Non-Muslims have heard of Makkah (Mecca) as important to Islam. Their misconceptions can be addressed as an instrument of educational outreach to them if one addresses them from where they are.
ONCE A TOURIST IN Bahrain asked me: “Why do you Muslims pray toward the East? God is not in the East!” I smiled and said: “Here in Bahrain, we pray toward the West.”
The more I meet non-Muslims visiting Ahmed Al-Fateh Islamic Center (also known as the Grand Mosque) in Bahrain where I give mosque tours, the more I become convinced that we Muslims have not done our duty in conveying Allah’s message to our brothers and sisters in humanity. They hold so many misconceptions of Islam, even about the most basic things. “Who is the god of the Muslims? Is it Muhammad or a god named Allah?”
Let me suggest a historical, geographical approach that may help Muslims talk to people of other faiths and experiences about Islam. I think the topic of Makkah suits us here, for I have noticed that many Muslims do not know how to answer questions from non-Muslims about Umm Al-Qurâ, the Mother Town.
First, our awareness of the various misconceptions others have about Makkah must be disentangled so as not to further obscure the complications stemming from active and widespread media cant and indoctrination regarding all things Islam. This disinformation carries no small momentum. It has proliferated as a feature of public discourse about Islam, particularly in western societies, for centuries. For this reason, like all long-held misbeliefs, it has become self-verifying because it has the force of age behind it. The miscalculation is, therefore, great—should we misunderstand the actual core of their misunderstandings and objections. Of course, I am not saying that simply clearing up misconceptions about Makkah will illuminate someone’s understanding of Islam in general. I am using this as a single theme so as to model an informative approach to our daʿwah.
I count seven common problems as foremost among people’s erroneous beliefs about Makkah:
- Makkah is sacred because of the Black Stone, which is merely a meteorite.
- Muslims worship the Black Stone, which symbolizes God.
- The Kaʿbah is the Black Stone.
- The Black Stone is inside the Kaʿbah.
- Women are not allowed inside Masjid Al-Ḥarâm, the Sacred Mosque in Makkah.
- All Muslims pray toward the East.
- Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is buried in the Kaʿbah, and this is why Makkah is a holy place.
Simple facts, countering the above misinformation, can often be presented in a sentence or two. But in order to contextualize the life and teaching of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and to foster a proper comprehension of Islam, a more extensive historical and geographical explanation may launch the listener onto a quest to discover Islam for him- or herself.
I doubt that I will tell you anything you don’t already know, but let me see if I can marshal the kind of knowledge that you can use to impart your answer and properly acquit yourself of your daʿwah duties enjoined upon you by Allah.
Why Do Muslims Pray in a Certain Direction?
Muslims all over the globe pray facing toward a sacred spot associated with Abraham in Makkah. The Quran states that “Bakkah” (the name of a valley in Makkah) is the location of the first house of worship appointed for humanity:
Indeed, the first House [of God] appointed for all people is that [in the valley] of Bakkah. [It is] most blessed and a [source of] guidance for all the [peoples of the] world. [From the time of Abraham, there has remained] in it clear signs—[such as] the Station of Abraham.
Moreover, whoever enters its [sanctuary] shall be secure. Thus Ḥajj-Pilgrimage to the [Sacred] House [in Makkah] is owed to God, as an obligation upon all people who are able to attain a way to it.
And as to those who disbelieve [this, know], then, [that] God is, indeed, self-sufficient, above any need for [any of His creation in] all the worlds. [Sûrat Âl ʿImrân, 3:96-97]
By praying to God oriented toward Makkah, Muslims join fellow Muslims praying elsewhere in the world in concentric human circles, all worshipping God toward the same spiritual center.
If you look at the Valley of Bakkah from the air, you will see the physical concentric circles of Muslims praying around a cube-shaped black structure, known as the Kaʿbah. The Kaʿbah is located in the Sacred Mosque of Makkah. This physical spot is the site of the first House of God’s worship appointed for humanity.
In every prayer, Muslims say to God: You alone we worship. And You alone we ask for help [Sûrat Al-Fâti ḥah, 1:5]. The word ‘we’ indicates that a Muslim is not praying alone—even if he or she is praying individually—because Muslims are spiritually connected to others praying at the same time with them toward the same spiritual center.
Geographically, and because we all pray facing in the direction of Makkah, Muslims all over the world worship God in every direction of the globe: to the North and to the South, to the East and to the West, and all points in between. Muslims who for whatever reason cannot discern the direction of Makkah for any prayer, can pray in any direction (which to the best of their approximation is toward Makkah). To God belong the East and the West, states the Quran [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:115, 142]. In the same sûrah we read:
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the East or the West, but [true] righteousness [dwells] in one who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Scripture and the prophets;
[in] one who gives wealth—in spite of love for it—to relatives, orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; one who establishes Prayer and gives Zakah;
[in those] who fulfill their promise when they promise; and who are patient in poverty, hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been sincere, and it is those who are the righteous. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:177]
What is the Cube-Shaped Black Structure in Makkah?
The Kaʿbah is not a black building. It is a building covered with black cloth as a garment. It has a door but no windows. No one is buried in the Kaʿbah. It is a prayer room not a tomb. A Muslim praying inside the Kaʿbah may pray facing in any direction.
The ancient structure of the Kaʿbah was rebuilt several times. Muslims believe that the most important person to rebuild the Kaʿbah upon its existing foundations was Prophet Abraham, together with his eldest son Prophet Ishmael (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:125-129). An original part of the outer walls of the Kaʿbah is the Black Stone, believed to have come to the Earth with the first man, Adam, himself a prophet. Muslims do not believe that the Black Stone is divine or has any healing powers, or other such properties.
Why is Makkah Sacred to Muslims?
Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem do not worship the wall or the bricks. Similarly, for Muslims the Kaʿbah does not symbolize God. It is a sacred structure that unifies Muslims around a common center, and in recognition of Abraham as humankind’s role model—since ancient times—in regard to trusting in God. Muslims believe that God chose certain places on the Earth to be sacred places. One of them is Makkah, and another is Jerusalem. According to the Bible (Daniel 6:10), Daniel prayed to God facing in the direction of Jerusalem, and so do observant Jews today. Both Makkah and Jerusalem are linked to God’s prophets and have their ancient houses of worship.
The annual pilgrimage to Makkah is an obligation once in a lifetime for those who are physically and financially able to perform it. Millions of Muslims with different backgrounds, languages, colors, places of origin, and cultures, male and female, meet in Makkah in the world’s largest international gathering. It is known as the Hajj, that is, the Pilgrimage.
The purpose of this meeting is to worship God, the Almighty, together. Pilgrims are dressed in very simple clothing that removes the outward differences between the rich and the poor. For many, the Hajj is a life-changing experience. Malcolm X, the famous African-American Muslim reformer, who lived in the 1960s when Americans were struggling for the human rights and equality of black Americans, came back from Makkah with dramatically different convictions. The Hajj had a profound effect on his perspective on “race” and racism. He wrote in one of his letters:
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.
Muslim pilgrims raise their voices as they chant together the following words over and over:
Here I come (ever at your service) O God. Here I come.
Here I come. There is no partner with You. Here I come.
Verily Yours is the Praise, the Blessing and Sovereignty.
There is no partner with You.
Interestingly, we read, in some versions of the Bible, words referring to pilgrims who praise God in the “valley of Baca”:
Blessed are those who dwell in your house.
They are ever praising you.
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 spring.
The early rain also covers it with blessings. (Psalms 84:4-6)
The following verses from the Bible also mention other specific places: The desert and its towns, the settlements of Kedar (Ishmael’s son), and Sela, which is a mountain in the city of Madinah, (Madinah being the City of the Prophet ﷺ, where Prophet Muhammad ﷺ is buried).
Let the desert and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops. Let them give glory to the Lord and announce his praise on the coastlands. (Isaiah 42:11-12)
To be continued, Inshâ’ Allah, in Part 2…