Of all the questions asked by Westerners about Muslim beliefs, one of the hardest to answer adequately is: "What exactly is the Ka'bah ?"
In purely physical terms, the answer is easy: the Ka'bah is a stone structure about 50 feet high, roughly cubical in shape, which sits in the middle of the vast courtyard of Mecca's Sacred Mosque, its four corners more or less aligned with the cardinal points of the compass. Alongside the northwestern wall of the Ka'bah is an open area—the Hijr—enclosed by a semicircular wall and containing the traditional sites of the tombs of Hagar, wife of Abraham, and Ishmael, their son. Inside the structure there is an empty chamber and in the southeastern corner of the exterior wall there is, embedded in the wall in a silver frame, a fragment of polished black stone called simply the Hajar al-Aswad , the Black Stone.
After the rise of Islam it became customary to cover the Ka'bah with a cloth, the color of which varied with the color of the banner of the reigning caliph. Now it is draped with a black cloth—the Kiswah—on which are embroidered verses from the Koran in gold thread. Renewed each year, the Kiswahs were formerly made in Egypt and sent to Mecca with the annual Egyptian caravan. Now they are woven in a special Saudi Arabian Government factory in Mecca itself. Over 80 craftsmen weave the more than 2,500 feet of material required on handlooms and embroider it with verses from the Koran in magnificent calligraphy. The finished cloth weighs almost 5.000 pounds.
Each year on the eve of the Pilgrimage dignitaries from the Muslim world wash the Ka'bah thoroughly and sweep the chamber. Later, on the 10th of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah , during the Pilgrimage, the Ka'bah receives its new draping.
In comparison with the architectural extravagance of Christian cathedrals and basilicas—St. Paul's, Notre Dame, St. Peter's—the simple construction and relatively modest dimensions of the Ka'bah might strike some observers as unimpressive. Yet its very simplicity, as Muhammad Asad (see p. 14) wrote, is its incomparable glory. "There it stood, almost a perfect cube ... entirely covered with black brocade, a quiet island in the middle of the vast quadrangle of the mosque: much quieter than any other work of architecture anywhere in the world. It would almost appear that he who first built the Ka'bah—for since the time of Abraham the original structure has been rebuilt several times in the same shape—wanted to create a parable of man's humility before God. The builder knew that no beauty of architectural rhythm and no perfection of line, however great, could ever do justice to the idea of God: and so he confined himself to the simplest three-dimensional form imaginable—a cube of stone."
In historical and spiritual terms, the answer is more difficult. For the Ka'bah—"the House of God"—is not a temple, not a church, not a shrine. Not, at least, in the usual sense. It is rather the physical axis of the Muslim world, a focal point toward which Muslims all over the world pray five times a day and around which pilgrims to Mecca must perform the Tawaf . It is a symbol, as Muhammad Asad wrote, "of God's oneness; and the pilgrim's bodily movement around it is a symbolic expression of human activity, implying that not only our thoughts and feelings—all that is comprised in the term 'inner life'—but also our outward, active life, our doings and practical endeavors must have God as their center."
In the Koran, the significance of the Ka'bah is fundamental—as Sura II, verse 25 makes clear: "Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the Place of Abraham as a place of prayer, and We convenanted with Abraham and Ishmael that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer)."
The Ka'bah is also referred to in the Koran as the "first house established for mankind," meaning, according to the foremost medieval commentator on the Koran, al-Tabari, that it is the first building ever consecrated to the worship of God.
In medieval times popular legend held that the Ka'bah was created before the earth and floated for 1,000 years upon the surface of the waters covering the earth, coming to rest in Mecca only when the waters receded and the earth emerged. Thus the Ka'bah was already in place when Adam and Eve, after their expulsion from Paradise, made the first Pilgrimage as atonement for their sins. Such traditions, however, are rarely given much attention by Muslim historians anymore, and even less credence. To them what occurred before Abraham is of doubtful historicity. As Ismail Nawwab says (see p.12), "It all begins with Abraham."
There are also varying traditions about the Black Stone, which Muslims on the Pilgrimage either kiss or touch. One legend, widely diffused, states that the Black Stone was a precious jewel taken out of Paradise by Adam and put into the corner of the Ka'bah when he made the first Pilgrimage. Another, noted by al-Azraqi, the oldest historian of Mecca, says that the stone was given to Ishmael by the Angel Gabriel.
Because of such stories. Westerners frequently misinterpret and overemphasize the significance of the stone. To quote Muhammad Asad again: "This Black Stone... has been the cause of much misunderstanding among non-Muslims, who believe it to be a fetish taken over by Muhammad as a concession to the pagan Meccans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the Ka'bah is an object of reverence but not of worship, so too is the Black Stone. It is revered as the only remnant of Abraham's original building; and because the lips of Muhammad touched it on his Farewell Pilgrimage, all pilgrims have done the same ever since."
This misunderstanding is not new. In the year 929 the Carmathians, an heretical sect based in al-Hasa, in eastern Arabia, sacked Mecca and carried the stone off with them in hope of attracting pilgrims to al-Hasa rather than Mecca. But although they held the stone more than 20 years, the attempt failed, as orthodox Muslims attached little significance to the Black Stone itself. As the Caliph Omar said, "I know that you are a stone, incapable of doing good or harm. Had I not seen the Messenger of God kissing you, I would not have done so."
— P. L.