Mecca, the sacred city in Saudi Arabia, houses the holiest site in Islam. The Kaba, the ancient house of God, is the geographical and historical center of the Muslim worldview. Five times a day, Muslims around the world face this holy site, called the qibla, in prayer. Once a year, pilgrims from all over the world, travel to the Kaba to perform the hajj. The focus of this post, the first in a series on important sites, is the Kaba.
The Kaba is a cubical structure about 60 feet high and 60 feet wide. It is surrounded now by Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the Sacred Mosque, the largest mosque in the world. Near the Kaba is the Well of Zamzam and the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwa. Both the well and the hills are significant because they are part of the story of Hagar’s search for water for her son Ishmael.
The Black Stone is located on the southeast corner of the Kaba. The stone is believed to have been given to Adam. Pilgrims try to kiss the stone during the hajj. The inside of the Kaba is empty. The outside is covered by the kiswah, a black silk cloth embroidered in gold with verses from the Qur’an, which is replaced annually.
Muslims believe that the Kaba was initially built by Adam and is the first house of God on Earth. It was later rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael. One hadith describes how Abraham was commanded to build the Kaba with his son:
Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished, and called on them afterwards. He saw Ishmael under a tree near Zamzam, sharpening his arrows. When he saw Abraham, he rose up to welcome him (and they greeted each other as a father does with his son, or a son does with his father). Abraham said, ‘O Ishmael! Allah has given me an order.’ Ishmael said, ‘Do what your Lord has ordered you to do.’ Abraham asked, ‘Will you help me?’ Ishmael said, ‘I will help you.’ Abraham said, ‘Allah has ordered me to build a house here,’ pointing to a small hill higher than the land surrounding it.’ The Prophet added, ‘Then they raised the foundations of the House’;” i.e., the Ka’ba. (Sahih Bukhari)
After Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Kaba, Abraham was told to proclaim the pilgrimage to the sanctuary:
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka [older name of Mecca]: full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings. In it are signs manifest; (for example), the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security; pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah?those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith; Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures. (Chapter 3, verses 96-97)
From the time of Abraham and before the rise of Islam, pilgrims from all over the Arabian Peninsula would come and visit the Kaba. Over time, the Kaba housed around 360 idols. After the Prophet Muhammad recaptured Mecca in 630 C.E., he rededicated the Kaba to the worship of one god, Allah.
Scholars estimate that the Kaba has been reconstructed between 5-12 times because of damage done to the structure through warfare and natural disasters, like flooding; however, each time, it was rebuilt on the foundations set by Abraham and Ishmael.
The Kaba is also known as Al-Bayt Al-Ateeq (the ancient house) and Al-Bayt Al-Haram (the honorable house). Muslims do not worship the Kaba itself. Rather, it acts as an important unifying point for believers around the world. It is in Mecca at the Kaba that Muslims feel the connection of heaven and earth. It is for this reason that the Kaba is considered to be the holiest site in Islam.
Have you visited the Kaba? What was your experience at the sanctuary? Why do you think that the Kaba is important? Are there sites in other faith traditions that have the same function as the Kaba? Please share your comments below.