We (God) have seen you turn your face to Heaven (for guidance), so We will make you the master of the kiblah you desire. Then turn your face toward the Sacred Mosque (Ka’bah) and do so (pray) wherever you all may be. Those who were given the Book know that this is the truth from their Lord, and God is not indifferent to what they do.
Even if you were to bring all signs to those who have been given Books before, they would not turn to your kiblah, neither can you be a follower of their kiblah, nor do they follow each other’s kiblah. If you should follow their desires after knowledge has been attained by you, then you would become ignorant (like them).
They, who were given the Book, recognize him (Prophet Mohammad) as clearly as they recognize their (own) children. But a party of them hides the truth knowingly. (But you should know that) the truth is from your Lord, and, (hence), do not place any doubt in it!
For everyone there is a goal to which he turns; so compete in doing good deeds with each other, and wherever you happen to be, God will bring all together, as God has power over all things. From whatever place you come from, turn your face to the Sacred Mosque and know that this truth comes from your Sustainer, as He is not the least bit negligent about what you do.
The selection of the Ka’bah as the new kiblah was much disliked by the people of the Book. One of their arguments against it was that the Ka’bah at the time was full of idols, and so it was difficult to understand how Muslims could face the Ka’bah knowing that, even if Abraham had built it. God declares in this verse that the Ka’bah will not stay in that condition for long and that Muslims will have no such reservations since it will soon become a place of true worship of God. It is also mentioned that one cannot appease the people of the Book because they themselves do not agree among themselves about what their kiblah is.
Disagreement continues to exist among many religions today, including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and polytheistic religions. We could agree to disagree on matters of certain elements of faith and the direction and modes of worship (5:48, 2:177), but we should agree on the basic tenets of all religions, which are serving God Almighty and positively benefiting humanity. We should focus on these basic human needs and work together for the betterment of our lives on this planet.
These verses caution us not to be too optimistic about expecting agreement with the people of the Book. But this does not mean we should not try whenever we can to address a common vision and work on common human goals and aspirations. There are too many similarities among religions (especially in the context of our lives) not to make these strides, despite whatever differences may exist. While we may not be able to resolve these theological differences, we should be able to agree on the universal tenets of human rights, freedom of expression for individuals as well as nations, helping our neighbors, and establishing rule of law and a just society.
The Qur’an always asks for reconciliation and agreement, even at a small scale. The Prophet formed alliances with Jewish tribes in Medina and had no problem going to the Christian uncle of his wife Khadija when he was unsure of the incidence of early revelations and prophethood; he compromised in peace treaties, such as Hudaibiya, agreeing to unfair terms for Muslims, all for the sake of peace and prosperity for people of all faiths, and we need to accept the same attitude today. Prophet Mohammad used to be actively engaged with community members and support all moral tenets of his community even before he became a prophet. Too many Muslims are distant from their own communities due to differences in opinion and failure to collaborate or implement necessary changes, and, in countries where they are a minority, they stay distant from the larger community in which they live and thrive. This has to change!