The information on this page contains a short overview of the evidence presented in Gibson's book Qur'anic Geography. If you would like to view all of the evidence Gibson presents, then please purchase the book. To view the various evidences, click the links below.
Jerusalem or Petra?
Did the original qibla point to Jerusalem or to Petra? The traditional view is that Jerusalem was the original focus of Muhammad’s prayers, and that later he changed his direction of prayer towards Mecca. Here are the arguments. If you would like to add more to this list, please make comments in the forum area and we will try to add them.
Arguments for Jerusalem
1. Jerusalem is mentioned in Islamic literature as the focus of the first qibla. This was first recorded about 250 after Muhammad, where Bukhārī records: We prayed along with the Prophet facing Jerusalem for sixteen or seventeen months. Then Allāh ordered him to turn his face towards the qibla (in Mecca): “And from whence-so-ever you start forth (for prayers) turn your face in the direction of (the Sacred Mosque of Mecca) Al-Masjid-al ḥaram...” (2.149) Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī Ḥadīth 6:19
2. The Qur’an mentions that the original holy place of Islam was called Bakka. Bekka is Jerusalem. Sura 3:96 tells us: Undoubtedly the first House for the worship of Allah ever built for mankind is the one at Bakka, a blessed site and a guidance for all the worlds. (F. Malik Translation)
From Psalm 84 it can be deduced that Bekka was a place near Jerusalem. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. (Psalm 84: 5-6, KJV)
3. Jerusalem is city that is recognized by Jews and Christians as a place of pilgrimage.
Jews went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast. Christians began to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem around 300 AD, once the Byzantine Empire began to take shape.
4. There is an early mosque that faced Jerusalem known as the Mosque of the Two Qiblas in Medina.
This mosque maintained a qibla that pointed to the old direction as well as one that pointed to Mecca. The old Qibla pointed at Jerusalem.
5. This explains why Muhammad was preoccupied with fighting the Byzantines.
Muhammad marched north with his armies to invade Byzantine land, rather than around Arabia to conquer the Arabs. This makes sense if his goal was to capture Jerusalem.
6. Jerusalem is considered the third holiest city by the Muslims. First is Mecca, then Medina, and third is Jerusalem.
7. Muhammad’s night journey was to Jerusalem. During his miraculous night journey, Muhammad went from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night.
Arguments against the Jerusalem evidence given above
1. Jerusalem mentioned in Islamic literature: Despite his best efforts in making us believe that Jerusalem was the original focus of worship, Bukhārī had trouble keeping his facts straight. In one passage he tells us that the original qibla direction was towards Syria (Damascus) and in another place he says it was towards Jerusalem. As we mentioned, Bukhārī records the original qibla as being Jerusalem. This hadith is quoted many times when defending the Jerusalem option.
We prayed along with the Prophet facing Jerusalem for sixteen or seventeen months. Then Allāh ordered him to turn his face towards the qibla (in Mecca): “And from whence-so-ever you start forth (for prayers) turn your face in the direction of (the Sacred Mosque of Mecca) Al-Masjid-al ḥaram...” (2.149) Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī Ḥadīth 6:19
While some people were offering morning prayer at Quba’ a man came to them and said, “A Qur'ānic order has been revealed to Allāh’s Apostle tonight that he should face the Ka’ba at Mecca (in prayer), so you too should turn your faces towards it.” At that moment their faces were towards Shām. (This is the Arab name for Damascus, which also means "north" Wehr page 525) (and on hearing that) they turned towards the Ka’ba (at Mecca). Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī Ḥadīth 6:17.
A strong indication of the meaning of the word "Sham" is found a few pages later in Bukhārī when he clearly identifies Damascus (the center of Marwān’s power) as "Sham:
"When Ibn Ziyād and Marwān were in Sham and Ibn Az-Zubair took over the authority in Mecca and Qurra’ (the Khārijites) revolted in Baṣra, I went out with my father to Abū Barza al-Aslami till we entered upon him in his house while he was sitting in the shade of a room built of cane. So we sat with him and my father started talking to him saying, “O Abū Barza! Don’t you see in what dilemma the people have fallen?” The first thing heard him saying, “I seek reward from Allāh for myself because of being angry and scornful at the Quraysh tribe. O you Arabs! You know very well that you were in misery and were few in number and misguided, and that Allāh has brought you out of all that with Islam and with Muḥammad till he brought you to this state (of prosperity and happiness) which you see now; and it is this worldly wealth and pleasures which has caused mischief to appear among you. The one who is in Sham (i.e., Marwān), by Allāh, is not fighting except for the sake of worldly gain: and those who are among you, by Allāh, are not fighting except for the sake of worldly gain; and that one who is in Mecca (i.e., Ibn Az-Zubair) by Allāh, is not fighting except for the sake of worldly gain.” Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī Ḥadīth 9:228
So where did the first qibla point to? Gibson believes that it pointed towards Petra, and that this was called “Syria” in the minds of the Arabs, because Petra was a city in the Roman province of Syria. It would be similar to saying one prayed towards Ontario in one sentence and then towards Toronto in another. In this case either Bukhārī or perhaps a later unnamed editor inserted Jerusalem into the first text, but failed to change the reference to Sham (Damascus) in the other texts. So all we know for certain from Bukhārī is that they faced north from Medina.
Becca is synonymous with the first Holy City of Islam. During the rebuilding of the Ka'ba (Ibn Ishaq 122-124) the people went out and dug up building blocks from the rubble. Several of these stones had inscriptions in Syriac script on them, the language of the Nabataeans of Petra. They found a Jew who could translate it for them, and it read: I am Allah, the Lord of Bakka, I created it on the day that I created heaven and earth and formed the sun and moon and I surrounded it with seven pious angels. It will stand while its two mountains tand, a blessing to its people with milk and water,” I was told that they found in the maqām a writing, “Mecca is God’s holy house, its sustenance comes to it from three directions; let its people not be the first to profane it.” (from Ibn Ishaq 122-124)
The word “bacca” is an ancient Semitic word that means to weep or lament. If a location was assigned the title “Bacca” it would mean the place of bacca. There are several Baka valleys in the Middle East today, one in Lebanon and one in Jordan. This term is also used of the Holy City of Islam in several places (Ibn Ishaq 73 and Sura 3:96). Some people have confused this with the term "baraka" which means blessing and have applied it to Jerusalem. "Becca" however was never used of Jerusalem, nor of anywhere near it. The name Bekka does appears in the Bible (Psalm 84) in reference to a "valley of weeping" and isalso associated with pilgrimage. Gibson takes a full chapter in Qur'anic Geography to demonstrate that Petra was the object of Arab pilgrimage for hundreds of years before Islam. Iit is universally recognized among Nabataean scholars that Petra was the main centre of pilgrimage in Arabia. It is interesting to note that any Jews living in Arabia would have passed through this valley on their way to Jerusalem. So it is not surprizing to find Becca, pilgrimage and Zion all in the reference.
The Petra Valley could also bear the title of Becca since a number of tragic events took place at Petra, including Hagar weeping over Ishmael, and also major earthquakes in 363 AD, 551 AD, (19 years before Muhammad was born) and 713 AD. There is archeological evidence that these earthquakes caused a great deal of damage. The greatest damage was probably inflicted in 713 AD when not only was Petra affected, but the entire Mediterranean seacoast. Even the mosque in Jericho was destroyed, so much so that it was never rebuilt. (Nur& Burgess, 2008) It may have been that in 713 AD, Petra was finally abandoned since no records of Petra exist after this date. Thus Petra was a place of weeping. There is more about this topic on notes on the Petra Map.
3. Pilgrimage was to Jerusalem. This was true of Jews and Christians, but it was never true of the Arabs. The Arabs of Arabia were a nomadic merchant people. One of the problems they faced was having a stationary place to bury their dead. As they slowly migrated north they developed a burial location in the place we know today as Petra. Dead bodies would be exposed to the elements until only bones were left. These bones were then collected and transported to family tombs in Petra. Beside the tombs were large dinning halls were the tribes would gather twice a year to eat a memorial meal. This twice yearly event is born out by a 2nd century AD Nabataean zodiac which portrays Allat, the female goddess of fertility among other Nabataean deities. The Nabataean zodiac is extraordinary in that contains two opposite and completely separate halves. Some archeologists think that this denotes the existence of two New Year celebrations, one in the spring and the other in the fall, and this might help explain why there were two great festivals at Petra each year.
Doctor Avraham Negev of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey suggests that much of the Arab graffiti found throughout the Negev and southern Jordan was written by people on pilgrimage to Petra. In his detailed study he notes the variety of names that occur in Thamudic, Safaitic, and other early Arabian dialects. (Negev, 1991)
Al Ṭabarī, notes in volume VI (page 12) that during the days before Islam, there were two pilgrimages to the Holy City. The lesser was known as ’umrah. He notes that ’Abd al-Muttalib (Muḥammad’s grandfather) performed ’umrah on one occasion. This was at a time when the forbidden sanctuary held many pagan idols, among them Hubal (Ṭabarī VI, 1075 page 3) and Isaf and Na’ilah (pg 4). The Qur'ān tells us that these pre-Islamic pagan pilgrimages were known respectively as ḥajj (Qur'ān 2:158, 196) and ’umrah, commonly called the greater and lesser pilgrimage. While Christians and Jews looked towards Jerusalem, for many centuries the Arabian pilgrimage was always to the religious center of Arabia, the forbidden sanctuary, the holy burial city of Petra. It was in this city that the Nabataean dead were buried, and it was in this city that the living gathered to eat a ritual meal with their extended family in the presence of the long departed ancestors. This custom was part of the cultural and ethnic make-up of the Nabataeans, (from whom Muhammad descended) and was the glue that held them, a nomadic merchant people, together as a society.
4. There is an early mosque that faced Jerusalem known as the Mosque of the Two Qiblas in Medina.
It is very true the the Mosque of the Two Qiblas faced Jerusalem, but if one examines a map, it is obvious that Petra is located between Medina and Jerusalem. Thus this mosque faced BOTH Jerusalem and Petra. If you examine the Changing of the Qibla Timeline you will discover that there are a dozen early mosques that faced Petra, including the mosques in Medina and Jerusalem! These mosques alone are solid archeological proof that Petra was the focal point of the first qibla and not Jerusalem. Not a single mosque, outside of the Mosque of the Two Qiblas points to Jerusalem, but EVERY mosque built during the first hundred years of Islam pointed to Petra.
5. Jerusalem would explain why Muhammad was preoccupied with fighting the Byzantines.
The Byzantines controlled the area north of Petra, and so Muhammad’s armies met first with the Byzantines, before they went to the Holy City to capture it. It is important to note that the Muslim armies captured the Holy City between battles in the Byzantine conflict in what is now southern Jordan. Did Muhammad disengage the Byzantines, march his armies thousands of kilometers to the south to capture Mecca and then march all the way back to fight the Byzantines, or did he just move over to Petra, take it, and then continue his next battle at Mu’ta, only a few kilometers north of Petra?
6. Jerusalem is considered the third holiest city by the Muslims. Today the most holy Muslim city is Mecca, then Medina, and third is Jerusalem. Muslims for many years have believed that Jerusalem was the focus of the first prayers, based of the records of Bukhārī that we mentioned above. However, Bukhārī wrote 250 years after the founding of Islam, and many generations had passed. From the confusion of names mentioned earlier it is clear that Bukhārī did not know for sure if the first direction of prayer was Jerusalem or Damascus. Today, using archeological tools and modern technology we can pinpoint the first qibla as Petra in southern Jordan.
7. Muhammad’s night journey was to Jerusalem. During his miraculous night journey, Muhammad claimed that he went from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night. The traditional stories claim that Muhammad was in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and that this was a miracle. But what if later editors changed Bekka to Mecca? In the Zumurrud, a very early Islamic manuscript, the author argues that Mecca and Jerusalem were close enough that a person could ride between them and back during the course of one evening. How could he argue this unless the Holy City of Islam was Petra at that time?
Arguments for Petra
In his book Qur’anic Geography, Gibson builds his case starting with the early tribes of Arabia, the people of ‘Ad, Thamud, Midian etc., demonstrating that all of the Qur’an’s geographical references are found in northern Arabia. Finally he turns to Mecca and demonstrates that it was originally located in Petra, and moved to Mecca during the 2nd civil war. He dates this using the two Umayyad mosques constructed on the Amman citadel, one pointing to Petra and one to Mecca, and built only 70 years apart. He supports his archeological findings with many historical and literary supporting arguments. Gibson uses over 400 pages to painstakingly build his case. Some of the evidence he provides is found in graphical format in the timelines and Petra Map located through the links at the top and bottom of this page. The full argument is only found in Gibson’s book which can be ordered from amazon.com, stpt.ca and other online book sellers.
- What do the early Qur'an say about the Qibla?