I have come across a claim that in early Islam, the focal point of orientation for prayers was not Mecca but was originally supposed to be Petra, and that originally Qiblas used to point in that direction.

I found this book by Dan Gibson that makes this claim: Early Islamic Qiblas: A survey of mosques built between 1AH/622 C.E. and 263 AH/876 C.E (WorldCat). He is the only person I could find that says this.

How credible is this claim and how credible is Dan Gibson as a historian?

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    Which mosques he uses as reference? It would not be the same if he is refering to mosques in Spain or Afghanistan (where the mistake could be a matter of calculus error) than if he were refering to mosques just in the middle of Saudi Arabia.
    – SJuan76
    Jul 4 '19 at 23:36
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    Direct quotations from the book would be helpful. Nov 29 '21 at 1:53

First, there’s a Wikipedia article on Dan Gibson, and it says he is not a professional historian, and is criticized by them. The article also contains links to critical reviews you may want to read. For example, here’s a criticism from David King and Gibson’s response.

However, it’s a traditional knowledge in Islam that before Mecca, Jerusalem was Qibla. The switch happened in Muhammad’s lifetime, actually, they switched mid-prayer. See Wikipedia article for the mosque where it happened. But I never heard of any other surviving mihrab pointing to Jerusalem.

In addition to that, I’d say that early mosques were likely built with much rougher directions than later when Islamic scholars honed their astronomy for this very purpose.

  • As Gibson is within the revisionist school of thought his intentions are quite different than what you seem to address here. The claim in his book addresses this 'revelation' explicitly and also places the other early qiblas after Mohammeds death (actually from 622 to 867). Jul 4 '19 at 17:54
  • @LangLangC I’ve added a link to David King’s criticism. In essence it agrees with what I said: the directions were imprecise.
    – Neith
    Jul 4 '19 at 18:02
  • Please also look at the actual data provided by Gibson. The early mosques were not just imprecise. Either he is way off with all he does, or theer is more to it than just some 'imprecision'. According to him, some directions are quite grossly off. I'd greatly prefer to see both arguments presented and weighed here with a bit more detail instead of just pointing at outside resources and 'read all about it there'. Have you eg compared Crone or Cook to King's argument? Jul 4 '19 at 18:55
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    @LangLangC Is this data publicly available anywhere? I am not going to buy this book.
    – Neith
    Jul 4 '19 at 19:15
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    @jwenting In Medina (the capital of Islam in 622-656, between Prophet’s Hijra and the death of third caliph Uthman), Mecca and Jerusalem are nearly opposite directions.
    – Neith
    Jul 5 '19 at 5:58

This and other questions about the history of Islam in its first 100 years, from which very few written records survive, are discussed in Peter Townsend's book 'The Mecca Mystery' and also the debate 'Did the Mohammed of the Quran exist?' between Jay Smith and David Wood on YouTube.

The few surviving mosques from the 7th Century and early 8th Century AD (so 1st Century of the Islamic Calendar) tend to show an orientation towards the area of Petra, which in later mosques is towards Mecca. Given the lack of independent evidence of Mecca existing before the Islamic period some have argued that much of the early history of Islam is false and it may have begun as a vaguer monotheistic religion based at Petra, initially in alliance with Jews.

My own view after listening to the above debate is that this is too radical an interpretation and that it would not have been possible to move the place of pilgrimage several hundred miles in the early 8th Century without causing serious commotion within the Islamic World and probably a lasting schism. Most likely the mosques pointing roughly towards Petra were oriented inaccurately using the stars as a guide, before more accurate geographical information became known.

However, I am persuaded of the wider point that the early history of Islam is so poorly documented that some of what has long been taught may well not be true.

  • That last paragraph isn't appropriate for this site (nor for most others). Nov 29 '21 at 1:56
  • I have deleted material inappropriate for this site
    – MCW
    Nov 29 '21 at 2:18

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