The Quran’s Lesson from the Shema: Direct Your Heart to God
The Qiblah Passage—Background and Context
According to Muslim tradition, the qiblah (قِبْلَة), i.e., the direction of prayer for Muslims, used to be Jerusalem, like the Jewish practice, before it was moved to Makkah (popularly spelled Mecca).
In Jewish sources, the practice of praying towards Jerusalem is first attested in the book of Daniel, in the story of King Darius the Mede banning prayer or petition to any god or person other than him:
דניאל ו:יא וְדָנִיֵּאל כְּדִי יְדַע דִּי רְשִׁים כְּתָבָא עַל לְבַיְתֵהּ וְכַוִּין פְּתִיחָן לֵהּ בְּעִלִּיתֵהּ נֶגֶד יְרוּשְׁלֶם וְזִמְנִין תְּלָתָה בְיוֹמָא הוּא בָּרֵךְ עַל בִּרְכוֹהִי וּמְצַלֵּא וּמוֹדֵא קֳדָם אֱלָהֵהּ כָּל קֳבֵל דִּי הֲוָא עָבֵד מִן קַדְמַת דְּנָה.
Dan 6:11 When Daniel learned that it had been put in writing, he went to his house, in whose upper chamber he had had windows made facing Jerusalem, and three times a day he knelt down, prayed, and made confession to his God, as he had always done.
The Quran defends the change in direction in the qiblah passage (Q. 2:115–150, 177), which appears in the Quran’s second and longest sūrah (chapter), known as al-Baqarah (البقرة) “The Cow.” The immediate context of this passage is a defense of the Quranic community.
Defending Islam from the People of the Book
Before the qiblah passages, the text refers more than once to polemics between the Quranic community and the People of the Book, usually a reference to Jews and/or Christians, both of whom follow the Bible. So, for example, in strengthening the resolve of believers to follow the dictates of the Quran, it warns:
Quran 2:109 Many of the People of the Book wish to turn you back into disbelievers after your having believed, out of envy in their souls, even after al-ḥaqq has become clear to them…. 2:110 And perform the prayer and give the alms. Whatever good you send forth for your souls, you will find it with God. Truly God sees whatsoever you do.
In other words, the Quranic community should just continue to do good and ignore the insults coming from the Jews and Christians. The text continues:
Quran 2:111 And they said: “None will enter the Garden unless he be a Jew or a Christian.” Those are their hopes…
This passage is written from a defensive perspective. According to the Quran, Jews and Christians each claim that their religion is the only truth, and though they fight with each other (as noted just two verses later), they each attack the legitimacy of the Quranic revelation.
At the same time, the Quran warns against those attempting to shut down houses of worship:
Quran 2:114 And who does greater wrong than one who bars [entrance to] the mosques of God, lest His Name be remembered therein, and strives for their ruin?
Thus, polemic and possible persecution are the backdrop to the qiblah passage, which defends the Quranic community’s worship practice.
God Is Everywhere
The qiblah passage begins thus:
Quran 2:115 To God belong the East and the West. Wheresoever you turn, there is the Face of God. God is All-Encompassing, Knowing.
In other words, before diving into the question of where the worshipper should face when praying to God, the text clarifies that, in truth, any direction faces God. This theme is repeated throughout the passages, and functions as a marker to divide the qiblah passage into sections.
Abraham Establishes the Place
The first section of the qiblah passages (Q. 2:115–141) stresses Abraham’s faith and the oneness of God. Following a number of verses detailing polemics with Christians and Jews, the passage explains that Abraham himself established the House of God:
Quran 2:125 And [remember] when We made the House (bayt) a place of visitation for humankind, and a sanctuary: “Take the station (maqām) of Abraham as a place of prayer.” And we made a covenant with Abraham and Ishmael, “Purify my House for those who circumambulate, those who make retreat, and those who bow and prostrate…”
Muslim commentaries understand this House and Station to refer to the Kaʿbah in Makkah, though this is not stated in the Quran itself. The passage continues with a prayer recited by Abraham and Ishmael upon its construction, part of which is the request that God make them submissive (muslimayn) to God. The reader will recognize the word “muslim” here, which means “one who submits [to God].” The passage connects Abraham’s righteousness to this religious approach.
Submission: Qiblah and Qabbalat Ol Malkhut Shamayim
The text continues:
Quran 2:130 And who shuns the creed of Abraham but a foolish soul? We chose him in the world and in the Hereafter he shall be among the righteous. 2:131 And when his Lord said unto him “Submit!” (aslim) he said, “I submit (aslamtu) to the Lord of the worlds.”
As noted, submission to God is a key concept in Islam, and the one from which it takes its name. The idea has resonance with the concept found in rabbinic Jewish texts of קבלת [עול] מלכות שמים, “acceptance of [the yoke of] the kingdom of heaven,” i.e., accepting the sovereignty of God. This, the rabbis explain, is the function of the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut 6:4–9), in contrast to the second paragraph that begins VeHayah Im Shamoaʿ (“if then, you obey”; Deut 11:13‑21), which they understand to be about accepting the yoke of the commandments (עול מצוות; m. Berakhot 2:2):
אמ[ר] ר' יהושע בן קרחה: ולמה קדמה שמע לוהיה אם שמוע אלא יקבל עליו מלכות שמים תחלה ואחר כך יקבל עליו עול מצוות...
R. Joshua ben Qorhah said: “Why was Shema placed before VeHayah Im Shamoaʿ? So that a person can accept upon himself the kingdom of heaven first, and afterwards accept upon himself the yoke of the commandments…”
The Hebrew word for accept comes from the root ק.ב.ל “to accept.” This root has the same meaning in Arabic, and is used in the term qiblah. By submitting to God here, Abraham accepts the yoke of heaven.
While the Quran never explicitly refers to the Shema or rabbinic texts about Shema and prayer, I believe the Quran is aware of them and implicitly engaging them. This is implied by looking at the following verse in connection to the rabbinic interpretation of the second verse of the Shema. The Quran reads:
Quran 2:132 And Abraham enjoined the same upon his children, as did Jacob, “O my children, God has chosen for you the religion, so die not except in submission.”
The mention of dying as part of submission connects to the rabbinic interpretation of the Shema’s command:
דברים ו:ה וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ.
Deut 6:5 You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Interpreting what it means to love God “with all your soul,” the Mishnah suggests (m. Berakhot 9:5):
בכל נפשך—אפיל[ו] הוא נוטל את נפשך.
“With all your soul”—even if he is taking your soul.
This interpretation is embellished in a famous story about R. Akiva (b. Berakhot 61b):
אמרו כשהוציאו ר' עקיבא ליהרג זמן ק"ש היה והיו מסרקין את בשרו במסרק של ברזל והיה מקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים בכוונה אמרו לו תלמידיו רבנו עד כאן אמ' להם כל ימיי הייתי מצטער על מקרא בכל נפשך אפי' נוטל את נפשך אמרתי מתי יבא לידי ואקיימנו ועכשיו בא לידי לא אקיימנו. אמרו לא הפסיק לומר עד שיצתה נשמתו באחד.
It was said that when R. Akiva was brought out to be executed, it was time for the recitation of the Shema. While they were combing off his flesh with an iron comb, he was accepting upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven with intention. His students said to him: “Our master, to this extent?!” He said to them: “All my days I have been pained about this verse, ‘with all your soul’—even if he takes your soul. I said (to myself): ‘When will this come to pass so I can fulfill it?’ Now that it has come, will I not fulfill it?!” It was said that he barely finished speaking when his soul left him at [the word] ‘one’ [the last word of the opening verse of the Shema].”
The Quran’s statement about dying in submission is reminiscent of the rabbinic interpretation of “with all your soul” in the Shema.
The description of Abraham and Jacob teaching their children about submission to God connects to the Shema’s explicit command וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, “teach these things to your children” (Deut 6:7), and the elaboration of this command in rabbinic commentary. This connection becomes almost explicit in the next passage:
Quran 2:133 Or were you witnesses (shuhadāʾ) when death came to Jacob, when he said to his children, “What will you worship after I am gone?” They said, “we shall worship your God and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, one God, and unto Him we submit (muslimūn).”
This Quranic passage is strongly resonant with R. Simon ben Pazi’s midrashic account of what happened on Jacob’s deathbed (b. Pesachim 56a):
בקש יעקב לגלות לבניו קץ הימים ונסתלקה ממנו שכינה אמ' שמא יש במטתי פסול כאברהם אבי אבא שיצא ממנו ישמעאל וכיצחק אבי שיצא ממנו עשו אמרו לו שמע ישראל יי אלהינו יי אחד כשם שאין בלבך אלא אחד כך אין בלבינו אלא אחד פתח ואמ' ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד
Jacob wanted to reveal to his sons the end of days and the Presence of God departed from him. He said, “Is it possible that out of my bed has come someone unfit among my children, like Abraham, my father’s father, from whom Ishmael came forth, and like my father, Isaac, from whom Esau went forth?” His sons said to him, “‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’—just as there is only one in your heart, so there is only one in our hearts.” At that moment, Jacob our father commenced, saying, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”
The story here is meant to explain the second line of the Shema, a non-biblical line inserted into this biblical passage when reciting the prayer. The midrash explains that Jacob said this line when his sons affirmed their commitment to the one God. Their expression of commitment, according to this, is the origin of the Shema’s opening line, and Jacob’s expression of relief, is the origin of the extra-biblical second line. The Quran is almost certainly reworking this midrash.
A Cosmopolitan Religious Claim
The qiblah passage continues by helping the faithful formulate responses to the attacks by Christians and Jews against the Quranic community, which does not see itself as a new faith, but as an expression of the faith of Abraham, and as such, it is not in opposition to Judaism and Christianity, but a faithful fulfillment of their core ideals:
Quran 2:136 Say, “We believe in God, and in that which was sent down unto us, and in that which was sent down unto Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in what Moses and Jesus were given from their Lord. We make no distinction among any of them, and unto Him we submit (muslimūn).”
This ties into the rhetorical strategy in this passage thus far, namely, to show that the submission of the faithful to the One God, commanded by the Quran, is in line with the very values expressed in rabbinic Jewish texts about the Shema, a central piece of Jewish liturgy. This prepares the way for the next section of the qiblah passage (vv. 142–150), which discusses and defends the change in prayer direction.
Defending the Change in Qiblah
The second part of the qiblah passages opens:
Quran 2:142 The fools among the people will say, “What has turned them away from the qiblah they had been following?” Say, “To God belong the East and the West. He guides whomsoever He will unto a straight path.”
The text acknowledges that Jews are critical of change in the direction of worship—traditionally understood as from Jerusalem to Makkah—even phrasing their critique in words reminiscent of the warning in the third paragraph of the Shema:
במדבר טו:לט …וְלֹא תָתֻרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם.
Num 15:39 and do not turn after the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.
This Quranic verse responds with the same point we saw in the opening of the qiblah passage, namely that direction is not at all that important since one is inevitably always facing God. Nevertheless, the text continues by defending the change:
Quran 2:143 Thus did We make you a middle community, that you may be witnesses for humankind and that the Messenger may be a witness for you. And We only appointed the qiblah that you had been following to know those who follow the Messenger from those who turn back on their heels, and it was indeed difficult, save for those whom God guided. But God would not let your belief be in vain. Truly God is Kind and Merciful unto humankind.
Here the text recognized that for the faithful, the change in direction was difficult, and not all were comfortable with it. The text, therefore, says that the change in direction of prayer was to test people’s faith to see who would follow the messenger loyally when the direction is changed.
The text clarifies that people who understand the deeper truth, perhaps those who recognize the role of the heart in facing God, as will be seen, were able to accept the change and even appreciate its significance:
Quran 2:144 We have seen the turning (taqalluba) of your face unto Heaven, and indeed We will turn you toward a qiblah well pleasing to you. So turn your face toward the Sacred Mosque (al-Masjid al-Ḥarām), and wheresoever you are, turn your faces toward it…
The subtle use of “taqalluba,” linguistically can also mean facing the heart; The root “q-l-b” actually means heart. Thus, “taqalluba” your face toward heaven might be an allusion to facing the heart or the heart facing heaven. Therefore, this Quranic verse may be understood as “We, in heaven, see to the heart you are facing …” or “We see to the heart in heaven you are facing …”
This may resonate with the role of the heart in rabbinic literature that will be demonstrated later. In other words, the Sacred Mosque in the qiblah passage may not even be a reference to the Kaʿbah in Makkah, but to the heart itself, or facing the heart to the heavenly temple, as the focal point and direction of prayer.
What Is It that the People of the Book “Know”?
The change in the direction of prayer is received with the negative reaction from Jews. In making this point, the Quran introduces a claim about the Jews that has long been the subject of debate among commentators:
Quran 2:144 …Truly those who have been given the Book know that it is “al-ḥaqq” from their Lord. And God is not heedless of what they do. 145 And were you to bring every sign to those who were given the Book, they would not follow your qiblah. You are not a follower of their qiblah, nor are they followers of one another’s qiblah. Were you to follow their caprices after the knowledge that has come to you, you would be one of the wrongdoers. 146 Those unto whom We have given the Book recognize it as they recognize their children, but a group of them knowingly conceal the “al-ḥaqq.” 147 “al-ḥaqq” is from your Lord; so do not be among the doubters.
The claim that the people of the book, i.e., Jews and Christians, will not accept either the Quranic community’s prayer direction or each other’s prayer practice, seems self-explanatory, but what does the passage mean that they “know” al-ḥaqq? While traditional Muslim commentators interpret “al-ḥaqq” as “the truth,” it could also mean commandment, statute, right, or decree, similar to its Hebrew cognate, “ḥoq.” But what is the ḥaqq that the Jews apparently “know” but are hiding?
Traditional Muslim commentators interpret this as meaning that the Jews (and Christians) know that the true qiblah should be toward the Kaʿbah in Makkah, or at least that they know that Muḥammad is a true prophet and that they should thus follow his qiblah. This, however, is a problematic interpretation, since it is manifestly unsupported.
It is not satisfactory to suggest that this is merely a polemical claim, since up until now, the sūrah seems to be exceedingly familiar with the nuances of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic interpretation, and it would be strange if it suddenly misrepresented the Jewish position. In other words, to make such a patently indefensible claim that Jews “know” that they should face Makkah during prayer—as if this appears in Jewish sources—would be out of character.
The Quran repeatedly mentions “al-ḥaqq” in the qiblah passage. The section of Deuteronomy in which the Shema passages are found also repeats the term “ḥuqqîm” and its morphological permutations many times. This further suggests that the “ḥaqq” referred to in the qiblah passage is meant to resonate with the biblical “ḥoq,” and the audience is supposed to think about Jewish notions of faith and proper behavior as per the Shema and its rabbinic commentary.
Serving God with the Heart: Jewish Sources
The Shema commands,
דברים ו:ו וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ.
Deut 6:6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
דברים יא:יג וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְוֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּלְעָבְדוֹ בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם.
Deut 11:13 If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today, loving YHWH your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul.
The rabbis read this verse, which mentions “serving” God—usually a reference to sacrifices—as a reference to prayer, i.e., the Amidah, the main statutory prayer (j. Berakhot 4:1):
כתיב לאהבה את ה' אלהיכם ולעבדו בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם. וכי יש עבודה בלב! ואיזו? זו תפילה.
It says “To love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut 11:13). Is there service in the heart! What is it? It is prayer.
Other rabbinic sources reinforce the connection between heart and prayer. For example, the Mishnah states (m. Berakhot 5:1),
חסידים הראשונים היו שוהים שעה אחת ומתפללים כדי שייכוונו את לבם למקום.
The pious men of old used to tarry one hour, and then pray, so as to direct their hearts to God.
Similarly, the Tosefta writes (t. Berakhot 3:4):
המתפלל צריך שיכוין את לבו אבא שאול או' סימן לתפלה תכין לבם תקשיב אזניך.
One who prays must direct his heart. Abba Shaul says: “A [scriptural] allusion to prayer is (Ps 10:17) “you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear.”
Directing One’s Heart to God
For our purposes, the most important source connecting the heart to prayer appears in the Mishnah’s discussion of the requirement to face Jerusalem while praying (m. Berakhot 4:5–6):
היה רכוב על החמור ירד. אם אינו יכול לירד יחזיר את פניו. אם אינו יכול להחזיר את פניו יכוון את לבו כנגד בית קודש הקדשים. היה יושב בספינה או בקרון או באסדא יכוון את לבו כנגד בית קדש הקדשים.
If he was riding on a donkey, he should dismount [to pray]. But if he cannot dismount, he should turn his face [toward the east]. And if he cannot turn his face, he should direct his heart toward the Chamber of the Holy of Holies. If he was travelling in a ship or on a wagon or on a raft, he should direct his heart towards the Chamber of the Holy of Holies.
What we see here is a hierarchy of values: While it is important to direct one’s stance or at least face towards Jerusalem, it is more important to direct one’s heart to God, as emphasized by the Shema. This, I suggest, is the backdrop against which we should read the discussion of al-ḥaqq in the qiblah passage.
In other words, the Quran is telling its audience that the Jews may mock the decision of changing the direction of prayer, but even they know that physical direction is not the most important part of prayer. Rather, direction of the heart is, for that is written in their Shema and in their Mishnah.
Doing Good Deeds Is of Paramount Importance… And the Role of the Heart
The qiblah passage continues by claiming that the fact that everyone faces a different direction in prayer should not be seen as a proof by either side that one group is better than the other:
Quran 2:148 Everyone has a direction toward which he turns. So vie with one another in good deeds. Wherever you are, God will bring you all together. Truly God is Powerful over all things.
This passage, which suggests that wherever you are God will bring you together, expresses a theme repeated several times in the Hebrew Bible about God gathering the Israelites if they seek Him with all their heart. It is especially resonant with Deuteronomy 4:
דברים ד:כז וְהֵפִיץ יְ־הוָה אֶתְכֶם בָּעַמִּים וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם מְתֵי מִסְפָּר בַּגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר יְנַהֵג יְ־הוָה אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה. ד:כח וַעֲבַדְתֶּם שָׁם אֱלֹהִים מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי אָדָם עֵץ וָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִרְאוּן וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּן וְלֹא יֹאכְלוּן וְלֹא יְרִיחֻן. ד:כט וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ.
Deut 4:27 YHWH will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which YHWH will drive you. 4:28 There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell. 4:29 But if you search there for YHWH your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul.
Therefore, the Quran reiterates to face the Sacred Mosque, which as discussed might be an allusion to the heart reverberating the Shema’s commandment (ḥoq) “with all you heart”:
2:149 And whenever you go out, turn your face toward the Sacred Mosque. Indeed, it is “al-ḥaqq” from your Lord. And God is not heedless of what you do.
Final Passage of the Qiblah: Piety with Your Wealth
The sūrah returns to its discussion of the qiblah in one final passage, which again begins with the comment about east and west, but then moves in a different direction:
Quran 2:177 It is not piety to turn your faces toward the east and west. Rather, piety is he who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets; and who gives wealth, on love, to kinsfolk, orphans, the indigent, the traveler, beggars, and for [the ransom of] slaves; and performs the prayer and gives the alms; and those who fulfill their oaths when they pledge them, and those who are patient in misfortune, hardship, and moments of peril. It is they who are the sincere, and it is they who are the God-fearing (al-muttaqūn).
Here again, the Quran tells us that the qiblah is less important than people acting piously with their wealth. Note especially the word “love,” whose meaning is debated by traditional commentators, between the following possibilities: (1) the love of money, (2) the love of giving charity, or (3) the love of those to whom the charity is being paid.
Nevertheless, I suggest that it might refer to God, who is mentioned at the beginning of the verse. In other words, piety is not just believing in God, but giving of one’s wealth to the poor out of love for God. Here again, I suggest the author is connecting to the Shema as interpreted by the rabbis in Mishnah Berakhot 9:5, which interprets the Shema’s command to love God “with all your might” as בכל ממונך, “with all your money.”
Above we saw how this Mishnah interpreted the Shema’s command to love God “with all your soul” as martyrdom. It seems hardly coincidental that both interpretations found in this Mishnah serve as a backdrop for the Quran’s discussion of the qiblah.
The Message of the Qiblah Passage
This accumulation of evidence makes it highly likely that the qiblah passages are consciously and directly engaging with the Shema and rabbinic texts about prayer. This suggests that the Jewish audience of the Quran appear to be well-informed of the rabbinic tradition. Noting this fact and the implications of the various intertextual connections helps us uncover the message of these verses.
The evidence suggests that the Quran is not at all arguing, as Muslim traditional commentators suggest, the superiority of Makkah over Jerusalem, nor is it a sign of the Quran becoming hostile to Jews. Instead, the Quran is attempting to reconcile with Jews, arguing that it is not ushering in a new religion, but attempting a religious reform in line with the faith of Abraham.
Specifically, the Quran’s message here is to remind those engaging in what was then a hot debate that they should not overlook the more important aspects of prayer and piety. These, it claims, can be found in the Shema and its rabbinic commentary, which emphasize accepting/submitting to the sovereignty of God and behaving righteously. On this point, both Jewish and Muslim texts agree.
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Dr. Abdulla Galadari is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Khalifa University of Science & Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in Arabic & Islamic Studies from the University of Aberdeen. His research focuses on scriptural hermeneutics focusing on the intertextuality between the Qur’an and biblical, rabbinic, and extra-biblical literature. He is the author of Qur’anic Hermeneutics: Between Science, History, and the Bible (2018).
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