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I was once asked by a tourist at Al-Fateh Mosque in Bahrain: "Why do you Muslims pray towards the east? God is not in the east!" I smiled and said, "Here in Bahrain we pray towards the west."
So why do Muslims pray in a certain direction? And what is the cubic-shaped black structure in Makkah? And why is Makkah sacred to Muslims?
Muslims all over the globe pray towards a mosque in Makkah. The Qur'an talks about Bakkah (the name of a valley in Makkah) being the location of the first house of worship appointed for humanity (Qur'an 3:96-97). By praying to God towards Makkah, Muslims join other fellow Muslims praying elsewhere in the world in human circles all worshiping God towards the same spiritual center. If you look at the Valley of Bakkah from the air, you will see the physical circles of Muslims praying around a cubic-shaped black structure, known as the Ka'bah. The Ka'bah is the mosque believed by Muslims to be the first house of worship. In every prayer Muslims say to God: You Alone we worship and You Alone we ask for help (Qur'an 1:5). The word we indicates that a Muslim is not praying alone even if he/she is praying individually because Muslims are spiritually connected to others praying with them towards the same spiritual center.
Geographically and because they pray towards Makkah, Muslims all over the world worship God in every direction of the globe: to the North, to the South, to the East, to the West, to the North West, to the North East, to the South East and to the South West. Muslims who do not know the direction towards Makkah can pray in any direction. "To God belong the east and the west," states the Qur'an (2:115 & 142). In the same chapter of the Qur'an we read:
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but (true) righteousness is one who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Scripture and the prophets and gives wealth – in spite of love for it – to relatives, orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, those who ask (for help), and for freeing the slaves; (and who) establishes prayer and gives zakah; (those who) fulfill their promise when they promise; and (those who) are patient in tribulation and adversity and times of stress. Those are the ones who are sincere, and it is those who are the righteous. (2:177)
The Ka'bah is not a black building; it is covered with black cloth. It has a door but no windows. No one is buried in the Ka'bah; it is a prayer room not a tomb. A Muslim praying inside the Ka'bah can pray in any direction.
Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem do not worship the wall or the bricks. Similarly, for Muslims the Ka'bah does not symbolize God; it is just a sacred building that unifies Muslims around it. 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 prayed to God towards Jerusalem. Both Makkah and Jerusalem are linked to God's prophets and have had very old 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, races, nationalities and cultures, male and female, meet in Makkah in the world's largest international gathering known as the Hajj. The purpose of this meeting is to worship God, the Almighty, together. Pilgrims are dressed in very simple clothing that removes the differences between the rich and the poor. For many, the Hajj is a life-changing experience. Malcolm X, the famous African American Muslim activist who lived at a time when America was torn by racism, came back from Makkah with totally different convictions. The Hajj had a profound effect on his perspective on race and racism and 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 blondes 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 voice as they chant together the following words over and over:
Here I come (for 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 beside You.
Interestingly, we read in the Bible (Psalms 84:4-6) 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.
The following verses also appear in Isaiah 42:11-12:
Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voices,
The settlements where Kedar inhabits.
Let the inhabitants of the rock sing.
Let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord and declare His praise in the coastlands.
The rituals of the Hajj – that started centuries before the birth of Prophet Muhammad – remind the pilgrims of the events that took place in the Valley of Bakkah which are mainly related to Abraham, Ishmael and his mother Hagar. According to the Bible, Abraham was ordered by God to take his first son Ishmael and his mother Hagar – Abraham’s second wife – away from where he lived with his first wife Sarah (Genesis 16 & 21). According to the Qur'an, the place where he left them is the Valley of Bakkah (Qur'an 14:37 & 3:96-97). Hagar asked Abraham why he was leaving her in this deserted valley. When he gave her no answer she asked, "Has God ordered you to do so?" Abraham said yes and Hagar in complete faith and trust in God responded, "Then He will not abandon us." Later, Hagar ran out of water and was worried about the life of her son Ishmael (Genesis 21). According to the Islamic version of the story, she could not endure looking at her thirsty son so she left him and headed towards a hill. She stood on the hill and looked searching for any passing traveler. When she could not see anybody, she descended, crossed the valley and reached another hill but could not see anyone. She kept on running between the hills until she saw an angel who struck the earth and to Hagar’s surprise, the water gushed out. This water later came to be known as the Well of Zamzam. This agrees to a large extent with the Biblical version:
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. (Genesis 21:17-19)
As the pilgrims hasten between the two hills of as-Safa and al-Marwah, they remember Hagar's search for water and they are also reminded of the high position of women in Islam. As the pilgrims drink the water of Zamzam, they are reminded of another lesson: what to do in times of difficulty. Hagar trusted God, but she also took action and did her best searching for water. The solution to her problem (the water) did not come because of her work; rather it came from God but only when she took action. Therefore, Muslims learn to do their best and at the same time trust God. Faith and deeds are always combined in Islam.
The blessed water of Zamzam brought Bedouins who settled around the well and a few years later Abraham returned to Makkah and started rebuilding the first house of worship appointed for humanity with the help of his first son Ishmael. According to the Qur'an (2:125-129), as they were building, they prayed to God and their supplication was answered many years later when God sent His last messenger, Prophet Muhammad, a descendant of Ishmael through his son Kedar whose name appears in the above verses of the Bible (Isaiah 42:11). Ishmael is considered to be the father of the Arabs as Isaac is the father of the Jews.
In Genesis 21:17-19 God promised Hagar to make her son Ishmael a great nation. God also promised Abraham to make his first son Ishmael into a great nation in Genesis 17:20:
And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.
Prophet Muhammad appeared in Makkah in the 7th century CE and called people to the worship of the Creator, the One true God of all humanity. He united the rich with the poor, the light skinned and the dark skinned, and the Arabs with the non-Arabs. In a few years the Islamic nation became a superpower in all aspects. Great Muslim scientists and thinkers carried the torch of civilization when Europe was going through the Dark Ages. Muslims excelled at art, architecture, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, geography, chemistry and other sciences. Muslim scholars shared their knowledge with medieval Europe and this led to the Renaissance.
The repeated promise of God to Abraham and Hagar in the Bible to increase the numbers of Ishmael can be seen today with the number of Muslims reaching 1.5 billion and continuously increasing. As to God’s promise of making Ishmael a great nation, this must also imply greatness of faith and spirituality. Muslim pilgrims are therefore reminded of God's mercy in sending His last prophet to guide them to the Truth.