The Kaaba: History, Meaning, Parts, Traditions

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The Kaaba
The Kaaba is a sacred structure in Mecca. According to tradition it was built by Abraham and Ismail and is now the the focal point of the Hajj and pilgrimages to Mecca. Considered by Muslims as the most sacred place on Earth and the spiritual center of the world, it is the point Muslims turn toward when they pray and the direction toward which their heads point in burial. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

The Kaaba is a 14-meter (45-foot) -high, 10-meter (33-foot) -wide, 15-meter (50-foot) -long empty box made of cement and draped in black silk. Regarded as the House of God, it is as important to Muslims as the True Cross and the Holy Grail are to Christians, and what makes it better is that it is still around.

The Kaaba is an imperfect cube structure. It lies at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It is extremely old and its origins are unknown, Muslims believe it was originally part of temple erected in the beginning of second millennia B.C. by Abraham and his son Ishmael at God’s command. Abraham is regarded as the founder of monotheism. Some say the temple he established was raised on the site of a sanctuary built by Adam.

The Kaaba contains some lamps that illuminate its interior. It has been rebuilt several times because of floods, political struggles and time. The place were Abraham is said to have stood to build the Kaaba is marked by a small structure called the “Station of Abraham.” The “ kiswa” , the embroidered black cloth covering the Kaaba, is made with about 1,000 pounds of silk. It is entirely decorated with woven calligraphy of Qur’anic scriptures, including the Shahada and the text about Muhammad cleansing the Kaaba: “Truly God has fulfilled the vision of his messenger. You will enter the sacred mosque in security.”

Websites and Resources: Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

Worship at the Kaaba

The Kaaba is neither a temple or shrine. It is empty except, Muslims say, for the presence of God, and symbolizes the abstractness and oneness of Allah. When pilgrims circle the shrine they recite in Arabic: "Lord God from Distant Land I have come unto Thee...grant me shelter under Thy throne”; or they chant "In the name of God; God is most great!"

Muslims do not worship the Kaaba. They view it as their most sacred place and a powerful symbol of unity and monotheism. Muslims believe it marks the location where the earth was created and symbolizes an earthly image of the divine throne in heaven, and thus actions that take place at the Kaaba, such as circling it, are replicated in heaven at the throne of God. Even so, the Kaaba is not an object or worship; it simply signifies a direction imposed by God to maintain unity and uniformity among the faithful.

Black Stone

The Black Stone is a 30-centimeter (12-inch) -in-diameter sacred stone set in silver into the wall on the southeast corner of the Kaaba, near the door. It is said to be the only remaining relic of the temple erected by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Many Muslims believe it was given by the archangel Gabriel to Adam, and Abraham later put it in the Kaaba.

The black stone is may be a meteorite that someone may have picked up after watching it impact with the earth. Some have said it was originally white but was turned black by the sins of mankind. It is perfumed, and has been rubbed smooth with the kisses and caresses of hundreds of millions pilgrims over the centuries.

Pilgrims are anxious to kiss or touch the Black Stone because the believe it represents the right hand of god. During the Hajj pilgrims are nearly crushed to death as the make their way through the multitudes to touch it with their right hand. The holy wall between the back stone and door is also regarded as extremely holy. Pilgrims try to press their entire bodies against it.

Muhammad Cleanses the Kaaba

Black stone
In pre-Islamic times the Kaaba was surrounded by 360 idols (likely one for each day of the year) and included an image of Uzza (goddess of the morning star and the Arabian version of Aphrodite), Awf, the Great Bird and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba. It was circled seven times by worshipers as is done by pilgrims on the Hajj today.

Muhammad returned to Mecca in A.D. 630, eight years after being exiled. His return allowed him to fulfill a promise he made to Gabriel in A.D. 610 to cleanse the Kaaba of idols. Muhammad touched the black stone and circled the Kaaba seven times. He cleansed the Kaaba by smashing the idols and then dedicated the empty box to the worship of one God. One early Arabic source wrote the Kaaba contained paintings as well as statues and that Muhammad ordered them all destroyed except for a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary which were spared, some suggest, so as not to offend Muslim that had converted from Christianity.

Muhammad called for a cloak to spread on the ground at the base of the Kaaba and ordered the black stone to be placed on it. With a noble of each major tribe holding a corner, he ordered the cloak to be raised, He then took the black stone and placed in the spot it remains today. Meccans filed past the Kaaba and declared their allegiance to Allah. Many of pagan rites that revolved around the Kaaba and Mecca were linked to the stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ismail and presumably without much alteration they became Islam rites.

In some accounts Abraham built or rebuilt the Kaaba. The Qur’an states that as he and his son rebuilt the Kaaba walls they prayed: “My Lord, make this a City of Peace.” Muhammad wanted Muslims to constantly remind themselves of their line to Abraham. When his companions asked him how this should be achieved, Muhammad replied “Say: may the blessings of God be upon Muhammad and his progeny” and then say “May the blessings of God be upon Abraham and his progeny.” This is now part of Muslims’ daily prayers.

Kaaba Customs

The Kaaba is where Muslims direct their prayers when they bow towards Mecca. Traditionally the Holy City was placed at the center of Muslim maps. Muslims developed a system resembling longitude and latitude very early because it was important for them to fix the position of Mecca for their daily prayers. The North Star was seen as confirmation that "Mecca was opposite the center of the earth."∞

Every year in a special ceremony presided over by the King of Saudi Arabia in which the gold and silver door of the Kaaba is opened, the Kaaba is cleaned and the kiswa that covers it is replaced. It is an immense honor for a Muslim dignitary to be invited to the ceremony. The Kaaba is cleaned two other times. The door is built seven feet off the ground to keep it from being flooded. During the cleaning a special ladder is pushed up against the door.

Visiting The Kaaba

20120509-Black_Stone coveting.jpg
Trying to touch the
Black Stone during the Hajj
The Kaaba was cleansed of idols by Muhammad during his triumphnat return to Mecca, an act as important to Muslims as the crucifixion of Christ is to Christians. Each year millions of Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca for the Hajj to the relive the cleaning of the Kaaba and other events central to Muslim faith. In ancient times members of caravans and trade fairs and pilgrims payed a fee to see the 360 idols in the Kaaba, which including an image of Uzza (the Arabian version of Aphrodite) and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba.

Today the Kaaba lies at the center of Harram Mosque in central Mecca, one of Islam's holiest shrines. Also known as the Sacred Mosque or the Great Mosque, it is comprised of a perimeter of buildings that surround a massive courtyard and a gallery that encloses the hills of Safa and Marwah, where it is said Abraham's servant and lover, Hagar, searched for water for her son Ismail. At the center of the massive courtyard is the Kaaba, the House of God, Islam’s holiest object. When Muslims bow to Mecca five times a day this is where their prayers are directed. During the hajj pilgrims enter the courtyard through the outer buildings at the Gate of Salvation.

The Kaaba is brilliantly lit at night. Some say the best time to visit it is around midnight when you can quietly sit in the steps in the courtyard and reflect upon it, You won’t have it to yourself. Even late at night people gather around it. Around this time you can hear the faithful murmuring prayers and smell the scent of detergent is in the air from the soap used to wash down the marble floor of the courtyard. The Kaaba itself is cleaned with water from the Zamzam well and perfumed with incense, before a new textile covering for the Ka‘ba is laid.

Describing the scene around the Kaaba,Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Around me the pious from all the Muslim world paid homage to God in the birthplace of their faith. A circle of schoolboys cradling the Qur’ans chanted their catechism;joyous pilgrims splashed themselves with water from the sacred Well of Zamzam; the very old, with eyes on the next life, washed clothes and laid them in the courtyard to dry. A trace of incense wafted on the reverent murmur of a thousand prayers."

Saleena Nurmohamed, who undertook the Hajj in 2006, at the age of ten, wrote: "I made my way inside cautiously, not wanting to set my eyes on the Ka‘ba (House of God) until I was able to get a clear and unobstructed view, in order to properly savour the moment. I also wanted to pray for three things dear to me as prayers get granted when you first cast your eyes on the Ka‘ba. Words cannot describe the emotions that are created when one looks at the Ka‘ba, such a simple object structurally yet so majestic and awe-inspiring that it is difficult to take your eyes off it. After emotionally gathering myself, I started my Pilgrimage.” [Source: British Museum =]

Kabbah Textiles


According to the British Museum: “The sacred textiles comprise a number of different elements, including an overall covering (kiswa) and a belt (hizam) placed at about two-thirds of the height of the wall of the Ka‘ba. Over the door is a curtain (sitara or burqu‘). Inside the Ka‘ba are other textiles: a curtain to the door leading to the roof known as Bab al-Tawba, and red and green textiles with chevron designs on the inside walls. Within the sanctuary, the Maqam Ibrahim was also covered with a textile.”[Source: British Museum =]

“The Maqam Ibrahim (Abraham) where he is believed to have stood when rebuilding the Ka‘ba with his son Isma‘il (Ishmael), traditionally had its own decorated textile. The cover was made in four panels, of which this piece is the last. The fabric used is a piece of the kiswa of the Ka‘ba. The piece here is made of black silk and embroidered with gold metallic thread, silver-gilt strips and sequins and cotton thread padding. The lower part of each side is inscribed with the names of the Prophet’s family. Here, the names of his grandsons Hasan and Hussein can be clearly seen. =

“This sumptuous and heavily embroidered textile was made to be placed over the door of the Ka‘ba. The piece here is of black silk with red silk appliqués embroidered with silver and silver-gilt wire. It is lavishly decorated with bold arrangements of Arabic inscriptions from the Qur’an and other phrases. In the central black rectangle is the dedication in the name of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839 – 61). The curtain was made at the Dar al-Kiswa in Cairo, it was renewed annually, and was carried along with the mahmal as part of the Hajj caravan. This honoured cloak was ordered by our lord the sultan king of the kings of the Arabs and Persians, lord of the Hijaz region, the sultan Abd al-Majid Khan son of Mahmoud Khan, son of Abd al-Hamid Khan son of the sultan Ahmad Khan, may his caliphate continue, 1263.’ =

“The hizam– or belt - is placed over the black kiswa on all four sides of the Ka‘ba, and at about two thirds of its height. This section, for one side, is nearly seven metres long. It is embroidered with silver and silver-gilt wire. It was made in Cairo and sent with the Hajj caravan. Although the sitara (the curtain for the door of the Ka‘ba) was replaced every year, the belts were sometimes returned and repaired before being sent back to Mecca. The red roundel on the left bears the name of the Ottoman sultan who commissioned it, Selim II (ruled 1566 –74). The central inscription is in thuluth script. It contains Qur’anic verses identifying the Ka‘ba as "the first House [of worship] appointed for all people". =

kiswah up close

“Square embroidered panels were made to be placed over the kiswa at the four corners of the Ka‘ba below the belt. They are known as samadiyya because of the words from Chapter 112 of the Qur’an ‘Allahu al-Samad’, ‘God, the Eternal’, embroidered within the circle of text. They were also known as kardashiyya. This example was made of black silk with red silk appliqués embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton and silk thread padding. =

“The kiswa is a textile that was made to cover the Ka‘ba. Traditionally black and made from thirty-four pieces stitched together, the design consists of invocations to God and the Profession of Faith woven into the fabric. These are composed in a style known as jali thuluth, part of which is in mirror writing, where one side of the text echoes the other. The Ka‘ba is never left without a covering – as the old one is unfastened, the new one is immediately lowered from the roof. =

“A special textile was made for the internal door of the Ka‘ba beginning in the mid-19th century. It is made of green silk with red and gold silk appliqués, embroidered in silver and silver gilt wire over cotton and sild thread padding. The inscription indicates that this was ordered by Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) and presented by Abbas Hilmi the Khedive of Ottoman Egypt (1874-1931). =

“The designs for the textiles placed inside the Ka‘ba, established in about 1600, continued with little variation for centuries. The bold inscription within the wide bands is the Profession of Faith. In the narrow bands are verses that are specific to the importance of the Ka‘ba in Islam (Qur’an 3:96). In flask-shaped medallions and roundels are inscribed three of the Names of God. This textile is likely to have been made by Indian craftsmen in Mecca. A similar example is in the Museum of the Haramayn in Mecca.” =

Inscriptions on the Kaaba

Inscriptions on the Kaaba include 1) The Shahada (‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’); 2) “God has truly fulfilled His Messenger’s vision: God willing, you will most certainly enter the Sacred Mosque in safety” (Qur’an 48:27); and 3) The Throne Verse (Qur’an 2: 255-6): “Who is there that can intercede with Him except by His leave? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, but they do not comprehend any of His knowledge except what He wills. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth; it does not weary Him to preserve them both. He is the Most High, the Tremendous.” [Source: British Museum =]

putting embroidery on the Kaaba

On the Curtain for Door of Repentance are the Lines: 4 ‘In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate. When those come to you who believe in our signs say peace be upon you. Your Lord has inscribed for himself mercy and if any of you did evil in ignorance and then repented and amended his conduct, he is most forgiving and merciful.’

On the left of the Curtain for Door of Repentance are the words:‘This noble sitara was ordered by our lord the sultan Abd al-Hamid, may God grant him victory.’ ‘Truly God our Lord and Creator, the Exalted, the Merciful has spoken the Truth, as has his messenger, the one who brings good tidings and warns from evil- sura.’

On the right of the Curtain for Door of Repentance are the words: “In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate. Remember we made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety and take the Station of Abraham as a place of prayer.’ ‘Truly God our Lord and Creator, the Exalted, the Merciful has spoken the Truth, as has his messenger, the one who brings good tidings and warns from evil- sura’

Contents of the Kabbah

Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “A fascinating document is provided by the list of objects sent to Mekkah and kept there in the Ka'bah. This list can be made up from different authors, especially from al-Azraqi whose early date (ninth century) is of particular significance to us. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]

“In pre-Islamic times the Mekkan sanctuary had contained paintings and sculptures, which were destroyed on the Prophet's order. Apparently until the time of Ibn al-Zubayr the shrine also kept the two horns of the ram which had been sacrificed by Abraham and other prophets; when he destroyed the Ka'bah, Ibn al-Zubayr reached for them but they crumbled in his hands. In Islamic times a new series of objects was brought into the holy place. Umar hung there two crescent-shaped ornaments taken from the capital city of the Persians. Yazid I gave two ruby-encrusted crescents belonging to a Damascene church, together with two cups.

Muhammad removing a dragon from the Kaaba

Abd al-Malik sent two necklaces and two glass cups, al-Walid I two cups, al-Walid II a throne and two crescent-shaped ornaments with an inscription, and al-Saffah a green dish. Al-Mansur had a glass cup of an ancient Egyptian type hung in the shrine. Harun al-Rashid put there two gilded and bejeweled cases containing the celebrated oaths of allegiance of his two sons to the complex political system he had established. Al-Ma'mun sent rubies attached to a golden chain, while al-Mutawakkil had a necklace of gold with precious stones, rubies, and topazes hung on a chain of gold. At a later date the agreement between al-Muwaffaq and al-Mu'tamid about the division of the empire was also sent to the Ka'bah. But the most important group of objects from our point of view is that which was sent by al-Ma'mun. |

“The text of al-Azraqi is somewhat confused on this score, and two more or less contemporary sets of events seem to have been mixed up by the chronicler. First, an unnamed king of Tibet had an idol of gold with a crown of gold and jewels set on a baldachin throne of silver covered with a cloth with tassels in the shape of spheres. When this king became a Muslim, he gave the throne and the idol to the Ka'bah. They were sent to Mekkah in 816-17 and exhibited at the time of the pilgrimage with an inscription emphasizing the fact that the throne was given to the Ka'bah as a token of the king's submission to Islam. During the revolt a year later the throne was destroyed, but the crown remained in the Ka'bah certainly until the time of al-Azraqi. Second, the Mekkan sanctuary also acquired the spoils of the Kabul-shah, a rather mysterious prince from Afghanistan, who submitted and became converted in 814-15. His crown seems to have been taken to Mekkah immediately, as is ascertained by an inscription of that date. The throne was kept for awhile in the treasury of the oriental provinces before being moved to Mekkah in 816. The inscriptions that were put up together with these two objects emphasize the victory of the "righteous" prince al-Ma'mun over his perjured brother and the victory of the "Commander of the Faithful" over the unbelievers. |

“These objects in the Ka'bah can be divided into three categories. Some were merely expensive gifts whose purpose was to emphasize the holiness of the place and the piety of the donors; just as in Byzantium these were preponderantly royal jewels. Another category need not concern us here: the statements of oaths, which were put in the sanctuary not to enhance its holiness but to acquire holiness and sacredness from it. The third group of objects from Umar's gift acquired in the palace of the Persian kings, to the throne and crown of Kabul-shah were used to symbolize the unbeliever's submission to Islam through the display of his Herrschaftszeichen, or symbols of power, in the chief sanctuary of Islam, and as such had an uplifting value to the beholders. |

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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