Sacred Orientation: The Qibla As Ritual, Metaphor, And Identity Marker In Early Islam

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations
Early Islam
Muslim-Jewish Relations
Sacred Geography
Islamic Studies
Islamic World and Near East History
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Scholars of early Islam often take for granted the title of this study—that facing the qibla (i.e. the geographic direction of worship) is an important Islamic ritual and that Muḥammad’s turn toward the Kaʿba after facing Jerusalem for prayer marked the identity of his nascent community. This postulate is rarely questioned, but the mechanisms by which the qibla expressed and inscribed a collective Islamic identity remain largely unexplored. Rather, study of Islam’s sacred direction tends to focus on either historical reconstruction of Islamic origins or on the science of qibla-calculation. The former seeks to question or establish the location of the original qibla, while the latter examines the mathematics, astronomy, and cartography used to ascertain the direction of prayer with growing precision from around the Muslim oikumene. This dissertation probes, instead, the discursive and ritual processes through which qibla-rhetoric and qibla-practice fostered a sense of group belonging and marked boundaries between Islam and other religious communities (mainly Christians and Jews). Through four interlocking projects—spanning Islam’s emergence in Late Antiquity through the Early Middle Ages—this study explicates the subtle ways in which the qibla served as a potent and durable symbol in the construction of Islamic collective identity. Chapter 1 considers the Qurʿān’s presentation of the qibla (Q Baqara 2:142-150) as part of the late antique discourse around liturgical orientation and group identity in the Near East. Chapter 2 explores the semantic usage of the term “People of the Qibla” (ahl al-qibla) to express a kind of “big-tent” view of Islamic community, and traces its earliest recorded usage to Iraq in the late Umayyad period. Chapter 3 studies scholarly (and often polemical discussions of abrogation (naskh) among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the tenth century, where a change in the qibla became a metaphor for divine election of one people over others. The final chapter takes up the interpretive challenge of supposedly misaligned mosques and what they may tell us about the formative period of Islam. This study concludes by reflecting on the challenges of examining collective identity in premodern societies, and we propose three lenses for doing so that can benefit scholars of early Islam: namely, that we study identity as imagined, identity as a process, and identity as inexhaustible.

Joseph E. Lowry
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