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KAʿBAH . The Kaʿbah (cube), located in Mecca, is the shrine at the center of the Muslim world. Referred to as the "House of God," (bayt Allāh ), it is the central point (qiblah ) on earth toward which all Muslims face when performing daily prayers (salāt ). Making pilgrimage (ājj ) to the Kaʿbah at least once in a Muslim's life if able, is one of the major religious obligations in Islam. It is also referred to in the Qur'ān (5:95, 97), where it is called al-bayt (his house), and also masjid al-aram (the sacred mosque).

The present Kaʿbah is a cubelike building made of local Meccan granite and Yemeni mortar. It is 50 feet high, 40 feet on its longest side and about 33 feet on its shorter walls. It is hollow, with a door on the long side about 7 feet above the ground, necessitating rolling stairs to enter. The corners are situated roughly on the points of the compass, with the eastern corner containing the Black Stone (al-ajar al-aswad ) that has been the major feature of the structure since pre-Islamic times. Inside the Kaʿbah, there are gold and silver lamps hanging from a ceiling supported by wooden pillars. The Kaʿbah is covered by a black cloth brocaded in gold and silver, called the Kiswah (curtain), containing the words of the declaration of faith (shahādah ) and quotations from the Qur'ān. This covering is renewed each year, with the old cloth cut into pieces as relics for the pilgrims.

The history of the Kaʿbah demonstrates that the Black Stone is the primary focal point of Muslim veneration, but is not an object of worship, since only the aniconic Allāh is worshiped. While there is only slight mention outside of Muslim accounts of the history of the Kaʿbah, the story told is that it was destroyed and rebuilt several times in Muammad's lifetime and afterward by war, fire, and flood. In one incident, the Black Stone, which is really a dark reddish brown, was cracked into three pieces and several fragments, and is now encased in a heavy silver bezel. During Muammad's farewell pilgrimage, he kissed the Stone during his circumambulation (awāf), which action has become customary for pilgrims since. The circumambulation, which is counter clockwise, is made as close to the Kaʿbah as possible on a pavement of granite called the matāf.

The pre-Islamic records of the Kaʿbah indicate that it was an ancient shrine and place of sacrifice. The geographer Ptolemy refers to Mecca as Macoraba, a term that is likely cognate with South Arabian mikrab (temple), and Northwest Semitic qurbān (sacrifice). Arabic records indicate that the Kaʿbah was a place of pagan sacrifice until the arrival of Islam. Qur˒anic verses and Muslim legends assign an importance to the Kaʿbah similar to the position of the Jerusalem Temple for Judaism. Many Western scholars have pointed to similarities among stories about the two shrines. It is said to be at the center of the earth and the location at which Adam first performed worship of God. It is thought to be directly beneath a heavenly counterpart that some hold to be the "real" Kaʿbah. Under heavenly guidance, it is said to have been first constructed by Abraham (Ibrāhīm) and his son Ishmael (Ishmā'īl) when the Sakīnah circled the spot and instructed them to build. The Black Stone is believed to have been brought from heaven by the angel Gabriel (Jibrīl), giving rise to modern, secular speculation that the stone is a meteorite. The nearby well of Zamzam was the source of water for Ishmael and Hagar when they were cast into the desert. Abraham was the first to institute the pilgrimage (ājj ), and it is held to be the location of the graves of Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar and a number of prophets. In the process of rebuilding the Kaʿbah in Muammad's early life, a pry bar was placed under the foundation stone to move it, and the whole earth is said to have shook, indicating that it was the foundation of the world. In this reconstruction, Muammad acted to resolve a conflict over who would have the honor of restoring the Black Stone by placing it in his cloak and having a representative of each Meccan clan lift the stone into place.

With Muammad's conquest of Mecca in 8/629, the accretions and numerous pagan idols that had become associated with the Kaʿbah were purged, and Islamic worship established. It is believed that there were over 360 different idols that had been moved into the Kaʿbah. According to tradition, Muammad left an image of Maryam, the mother of Jesus, intact inside of the cleansed Kaʿbah, put there by the Coptic craftsman who helped the Meccans rebuild the shrine. This image was destroyed in the civil wars during the Umayyad period. The sacred precinct around the Kaʿbah thus became the place that Muslims perform the ājj and the lesser pilgrimage (umrah ), including the annual ritual sacrifice.

In 64/683, during the attempt of ˓Abd Allāh b. al-Zubayr to gain the caliphate, the Kaʿbah was nearly destroyed in the siege, and a subsequent fire cracked the Black Stone into three pieces. When the siege was lifted, the Black Stone was repaired with a silver bezel, and the Kaʿbah was rebuilt and enlarged. In 74/693, the Umayyad conquered Mecca, killed al-Zubayr, and undid many of the alterations, returning the Kaʿbah to a simpler form, which it still retains. In 317/929, the Qaramatians (Qarāmitah) carried off the Black Stone, which was restored after twenty years. While the Kaʿbah itself has retained the general size and form it had in Muammad's lifetime, much work has been done to improve the surrounding areas to accommodate the ājj visitors. Since 1376/1956, the stones that paved the matāf were relayed, an electric lighting system replaced the oil lamps, water taps have been provided and the walkway between Safā and Marwah used for the Sa'y has been covered by a tall ceiling. In keeping with Nahhabi doctrines, the improvements in the Kaʿbah have resulted in the elimination of saint-shrines and other historical and religious spaces.

Nearly all branches of Islam near the Kaʿbah regard the Kaʿbah as a central part of Islamic religious practice. In addition to facing th Kaʿbah during salāt, Muslims also bury the dead facing towards it. In the Islamic mystical tradition, its importance has been reinterpreted and linked with a heavenly Kaʿbah that is, according to some, directly above the earthly shrine. Above all, the experience of visiting the Kaʿbah is not veneration of the building or the Black Stone, but an aid to contemplation of God.

See Also

aram and Hawtah; Pilgrimage, article on Muslim Pilgrimage.


Descriptions of the Kaʿbah are readily found in pilgrim accounts of the ājj, some of which are available on the Internet. A comprehensive study of the pilgrimage with an extensive bibliography is F. E. Peters, The Hajj (Princeton, 1994). Also recommended is his Jerusalem and Mecca: The Typology of the Holy City in the Near East (New York, 1987). Beverly White Spicer's The Kaʿbah (Lanham, Md., 2003), examines the intersection of the Kaʿbah and human psycho-physiology. For a concise summary of the rites associated with the Kaʿbah, see Noah Ha Mim Keller, ed. and trans., The Reliance of the Traveler; A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (Dubai, 1991). For literary accounts of the ājj and descriptions of the Kaʿbah, see Michael Wolfe's One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage (New York, 1997). See also Gerald Hawting's "Ka'ba," in Encyclopedia of the Qurʾān, Vol. III (Leiden, 2003). For a recent film, see Hajj, The Pilgrimage: A Videorecording (Princeton, 2003). The presentation in art is reflected in Ann Parker's Hajj Paintings: Folk Art of the Great Pilgrimage (Washington, D.C., 1995).

Gordon D. Newby (2005)

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