Did Abraham Build the Kaaba as Muslims Claim?
The city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the holiest city in Islam. In the city’s center lies a large, cuboid-shaped structure, the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam. Muslims around the world face in the direction of the Kaaba for their daily prayers. One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every able-bodied Muslim to perform a pilgrimage — called Hajj — to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime to circumambulate the Kaaba.
What is it about the Kaaba that makes it so sacred for Muslims? Islam’s holy book, the Quran, claims that Abraham — the same Abraham that we read about in the Bible — along with his son Ishmael, constructed the Kaaba as a place of worship. According to the Quran, Abraham dedicated the Kaaba as the “House of Allah.”
The claim by Muslims that Abraham built the Kaaba is a bold one. By attributing the construction to Abraham, Islam has surreptitiously superseded Judaism by declaring that their holy place was the first to be built to the “one true God.”
Other than the claims of the Quran, however, is there any evidence from Muslims that Abraham built the Kaaba? On the contrary, there are plenty of texts — both within Islamic literature and without — that would cast suspicion on the claim that Abraham built the Kaaba. In addition, historical evidence would lead us to believe that the Kaaba only rose to importance as a place of worship after being venerated by Muhammad, Islam’s prophet.
Problems with Uniqueness
The Kaaba is not unique. Similar shrines existed all over Arabia at the time of Muhammad. One strikingly similar shrine still stands at the al-Kabir Mosque in Yemen. Secular history does not support the Quran’s claim that the Kaaba was ever a place of monotheistic, non-idolatrous worship before Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca in AD 630. The earliest historical reference to the Kaaba is found in the writings of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who, in about 60 BC, described it as a “temple greatly revered by the Arabs.”
Problems with Earlier Religious Texts
There is very little mention in the Quran concerning the founding of the Kaaba – only that it was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael (whom Muslims revere as a prophet and as the father of the Arab nation), and that its location was in Bakkah (which Muslims interpret to be Mecca).
However, the Bible mentions that Ishmael settled in the Desert of Paran (Genesis 21:20-21). Muslims link Paran to the desert region along the coast of the Red Sea in modern-day Saudi Arabia, stretching from the Sinai Peninsula to the area south of Mecca. The dual rationales behind this claim are such: the Hebrew word “Pa’ran” is similar in sound to the Arabic word “Faran,” which is the name of the mountain region near Mecca in the Hijaz; and the Quran claims that Abraham built the Kaaba, and the Kaaba exists in Mecca, so Paran must be the area around Mecca.
However, biblical accounts mention the Desert of Paran on more than one occasion, and place it near Sinai in the southern part of modern-day Israel.
- Genesis 14:5-7 places Paran near Kadesh, and references the Canaanite tribes that lived there.
- Numbers 10:11-13 states that the Israelites were led out of the Sinai Desert and through the Desert of Paran.
- It is recorded in Numbers 12:15-16 that the Israelites encamped in the Desert of Paran.
- Numbers 13:1-3 indicates that the 12 Israelite spies who were to scout out the land of Canaan were sent from the Desert of Paran. They returned to report their findings to the Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran (Numbers 13:25-27).
- Deuteronomy 1:1-2 indicates that Paran is opposite the Arabah Desert (modern-day Jordan), and that it takes only 11 days to travel from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea (which is in Paran).
- David, King of Israel, traveled to the wilderness of Paran after Samuel’s death (1 Samuel 25:1).
- Mount Paran is connected to Teman, which is associated with Edom (modern-day southern Israel and Jordan; Habakkuk 3:3).
- In 1 Kings 11:17-19, Hadad passes through Paran when traveling from Midian to Egypt. Paran is listed as being in the land of the Edomites (modern-day southern Israel and Jordan).
- Ishmael’s descendents settled in the area from Havilah to Thur (home of the Amalekites), near the border of Egypt (Genesis 25:12-18). Ishmael married a woman from Egypt (Genesis 21:13-21).
Given these passages, are we to believe that the Israelites left Egypt and traveled through the wilderness 1,000 km south to Mecca before returning up to Canaan? Or that David traveled down to Mecca after Samuel’s death? Or that Hadad of Edom passed through Mecca to get to Egypt? Or that Ishmael settled in Mecca when biblical accounts have Ishmael’s descendants settling on the border of Egypt?
Problems with Islam
Islamic history states that when Muhammad conquered Mecca in AD 630, he cleansed the Kaaba of idols and reinstated it as a place of monotheistic worship. What is not explained is how Mecca came to be known at that time as a place of idolatry prior to Muhammad’s intervention. How is it that Abraham built the Kaaba and delivered the people from polytheism only to later have them fall into apostasy and disbelief for thousands of years? This seems to contradict the Quran, which claims that once Allah has guided a people on a right course and provided a mode of conduct, Allah does not lead them astray into confusion (Quran 9:115).
According to one of the most trusted sources of Islamic history and jurisprudence, the Hadith of al-Bukhari, Muhammad claimed that the period between the building of the Kaaba and the building of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was a mere 40 years (Sahih al-Bukhari Book 60, Hadith 45 and 97). Historical estimates place the building of the Temple between 951-957 BC. Thus, the Kaaba was either built between 991-997 BC and not during Abraham’s lifetime (circa 2,130 BC), or Muhammad was mistaken.
According to the biographies of Muhammad and the Hadith (oral traditions), Muhammad originally offered prayers facing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It wasn’t until sometime later that Muhammad received a revelation to face the Kaaba in Mecca as his direction of prayer. The Quran is silent about when or how Muhammad received the appointment of the initial direction of prayer (toward Jerusalem), and it never explains why the direction was suddenly changed. It was so usual, in fact, that passages in the Hadith indicate that the change in direction caused confusion amongst Muslim believers and consternation as to whether Allah would accept the prayers of those who had died prior to the change (since they were made in the wrong direction).
Neither the Quran nor Islamic tradition nor scholarship have been able to answer the following questions:
- If Abraham built the Kaaba and instituted Hajj (Quran 22:26–27), why is it not recorded in other religious texts to have been performed by his son Isaac, grandson Jacob, or great-grandson Joseph, who were all prophets in Islam and promised to follow in the faith of their forefathers (Quran 2:133)?
- Why wasn’t Moses — a prophet which proceeded Abraham — instructed in the Torah to make a pilgrimage to Mecca?
- Why was Solomon, also a venerated prophet of Islam, instructed to build the Temple in Jerusalem instead of worshipping at the Kaaba?
- Why was Muhammad commanded to prefer the Temple in Jerusalem as the original direction for prayer instead of facing the Kaaba?
Problems with History
The mention of the Kaaba — and even the Hajj — is suspiciously absent from other religious or historical literature prior to 500 AD. Biblical writers were familiar with the region of the Arabian Peninsula, as both Sheba (located in modern-day Yemen) and Tema (modern-day Tayma in Saudi Arabia) are mentioned, but with no mention of Mecca.
The King of Babylon, Nabonidus, established outposts in the Arabian region in the 6th century BC. Extant Babylonian inscriptions mention a total of six oasis towns, and while Yathrib (later Medina) is mentioned, Mecca, which is 450 km south, is not. This would be usual had Mecca been a place of prominence at that time.
The Sabeans of Yemen never mention the city of Mecca in their writings.
Mercantile movements through the region were common, but not until the 10th century and long after the death of Abraham.
Problems with Nomenclature
Islamic scholar Alfred Guillaume, after analyzing the language of the Quran, has concluded that there is no evidence to support the idea that Abraham built the Kaaba or that Ishmael ever settled around Mecca.
According to Guillaume, “…there is no historical evidence for the assertion that Abraham or Ishmael was ever in Mecca, and if there had been such a tradition it would have to be explained how all memory of the Old Semitic name Ishmael (which was not in its true Arabian form in Arabian inscriptions and written correctly with the initial consonant Y) came to be lost. The form in the Quran is taken either from Greek or Syriac sources.”
Guillaume explains further, “Isaac and Israel are further examples of such borrowings, and the forms Yunus, and Ilyas (Jonah and Elijah) are patently Greek. If any of these worthies had been familiar to Muhammad’s hearers it is inconceivable that their names would have been recited to them in a Greek or Aramaic form; alternatively, if they did not know these names they must have hear [sic] of them from Jews or Christians.” (Islam, 1956, pp. 61–62)
In conclusion, there is no historical or biblical evidence to indicate that Abraham nor Ishmael ever lived in — or even traveled to — the Arabian Peninsula, or that Mecca was an early center of importance. Therefore, the Quran’s claim that Abraham built the Kaaba should be viewed as an anachronism.
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David Bjorgen is a lifelong learner who loves to share his passions with others. David started out studying and working in the field of architecture, eventually transitioning into a career of graphic design, marketing, advertising, web technology, and photography. David’s love for graphic design and global missions has allowed him to serve in a number of capacities in various missions organizations and non-profits. David is an adjunct professor at Ambassador International University in Zambia.
David loves travel, culture, and adventure. He lived in Jordan for three years, which is where he met his lovely wife, Zena. David has traveled to 28 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. When he’s not at home in North Carolina, David can often be found in a faraway land, exploring, writing, and taking pictures.