- The Jews retained a relationship with the Arabs until at least AD 640, not 624 AD
- Mecca was not the first and most important city in the world; it was unknown until the end of the 7th century and was not even on the international trade route
- The Qibla (direction of prayer) was not fixed towards Mecca until the 8th century but to an area further north, possibly Jerusalem
- The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was possibly the original sanctuary
- Muhammad was not known as the Seal of the Prophets until the late 7th century; the creeds from Muhammad's time contain a monotheistic religion but no Muhammadan formulae
- The earliest we even hear of the Qur’an is not until the mid-8th century
- The earliest qur’anic writings on coins and on the Dome of the Rock do not coincide with the current qur’anic text
This suggests the Qur’an we now read is not the same as that which was supposedly collated and canonized in 650 AD by Uthman. The earliest qur’anic manuscripts in our possession today (dating from 790 AD) would appear to reflect an evolution in the qur’anic text. This challenges the Muslim contention that the Qur’an contains the original and exact revelation of Allah, as recited by Muhammad and hence strikes at the very heart of the Islamic faith. The Qur’an has in the past been protected by a kind of doctrinal embargo- but can Muslims ignore the mounting tide of evidence to the contrary?