In the history of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) there are various distinctive incidents and governing points which direct the Islamic nation in its path. These incidents and points are evident at the levels of victories and defeats, as well as at other levels.
The incident of changing the qiblah (the direction faced in Prayer), whose memory we celebrate these days, according to the most plausible opinions, is one of the distinctive incidents which distinguish the Muslim community and purify it from any impurities. In this way, it resembles the Night Journey (Al-Israa’ and Al-Mi`raj), `Abdullah ibn Jahsh’s detachment and the fighting which followed it during the inviolable months, the battle of Uhud and the incidents of Hudaibiyah. All of those events belong to the same context of purifying and refining the Muslim community.
Imam Al-Bukhari reported from the narration of Al-Bara’ (may Allah be pleased with him) that, “Allah’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) performed Prayer while facing Jerusalem for sixteen or seventeen months. But he (peace and blessings be upon him) wished that he would face the Ka`bah. When Allah commanded him to face the Ka`bah, the first Prayer he performed facing the new qiblah was an `Asr (Afternoon) Prayer, which he prayed in congregation. Then, a man from those who performed this Prayer with him left and passed by some people praying in the mosque, who were bowing at that moment. So, he said, ‘I swear by Allah that I have performed Prayer with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) while facing the House,’ (the Ka`bah) whereupon they turned and faced the Ka`bah without interrupting their Prayer.” Al-Bara’ added, “Before we changed our direction toward the Ka`bah in Prayers, some Muslims had died or had been killed and we did not know what to say about them (regarding their Prayers.) Allah then revealed,
[But it was not Allah’s purpose that your faith should be in vain, for Allah is full of pity, Merciful toward mankind.] (Al-Baqarah: 143)
Furthermore, Al-Bukhari and Muslim reported from the narration of `Abdullah bin `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) that he said, “While the people were offering Fajr (Dawn) Prayer at Quba’ (near Madinah), someone came to them and said, ‘It has been revealed to Allah’s Messenger tonight, and he has been ordered to pray facing the Ka`bah. So turn your faces to the Ka`bah.’ Those people were facing Sham (Jerusalem), so they turned their faces toward the Ka`bah (at Makkah).”
So as not to repeat the same talk that we are used to hear these days about the changing of the qiblah and all its related incidents, such as the confusion and sedition which the Jews tried to raise, I will not take up any suchlike matters. But I will rather halt at three stops, each of which is connected with the idea of change and the ability of the Islamic nation to turn itself toward the direction which its Lord, the Almighty, has intended and its Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) has wished.
The First Stop
The Almighty Allah has willed for the nation of Islam to be the appointed nation on earth which bears the trust and witnesses for or against mankind, as He says:
[Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses over mankind, and that the Messenger may be a witness against you.] (Al-Baqarah: 143)
The Almighty Allah has willed for this nation to be distinguished by an Islamic divine sense. Being directed toward Allah’s First House is an honor for Muslims and an inheritance of His grace. In addition, changing the Muslim’s qiblah toward the Sacred House (the Ka`bah), built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Isma`il (Ishmael) (peace and blessings be upon them) who invoked Allah to confer security, provision, blessing, and protection on it, fits perfectly within the context of the Muslims inheriting the religion of Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him) and his covenant with his Lord, the Almighty. This change is also the course by which the nation of testimony is privileged; through which it becomes connected with its roots, history, and creed; and given leadership for which it has been created. Thus, this nation is privileged as regards its roots and bases, its aims and objectives, its banner and direction.
This distinctiveness was what the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) sought and invoked Allah for, as Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) stated, “The first (matter) to be abrogated in the Qur’an was the qiblah. When the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) immigrated to Madinah, whose inhabitants were mostly Jews, Allah, the Exalted and Ever-Majestic, commanded him to direct himself (in Prayer) toward Jerusalem, whereupon the Jews rejoiced. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) faced Jerusalem for a year and some months, but he (peace and blessings be upon him) liked the qiblah of Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him), so he used to invoke Allah and look at the heaven. Thereupon, Allah revealed:
[We have seen the turning of your face to heaven (for guidance, O Muhammad)… and wheresoever you may be (O Muslims) turn your faces toward it (when you pray).] (Al-Baqarah: 143-150)
Particularity and distinctiveness are necessary for the Muslim nation in perception, belief, qiblah, worship, and in everything.
The Second Stop
The incident of changing the qiblah was a test to determine how far the Muslim nation was able to submit to all the commands of its religion. It was also to specify how far this nation could believe, obey, and abide. The Almighty says:
[And We appointed the Qiblah which you formerly observed only that We might know him who follows the Messenger from him who turns on his heels. In truth it was a hard (test) save for those whom Allah guided.] (Al-Baqarah: 143)
Allah swears by Himself that anyone who does not possess this obedience and that submission is not a believer. He says:
[But nay, by your Lord, they will not believe (in truth) until they make you judge of what is in dispute between them and find within themselves no dislike of that which you decide, and submit with full submission.] (An-Nisaa’: 65)
The Muslim nation succeeded in this test, proving its ability to submit and transform itself, when the Companions submitted to the command of Allah, the Almighty, and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him). Neither did they argue nor did their faith sway inside their hearts. They rather, out of complete submission, changed the qiblah while praying and did not even wait until the next Prayer.
The Third Stop
In the pre-Islamic era, the Arabs used to exalt the Sacred House regarding it as the emblem of their glory. As Islam wants to make hearts free from anything besides Allah and rid them of every aspect of fanaticism to anything besides Allah’s course, which is free from any historical, racial, or even earthly connection, it took them away from directing toward the Sacred House. Instead, He ordained for them to direct toward Al-Aqsa Mosque for a considerable period of time, to rid their souls from all the impurities of the pre-Islamic era and from anything they clung to during it. The first qiblah was also ordained to distinguish between those who truly and sincerely follow the Messenger with complete obedience, content, and submission and those who turn on their heels out of pride for any of the aspects of pre-Islamic fanaticism, be they racial, tribal, terrestrial, or historical, even if these feelings are deeply hidden within souls and hearts.
Then, when souls reached the degree of complete sincerity and purification, the Almighty Allah directed them to a special qiblah different from that of the other heavenly religions, so as to be free from the superstitions and deviations of these religions. This was what urged “the foolish” among them to object and be skeptical, so Allah refuted their claims and revealed their ignorance saying,
[The foolish of the people will say: What has turned them from the Qiblah which they formerly observed? Say: Unto Allah belong the East and the West. He guides whom He will unto a straight path.] (Al-Baqarah: 142)
Almighty Allah describes this ability of purifying the soul as being “hard” in His saying
[In truth it was a hard (test) save for those whom Allah guided.] (Al-Baqarah: 143)
However, it is not at all hard for those guided by Allah, for with guidance, there is no hardship or difficulty for the soul to take off any garment other than the garment of Islam, shake off pre-Islamic impurities, worship Allah sincerely, and direct itself toward any direction He decrees for it.
Allah willed for the Muslim’s soul to rid itself of all impurities and connections with the pre-Islamic times and to abandon every slogan it adopted during it. Thus, He firstly directed it toward a qiblah different from that of the Arabs so that it would be completely disconnected with the pre-Islamic era, then He favored it with a qiblah different from that of the other heavenly religions, so that it would be purified from distortion and falsehood.
That was how the Islamic nation handled the incident of changing the qiblah. Our dealing with the same incident should also be based upon the same idea of change. That is, we should abandon anything that hinders us from abiding by the teachings of our religion; we should not be prevented by any kind of bond from being just as Allah wants us to be; we should possess firm belief, obedience, and submission regarding all that which our Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) commands us to do. Furthermore, we should place all these matters high above our race, country, family, lineage, and all people. Islam should solely occupy the highest level in our sense, high above everyone and every entity.
The moment we reach this, we will be back to being the nation of distinctiveness, particularity, leadership, and bearing witness over mankind.
The incident of changing the qiblah had indeed great impacts on the life of the Muslim nation, from its inside as well as in its relations with others. In the same way, this incident should have its impact on our souls and our relationships with others.
[In truth it was a hard (test) save for those whom Allah guided.] (Al-Baqarah: 143)
It was not indeed an incident of changing the qiblah only, but rather an incident of transforming the soul.