Quranic Geography by Dan Gibson (2011-01-01) Hardcover – 2011
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Dan Gibson believes that four times in ancient history the Arab people united and poured out of the Arabian deserts to conquer other nations. The first is described in the Qur'an as the people of 'Ad. The Bible describes them as an alliance of tribes led by Edomites living in the land of 'Uz or 'Ud. The Egyptians named them Hyksos or shepherd kings who invaded Egypt from Arabia. By combining these three together, Gibson sees evidence of this powerful alliance from various archaeological remains. Later Arabia united again, this time under the leadership of the Midianites. Many centuries later, the tribes of Ishmael takes leadership, this time under the direction of the Nabataean tribe. The Qur'an calls them the people of Thamud. It was not until 600 AD that the Arabian Peninsula was again united, this time under the flag of Islam. But there is more to this book than a study of the four times when the Arabs demonstrated their greatness. This book also examines the geographical references in the Qur'an cross-referencing them with historical locations. The surprise comes when Gibson examines the Holy City of Islam, known as Mecca. Here Gibson finds evidence that the original Holy City was in northern Arabia in the city of Petra. He theorizes that during an Islamic civil war one hundred years after Muhammad, the Ka'ba was destroyed and the Black Rock was moved to its present location. Gibson examines archaeological, historical and literary evidence that support this theory and addresses many questions and objections that readers may have. This book contains many references, as well as some useful appendices including a 32 page time line of Islamic history from 550 AD - 1095 AD, and a 20 page annotated selected bibliography of early Islamic sources in chronological order from 724 AD - 1100 AD plus a list of many early Qur'anic manuscripts. Easy to read, fully referenced with many illustrations and photos.
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Why is Muslim prayer focussed on Mecca? The obvious answer is because that was where Islam began and where the Ka’ba and its Black Stone have always been, ever since Muhammad’s day. Everybody knows this, don’t they? This is the interesting thing about Islam: there is much that we often assume, but often very little that is actually known. Historians have long realised there are massive questions concerning Mecca – for example, Patricia Crone in Meccan Trade (Princeton University Press, 1987) notes that descriptions of the original Holy City of Islam in the early Islamic sources do not fit well with where Mecca is today. Thus Dan Gibson’s book, Qur’anic Geography, sets out to explore these questions in detail: Where did Islam actually begin and was Mecca the original Holy City?
Three Northern Civilisations
Gibson begins his study by noting that the Qur’an contains little geography: just 65 references with only 9 places mentioned by name, including ’Ad (23x), Thamud (24x) and Midian (7x). This immediately tells us these three civilisations were important to the Qur’an’s original audience – so where were they located?
Beginning with ’Ad, the Qur’an offers a few clues: the people of ’Ad built altars, monuments and strongholds in the rock. They had gardens and springs and lived in lush mountain valleys. So where was ’Ad? Gibson suggests ’Ad is the Arabic rendering of a word from the ancient language from which the Semitic languages developed and that it is actually identical to biblical ’Uz, which was in Edom (Lamentations 4:21). Biblical descriptions of ’Uz match those of ’Ad in the Qur’an whilst the Qur’an and Bible agree the people of ’Ad / ’Uz were destroyed by fierce winds (Q. 89:6-8; Job 1:18-19). The Qur’an also sees a connection between ’Ad and Pharaoh (Q. 89:6-14) and Gibson offers extensive evidence that the Edomites were also the people known as the Hyksos, who invaded Egypt sometime between 1500BC and 1800BC. He writes: ‘The moment we link the Hyksos, ’Ad, and Edom as one, many puzzling bits of history begin to fit together.’ We suddenly realise their importance and why the Bible and the Qur’an mention this ancient civilisation so frequently.
Moving onto Midian, Gibson notes that this was another powerful empire that united the Arabian tribes. Their mention in the Qur’an again tells us that Muhammad’s audience must have remembered them. Yet they, like the people of ’Ad, were a northern Arabian tribe, who appear to lived between Tayma (their southernmost point) and the northernmost tip of Wadi Sirhan. The Qur’an also reports that the prophet Shueyb came to them (Q. 22:43-45; 29:36) and the traditional site of his tomb is in central Jordan, locating the Midianites even further north.
Turning to Thamud, Gibson suggests the qur’anic word derives from thuma + ’Ad = ‘after ’Ad’. According to the traditions, they were a people centred on al-Hijr, a northern Arabian city known today as Meda’in Salih. For centuries, its inhabitants were known as the Nabataeans. The Qur’an tells of how they were a people who had cut dwellings into the mountains (Q. 7:73-79; 11:61-68; 26:141-159; 27:25) and indeed Nabataean cities like Petra are famous for their rock cut tombs and palaces. When one visits Petra and wanders among the rock-cut buildings and fabulous architecture, one is struck by how rich and powerful this civilisation must once have been.
The Nabataeans achieved their immense wealth by dominating all three trade routes (the Incense Route, the Silk Road, and the Red Sea ocean route). However, like all empires, their power eventually declined and following a golden age between 100BC and 100AD, their power waned. First through economic decline and then through disaster, as a series of earthquakes in AD363, AD551 and AD713 first weakened and then finally destroyed Petra. By the time of Muhammad, the Nabataeans were simply remembered by the Arabs as those ‘after ’Ad’ who were destroyed by earthquakes.
All three of these qur’anic civilisations, Gibson argues — the people of ’Ad, Midian and Thamud — share some commonalities. All were powerful empires who Muhammad’s audience remembered. But most importantly all occupied the same area — northern Arabia. So if these three major qur’anic civilisations were located in the north, what about the Holy City itself. What about Mecca?
Where Was Mecca?
The Qur’an names Mecca just once (Q. 48: 24). The Ka’ba is mentioned many times, but nowhere are we told its location. Gibson believes there are many difficulties with the idea that its original location was Mecca. For example, the Qur’an describes the Ka’ba as residing in the ‘Mother of Cities’ (Q. 6:92) yet the archaeological record at Mecca is blank before 900AD — we have no evidence of an ancient walled city with houses, gardens, buildings and temples. No maps before 900AD mention Mecca whilst the first literary reference only appears in 740AD.
There are also problems with descriptions of the Holy City found in early Islamic literature. The Qur’an and Hadith describe it as being in a valley, with another valley next to the Ka’ba and there being a stream. None of this fits Mecca. We also read that the Holy City had fields, trees, grass, clay and loam. Once again, this is not true of Mecca, which is arid and inhospitable; there is no archaeological evidence that agriculture ever took place at Mecca.
Qiblas and Confusion
But what about the qibla, the direction of prayer? Surely Muslims have always prayed toward the Ka’ba and its Black Stone, located in Mecca? The answer is no. It is well known that the qibla changed early in Islam, the Qur’an mentioning the change (Q. 2:143-145), without explaining where it was changed from. (Most Muslims believe the original qibla was Jerusalem, but this idea is not recorded until 300 years after Muhammad).
Gibson believes archaeology backs up the qibla change, only much later than traditionally thought. Surveying over a dozen early mosques, Gibson found a surprising number have their qibla orientated not on Mecca but on Petra. Sometime during Islam’s second century, Mecca began to be introduced, and then, by Islam’s third century, all new mosques’ qiblas were pointed at Mecca.
￼Gibson thinks archaeology can help date the change in qibla. The earliest buildings on the Amman citadel complex, built around 700AD are aligned on Petra, whereas later construction, circa 740AD, is orientated on Mecca. What happened between 700AD and 740AD that began to cause a change?
The Historical Context
In 64AH (683AD),’Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr rebelled against the Umayyads in Damascus. Declaring himself caliph in the Holy City, Al-Zubayr destroyed the Ka’ba, removing the Black Stone for safe keeping. The following year, Tabari reports, Al-Zubayr claims to have discovered the foundations of the true Ka’ba, laid by Abraham. Gibson thinks this was at Mecca, a location chosen because it was far from Umayyad power.
The rebellion spread and in 71AH, Kufa in Iraq joined Al-Zubayr, claiming ‘we are people who turn to the same qibla as you’. In 73-74AH, Syrian armies attacked the Holy City, using a trebuchet (a large catapult) against it. (Archaeologists have unearthed masses of trebuchet stones in Petra, but none in Mecca.)
Around about 85AH, mosques begin hanging signs to indicate a new qibla and then in 89AH, the mihrab (prayer niche) was introduced to show worshippers which way to pray. In 94AH, the last of a series of earthquakes more or less destroyed Petra; Gibson thinks this would have been seen as divine judgement on the former Holy City. Finally, in 132AH the Abbasids begin to rule from Iraq and follow the pattern set by Kufa, formally adopting the new qibla. Henceforth all new mosques are now orientated toward Mecca.
Gibson’s thesis, that the qibla changed in 70AH and not from Mecca, but from Petra, blends together qur’anic exegesis, a careful reading of the Islamic sources, along with archaeology, literature and history. Multiple lines of evidence, he argues, support the idea that the original Holy City was Petra. As well as the Qur’an’s overall focus on northern Arabia and the mismatch between descriptions of the Holy City in the literature and the present location of Mecca (descriptions which fit Petra perfectly), there are other fascinating lines of evidence, such as the reports in historians like Tabari that when military interactions occurred between the Medinans and the Quraysh (the Meccan tribe), they happened north of Medina. Yet if the Quraysh came from Mecca, 300km to the south, why does the action take place to the north?
Gibson’s thesis is a bold one, but his argument steers between both ‘traditionalist’ and ‘revisionist’ approaches to early Islam. Too many ‘traditionalists’ ignore the Qur’an’s context and merely parrot the early sources, whereas ‘revisionists’ often mistrust the Islamic sources entirely. Gibson’s book, however, attempts to take the Qur’an, hadith and Islamic sources seriously. Rather than ignore them, he simply argues they are more coherent if one reads ‘Petra’ for ‘Mecca’ before 700AD, a conclusion that history, literature and archaeology strongly suggest.
The book is not without a few weaknesses. At times Gibson attempts to cover too much ground, with some sections feeling a little rushed. For example, his treatment of early qur’anic manuscripts is a little thin and might have benefited from interaction with some of the critical literature, such as Keith Small’s work on qur’anic textual variants. Overall, however, Qur’anic Geography builds a powerful case and one that demands careful consideration.
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