Sacred Land in the Qur’an and Hadith and Its Symbolic and Eschatological Significance

Maria Massi Dakake
George Mason University

In Islam, there is a clearly defined conception of sacred geography or sacred centers that represent various points of access to a vertical and unmitigated connection between the divine and the human. Within Islam, the notion of the sacred as such — as well as sacred place — is connected with the word ?aram, which denotes a sanctuary, a protected place, which in its sacredness should be free from all forms of violence and strife. This concept was present in Arabia from pre-Islamic times, and even amid the relative lawlessness and perpetual internecine warfare among the Arab tribes, Islamic literature suggests that certain shrine cities (Mecca among them) and certain months of the year were considered sacred. In these sacred places and times, the Arabs avoided bloodshed and violence, ostensibly for the sake of religious pilgrimage. The Qur’an endorses the sacred places and months of the pre-Islamic Arabs:

O you who believe! Profane not God’s monuments ( sha`?’ir Allah) nor the Sacred Month (al-shahr al-haram) nor the offerings nor the garlands, nor those repairing to the Sacred House (am?n al-bayt), seeking the grace and pleasure of their Lord. But when you have left the sacred territory, then go hunting (if you will)… [1]


As is well known, the most sacred center, the true axis mundi of the Islamic religious universe is Mecca, and within Mecca, the h?aram that surrounds the Ka`bah, and then most intensely, of course, the Ka`bah itself. The actual building of the Ka`bah has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times—including once during Muhammad’s youth and once during the second Islamic civil war, several centuries after his death. [2] However, it is believed that since the time of Abraham, the building has housed the sacred “black stone”—a meteorite said to have been sent to Abraham from heaven, incorporated into the Ka`bah structure he built with his son, Ishmael, and maintained and included in all subsequent rebuildings of the structure. It represents the direct and sacred line between heaven and earth, and it also represents the continuity and permanence of this line despite the vagaries of the Ka`bah’s structural existence.

In the Qur’an, the Ka`bah is often referred to simply as “the House” (al-bayt), [3] or as the “sacred House,” [4] or the “ancient House”, [5] insofar as the Qur’an declares it to be the “first House” established for mankind:

Lo! the first Sanctuary (bayt) appointed for mankind was that at Becca [Mecca], a blessed place, a guidance for mankind; wherein are plain memorials (of God’s guidance); the place where Abraham stood up to pray; and whosoever enters it is safe. And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto God for mankind, for him who can find a way there. As for him who disbelieves, (let him know that) lo! God is Independent of (all) creatures. [6]

The meaning of the Qur’anic declaration that the Ka`bah represents the first “house” for humankind was the subject of some debate among early Islamic commentators. The most common and widely accepted view is that the Ka`bah represents the first House established for the worship of God on earth. [7] While it is Abraham who is reported to have built the Ka`bah along with Ishmael, the Qur’an hints that some sacred structure had existed there prior to Abraham, for in Qur’an 14:37, Abraham prays to God:

Our Lord! Lo! I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near unto Your holy House (baytika’l-mu?arram), our Lord! that they may establish proper worship; so incline some hearts of men that they may yearn toward them; and provide them with fruits in order that they may be thankful.

This prayer occurs just after Abraham has left Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, and seems to make reference to the existence of a “holy house” prior to his building of the Ka`bah structure with Ishmael.

The tafsir traditions often give a more mythological account of the Ka`bah’s origin, with some asserting that the Ka`bah was created even before the earth itself, and that it was fashioned and sent down by God while his Throne was still “upon the waters.” Once he sent down the Ka`bah, the rest of the earth proceeded forth, or was “unrolled” from beneath it. [8] Yet another mythological tafsir tradition states that the Ka`bah was sent down along with Adam when he was exiled to earth, so that he and his followers could go round it as he and the angels had gone round the Divine Throne in the heavenly realm. [9] In fact, not only the circumambulation of the Ka`bah, but many of the rules pertaining to the Islamic (and to some extent, pre-Islamic) pilgrimage in Mecca connect this site with Adam and his state in the Garden of Eden. For examples, as Brannon Wheeler mentions in his work, Mecca and Eden, the pre-Islamic pilgrimage that was reportedly performed in the nude, and the Islamic pilgrimage which allows men to wear only two pieces of “unsewn” cloth, recall the innocent nudity of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (with sewn clothing representing their act of sewing together leaves of the Garden for cover after the fall). In addition, the prohibitions in both pre-Islamic and Islamic times on sexual intercourse and on hunting or animal slaughter during the pilgrimage reflects the lack of these things in the Garden before the fall. [10] The tafsir traditions that connect the Ka`bah with the earth’s origins, or with Adam, sometimes go on to explain that at the time of the great flood of Noah, God took the Ka`bah back to heaven so that it would be spared the destruction, but that the foundations of the building remained, and it was these foundations upon which Abraham and Ishmael later built the Ka`bah. [11] All these traditions establish that while the Ka`bah structure itself may have been built and rebuilt numerous times in human history and by human hands, its enduring sacredness can be traced to its primordial origin and unfailing divine protection. [12]

The sanctuary surrounding the Ka`bah is referred to as “the sacred mosque (al-masjid al-haram), and the city of Mecca and its immediate environs are sometimes referred to as “blessed (mubarak)” [13] or as “hallowed,” [14] although it is more frequently described as a land under God’s protection (am?n). The city was considered a protected sanctuary in pre-Islamic times, and the Qur’an validates this by referring to both Mecca in general, and the ?aram in particular, as places of security, [15] answering Abraham’s prayer that the harsh and barren land of Mecca would be a region of security for his sons (through Ishmael). [16] The notion of the Meccan ?aram as a place of refuge or sanctuary is clear in the Qur’anic text:

Have they not seen that We have appointed a sanctuary immune (from violence), while mankind are ravaged all around them? Do they then believe in falsehood and disbelieve in the bounty of God? [17]

The Qur’an declares that whoever enters the Meccan sanctuary is safe (am?n), [18] and that people are not to harm or interfere with those making their way to the sanctuary for pilgrimage (am?n al-bayt). [19] Even criminals, according to some tafsir traditions, are to be considered safe from apprehension and punishment inside the city, or at least the h?aram, although some traditions exempt the execution of the corporal ?add punishments within the city. [20] The protected status of the city and its “inviolability” are further emphasized historically in that throughout the years of bitter warfare between the Muslims in Medina and the pagans of Mecca, the city of Mecca was spared fighting or bloodshed within its precincts, and when Mecca was finally conquered, eight years after Muhammad and his followers had fled the city, it was an almost bloodless conquest, with the city being surrendered by its leaders before Muhammad’s army had entered the city. [21]


If Mecca represents the center of the Islamic spiritual universe and the place of unfailing divine protection, it is also situated by Islamic tradition and the Qur’an itself in a kind of polar or complementary relationship with another sacred city in Islamic geography, the city of Jerusalem. According to hadith traditions recorded in Qur’anic commentary and elsewhere, Jerusalem was the second sacred city created by God, and it was created forty years after Mecca. [22] The connection between the two cities in Islamic consciousness was established and indelibly sealed by the Islamic account of Muhammad’s Night Journey (or mi`r?j), in which Muhammad is taken from the sanctuary in Mecca “horizontally” to Jerusalem and then “vertically” (traditionally from the site where the Holy of Holies of the ancient Jewish Temple once stood) through the seven heavens to within “two bows lengths” of God, himself. While even the earliest Qur’anic commentaries, and Muhammad’s own companions, disagreed about the nature of this journey (was it really physical, or only a spiritual/mental journey?), [23] its importance in the Islamic understanding of the Prophetic mission and its relationship to Judaism and Christianity cannot be overstated. While there are numerous narrative accounts of the journey with some differences in details, the Qur’an itself only mentions the event elliptically, in the opening verse of surah  17:

Glory be to He Who carried His servant on a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque (al-masjid al-haram) to the Farthest Mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa) whose environs We have blessed…

Within this passage, the two places are clearly set in the polar relationship they would continue to have in Islamic consciousness: both sanctuaries are described as places of worship (or literally of “prostration”), that is, as “masjid” (mosque), but while one represents Muhammad’s sacred homeland, the other represents, perhaps, the most distant point Muhammad had traveled to, or at least the furthest place in which he had performed “prostration” (sajdah). It is, therefore, the furthest point to which Muhammad had personally carried the Islamic prayer, since Muhammad is said to have prayed with prostration amid the ruins of the Temple before beginning his ascent to heaven.

It is through this event that Muhammad comes to understand most clearly that the revelation he is receiving, and the religious mission he had been given, were part of the larger heritage of Judaism and Christianity—since he meets both Moses and Jesus in his encounter. Perhaps even more significant for our study here, however, is that after his return from this miraculous journey, and for approximately five years thereafter, Muhammad and his followers directed their daily prayer in the direction of Jerusalem, the sacred center of both Judaism and Christianity. Although the direction of prayer is later returned to the direction of Mecca and the Ka`bah, Jerusalem has always remained a sacred and highly symbolic site in Islamic consciousness as the point of mystical ascent (as it certainly does in Christianity as well). In Islamic mysticism, Jerusalem, or more properly, the “celestial Jerusalem,” is often a symbolic element in mystical allegories and visions. [24] This sacred polarity between Mecca and Jerusalem will eventually form an important element and motif in Islamic eschatological narratives, as we will see.

Medina as Middle Point between Two Sacred Centers

If Jerusalem can be said to exist in polar relationship to Mecca in Islamic consciousness, it is also hierarchically the third of three sacred cities in Islam, following Mecca and also Medina, the Prophet’s adopted city, and the site of the first independent Islamic religious polity. A widely-reported hadith attributed to Muhammad enjoins his followers to undertake special journeys (pilgrimages) only to three sacred places: Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem (usually understood in hierarchical order). [25] Thus, Medina is usually considered second only to Mecca as a sacred site in Islam and of greater importance to Muslims than Jerusalem.

Medina as such is not mentioned directly in the Qur’an as a sacred site, and certainly does not possess the miraculous nature of either Mecca or Jerusalem as points of direct contact with the Divine, but it is nonetheless considered sanctified by the very presence of Muhammad himself. [26] For Muhammad not only made Medina his home, and established the first truly Islamic society there, he also chose to die there. When Mecca was finally conquered eight years after Muhammad had left the city, he cleansed the Ka`bah of its idols, rededicated it to the worship of the one God, instructed its inhabitants on proper Islamic lifestyle, and then returned to Medina, where he would live out the remaining two years of his life. As sacred as Mecca was, and despite the fact that it was his native city, the city of his ancestors, the city in which he received the first revelation, and the city of the sacred Ka`bah, he chose not to settle in and occupy the city. He left it as a sacred site of pilgrimage and returned to Medina. In a series of hadith traditions on the merits of Medina, the Prophet declares that he invoked God’s protection on the city and declared it a sanctuary (?aram) like Mecca in that weapons were not to be used in the city and one was not to hunt within its limits. [27] In this way, he makes his actions analogous to those of Abraham who implored God to make Mecca a “region of security” for his family that he had settled there, and therefore brought about its protected status. It is also important to mention that during the heroic early years of Islamic settlement in Medina, the city was the focus of Islamic communal identity, insofar as anyone who wished to join Muhammad’s religious community was required to “settle” in (that is, to make hijrah to) Medina. Those who submitted to the religious message of Muhammad and the Qur’an, but did not come to settle in Medina, were considered only marginal members of the community, who enjoyed no rights to protection or alliance with the Medinan Muslims. [28] This was a temporary connection, however, since once Mecca, and shortly thereafter, much of the Arabian Peninsula, came within the fold of Islam, the requirement of hijrah to Medina was removed.

But Medina is not just the middle “second” between Mecca and Jerusalem (the first and third holiest cities in Islam), but is also geographically situated between these two other cities, and represents both symbolically and historically the tension between these two other sacred centers. It is in Medina that Muhammad finds himself torn between his native city of Mecca and its sacred sanctuary—on which he has had to, in effect, “turn his back,” and to which he cannot yet return—and Jerusalem, his new direction of worship, and the concomitant sense of relationship to the Jewish and Christian traditions that prayer in that direction represents. But in Medina he finds himself rejected by representatives of the very Jewish heritage that is symbolized in his prayer toward Jerusalem. And while reports indicate that the Jews of Medina were initially pleased with Muhammad while the direction of the prayer was Jerusalem, they turned against him determinedly when Muhammad received the divine commandment to redirect his prayer to the sacred sanctuary in Mecca. Moreover, some nominal converts to Islam—known in Qur’anic and Islamic tradition as the “hypocrites”, some of whom were converts from Judaism—apparently reneged on their belief in Muhammad and Islam after this change, and some of his followers lost faith in his status as divine messenger:

The foolish of the people will say: What has turned them from the qiblah which they formerly observed? Say: Unto God belong the East and the West. He guides whom He wills unto a straight path. Thus We have appointed you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses against mankind, and that the Messenger may be a witness against you. 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 God guided. But it was not God’s purpose that your faith should be in vain, for God is Full of Pity, Merciful toward mankind. We have seen the turning of your face to heaven (for guidance, O Muhammad). And now verily We shall make you turn (in prayer) toward a qiblah which is dear to you. So turn your face toward the Inviolable Place of Worship, and you (O Muslims), wheresoever you may be, turn your faces (when you pray) toward it. Lo! Those who have received the Scripture know that (this revelation) is the Truth from their Lord. And God is not unaware of what they do. And even if you brought unto those who have received the Scripture all kinds of portents, they would not follow your qiblah, nor can you be a follower of their qiblah; nor are some of them followers of the qiblah of others. And if you should follow their desires after the knowledge which has come unto you, then surely you would be among the evil-doers. Those unto whom We gave the Scripture recognize (this revelation) as they recognize their sons. But lo! a party of them knowingly conceal the truth…. And each one has a goal toward which he turns; so vie with one another in good works. Wheresoever you may be, God will bring you all together. Lo! God is Able to do all things. (2:142-146, 148)

While these Qur’anic verses do not indicate terrible animosity between Muhammad and the Jewish population of Medina—they have their qiblah and you have yours, to each their own goal—it did emphasize that Islam was a religion distinct from Judaism or Christianity, and that a key element of its difference with these two was its deep and abiding attachment to the Arabian Abrahamic heritage that Mecca and the Ka`bah represented.

The Concept of Sacred Land and Sacred Centers in Islam

From our discussion of these three sacred places in Islam, it should be clear that although there is certainly a concept of “sacred land” in Islam, it is not an analogous concept to the idea of the Promised Land in Judaism. In its Judaic context, the sacred Land of Canaan is given as a birthright to the Israelites. Whether they possess it or not, it is theirs in principle, and as Aryeh Cohen makes clear in his paper, passages of scripture convey a clear commandment to “settle the land” and therefore to realize this birthright in actuality, although the meaning of this command and its applicability in the time of the Diaspora is debated among rabbinic authorities. Those without familiarity with the Qur’an, and with the ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians in mind, might be surprised to learn that the Qur’an also reports that the Israelites were granted the right to a portion of land (not specifically located, geographically or by name) [29] by God, suggesting a Qur’anic endorsement of the Judaic concept of the “Promised Land”:

And We caused the folk who were despised [the Jews recently liberated from slavery in Egypt] to inherit the eastern parts of the land and the western parts thereof which We had blessed. And the fair word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of their endurance; and We annihilated (all) that Pharaoh and his folk had done and that they had contrived. (7:137)

And We said unto the Children of Israel after [Pharaoh]: Dwell in the land; but when the promise of the Hereafter comes to pass We shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations. (17:104)

The tafsir traditions further emphasize the divine ordainment of this land to the Israelites, reporting that God had inscribed this land for the Israelites in the mystical “Preserved Tablet”—which contains God’s decree from all eternity—and that it was given to them as a gift from God for them to dwell in and settle to the exclusion of local tyrants. [30] Yet, Jerusalem/Canaan, unlike Mecca, is not necessarily a place immune from violence (although Islamic tradition does refer to the sacred site in Jerusalem as a h?aram), for the Qur’an also records God’s commandment to the Israelites in the desert to fight for this land and to wrest it from its existing inhabitants:

O my people! Go into the holy land which God has ordained for you. Turn not in flight, for surely you turn back as losers: They said: O Moses! Lo! a giant people (dwell) therein and lo! we go not in till they go forth from thence. When they go forth from thence, then we will enter. Then out spoke two of those who feared (their Lord, men) unto whom God had been gracious: Enter in upon them by the gate, for if you enter by it, lo! you will be victorious. So put your trust (in God) if you are indeed believers. They said: O Moses! We will never enter (the land) while they are in it. So go, you and your Lord, and fight! We will sit here. [Moses] said: My Lord! I have control of none but myself and my brother, so distinguish between us and the wrong-doing folk. (Their Lord) said: For this the land will surely be forbidden them for forty years that they will wander in the earth, bewildered. So grieve not over the wrongdoing folk. (5:21-26) [31]

While here the Qur’an includes an account of the Israelites’ unwillingness to enter the Promised Land and fight for it, out of fear of its current inhabitants, the Qur’an only states that this resulted in their being prohibited from entering the land for forty years, and the tafsir traditions report that when this time had elapsed, they were able to settle the land through God’s help. The Qur’an, however, does appear to refer to the two destructions of the Jewish Temple and connects these with the presence of religious corruption among the Israelites (as do the Jewish sources, although only regarding the destruction of the first Temple):

And We decreed for the Children of Israel in the scripture: You verily will work corruption in the earth twice, and you will become great tyrants. So when the time for the first of the two came, We roused against you servants of Ours of great might who ravaged your habitations, and it was a promise fulfilled. Then We gave you once again your turn against them, and We aided you with wealth and children and made you great in number, (Saying): If you do good you do good for your own souls, and if you do evil, it is for them in like manner. So, when the time for the second comes, they make your faces wretched, and enter the masjid [a word meaning “mosque” or “place of prostration” but presumably meaning the Temple], even as they entered it the first time, and lay waste to all that they conquer with an utter wasting. It may be that your Lord will have mercy on you but if you repeat (the crime) We shall repeat (the punishment)… [32]

While the Qur’an does place the responsibility for this destruction on the shoulders of the Israelites themselves, it is clear that in neither case do the moral failings of the Israelites lead to an explicit revocation of their right to the land, nor does this destruction exclude them from God’s forgiveness and mercy—since the passage reports that God strengthens and restores the Israelites after the first destruction, and it leaves open the possibility that he may do that again after the second.

There are some passages that consider this same land to be holy or blessed for all people or in a universal way; [33] however the notion of a universally blessed land is actually much more in evidence in the Qur’anic descriptions of the Islamic holy site of Mecca. For while the Qur’an seems to endorse the exclusive claim of the Israelites to land that God had given them (at least historically), and reports that God had commanded them to occupy and settle it, the Qur’an makes no such suggestions with regard to Mecca, for example. Moreover, as spiritually significant as Jerusalem was in the life of the Prophet, the Qur’an gives no order that Muslims should settle or occupy this land. Hath traditions attributed to the Prophet merely suggest that Muslims should visit the site and pray there, if possible, and that if this is not possible, they should send donations for its maintenance. [34] Jerusalem was, however, conquered along with the rest of the Syrian and Palestinian territories in 638. The reigning caliph at the time, `Umar b. al-Khat?t??b, was famously reluctant to leave Medina, despite the massive conquest of territory achieved during his tenure. Historical accounts, however, report that he made a special journey outside the Arabian peninsula to see this sacred site and to personally arrange the terms of the city’s surrender, at the request of its Christian inhabitants. It is said that he was spiritually moved by being at the site of the Holy of Holies (referred to as the mihr?b, or prayer niche, of David) and prayed there, but was also profoundly dismayed to see that the Temple had been piled with garbage by its Byzantine inhabitants; he immediately began removing the refuse himself with his own two hands and commanded his attendants and companions to do the same. [35] It is only in later times, and under the dynastic leadership of the Umayyads, that the Dome of the Rock was built as an Islamic monument on the site.

In the case of Mecca itself, Muhammad is eager to bring the city within the fold of Islam and to purify the Ka`bah of its idolatrous statues and ornaments and rededicate it to the worship of the one God. At the end of Muhammad’s life, and in one of the latest chapters of the Qur’an to be revealed ( surah 9: Tawbah), a decree is issued that idolaters and polytheists are no longer to enter the purified city or participate in the annual pilgrimage. [36] Yet even in this case, Muhammad feels no imperative to personally occupy or dwell within the city. He is content that it remain a place of pilgrimage for himself and that its inhabitants accept Islam. For as sacred as Mecca is, the ritual and spiritual life of Islam is not tied symbolically to dwelling in any geographical location, as it is, for example, in ancient Israelite religion (“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”) [37] or in Hinduism, with the concept of India as sacred motherland, and the idea sometimes expressed that one can only really practice Hinduism in India. In Islam, however, this is not the case; rather, as one hadith says, addressing Muslims: “The whole earth has been made a mosque for you.” [38] This might be interpreted as a reference to a kind of Islamic manifest destiny, but can also be understood to mean that all the earth is sacred and sanctified, precisely because every point on earth can be a locus for the communing of the divine and the human in prayer. Note that when the qiblah is changed from Jerusalem to Mecca, the Qur’an responds to those who question the change by saying: “Unto God belong the East and the West!,” and elsewhere “To God belong the East and the West, so wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God,” [39] and “Piety is not that you turn your faces to the East or the West, rather piety belongs to those who have faith in God and the Last Day….” [40] Moreover, not being in a sacred land or even in a territory in which religion is respected is, from the Qur’anic point of view, no excuse for shortcomings in ritual practice or belief, unlike in the Judaic case, where certain mitzvot could or should only be performed in the Promised Land. In one Qur’anic passage, a group of people come before God on Judgment Day, trying to excuse their lack of belief or religious practice by arguing that they “were oppressed in the land.” The Qur’anic retort comes back unsympathetically, “Was God’s earth not wide enough for you that you might migrate (elsewhere)?” [41] Note that this is exactly what Muhammad did in leaving the sacred center of Mecca for the unknown Medina.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact that of the sacred places in the Qur’an, it is Mecca that is most often designated as a sacred place for humanity as a whole, rather than for Muslims in particular. While we saw the example of the sacred land given to the Israelites being described as “blessed for all the worlds” (21:71), it is the Ka`bah in Mecca, and Mecca itself, which is repeatedly designated as a sacred place of universal significance for mankind, as we already read in the verse quoted above:

Lo! the first Sanctuary (bayt) appointed for mankind was that at Becca, a blessed place, a guidance for mankind; wherein are plain memorials (of God’s guidance); the place where Abraham stood up to pray; and whosoever enters it is safe. And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto God for mankind, for him who can find a way there. As for him who disbelieves, (let him know that) lo! God is Independent of (all) creatures. (3:96-97)

While the Qur’an here seems to say that the sanctuary at Mecca (or Becca) is a place of spiritual guidance and pilgrimage for “all mankind,” this suggestion is largely ignored in the traditional commentaries on this passage. Yet, other verses seem to confirm the Ka`bah’s universal status as a sanctuary and a haven from violence:

God has appointed the Ka’bah, the Sacred House, a support for mankind, and the Sacred Month and the offerings and the garlands. That is so that you may know that God knows whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth, and that God is Knower of all things. (5:97)

Here, too, the traditional commentaries avoid any discussion of the Ka`bah’s universal status — with one line of commentary suggesting that the sacred house and sacred month were intended as a support and a sanctuary for the pre-Islamic Arabs, and, in particular, as a place of refuge from their internecine warfare. [42] Elsewhere, the Qur’an makes it clear that even from the time of Abraham, the House at Mecca has represented a sacred place for all people, with Abraham having been instructed to proclaim the pilgrimage there to all mankind:

And remember when We prepared for Abraham the place of the House, saying: Ascribe no thing as partner unto Me, and purify My House for those who go round it and those who stand and those who bow and make prostration. And proclaim unto mankind the pilgrimage. They will come unto you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every deep ravine. (22:26-27) [italics in original or added?]

The universal nature of the Ka`bah’s sanctity suggested in this Qur’anic passage is further reinforced by tafsir traditions that assert that when Abraham made this call to the pilgrimage at God’s behest, the mountains lowered themselves so that the proclamation would reach to all of the earth, such that even those not yet born (that is, those still in the “wombs and the loins” of their parents) would hear. [43]

Yet, another Qur’anic verse, which asserts that the Meccan h?aram was appointed for all humankind, has been understood in the commentaries to mean that although those who live in and dwell around the h?aram have a right to their property, they do not have the right to bar others from performing the rights of pilgrimage to the Ka`bah:

Lo! those who disbelieve and bar (men) from the way of God and from the Inviolable Place of Worship, which We have appointed for all mankind —both the dweller therein and the nomad: whosoever seeks wrongful partiality therein, We shall cause him to taste a painful doom. (22:25)

What (plea) have they that God should not punish them, when they debar (His servants) from the Inviolable Place of Worship, though they are not its fitting guardians. Its fitting guardians are those only who keep their duty to God. But most of them know not. (8:34)

These it was who disbelieved and debarred you from the Inviolable Place of Worship, and debarred the offering from reaching its goal. And if it had not been for believing men and believing women, whom you know not – lest you should tread them under foot and thus incur guilt for them unknowingly; that God might bring into His mercy whom He will – If (the believers and the disbelievers) had been clearly separated We verily had punished those of them who disbelieved with painful punishment….God has fulfilled the vision for His messenger in very truth. You shall indeed enter the Inviolable Place of Worship, if God wills, secure, (having your hair) shaven and cut, not fearing. But He knows that which you know not, and has given you a near victory beforehand. (48:25,27)

Islamic tafsir tradition reports that these verses were meant as a reproach to the pagan Meccans who refused the Medinan Muslims entrance into the sanctuary to perform pilgrimage two years before it was eventually brought under Muslim control. [44] In a similar vein, the Qur’an chastises those who would prevent the devotees of God from entering any sacred place:

And who does greater wrong than he who forbids the approach to the sanctuaries of God lest His name should be mentioned therein, and strives for their ruin. As for such, it was never meant that they should enter them except in fear. Theirs in the world is ignominy and theirs in the Hereafter is an awful doom. (2:114)

In most Qur’anic commentaries, this passage is considered to be a reproach to the Christians for prohibiting the Jews from approaching their Temple, and for working toward its destruction. [45]

In fact, the Qur’an speaks about the importance of protecting and defending all places of monotheistic worship, including “cloisters,” “churches,” “oratories” (sometimes understood to mean synagogues), and mosques, an idea which some Muslims have taken to mean that it was their duty to protect and defend the sacred places of the People of the Book, as well as their own, since they all represented sanctuaries dedicated to the one God:

Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and God is indeed Able to give them victory; Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is God – For had it not been for God’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of God is often mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. Verily God helps one who helps Him. Lo! God is Strong, Almighty. (22:39-40)

In the Qur’an, all monotheistic centers of worship and all monotheist devotees seem to have a protected status; it is only the idolaters who are explicitly prohibited from entering the Meccan sanctuary, according to the Qur’an:

It is not for the idolaters to tend God’s sanctuaries, bearing witness against themselves of disbelief. As for such, their works are vain and in the Fire they will abide. He only shall tend God’s sanctuaries who believes in God and the Last Day and observes proper worship and pays the poor-due and fears none save God. For such (only) is it possible that they can be of the rightly guided. (9:17-18)

O you who believe! The idolaters only are unclean. So let them not come near the Inviolable Place of Worship after this their year. If you fear poverty (from the loss of their merchandise) God shall preserve you of His bounty if He will. Lo! God is Knower, Wise. (9:28)

Yet, certainly, Islamic authorities did later make some Christian places of worship into mosques; and, at the same time, Islam came to see both Mecca and Medina as sanctuaries to which Muslims exclusively were allowed entrance. Less than a decade after Muhammad’s death, `Umar would order the entire Arabian peninsula to be designated a land exclusively for Muslims, with the Jewish and Christian residents being resettled elsewhere in Islamic territory. `Umar claims that this was something Muhammad himself intended to do, but there is certainly nothing in the Qur’an itself to suggest this.

Sacred Land in Islamic Eschatological Narratives

In Islamic eschatological narratives, the spiritual and historical significance of various geographical locations and cities came to form an important element in messianic predictions about the end-times. These narratives all belong to the Islamic hadith tradition, and have no basis in the Qur’an itself. Moreover, the narratives do not agree among themselves, reveal a sharp contrast between Sunnis and Shi’ites on this issue, and readily display a polemical and political connection with particular events in early Islamic history. In addition to the well-known Islamic dictum that no one knows the future (which is part of the ghayb, or Unseen) except God, including the Prophet Muhammad—something that might be used to discredit such hadith narratives a priori —many of these narratives also include historical predictions that have long shown themselves to be false. Scholars such as Wilferd Madelung, Michael Cook, and Suliman Bashear have attempted to show the rather shallow connection these narratives and predictions sometimes have to the political and military struggles facing the Islamic community in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. For example, in the late 7th century, the Islamic community was confronting internal strife in the form of a second civil war pitting the Umayyad dynasty, which was based in Syria, and therefore in control of Jerusalem, against the Zubayrids, based in the Arabian Hijaz, and occupying the sanctuary in Mecca. This struggle, which lasted for the better part of ten years, may have indeed seemed like the end of the world to many in the Islamic community, and it focused attention on these two holy cities—with the Umayyads at one point attacking the Zubayrid leader in the Meccan sanctuary itself, [46] while they simultaneously built up the sacred site in Jerusalem. While `Umar was profoundly dismayed to see the ruins of the Temple, and reportedly gave instructions to have a Muslim mosque built on the site—but separate from the sacred rock and the ancient Holy of Holies itself—it is only in the time of the Umayyad rule of `Abd al-Malik b. Marw?n, engaged in this battle against the Zubayrids in Mecca, that the building of the Dome of the Rock is undertaken. This may well have been done, in part, to create another sacred center within Umayyad control that would rival the h?aram of Mecca. At the same time, Muslims were engaged throughout the 7th and early 8th centuries in external military engagements with the Christian Byzantines, and some of the eschatological narratives that contain directed anti-Christian polemic may well have been influenced by these ongoing struggles and confrontations. Moreover, the Dome of the Rock, as is well known, is also inscribed largely with Qur’anic verses that assert the Islamic view of the nature of Jesus over the Christian views of Trinity and sonship. To this extent, the building itself serves something of a polemical function vis-à-vis the Byzantine Christians with whom this dynasty was engaged in territorial wars.

Most Islamic eschatological narratives include the return of Jesus to kill the Dajjal (the Muslim name for the Antichrist). This struggle is often depicted as occurring in the area around Jerusalem, and according to a number of hadith, the Dajj?l will not be permitted or able to enter the sacred sanctuaries of Mecca or Medina. [47] The divine protection of Mecca, as asserted in the Qur’an, is understood to make it impervious to the great evil of the Dajjal ; and numerous hadith glorifying Medina assert a similar divine protection for this ?aram as well. These same eschatological narratives often go on to assert that after the killing of the Dajjal, Jesus will undertake a series of actions designed to undermine many of the particular rites and rituals belonging to Christianity and show his deference to the Islamic message. To this end, a well-known eschatological hadith has Jesus not only killing the Dajjal, but also breaking the crosses and killing the swine, and praying according to the Islamic rite in Jerusalem. [48] It is easy to see how these predicted events serve to set the final seal upon notions of Islam’s supercession of the Christian revelation, especially given the political context in which they almost certainly emerged. Similar polemical references to particular geographical areas can be seen in Shi`ite eschatological narratives, wherein it is the Shi`ite Mahd? who will alone, or sometimes in conjunction with Jesus, lead the final battles of the end times. In Shi`ite narratives, the Mahd? will start out from Mecca, like the tragic third Imam, H?usayn b. `Al?, and make his way to Iraq. Various Shi`ite traditions focus on either Karbala or Kufa (the sites of the martyrdoms of H?usayn and `Al?, respectively) specifically, as the base of the Mahd? as he fights the final battle. [49] What is interesting in these varying Sunni and Shi`ite eschatological traditions, is that both have their geographical focus on cities or areas of historical and religious contention—as if to revisit and/or rectify these earlier struggles—while the cities of Mecca and Medina, despite their spiritual significance, retain their Qur’anically and Prophetically endorsed status as protected sanctuaries, largely immune from the struggles of end times.

Yet, the fact that most Islamic eschatological narratives are set in or around Jerusalem, rather than Mecca, has a powerful spiritual symbolism, deeply rooted in the traditions about Muhammad’s Night Journey, but not necessarily tied to merely polemical or political struggles. The Islamic eschatological focus on Jerusalem reprises Muhammad’s journey there during his late Meccan years, for it is only in Jerusalem that Muhammad receives the instructions for the very prayer that these eschatological narratives claim Jesus will perform; it is only in Jerusalem that Muhammad experiences himself in the community of all of the prophets, including Adam, Abraham, and Moses, as well as Jesus. Mecca, as the center of pure Abrahamic monotheism, represents the origin in the wilderness, the pure and innocent monotheism of the desert, and the primordial “milk” which Muhammad chooses over the aged “wine” when the two are offered him before his final ascent through the heavens; while Jerusalem represents the “farthest mosque,” the future, the point of completion and closure. It is the place where the religions come together, where they are finally shown to be one, as indicated in the Qur’anic verses which suggest both the providential differences between the monotheistic religions and their eventual reconciliation:

And each one has a goal toward which he turns; so vie with one another in good works. Wheresoever you may be, God will bring you all together. Lo! God is Able to do all things.(2:148)

And unto you (Muhammad) have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it, and a watcher over it. So judge between them by that which God has revealed, and follow not their desires away from the truth which has come unto you. For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had God willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He has given you (He has made you as you are). So vie with one with another in good works. Unto God you will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein you differ. (5:48)

Eschatologically speaking, where else could all these religions meet at the end of all things, but in their common sacred center in Jerusalem?

The polar relationship between Jerusalem and Mecca in the Islamic perspective occurs not only on the plane of sacred geography, but also on the plane of sacred history or sacred time. In extra-Qur’anic Islamic tradition, Mecca is associated with the origins of the earth itself, or at least with the unified origins of earthly religious life in the primordial practices of Adam, which reflected his sense of exile and his nostalgia for the paradisal home, still in his conscious memory. The city’s intimate association with Abraham—reinforced by the hajj pilgrimage rites, all of which have direct or symbolic connection to the history of Abraham and his family in this region—further emphasizes the primordiality and purity of Mecca as the origin of all monotheistic worship. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the site of the “farthest mosque;” it is the place where Muhammad sees his religion, originating in the distant Arabian desert, as ultimately united with the religions of all the prophets; and it is the location of the final eschatological events, which, it is believed, will not only result in the triumph of religion once and for all against the forces of evil, but which will also achieve a final unity of the religions and so complete the arc of spiritual history, begun in Mecca but completing itself in Jerusalem.


[1] Qur’an 5:2 (all Qur’anic passages are adapted from the translation of M.M. Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an). One of the first altercations between the Muslim émigrés in Medina and their pagan former kinsmen in Mecca involved a Muslim attack on a Meccan trade caravan during one of the sacred months. In responding to the criticism Muslims received for this violation, the Qur’an asserts that fighting during the sacred month is indeed a serious offense, but that religious oppression and driving people from their homes was an even more serious one, which needed to be addressed, if need be, even in the sacred months (Qur’an 2:217). While this event and its Qur’anic response seem to make an exception to the laws governing sacred months in order to defend and establish the religion in the face of its pagan enemies, it is the “exception that proves the rule,” since it simultaneously acknowledges and confirms the importance of this sacred time, generally speaking.
[2] Zamakhshar? reports in his commentary, al-Kashsh?f (4 vols., ed. M.A. Shah?n, Beirut: D?r al-Kutub al-`Arabiyyah, 1995, v. 1, p. 378), that after Abraham, the Ka`bah was later rebuilt by the Jurhum tribe among the Arabs (who reportedly settled in Mecca at the time Hagar and Ishmael were there), and then later by the `Am?liqah, and finally by Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh.
[3] See Qur’an 2:125; 3:96-97, 5:2.
[4] See Qur’an 14:37.
[5] See Qur’an 22:29, 33.
[6] Qur’an 3:96-97.
[7] See &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n (30 vols., ed. &#7778idq? Jam?l al-`A&#7789&#7789?r), Beirut: D?r al-Fikr, 1995, v. 4, p. 11; Qur&#7789ub?, Tafsir (10 vols., ed. A. Minsh?w?), Cairo: Maktabat al-?m?n, n.d., v. 3, p. 54; Ibn Kath?r, Tafsir al-Qur’?n al-`a&#7827?m (4 vols.) Damascus: Maktabat D?r al-F?h?’, 1998, v. 1, p. 509; Zamakhshar?, al-Kashsh?f, v. 1, p. 378.
[8] &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 4, p. 12; see also Qurt?ub?, Tafsir, v. 3, p. 54, where a tradition asserts that the Ka`bah was created and sent down at the time of the creation of the earth itself; and another asserts that the Ka`bah existed prior ot the creation of Adam, and that the angels themselves used to circumambulate it; and Zamakhshar?, al-Kashsh?f (v. 1, p. 378), where it is also said that the Ka`bah was created 1000 years before the earth.
[9] &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 4, p. 12.
[10] See Brannon Wheeler, Mecca and Eden, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, pp. 64-67.
[11] &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 4, pp. 11-12; Zamakhshar?, al-Kashsh?f, v. 1, p. 379.
[12] See Qur’an 105 (surat al-Fil), which recounts God’s miraculous protection of Mecca and the Ka`bah from invading tribes to the south and Qur’an 106 (surat al-Quraysh), which enjoins the tribe of Quraysh, who were in control of Mecca, to worship the “Lord of the House” who had “fed them against hunger and made them safe from fear.”
[13] Qur’an 3:96.
[14] Qur’an 27:91 refers to “this land which He has hallowed (or made sacred)” (h?dhahi’l-baladati alladh? ?arramah?).
[15] Qur’an 2:125-126, 95:3, 28:57, 29:67.
[16] Qur’an 14:35.
[17] Qur’an 29:67.
[18] Qur’an 3:97.
[19] Qur’an 5:2.
[20] See &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 4, pp. 17-19; Ibn Kath?r, Tafsir, v. 1, p. 510.
[21] In some traditions, Muhammad states that he was given a temporary reprieve to exact punishment on some criminals after the conquest of Mecca, but that for all time both before and after that day, it was ordained by God as a place of safety and refuge for all. See, for example, Bukh?r?, S?ah??h?, v. 1, book 3, h. 104.
[22] See &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 4, p. 13; Qurt?ub?, Tafsir, v. 3, p. 54; Ibn Kath?r, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-`az??m, v. 1, p. 509; Zamakhshar?, al-Kashsh?f, v. 1, p. 378.
[23] See, e.g., &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 15, pp. 21-25.
[24] See, e.g., Ibn S?n?’s allegory &#7716ayy b. Yaqz??n, in H. Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (trans. W. Trask), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990, p. 137.
[25] See Bukh?r?, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, v. 2, book 21, h. 281, 288; v. 3, book 29, h. 87 and book 31, h. 315.
[26] Medina is, however, referred to by its old name, Yathrib, in one passage of the Qur’an where the hypocrites try to persuade the men of “Yathrib” to turn away from the Prophet during the siege of Medina (Qur’an 33:13).
[27] See in general, Bukh?r?, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, book 30 (K. Fad??’il Mad?nah), and also book 55, h. 586, where the Prophet declares that he has made Medina a sanctuary through his prayer on its behalf, just as Abraham had made Mecca a sanctuary through his prayer for the latter.
[28] See Qur’an 8:72.
[29] Different tafsir traditions list different areas as the land promised to the Israelites. These include: Mount Sinai and its environs; the regions of Syria, Palestine and Jordan; and Jericho. T?abar? declares that the matter cannot be settled and says that it refers to some tract of land, somewhere between the Euphrates River and Egypt. See T?abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 6, pp. 234-235.
[30] Ibid., v. 6, p. 234.
[31] See the Biblical parallel in Numbers 13-14.
[32] Qur’an 17:4-8.
[33] Qur’an 21:71, 81.
[34] See Ab? D?w?d, Sunan, book 2, h. 457.
[35] T?abar?, Ta’r?kh al-rusul wa’l-mul?k (Annales, ed. M.J. De Goeje), Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964, I: 2408-2409.
[36] Qur’an 9:17-18, 28.
[37] Psalms 137:4. Also, certain mitzvot cannot be accomplished outside of the Promised Land, as Aryeh Cohen mentions in his paper.
[38] See, e.g., Muslim, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, book 4, h. 1057.
[39] Qur’an 2:115. The early community differed on the meaning of this statement: some asserted that this came in response to the criticism of the Jews about the change in the direction of prayer from Jerusalem (which they considered the proper qiblah ) to Mecca, indicating that God possesses all directions and can assign them as he wishes; others suggested that it meant that a sincere prayer offered in any direction would be accepted by God, based on reports that the Prophet and certain early companions would pray in whichever direction their riding camel was facing, while on journey; others claimed that this was to allay the fears that some early Muslims had about their fellow Muslims who had died before the qiblah had been changed, and assure them that their fellow believers who had died praying toward Jerusalem without having prayed toward Mecca would still be accepted by God; finally some argued that this meant that God possesses all earthly territory—East and West—and so in whichever you find yourself, turn toward the qiblah of the Ka`bah and your prayer will be accepted (see T?abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 1, pp. 700-704.
[40] Qur’an 2:177.
[41] Qur’an 4:97.
[42] See &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 7, p. 104.
[43] See Ibn Kath?r, Tafsir al-Qur’?n al-`a&#7827?m, v. 3, p. 290. See also, Qur&#7789ub?, Tafsir, v. 7, p. 95.
[44] &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 17, p. 181; Ibn Kath?r, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-`a&#7827?m, v. 3, p. 287; Qur&#7789ub?, Tafsir, v. 7, p. 90.
[45] &#7788abar?, J?mi` al-bay?n, v. 1, p. 696; another opinion found here asserts that this refers to both the Christians and the Babylonian Nebechudnezzar in their actions toward the Jewish Temple (pp. 696-697). Another opinion considers the statement made in the verse to be a general one. In other words, its immediate referent may be the destruction of the Jewish Temple, but the ruling is universal, in that it applies to anyone who would attempt to bar the way to, or to destroy, the places wherein God is worshipped (see Zamakhshar?, al-Kashsh?f, v. 1, pp. 178-179).
[46] This event seems to be the basis of eschatological traditions the predict the destruction or burning of the Ka`bah before the end of time (see Muslim, S?a&#7717?&#7717, book 41, h. 7023, 7024).
[47] Bukh?r?, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, v. 3, book 30, h. 103-106; Muslim, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, book 7, 3186-3187; book 41, 6994-6996. According to other traditions, however, the Prophet envisioned the presence of the Dajjal in the &#7717aram of Mecca itself (see Bukh?r?, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, v. 4, book 55, h. 649; Muslim, &#7778a&#7717?&#7717, book 1, h. 323-325).
[48] Ab? D?w?d, Sunan, book 37, h. 4310; see also A. Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, Albany: SUNY Press, 1981, pp. 171-172.
[49] See A. Sachedina, Islamic Messianism, pp. 159-163.