Archaeologists surveying a future construction site in Rahat, Israel have unearthed something unexpected: the remains of one of the oldest mosques in the world. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the building was constructed around 600 or 700 A.D., when the region was mostly rural farmland. If this date is correct, this means that the newly discovered mosque was built only a few years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D.
The directors of the excavation, Jon Seligman and Shahur Zur, described their discovery as “a small rural mosque, dated to the 7th to 8th centuries C.E. [common era], is a rare finding anywhere in the world, especially in the area north of Be'er Sheva, where no similar building has previously been discovered.”
Gideon Avni, the head of the archaeology division at the IAA and a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem added, “The discovery of the village and the mosque in its vicinity are a significant contribution to the study of the history of the country during this turbulent period.”
The location and layout of the mosque can tell us a great deal about the building’s purpose. Unlike some of the larger urban mosques that were built during this period, it is a simple open-air rectangular building. It was identified as a mosque by the presence of a mihrab, or prayer niche, which faced south towards Mecca. The discovery of a nearby agricultural settlement from the same period suggests that the mosque catered to the needs of farmers in the region.
Oliver Scharbrodt, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Birmingham, told The Daily Beast that the discovery shows “the early Arab Muslim settlers were not simply city-dwellers ruling over a non-Muslim rural population but already owned land and engaged in farming at this very early period of the Arab-Muslim conquest of the Middle East.”
Archaeologists are familiar with various mosques from other excavations in Syria, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine, but the Rahat mosque is extremely early. This is important because while we know a great deal about what Islam was like in the late eighth century, there are gaps in our history. Paul Cobb, professor of Islamic history and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Daily Beast that “there is much that we do not know from this early period.” Thus, while “it isn't surprising to find a mosque dating from the 7th or 8th century in the Negev [desert]… small, rural mosques like this are a rarity and they provide hints” about two important historical processes.
The first of these is Islamization. Arabs conquered the Levant region (which includes modern Israel) in 636 A.D. The discovery of sites like this can help us chart the spread of Islam in an area that prior to this moment had been part of the Byzantine Empire and whose residents had previously been predominantly Christian.
Given how early this mosque is it can tell us a great deal about the emergence of distinctive identity-defining facets of Muslim identity. Cobb told me that in some cities that were recently conquered by Muslims, Christians and Muslims shared prayer space. This was not the case in Rahat however, “if this mosque is indeed as early as the archaeologists claim,” Cobb said, “it tells us that building a separate place of prayer was an important part of an emerging and distinct Muslim identity.”
In a similar way, the discovery of this early mosque is a witness to emerging Islamic practice ritual and architectural tradition. “According to Muslim tradition,” said Cobb, “the first generation of Muslims in Arabia briefly prayed toward Jerusalem, as Jews did. But the mihrab… in this mosque points solidly toward Mecca. So while it is early, it nevertheless reflects the more confident and distinct Muslim identity that emerged after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.” It is important evidence that helps us track the rise of certain, now normative, aspects of Muslim prayer and identity. (Cobb cautioned however, that as we don't have any archaeological evidence of mosques pointing to Jerusalem this might be “beside the point.”)
The second historical process that the mosque can tell us about is sedentarization, the process by which nomadic populations settled in one place and by which small pre-existing groups of people developed into larger communities. This discovery disproves one of the more problematic myths about the Muslim conquest. Cobb told me, “It is often held—especially with regard to the Negev—that the coming of Islam brought with it vast numbers of nomads who destroyed local settled communities. In fact, the archaeological evidence (of which the Rahat mosque and ancient village are one example) tends to suggest that sedentarization and urbanization actually increased following the Muslim conquests.” What the discovery of the Rahat mosque shows is that “the standard architecture of Islamic ritual space was fully integrated into settled agricultural communities from a very early date, even in a place as remote as this.”
As fascinating and instructive for the history of Islam as the discovery is, in many ways it should be uncontroversial. Numerous literary records bear witness to the conquest of the region by Muslims, and none of the history of what we know about the arrival of Islam in the Levant is being overthrown. But, as Cobb told me, this “doesn't mean people won't attempt to use this new discovery for contemporary political ends. That, too is a tradition as old as archaeology itself.” The discovery is evidence that Muslim nomads settled here as early as the seventh century, but this particular historical fact takes on new significance in light of contemporary political affairs in Israel.