All Muslims believe Muhammad* received his first divine revelations in Mecca and consider the city’s Kaaba the “House of God.” The Qur’an says Abraham and his son Ishmael built the Kaaba (Q 22:26-29), though many Muslims believe Adam and Eve built the original. Either way, all Muslims believe their cube-like shrine was a pagan temple before Muhammad* cleansed it of its idols. They prostrate themselves toward it five times daily in prayer. And they ritually circle it—if possible, touching or kissing its sacred Black Stone—on pilgrimage.
In the 1970s, however, John Wansbrough, Patricia Crone and other scholars challenged the traditional view. They argued that Islam evolved over two centuries not in Mecca, but in the Fertile Crescent—in Nabatea (modern day Jordan) or Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq).
Since then, many have speculated on where Islam originated. Two recent documentary films locate Islam’s origin in Nabatea, Tom Holland’s Islam: The Untold Story (2012) and Dan Gibson’s The Sacred City: Discovering the Real Birthplace of Islam (2017). This would mean Muslims are wrong to face or visit Mecca.
Revisionists claim the following 3 lines of evidence support the idea that Islam originated outside of Arabia:
- The Qur’an’s geographic data
- The hadith’s picture of Mecca
- The archeological evidence
Some revisionists believe Q 37:137 points to the Qur’an’s Nabatean origins since it says Muhammad’s listeners view Sodom’s ruins in the morning and evening. Read literally, this puts Muhammad’s audience in Nabatea. But a freer reading allows for the traditional understanding, which puts Sodom’s ruins beside the Arabs’ caravan route to Gaza. Except in the oases that dot the region, the barren Hijazi landscape permits no agriculture besides animal husbandry.
Also, while Q 6:136-39 implies that Muhammad’s enemies were farmers, Mecca’s geography permits no agriculture. But the passage could well relate to pagan Ta’if, a mere 87 kilometers (54 miles) from Mecca. Ta’if was famous for its grapes, pomegranates, figs, etc. Thus, there’s nothing incompatible with the Qur’an’s Hijazi origins here.
Regarding the hadith’s description of Mecca, much of it is pure yarn spinning and hyperbole. Muslims were the first to acknowledge that many hadith are unreliable. Hence, we can’t expect hadith descriptions to conform to Meccan geography. The fact that Mecca isn’t on a trade route, for example, suggests that many of the stories establishing the power of Muhammad’s tribe may be myth. But this does not take away from the fact that the hadith consistently refer to Mecca as Muhammad’s birthplace and the town where he began his preaching.
Some revisionists also claim most of Islam’s early mosques point quite accurately to Petra, not Mecca. But as science historian David A. King explains, that’s simply impossible: “The first generations of Muslims had no means whatsoever for finding the direction of Petra [or Mecca either] accurately… not least because they had no access to any geographical coordinates, let alone modern ones, and no mathematics whatsoever.” They calculated Mecca’s direction accurately by their standards, using the best methods available.¹ But those methods were highly inaccurate by modern standards.
As well, to think that so sprawling and so divided a community as the early Muslim community could have somehow agreed to relocate its sacred center and did so without leaving a single trace of that move is highly implausible, to say the least. Thus, rightly understood, all the available evidence points to Mecca, not Petra or Nabatea, as Islam’s true birthplace.
These are by no means all the lines of evidence revisionists use to support their theory of Islam’s extra-Arabian origins. To explore the topic more fully download the PDF document.
This article was originally published on Mark’s blog Understanding Islam Today. This article was reposted on the Zwemer Center site with the author’s permission.
*Peace be upon his descendants.
1 http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/from-petra-back-to-makka Accessed July 8, 2018. King has written numerous books and articles on qibla determination.