Source: Tafseer Ibn Katheer
Imam Al-Bukhari reported that Al-Bara’ bin `Azib narrated: “Allah’s Messenger offered his prayers facing Bayt Al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) for sixteen or seventeen months, but he wished that he could pray facing the Ka`bah (at Makkah). The first prayer which he offered (facing the Ka`bah) was the `Asr (Afternoon) prayer in the company of some people. Then one of those who had offered that prayer with him, went out and passed by some people in a mosque who were in the bowing position (in Ruku`) during their prayers (facing Jerusalem). He addressed them saying, `By Allah, I bear witness that I have offered prayer with the Prophet facing Makkah (Ka`bah).’ Hearing that, those people immediately changed their direction towards the House (Ka`bah) while still as they were (i.e., in the same bowing position). Some Muslims who offered prayer towards the previous Qiblah (Jerusalem) before it was changed towards the House (the Ka`bah in Makkah) had died or had been martyred, and we did not know what to say about them (regarding their prayers towards Jerusalem). Allah then revealed:
(And Allah would never make your faith (prayers) to be lost (i.e., the prayers of those Muslims were valid)) (2:143).”
Al-Bukhari collected this narration, while Muslim collected it using another chain of narrators. Muhammad bin Ishaq reported that Al-Bara’ narrated: Allah’s Messenger used to offer prayers towards Bayt Al-Maqdis (in Jerusalem), but would keep looking at the sky awaiting Allah’s command (to change the Qiblah). Then Allah revealed:
(Verily, We have seen the turning of your (Muhammad’s) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (prayer direction) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid Al-Haram (at Makkah).) (2:144)
A man from among the Muslims then said, “We wish we could know about those among us who died before the Qiblah was changed (i.e., towards Makkah) and also about our own prayers, that we had performed towards Bayt Al-Maqdis.” Allah then revealed:
(And Allah would never make your faith (prayers) to be lost.) (2:143)
The fools among the people, meaning the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), said, “What made them change the former Qiblah that they used to face” Allah then revealed:
(The fools (idolators, hypocrites, and Jews) among the people will say…)
until the end of the Ayah.
`Ali bin Abu Talhah related that Ibn `Abbas said: When Allah’s Messenger migrated to Al-Madinah, Allah commanded him to face Bayt Al-Maqdis (Jerusalem). The Jews were delighted then. Allah’s Messenger faced Jerusalem for over ten months. However, he liked (to offer prayer in the direction of) Prophet Ibrahim’s Qiblah (the Ka`bah in Makkah) and used to supplicate to Allah and kept looking up to the sky (awaiting Allah’s command in this regard). Allah then revealed:
(turn your faces (in prayer) in that direction.) meaning, its direction. The Jews did not like this change and said, “What made them change the Qiblah that they used to face (meaning Jerusalem)” Allah revealed:
(Say (O Muhammad ): “To Allah belong both, east and the west. He guides whom He wills to the straight way.”)
There are several other Ahadith on this subject. In summary, Allah’s Messenger was commanded to face Bayt Al-Maqdis (during the prayer) and he used to offer prayer towards it in Makkah between the two corners (of Ka`bah), so that the Ka`bah would be between him and Bayt Al-Maqdis8. When the Prophet migrated to Al-Madinah, this practice was no longer possible; then Allah commanded him to offer prayer towards Bayt Al-Maqdis, as Ibn Abbas and the majority of the scholars have stated.
Al-Bukhari reported in his Sahih that the news (of the change of Qiblah) was conveyed to some of the Ansar while they were performing the `Asr (Afternoon) prayer towards Bayt Al-Maqdis, upon hearing that, they immediately changed their direction and faced the Ka`bah.
It is reported in the Sahihayn (Al-Bukhari Muslim) that Ibn `Umar narrated: While the people were in Quba’ (Mosque) performing the Fajr (Dawn) prayer, a man came and said, “A (part of the) Qur’an was revealed tonight to Allah’s Messenger and he was commanded to face the Ka`bah. Therefore, face the Ka`bah. They were facing Ash-Sham, so they turned towards the Ka`bah.
These Hadiths prove that the Nasikh (a Text that abrogates a previous Text) only applies after one acquires knowledge of it, even if the Nasikh had already been revealed and announced. This is why the Companions mentioned above were not commanded to repeat the previous `Asr, Maghrib and `Isha’ prayers (although they had prayed them towards Jerusalem after Allah had changed the Qiblah). Allah knows best.
When the change of Qiblah (to Ka`bah in Makkah) occurred, those inflicted with hypocrisy and mistrust, and the disbelieving Jews, both were led astray from the right guidance and fell into confusion. They said:
(What has turned them (Muslims) from their Qiblah to which they used to face in prayer.)
They asked, “What is the matter with these people (Muslims) who one time face this direction (Jerusalem), and then face that direction (Makkah)” Allah answered their questions when He stated:
(Say (O Muhammad ): “To Allah belong both, east and the west.) meaning, the command, the decision and the authority are for Allah Alone. Hence:
(…so wherever you turn (yourselves or your faces) there is the Face of Allah (and He is High above, over His Throne).) (2:115),
( It is not Al-Birr (piety, righteousness) that you turn your faces towards east and (or) west (in prayers); but Al-Birr is the one who believes in Allah.) (2:177) This statement means, the best act is to adhere to Allah’s commands. Hence, wherever He commands us to face, we should face. Also, since obedience requires implementing Allah’s commands, if He commands us every day to face different places, we are His servants and under His disposal, and we face whatever He orders us to face. Certainly, Allah’s care and kindness towards His servant and Messenger, Muhammad , and certainly, his Ummah (Muslim nation) is profoundly great. Allah has guided them to the Qiblah of (Prophet) Ibrahim — Allah’s Khalil (intimate friend). He has commanded them to face the Ka`bah, the most honorable house (of worship) on the face of the earth, which was built by Ibrahim Al-Khalil in the Name of Allah, the One without a partner. This is why Allah said afterwards:
(Say (O Muhammad ): “To Allah belong both, east and the west. He guides whom He wills to the straight way.”)
Imam Ahmad reported that `A’ishah (the Prophet’s wife) said that Allah’s Messenger said about the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians):
(They do not envy us for a matter more than they envy us for Jumu`ah (Friday) to which Allah has guided us and from which they were led astray; for the (true) Qiblah to which Allah has directed us and from which they were led astray; and for our saying `Amin’ behind the Imam (leader of the prayer).)
The Jews had Knowledge that the (Muslim) Qiblah would later be changed
Allah stated that:
(Certainly, the people who were given the Scripture (i.e., Jews and the Christians) know well that, that (your turning towards the direction of the Ka`bah at Makkah in prayers) is the truth from their Lord.)
This Ayah means: The Jews, who did not like that you change your Qiblah from Bayt Al-Maqdis, already knew that Allah will command you (O Muhammad) to face the Ka`bah. The Jews read in their Books their Prophets’ description of Allah’s Messenger and his Ummah, and that Allah has endowed and honored him with the complete and honorable legislation. Yet, the People of the Book deny these facts because of their envy, disbelief and rebellion. This is why Allah threatened them when He said:
(And Allah is not unaware of what they do.)
(145. And even if you were to bring to the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) all the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.), they would not follow your Qiblah (prayer direction), nor are you going to follow their Qiblah. And they will not follow each other’s Qiblah. Verily, if you follow their desires after that which you have received of knowledge (from Allah), then indeed you will be one of the wrongdoers.)
Why was changing the Qiblah mentioned thrice
This is a third command from Allah to face Al-Masjid Al-Haram (the Sacred Mosque) from every part of the world (during prayer). It was said that Allah mentioned this ruling again here because it is connected to whatever is before and whatever is after it. Hence, Allah first said:
(Verily, We have seen the turning of your (Muhammad’s) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qiblah (prayer direction) that shall please you) (2:144), until:
(Certainly, the people who were given the Scripture (i.e., Jews and the Christians) know well that, that (your turning towards the direction of the Ka`bah at Makkah in prayers) is the truth from their Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what they do.) (2:144)
Allah mentioned in these Ayat His fulfillment of the Prophet’s wish and ordered him to face the Qiblah that he liked and is pleased with. In the second command, Allah said:
(And from wheresoever you start forth (for prayers), turn your face in the direction of Al-Masid Al-Haram that is indeed the truth from your Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what you do.)
Therefore, Allah states here that changing the Qiblah is also the truth from Him, thus upgrading the subject more than in the first Ayah, in which Allah agreed to what His Prophet had wished for. Thus Allah states that this is also the truth from Him that He likes and is pleased with. In the third command, Allah refutes the Jewish assertion that the Prophet faced their Qiblah, as they knew in their Books that the Prophet will later on be commanded to face the Qiblah of Ibrahim, the Ka`bah. The Arab disbelievers had no more argument concerning the Prophet’s Qiblah after Allah commanded the Prophet to face the Qiblah of Ibrahim, which is more respected and honored, rather than the Qiblah of the Jews. The Arabs used to honor the Ka`bah and liked the fact that the Messenger was commanded to face it.
The First Abrogation in the Qur’an was about the Qiblah
`Ali bin Abu Talhah related that Ibn `Abbas narrated: The first abrogated part in the Qur’an was about the Qiblah. When Allah’s Messenger migrated to Al-Madinah, the majority of its people were Jews, and Allah commanded him to face Bayt Al-Maqdis. The Jews were delighted then. Allah’s Messenger faced it for ten and some months, but he liked to face the Qiblah of Ibrahim (Ka`bah in Makkah). He used to supplicate to Allah and look up to the sky (awaiting Allah’s command). Allah then revealed:
(Verily, We have seen the turning of your (Muhammad’s) face towards the heaven), until,
(turn your faces (in prayer) in that direction.)
The Jews did not like this ruling and said:
(“What has turned them (Muslims) from their Qiblah (prayer direction) to which they used to face in prayer.” Say (O Muhammad), “To Allah belong both, east and the west.”) (2:142)
(. ..so wherever you turn (yourselves or your faces) there is the Face of Allah) (2:115),
(And We made the Qiblah (prayer direction towards Jerusalem) which you used to face, only to test those who followed the Messenger (Muhammad ) from those who would turn on their heels (i.e., disobey the Messenger).) (2:143)
The Wisdom behind abrogating the Previous Qiblah
(…so that men may have no argument against you)
Therefore, the People of the Book knew from the description of the Muslim Ummah that they would be ordered to face the Ka`bah. If the Muslims did not fit this description, the Jews would have used this fact against the Muslims. If the Muslims had remained on the Qiblah of Bayt Al-Maqdis, which was also the Qiblah of the Jews, this fact could have been used as the basis of argument by the Jews against other people.
(…except those of them that are wrongdoers,) indicates the Mushrikin (polytheists) of Quraysh. The reasoning of these unjust persons was the unsound statement: “This man (Muhammad) claims that he follows the religion of Ibrahim! Hence, if his facing Bayt Al-Maqdis was a part of the religion of Ibrahim, why did he change it” The answer to this question is that Allah has chosen His Prophet to face Bayt Al-Maqdis first for certain wisdom, and he obeyed Allah regarding this command. Then, Allah changed the Qiblah to the Qiblah of Ibrahim, which is the Ka`bah, and he also obeyed Allah in this command. He, obeys Allah in all cases and never engages in the defiance of Allah even for an instant, and his Ummah imitates him in this.
(. ..so fear them not, but fear Me!) meaning: `Do not fear the doubts that the unjust, stubborn persons raise and fear Me Alone.’ Indeed, Allah Alone deserves to be feared.
(…so that I may complete My blessings on you.)
This Ayah relates to Allah’s statement:
(…so that men may have no argument against you), meaning: I will perfect My bounty on you by legislating for you to face the Ka`bah, so that the (Islamic) Shari`ah (law) is complete in every respect. Allah said:
(…that you may be guided.), meaning: `To be directed and guided to what the nations have been led astray from, We have guided you to it and preferred you with it.’ This is why this Ummah is the best and most honored nation ever.