Muslims face a particular direction in their prayers. That direction is called the qiblah. While in Makkah, the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims faced Jerusalem.
After migrating to Madinah, the Prophet Muhammad received revelation instructing him to face Makkah instead.
Critics have accused the Prophet Muhammad of masterminding this qiblah-switch to attract converts.
Questions on the Qiblah Change
Generally, changes draw attention, raise questions, and can cause speculation. After the qiblah change from Jerusalem to Makkah, Muslims and non-Muslims raised questions about the change.
The believers, on the one hand, were concerned about their prayers. If a new qiblah was to be followed, what was the status of their previous prayers? Would they have to repeat them? Would they lose out on their rewards?
Critics, on the other hand, met the transition with suspicion, questioning why a change happened in the first place. They thought a modification to God’s commandments was not proper. The insinuation was that with the new qiblah location God was correcting a mistake.
Modern day critics add to the skepticism by claiming that the qiblah change was disingenuous.
Critics argue that the Prophet Muhammad sought to placate Jews and Christians by setting a qiblah favorable to them: Jerusalem. And after some time, as the critics accuse, the Prophet directed his attention to the pagans and shifted the qiblah toward their homeland: Makkah.
Both questions can be answered through the Quran and its historical context. First, the believers’ concern about their prayers will be addressed. The Quran states:
And God would not have caused your prayers to be lost. Indeed, God is kind and merciful towards the people. (Quran 2:143)
By this verse, the believers were assured that their prayers would be counted and rewarded. But critics who were seeking to discredit Islam and flummox the believers continued to object to the qiblah change, using it to show Islam was inconsistent. If God’s modifications to His commandments is the premise critics use to make allegations against Islam, the argument is weak.
The Quran tells us that modifications to commandments will occur and is to be expected:
And when We substitute a verse in place of a verse – and God is most knowing of what He sends down – they say, ‘You, [O Muhammad], are but an inventor of lies.’ But most of them do not know. (Quran 16:101)
The substituting verses can modify, replace, or completely remove pre-existing commandments.
Islam teaches us that our life on this earth is a test:
He created death and life to test you: who is the best in deeds. (Quran 67:2)
These substitutions are part of that test. The Quran clarifies that the qiblah direction is a test of faith:
We did not make the qiblah which you used to face except that We might make evident who would follow the Messenger from who would turn back on his heels. (Quran 2:143)
How are God’s modifications a test for man? Making changes is an effective method to examine man’s trust in God. Loyalty is truly tested in a milieu of change. If believers display their willingness to make the changes God asks of them, even when their practices have become customary, it is a sign of their faith in God.
The True Goal
Facing Jerusalem or Makkah is not the real goal. Facing the qiblah is only a means to an end: righteousness. God clarifies this for the believers:
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but true righteousness is if one believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the books, and the prophets; gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask, and for emancipating slaves; and who establishes prayer and gives charity; those who fulfill their promise when they make promises; and those who are patient in poverty and hardship, and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are righteous. (Quran 2:177)
As a result, the Quran considers getting hung up on means and making allegations about the qiblah modification baseless and foolish:
The foolish among the people will say: ‘What has turned them away from their qiblah that they were facing?’ (Quran 2:142)
Baseless, also, is the supposition that the qiblah change was orchestrated by the Prophet Muhammad to gain the favor of specific audiences: Jews and Christians by facing Jerusalem, and pagans by facing Makkah.
If we take a moment to examine precisely when the qiblah change occurred, we will see that the critics’ charge against the Prophet Muhammad is illogical. In Makkah, which was overwhelmingly populated by the pagans, the Prophet and the Muslims faced Jerusalem in their prayers. If the Prophet was seeking to appease the pagans, why was the qiblah toward Jerusalem instead of Makkah?
After the migration to Madinah, the Muslims neighbored Jewish and Christian settlements. During this time, the qiblah changed, and the Muslims faced Makkah instead of Jerusalem. If the Prophet’s goal were to appease the Jews and Christians, he would have kept the qiblah toward Jerusalem.
Critics of Islam often make claims against Islam without providing evidence. They make a correlation and mistakenly see it as causation, or present circumstantial evidence and incorrectly consider it direct evidence.
As shown above, the critics’ objection to a qiblah change is baseless from a philosophical point of view because modifications to commandments are part of Islam.
From a logical perspective, their argument that the qiblah change was contrived by the Prophet to appease his audience is illogical because the active qiblahs in their time and location were not favorable to his audience.