In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
In today's Chicago Tribune, reporter Ron Grossman wrote an interesting article about the intersection between religion and politics throughout history, and it was quite fascinating. He spoke about Henry IV, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and other religious groups that have changed their religious positions due to political considerations.
I guess to be "fair," he spoke about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He wrote that: "Islam's founder made a couple of theological U-turns as well. Seeing himself as a prophet in the Old Testament tradition, Muhammad instructed his followers to direct their prayers toward Jerusalem. But the Jews of Arabia rejected his teaching, and Muhammad revised that spiritual compass -- and Muslims now face Mecca during prayer."
Quite an interesting observation...but inaccurate in its implication. Indeed, the first direction of prayer, or qiblah, was Jerusalem. Yet, in the Prophet's heart, he desired that the direction of prayer be Mecca, being the city of Abraham, and that the Prophet (pbuh) was sent to revive the religion of Abraham. The Prophet, in fact, used to pray in Mecca toward Jerusalem, with the Ka'bah in between him and the Holy Land. God acknowledged this feeling in the Qur'an:
We see the turning of your face to the sky; so We will turn you to a direction of prayer that you will find pleasing. (2:144)
So, after he emigrated to Medinah, the qiblah was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca:
Turn your face to the sacred mosque: wherever you are, turn your faces in its direction. Those to whom the scripture has been given will know that this is the truth from their Lord. And God is not heedless of what they do. (2:144)
On the surface, it would seem that the changing of the direction of prayer was a reaction of the Jews' rejection of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In fact, they mocked him when the command to change the qiblah was revealed, and the Qur'an responds to this mockery:
Ignorant people will say, "What has turned them from the direction of prayer to which they were accustomed?" Say, "To God belong the East and the West: God guides to a straight path whomever God wills. (2:142)
Yet, as can be seen, the change of the qiblah was a commandment by God, not a petty reaction to the rejection of the Jews of Medinah. In fact, God says that He changed the qiblah to test the faith of the Prophet's followers:
And We only established the direction of prayer to which you had been accustomed that We might know those who follow the messenger from those who turn back on their heels. (2:143)
Furthermore, God advises the believers not to heed the mockery of those who do not believe:
Wherever you set out from, turn your face toward the direction of the sacred mosque; and wherever you are, turn your faces in the direction, that the people have no cause of dispute against you, except those of them who have gone wrong. So do not fear them, but fear Me, that I may complete My favor to you, and that you may accept guidance. (2:150)
In addition, Mr. Grossman made another assertion about the Prophet (pbuh): "Muhammad preached that there is only one God. But Mecca, Muhammad's birthplace, had long enjoyed the economic fruits of a pilgrim trade that brought polytheists to worship at the Kaaba. Muhammad seems to have come to similar political-theological conclusions as Henry IV. So as the price of being a prophet honored in his hometown, some historians say, Muhammad allowed the Meccans to continue to host Muslim pilgrims to a one-time polytheistic shrine, theologically refitted in Islamic dress."
Again, interesting, but completely inaccurate. Mecca was the city in which the Prophet Abraham (pbuh) left his wife and infant son (the plain of Paran in the Bible). It is the place where he and his son Ishamel (pbut) later built the Ka'bah, the shrine to which Muslims face for prayer and walk around during the Hajj. The Ka'bah was originally built to honor the One God of all. Over time, however, the people forgot the monotheism of Abraham (pbuh) and later infused the holy shrine with over 360 idols. One of the central missions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was to cleanse Mecca, the city of Abraham, from idol worship. He was sent to revive the monotheism of Abraham (pbuh).
The pilgrimage to Mecca was a tradition long established by Abraham (pbuh) to honor God. The Prophet (pbuh) did not allow the Meccans to continue hosting pilgrims as a "price of being a prophet honored in his hometown." He did it to fulfill the commandment of God.
In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was never honored in his hometown; on the contrary, he was forcibly expelled from his beloved Mecca, only to return almost a decade later as conquerer when the Meccans broke the Treaty of Hudaybiyah. Jesus Christ (pbuh) talked about this, that a prophet is never honored in his hometown: "A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." (Mark 6:4)
So, none of what the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) did was a reaction to temporary political or social circumstances, but rather, fulfillment of the commands of God. Our Prophet (pbuh) took religion much more seriously than that. Our Prophet (pbuh) was not Henry IV.