Mecca In The Qur’an

This is the third section of my extensive essay on the History of Mecca. It examines all references to Mecca and every other place mentioned in the Qur’an. It is further proof that Mecca’s true history is not the same as the history we are given in Islamic tradition. You can read the full essay under the Islam tab…


Mecca’s current status is central to Islam and the Arab-centric nature of Islam. After the Qur’an, it is the epicentre of Islam. All historical, physical and theological roads lead to this mystical city. All Muslims the world over must pray in its direction. It is variously described as the mother of all cities, the centre of the world, the oldest city in the world and the city first established by Abraham as the first place of monotheistic worship.

It comes as something of a surprise then that what is taken for granted today to be Mecca is only mentioned twice in the Qur’an. Assuming the following references are talking about the same place, surah 48:24 describes it simply as the valley of Makkah, and surah 3:96 simply calls it Makkah. Sometimes it is also called Bakkah. Bakkah is a Semitic word that means The Valley of Weeping.

This startling lack of Qur’anic references is part and parcel of the structure of the Qur’an, it is an utterly confusing and frustrating book to read on its own as it rarely says who is speaking, who is being spoken to and what the context is. That’s why Muslim scholars invented the Sira and the Hadith. The Qur’an only mentions nine different geographic place names in over 149,000 words. This infrequency of geographic references, at the rate of one every 2,299, is one tenth what it is in the New Testament. One suspects this is deliberate. It’s as if the Qur’an is trying to avoid pinning down its original location. You will find out why as you read on.

Here is the full list of all place names in the Qur’an, with frequencies:

Location Frequency
Thamud 24
Ad 23
Midian 7
Yathrib (Medina) 2
Valley of Bakkah (or Makkah) 2
Tubb’a 1
Al-Ras 1
Hijr 1

And that’s it for a 400 page book! It’s not much to go on for any historian trying to find the truth about Mecca. But there are clues from that list, so let’s look at them now.

The Midianites were descendants of Abraham and lived at the top of the Red Sea. Moses is said to have lived with them for 40 years (Exodus 2:15-23). These people are easily located in lower Jordan. They lived nowhere near modern Mecca.

Ad (sometimes Aad) is a foreign word to Arabic. Specific details about the people of Ad are given in surah 7:65-72, surah 11:50-60, surah 26:123-140 and surah 89:6-14. From these passages we glean the following clues: They built high alters and monuments, they had cattle, springs and gardens, they had a leader called Hud, they had strongholds and homes in the rocks, they built a many-columned city called Iram and they lived close to the people of Thamud. From those clues we can safely say that the Ad knew a lot about Greek columned architecture, they were versatile farmers and lived in the rocks and mountains. This is definitely not a description of an Arabian city but a vivid picture of Petra. Nothing else anywhere further south fits the bill as Petra was the final outpost of Hellenistic culture and architecture. If it was Petra, and the Qur’an says the Thamud lived close by, then the Ad, Thamud and Midianites were all in lower Jordan or at the top of the Red Sea, not deep in the Arabian Peninsula. This was the centre of the land of the famous Nabataeans, the one group of Arabs who were culturally sophisticated, highly literate, commercially savvy and downright wealthy because they dominated the trade to Europe.

This view is reinforced by the evidence for Thamud in the Qur’an and the Hadith. The Qur’an says Thamud had gardens and water-springs and tilled fields and heavy sheathed palm trees (surah 26:141-159) and they hewed the rock into dwellings (surah 7:73-79). This is clearly a description of Nabataean rock excavating culture and its agriculture. Thamud’s location in the Hadith is given as Al-Hijr (Bukhari 4:562 and Fiqh us-Sunnah Hadith 4:83). Al-Hijr was the southern-most outpost of the Nabataean Empire, 800 kilometres north of Mecca. It is full of Nabataean tombs and is on the World Heritage list. The Qur’an’s repeated references to Thamud demonstrate its importance to the Qur’an’s writers.

It would be no accident that the Nabataeans feature in the Qur’an, howbeit under a different name, having their status theologically transferred to Mecca by the Abbasids. It was they who controlled the ancient spice trade from Arabia into Europe. It was they who pioneered sea-based transport up the Red Sea. It was they who became so fabulously wealthy as middle men that the Romans had to invade and conquer them to get in on the trade. It was they who gave the Arabic alphabet most of its letters. It was they who were by far the best adapted Arabs for handling the larger world around them in the centuries before Islam. It was they who worshipped at many cube shaped temples called a Ka’ba. We will talk in depth about Petra later.

Now let’s focus back on the two enigmatic references to Makkah/Bakkah for a moment. Makkah/Bakkah is further described in surah 3:95-7 as the spot where Abraham stood. Pilgrimage to the house is a duty to Allah for all who can make the journey.  This is clearly the role Mecca plays today, but contrary to Islamic tradition, there is not a scrap of objective historical evidence that Abraham ever went to the Arabian Peninsula. So where was Makkah/Bakkah? History records that Abraham lived at Beersheba in the Negev desert in southern Israel, as did his immediate descendants including his first-born son and the ancestor of the Arabs, Ishmael. Another son of Abraham was Midian. One of the sons of Ishmael was Nebaioth, ancestor of the Nabataeans. The Syrians are descended from Abraham’s brother Nahor. The Jordanians are descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot. These ancestors of the Arabs all lived in the Levant, not lower Arabia.

In times concurrent with the rise of the Arab Empire these descendants of Ishmael had a famous pilgrimage site close to Beersheba, near Abraham’s great oak of Mamre. They all knew where to go to honour their combined ancestor. An excellent description of this place comes from Sozomen’s Historia Ecclesiastica, chapter 4. So it seems logical that the original Makkah/Bakkah could also be located close to Midian, Ad and Thamud in the region of the Negev Desert and lower Jordan.

In addition to this hard evidence, all mosques in Islam’s early years actually faced Petra, not far from Mamre, and were then switched to face Mecca at a later date in the 8th Century. Yes you read that correctly. They all initially faced Petra, not modern Mecca. The Qur’an even records this change in direction for prayer, called the qibla which is Arabic for direction, from the north to the south in surah 2:143-4. But as usual the Qur’an it doesn’t say from where it was in the past to where it was to be in the future, or even when the change took place. Significantly, the oldest Qur’ans do not have Surah Two, so do not mention this change of direction. On the other hand the Hadith literature kindly and conveniently declare that it took place early, during the life of Muhammad in 624AD to be precise, and was a switch from Jerusalem to modern Mecca. None of this information is in the Qur’an. I will explain more about this change of direction toward the end of the essay.

The view that Makkah/Bakkah was in northern Arabia and not central Arabia is strengthened by the reference to a place called Baka in Psalm 84 of the Old Testament:

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, 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.

Below I will line up the two Qur’anic quotes about Makkah/Bakkah so we can compare the three together:

Surah 3:96-7: Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for mankind was that at Makkah – blessed and a guidance for the worlds. In it are clear signs [such as] the standing place of Abraham. And whoever enters it shall be safe. And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House – for whoever is able to find thereto a way.

Surah 48:24. And it is He who withheld their hands from you and your hands from them within the valley of Makkah after He caused you to overcome them. And ever is Allah of what you do, Seeing.

After reading all three references, you will notice similarities. They refer to a house of God. They refer to the valley of Baka/Bakkah/Makkah. They refer to a place of worship. But then there’s the mention of autumn rains covering the valley with pools of water in Psalm 84. Mecca has virtually no rain, let alone autumn rains. It receives only a total of 50 millimetres in those three months on hot baked ground. Baka was not Mecca by any stretch of the climatic imagination.

Could it be that the Qur’anic references are a plagiarised version of a poem written some 1,500 years earlier referring to Jerusalem, often called Zion in the Old Testament? Could this be why Abd al-Malik, king of the Arab Empire from 685-705AD built his ultimate statement of the emerging religion, the Dome of the Rock Mosque, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem itself which many believe to be exact spot called Zion? After all some 7% of the Qur’an is plagiarised passages from the Old Testament. Additionally, the temple Abd al-Malik built on the Temple Mount faced Petra and still does. Abd al-Malik cleverly combined the Jewish, Christian and Nabataean pagan Ka’ba holy sites.

The fact that the Qur’anic references say absolutely nothing about Makkah/Bakkah’s location being in Arabia or about its precious Ka’ba is to be expected. Modern Mecca is completely missing from all maps, inscriptions, trade notes, graffiti, official documents and church records for the period up to the middle of the 8th Century, It is only in 741AD, some 110 years after the traditional death of Muhammad that Mecca first appears in the Apocalypse of Pseuido-Methodius Continuato Byzantia Arabica. It doesn’t even appear on any maps until 900AD.

The Qur’an does, however, contain some more subtle clues as to the location of Makkah/Bakkah. Let’s now look at those clues.

Although the Qur’an is almost totally absent in geographical references, it does talk about a military defeat of the Byzantine Empire and specifically says that it was in a nearby land (Q 30:1-2). The fact that this defeat happened close to where the Qur’an was written raises significant questions about where the author of the Qur’an lived. You see, the Byzantines never ventured deep into the Arabian Peninsula, but they had already conquered and occupied Nabataea hundreds of years earlier, and were in control of Palestine, Syria and Jordan at the time of the birth of the Arab Empire.

Next, the Qur’an talks about the old woman who was left behind and became a pillar of salt when Lot and his family escaped the city of Sodom (Q 37:133-38). What is interesting is that the location for this event was universally held to be near the Dead Sea, and the writer of the Qur’an says that his readers pass by these ruins day and night. This places the location of the writer far closer to Israel than Mecca, some 1,300km to the south.

And there’s more. All Islamic commentators claim that Muhammad was a trader who frequented the lands of Palestine and Syria. Trade routes were the freeways, railways and internet of their time. For the record though, Mecca was not on any known historical trade route, none. On the other hand the Nabataean capital of Petra had been in the past the hub of several very important trading routes connecting Europe to Asia from east to west, and Europe to Africa/Arabia from north to south. It had a major trade highway to Damascus in Syria. That’s the only way Muhammad, if he grew up in Petra, could have been a trader with the Syrians. Petra was wealthy. Petra was influential. That’s why the Romans took it in 106AD. If Muhammad, the trader, came from somewhere else than modern Mecca then the logical place is much closer to the known trade routes further north. The story tellers that created the Sira and Hadith were using historical memory of Nabataean glory to project a plausible history of trading and spiritual significance down into the Hejaz and Mecca.

How could all this lack of evidence and contradictory evidence for the location of modern Mecca be sitting under our noses all along? Yet we are still just scratching the surface. In the rest of this essay we will explore Mecca’s geography, the statements of ancient historians, the flow of ancient trade routes through the Middle East, the actual commodities traded at that time and where they came from, the real location of ancient Arab religious sanctuaries, the political allegiances that shaped the Middle East in the era of the birth of the Arab Empire, and the shifting religious currents that created Islam. These evidences will give you a thorough understanding of the true history of Mecca, or lack thereof. Let’s start with modern Mecca’s location and climate.

Kevin Davis

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