Ka’bah: The Sacred Heart of the Hajj

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Ka’bah: The Sacred Heart of the Hajj

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Five times a day, from sunrise to sunset, practicing Muslims prostrate in prayer towards Makkah, where the Ka’bah stands. This revered structure, located in the courtyard of Makkah’s Grand Mosque, is sheathed in black silk and cotton. It is the epicenter of the Hajj pilgrimage and is honored as the “House of God” (bayt Allāh), serving as a stepping-stone to Paradise. Rituals such as animal slaughter, circumcisions, weddings, and funerals are all performed facing this sacred symbol.

The Ka’bah, situated near the center of the Great Mosque in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, is considered the most sacred spot on Earth by Muslims. It is toward this small shrine that Muslims direct their prayers, bury their dead, and aspire to visit at least once in their lifetime as part of the Hajj pilgrimage, as commanded in the Qur’an.

This cube-shaped structure (the word ka’bah means “cube” in Arabic) stands roughly 50 feet (15 meters) high and measures about 35 by 40 feet (10 by 12 meters) at its base. Constructed from grey stone and marble, the Ka’bah is oriented so that its corners roughly correspond to the points of the compass. Inside, it contains only three pillars supporting the roof and several suspended silver and gold lamps. Most of the year, the Ka’bah is covered with a large black brocade cloth known as the kiswah.

The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, requires all physically and financially able Muslims to perform it at least once in their lifetime. The pilgrimage is an opportunity to cleanse past sins and start anew. During Hajj, pilgrims enter Makkah, circumambulate the Ka’bah seven times, kiss or touch the Black Stone (Ḥajar al-Aswad), pray twice facing the Maqām Ibrāhīm and the Ka’bah, and run seven times between the hills of Ṣafā and Marwah. This continuous movement around the Ka’bah is one of the most iconic images of the Hajj.

Embedded in the Ka’bah’s southern corner is the Black Stone, believed to be a fragment of paradise. Pilgrims seek absolution for their sins by touching or kissing the stone. According to tradition, Adam received this stone upon his expulsion from Paradise. Initially white, it is said to have turned black by absorbing the sins of countless pilgrims.

The early history of the Ka’bah is not well-documented. However, it is known that before Islam, it was a polytheist sanctuary and a site of pilgrimage for people across the Arabian Peninsula. The Qur’an mentions that Abraham and Ishmael “raised the foundations” of the Ka’bah, which many Muslims interpret as a rebuilding of an original shrine first erected by Adam.

Over the centuries, the Ka’bah has been destroyed, damaged, and rebuilt several times. During Prophet Muhammad’s early ministry, the Ka’bah served as the qiblah (direction of prayer) for Muslims. After the Hijrah to Madinah, the qiblah briefly shifted to Jerusalem before returning to the Ka’bah. When Muhammad’s forces conquered Makkah in 630, he ordered the destruction of the idols housed within the Ka’bah, purifying it of polytheism. Since then, the Ka’bah has been the focal point of Muslim worship.

The Ka’bah is described in the Qur’an as the “first house established for mankind,” a notion interpreted by the medieval commentator al-Tabari as the first building dedicated to the worship of God. The esteemed Islamic scholar and Qur’an translator Muhammad Asad found the Ka’bah’s simplicity awe-inspiring, noting its almost perfect cubic form, covered in black brocade, as a quiet island in the vast quadrangle of the mosque. Asad observed that its simplicity underscores its symbolism of God’s oneness and the pilgrim’s bodily movement around it represents the centrality of God in both the inner and outer life of a believer.

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