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Mecca, also known as Makkah al-Mukarramah (مكة المكرمة, lit. "the Blessed Mecca"), is a city located in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula and is described by Islamic scriptures as the birthplace of Muhammad (b. 570), the founder of Islam. Mecca is host to the Kaaba, the holiest Islamic mosque (and central pagan shrine prior to Muhammad's conquest of Mecca), and thus the site of the annual Islamic pilgrimage called the Hajj which physically and financially able Muslims are required to attend at least once in their lifetimes (one of the Five Pillars of Islam). Practicing Muslims face Mecca as they pray towards the Kaaba (their qibla, or direction of prayer) five times a day (another one of the Five Pillars of Islam).
It is said that upon his conquest of Mecca, the prophet Muhammad received revelation that prohibited non-Muslims (which the revelation describes as najas, or "filthy") from entering the city. This law remains in effect until today.
According to Islamic scriptures
Almost a decade after claiming prophet-hood in Mecca in 610, Muhammad was forced to flee to Medina in 622 after facing prosecution for insulting and criticizing the gods and beliefs of the Meccan pagans. Ultimately, after erecting the Islamic state from his base in Medina, Muhammad was able to return to Mecca, this time as conqueror, in 630. Since Muhammad's death in 632, political leadership of Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, as well as Medina, the second holiest city in Islam, has been a significant basis for political claims of authority.
In the Qur'an, the city is also referred to as "Bakkah" as well as "Umm al-Qura" (lit. "mother of all settlements"). The city is described in Islamic scriptures as having been founded by Abraham as he constructed the Kaaba with his son Ishmael (Ismail), though there is an absence of any archaeological evidence to support this narrative.
Islamic scriptures further maintain that Mecca was the trade capital of the Hijaz and Arabia at large, though even this lacks an archaeological basis.
Dearth of archaeological evidence
Very little is known through archaeological and historically relied-upon channels about the early and pre-Islamic history of Mecca, as the city is neither referred to unambiguously by any document prior to the rise of Islam, nor is there any architecture in Mecca that has been determined to have persisted from the life of Muhammad at the beginning of the seventh century. Indeed, even while contemporary Romans produced detailed descriptions of Arabia at large and Western Arabia (the Hijaz) in particular, no references can be found to anything that could be described as a pilgrimage or trade-center at Mecca.
A place called Macoraba in Arabia is mentioned in a geographic work by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. Many academic scholars believe this is a reference to Mecca (first proposed in the 16th century), and some even think that the name derives from an ancient South Arabian word for temple, mkrb. Others historians such as Patricia Crone and Ian D. Morris have argued that there is no good reason to believe Macoraba and Mecca are the same place. The idea has never been backed by any significant academic investigation, nor has any other ancient source been shown to describe Mecca or its temple.
Historian Patricia Crone is widely considered to have established that Mecca was of no wider importance at the time of Islam's emergence, was not on the major trade route, and traded in goods like leather, wool and other pastoral products. She also pointed out that the audience of the supposedly Meccan verses of the Qur'an are prosperous farmers who have an interest in the sea and ate fish, activities difficult in the arid wastes around Mecca.
Among other factors, because geographical descriptions provided of Mecca in Islamic scriptures fail to map reliably onto the geography of the actual city of Mecca, because ample archaeological evidence demonstrates that for roughly a century after Muhammad's death Muslim prayed toward Petra as their qibla, and because studies have demonstrated the prevalence of Syriac words in the Qur'an, many critical scholars have been led to hypothesize that the Mecca we know today may not have been the Mecca known by early Muslims. Mounting evidence suggests that the city Muhammad lived in, preached in, and came to conquer, may in fact have been Petra, located in Syria, or at least somewhere in the vicinity of northern Arabia, though this is disputed. This interpretation collides heavily with the explicit statements of Islamic scriptures and conforms more readily with Islamic scriptures' implicit, geographical descriptions of Mecca, as well as with the archaeological evidence available to us today.
A general objection to the Petra hypothesis is that it is difficult to understand how the real birthplace of Islam could have been erased so completely from Muslim traditions. But there are numerous examples of partially successful attempts to rewrite history for political reasons. It is often noted that there is surprisingly little documentary evidence surviving from the first two centuries of Islam. Perhaps because the first Muslims were practical men more concerned with consolidating their new empire than writing about it. Or perhaps because by the second century a consensus had been reached about the value of the founding myth of Mecca, and all evidence to the contrary was destroyed.
Van Putten has argued in detail that the dialect of the Quran is Hijazi rather than Nabatean, but this is of doubtful relevance to the Mecca/Petra debate. It is uncontroversial that the first official edition of the Qur'an was produced under Uthman at Medina, so it would have been natural to use the local dialect.
And this is a blessed Scripture which We have revealed, confirming that which (was revealed) before it, that thou mayst warn the Mother of Villages
and those around her. Those who believe in the Hereafter believe herein, and they are careful of their worship.
95. Say: Allah speaketh truth. So follow the religion of Abraham, the upright. He was not of the idolaters.
96. Lo! the first Sanctuary appointed for mankind was that at Becca, a blessed place, a guidance to the peoples;
97. Wherein are plain memorials (of Allah's guidance); the place where Abraham stood up to pray; and whosoever entereth it is safe.
And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto Allah for mankind, for him who can find a way thither. As for him who disbelieveth, (let him know that) lo! Allah is Independent of (all) creatures.
O ye who believe! The polytheists are unclean. So let them not come near the Inviolable Place of Worship [that is, the Kaaba, located in Mecca] after this their year. If ye fear poverty (from the loss of their merchandise) Allah shall preserve you of His bounty if He will. Lo! Allah is Knower, Wise.
Narrated Ibn `Abbas:
The first lady to use a girdle was the mother of Ishmael. She used a girdle so that she might hide her tracks from Sarah. Abraham brought her and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka`ba under a tree on the spot of Zamzam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Ishmael's mother followed him saying, "O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?" She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her Then she asked him, "Has Allah ordered you to do so?" He said, "Yes." She said, "Then He will not neglect us," and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards, and on reaching the Thaniya where they could not see him, he faced the Ka`ba, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following prayers: 'O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Ka`ba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. So fill some hearts among men with love towards them, and (O Allah) provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.' (14.37) Ishmael's mother went on suckling Ishmael and drinking from the water (she had). When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e. Ishmael) tossing in agony; She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between Safa and Marwa) seven times." The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "This is the source of the tradition of the walking of people between them (i.e. Safa and Marwa). When she reached the Marwa (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said, 'O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?" And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zamzam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it." The Prophet (ﷺ) added, "May Allah bestow Mercy on Ishmael's mother! Had she let the Zamzam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water-skin), Zamzam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth." The Prophet (ﷺ) further added, "Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, 'Don't be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.' The House (i.e. Ka`ba) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada'. They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, 'This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.' They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water)." The Prophet (ﷺ) added, "Ishmael's mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, 'Do you allow us to stay with you?" She replied, 'Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.' They agreed to that." The Prophet (ﷺ) further said, "Ishmael's mother was pleased with the whole situation as she used to love to enjoy the company of the people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. Ishmael) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them. After Ishmael's mother had died, Abraham came after Ishmael's marriage in order to see his family that he had left before, but he did not find Ishmael there. When he asked Ishmael's wife about him, she replied, 'He has gone in search of our livelihood.' Then he asked her about their way of living and their condition, and she replied, 'We are living in misery; we are living in hardship and destitution,' complaining to him. He said, 'When your husband returns, convey my salutation to him and tell him to change the threshold of the gate (of his house).' When Ishmael came, he seemed to have felt something unusual, so he asked his wife, 'Has anyone visited you?' She replied, 'Yes, an old man of so-and-so description came and asked me about you and I informed him, and he asked about our state of living, and I told him that we were living in a hardship and poverty.' On that Ishmael said, 'Did he advise you anything?' She replied, 'Yes, he told me to convey his salutation to you and to tell you to change the threshold of your gate.' Ishmael said, 'It was my father, and he has ordered me to divorce you. Go back to your family.' So, Ishmael divorced her and married another woman from amongst them (i.e. Jurhum). Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished and called on them again but did not find Ishmael. So he came to Ishmael's wife and asked her about Ishmael. She said, 'He has gone in search of our livelihood.' Abraham asked her, 'How are you getting on?' asking her about their sustenance and living. She replied, 'We are prosperous and well-off (i.e. we have everything in abundance).' Then she thanked Allah' Abraham said, 'What kind of food do you eat?' She said. 'Meat.' He said, 'What do you drink?' She said, 'Water." He said, "O Allah! Bless their meat and water." The Prophet added, "At that time they did not have grain, and if they had grain, he would have also invoked Allah to bless it." The Prophet (ﷺ) added, "If somebody has only these two things as his sustenance, his health and disposition will be badly affected, unless he lives in Mecca."
The Prophet (ﷺ) added," Then Abraham said Ishmael's wife, "When your husband comes, give my regards to him and tell him that he should keep firm the threshold of his gate.' When Ishmael came back, he asked his wife, 'Did anyone call on you?' She replied, 'Yes, a good-looking old man came to me,' so she praised him and added. 'He asked about you, and I informed him, and he asked about our livelihood and I told him that we were in a good condition.' Ishmael asked her, 'Did he give you any piece of advice?' She said, 'Yes, he told me to give his regards to you and ordered that you should keep firm the threshold of your gate.' On that Ishmael said, 'It was my father, and you are the threshold (of the gate). He has ordered me to keep you with me.' Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished, and called on them afterwards. He saw Ishmael under a tree near Zamzam, sharpening his arrows. When he saw Abraham, he rose up to welcome him (and they greeted each other as a father does with his son or a son does with his father). Abraham said, 'O Ishmael! Allah has given me an order.' Ishmael said, 'Do what your Lord has ordered you to do.' Abraham asked, 'Will you help me?' Ishmael said, 'I will help you.' Abraham said, Allah has ordered me to build a house here,' pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it." The Prophet (ﷺ) added, "Then they raised the foundations of the House (i.e. the Ka`ba). Ishmael brought the stones and Abraham was building, and when the walls became high, Ishmael brought this stone and put it for Abraham who stood over it and carried on building, while Ishmael was handing him the stones, and both of them were saying, 'O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.' The Prophet (ﷺ) added, "Then both of them went on building and going round the Ka`ba saying: O our Lord ! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing." (2.127)
- ↑ Robert Schick, Archaeology and the Quran, Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an
- ↑ See the conclusion in Ian D. Morris (2018) Mecca and Macoraba in: al-Usur al-wusta vol. 26 (2018)
- ↑ This was definitively argued by Crone in her 1987 book Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, and further defended and refined in her 1992 article Serjeant and Meccan Trade and her 2007 article Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Meccan Leather Trade
- ↑ How Did the Quranic Pagans Make a Living? and in her Collected Studies (2016).
- ↑ Numerous videos by Dan Gibson arguing for the Petra hypothesis are available on YouTube, and there is a recent summary of the evidence at nabataea.net.
- ↑ Nicolai Sinai, Qur'an : a historical-critical introduction (2017), Ch. 3 'Yet in the end....'.
- ↑ Marijn van Putten. See especially pages 118, 120, 122, and footnote 32 on page 146.
- ↑ According to al Bukhari, Uthman ordered the use of the Hijazi dialect. Hadith 4987. Which suggests that it had to be imposed.