Old & New
The word Qiblah is used in the Quran to mean a focal point for prayer (as in 10:87) and in a more general sense as a focal point for our Hajj (pilgrimage). We read in 2:143 that God changed the Qiblah, and that in that change there was a test for the followers of the messenger:
"We did not appoint the Qiblah which you were on except to know who follows the messenger and who would turns back on their heels." 2:143
The words "We did not appoint the Qiblah which you were on" asserts that God changed the Qiblah. Note the use of the past tense in the words "which you WERE ON". The Quran gives us the full details of this change in the following words:
"From wherever you set off, you shall turn your face towards the Masjid Al-Haram and wherever you may be, you shall turn your faces towards it" 2:149
The words above confirm that the test set by God for the believers was related to who will follow the new Qiblah (Masjid Al-Haram) and who will disobey the messenger and stay with the old Qiblah.
Moreover, another very important fact emerges from other verses. The Quran indicates that before the Quran was revealed, and probably in the early years of the Revelation as well, there were in fact multiple Qiblah's. Since we know that God appointed previous Qiblah's for other people (as in 10:87) we can say that some of the Qiblah's that were practiced could have been from God, but we can also accept the posibility that some of them may have been man-made. What matters is that the Quran tells us that each people had their own Qiblah as shown below. As a result, in the early years when the prophet received the command to observe the Salat, he was uncertain as to which Qiblah to follow.
1- "Even if you show the followers of the scripture every kind of miracle they will not follow your Qiblah, nor shall you follow their Qiblah. They do not even follow one another's Qiblah" 2:145
This verse confirms that at the time of the prophet there was more than one Qiblah. Different people of the scripture had their own Qiblah. This is evident from the words:
"they do not follow one another's Qiblah"
2- "To each one there is a direction which they follow" 2:148
This verse once again confirms that there was more than one Qiblah.
3- "We inspired Moses and his brother, 'Maintain your homes in Egypt for the time being, turn your homes into Qiblah's, and observe the Salat. Give good news to the believers" 10:87
In this verse we notice that the word used is "Qiblah". We note that the words to turn the homes into Qiblah's are followed by the command to observe the Salat. What this tells us is that word Qiblah speaks of a focal point for prayer.
4- "We have seen you turning your face about the sky. We now assign a Qiblah that is pleasing to you. Henceforth, you shall turn your face towards the Masjid Al-Haram" 2:144
This verse gives the impression of someone who is not able to make up their mind as to which Qiblah to face. The indecision indicates the plurality of the choice (of Qiblah's), if there was only one Qiblah there would be no indecision. The verse also indicates that the indecision was more of a reluctance to follow other people's Qiblah rather than being a problem of establishing one's positional direction. This is confirmed by the words : "We now assign a Qiblah that is pleasing to you". The words "pleasing to you" indicate that prior to that there was something that was displeasing the prophet. In view of the fact that the prophet by then was following the true religion with the guidance of God as opposed to the corrupted idolatry of his enemies, it seems understandable that he would want to disassociate himself from their practices, one of which would be their Qiblah.
Summary of the sequence of events:
1- In pre-Quranic times and during the early years of the revelation, there were multiple Qiblah's. Each people had their own Qiblah. Some may have been set by God, but we cannot discount the chance that some of these Qiblah's may have been man-made.
2- Sometime during the revelation to Muhammad God sets the Qiblah to be the Masjid Al-Haram.
3- The change of Qiblah provided a test set by God for the believers as to who will obey the messenger and follow the new Qiblah and who will insist on following the old Qiblah.
Biblical reference to Qiblah
The Quranic reference to pre-Quranic Qiblah's can be confirmed in Old Testament verses that speak of prayers observed towards specific physical locations:
1- In Daniel 6:10 we read about Daniel (messengers to Israel), who observed three daily prayers. We read how his prayers were done while facing the direction of Jerusalem:
"When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously"
Biblical evidence indicaters that this ritual (Qiblah to Jerusalem) started at the time of Solomon and his father David.
2- In 1 Kings we read how Solomon and his people prayed in the direction of the Temple that he built for God in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:22-44). In these verses Solomon states repeatedly that servants of God, the people of Israel and foreigners, should pray toward the city He has chosen (Jerusalem) and in the direction of the temple he has built there for God's Name; thus the concept of Qiblah.
[1Kgs 8:29] "that thy eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which thou hast said, `My name shall be there,' that thou mayest hearken to the prayer which thy servant offers toward this place"
[1Kgs 8:30] "And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant and of thy people Israel, when they pray toward this place; yea, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest, forgive"
And once again:
[1Kgs 8:35] "When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against thee, if they pray toward this place, and acknowledge thy name, and turn from their sin, when thou dost afflict them"
[1Kgs 8:38] "whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by any man or by all thy people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house"
[1Kgs 8:42] "for they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house"
[1Kgs 8:43] "hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to thee; in order that all the peoples of the earth may know thy name and fear thee, as do thy people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by thy name"
[1Kgs 8:44] "If thy people go out to battle against their enemy, by whatever way thou shalt send them, and they pray to the Lord toward the city which thou hast chosen and the house which I have built for thy name"