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The Kaaba

By Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay
The Kaaba, granite masonry, covered with silk curtain and calligraphy in gold and silver-wrapped thread, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631–32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GNU version 1.2 only)
The Kaaba, granite masonry, covered with silk curtain and calligraphy in gold and silver-wrapped thread, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631–32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GNU version 1.2 only)

Prayer and pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to a holy site is a core principle of almost all faiths. The Kaaba, meaning cube in Arabic, is a square building, elegantly draped in a silk and cotton veil. Located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, it is the holiest shrine in Islam.
Map of Mecca, Saudi Arabia (NormanEinstein, CC BY-SA 3.0
Map of Mecca, Saudi Arabia (NormanEinstein, CC BY-SA 3.0
In Islam, Muslims pray five times a day and after 624 C.E., these prayers were directed towards Mecca and the Kaaba rather than Jerusalem; this direction (or qibla in Arabic), is marked in all mosques and enables the faithful to know in what direction they should pray. The Qur‘an established the direction of prayer.
All Muslims aspire to undertake the hajj, or the annual pilgrimage, to the Kaaba once in their life if they are able. Prayer five times a day and the hajj are two of the five pillars of Islam, the most fundamental principles of the faith.
Upon arriving in Mecca, pilgrims gather in the courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram around the Kaaba. They then circumambulate (tawaf in Arabic) or walk around the Kaaba, during which they hope to kiss and touch the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), embedded in the eastern corner of the Kaaba.
Eastern corner of the Kaaba with the Black Stone, al-Hajar al-Aswad (photos: Saudi Arabia General Presidency of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque)
Eastern corner of the Kaaba with the Black Stone, al-Hajar al-Aswad (photos: Saudi Arabia General Presidency of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque)

The history and form of the Kaaba

The Kaaba was a sanctuary in pre-Islamic times. Muslims believe that Abraham (known as Ibrahim in the Islamic tradition), and his son, Ismail, constructed the Kaaba. Tradition holds that it was originally a simple unroofed rectangular structure. The Quraysh tribe, who ruled Mecca, rebuilt the pre-Islamic Kaaba in c. 608 C.E. with alternating courses of masonry and wood. A door was raised above ground level to protect the shrine from intruders and flood waters.
Muhammad was driven out of Mecca in 620 C.E. to Yathrib, which is now known as Medina. Upon his return to Mecca in 629/30 C.E., the shrine became the focal point for Muslim worship and pilgrimage. The pre-Islamic Kaaba housed the Black Stone and statues of pagan gods. Muhammad reportedly cleansed the Kaaba of idols upon his victorious return to Mecca, returning the shrine to the monotheism of Ibrahim. The Black Stone is believed to have been given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel and is revered by Muslims. Muhammad made a final pilgrimage in 632 C.E., the year of his death, and thereby established the rites of pilgrimage.

Modifications

The Kaaba has been modified extensively throughout its history. The area around the Kaaba was expanded in order to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims by the second caliph, ‘Umar (ruled 634–44). The caliph ‘Uthman (ruled 644–56) built the colonnades around the open plaza where the Kaaba stands and incorporated other important monuments into the sanctuary.
During the civil war between the caliph Abd al-Malik and Ibn Zubayr who controlled Mecca, the Kaaba was set on fire in 683 C.E. Reportedly, the Black Stone broke into three pieces and Ibn Zubayr reassembled it with silver. He rebuilt the Kaaba in wood and stone, following Ibrahim’s original dimensions and also paved the space around the Kaaba. After regaining control of Mecca, Abd al-Malik restored the part of the building that Muhammad is thought to have designed. None of these renovations can be confirmed through study of the building or archaeological evidence; these changes are only outlined in later literary sources.
The Kaaba with kiswa, c. 1910 (photo: G. Eric or Edith Matson, Library of Congress)
The Kaaba with kiswa, c. 1910 (photo: G. Eric or Edith Matson, Library of Congress)
Reportedly under the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (ruled 705–15), the mosque that encloses the Kaaba was decorated with mosaics like those of the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus. By the seventh century, the Kaaba was covered with kiswa, a black cloth that is replaced annually during the hajj.
Muhyi Lari, illustration of The Great Mosque, Futuh al-Haramayn (a Handbook for Pilgrims to Mecca and Medina), fols 19b–20a, 1582, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (The Khalili Collection)
Muhyi Lari, illustration of The Great Mosque, Futuh al-Haramayn (a Handbook for Pilgrims to Mecca and Medina), fols 19b–20a, 1582, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (The Khalili Collection)
Under the early Abbasid caliphs (750–1250), the mosque around the Kaaba was expanded and modified several times. According to travel writers, such as the Ibn Jubayr, who saw the Kaaba in 1183, it retained the eighth century Abbasid form for several centuries. From 1269–1517, the Mamluks of Egypt controlled the Hijaz, the highlands in western Arabia where Mecca is located. Sultan Qaitbay (ruled 1468–96) built a madrasa (a religious school) against one side of the mosque. Under the Ottoman sultans, Süleyman I (ruled 1520–1566) and Selim II (ruled 1566–74), the complex was heavily renovated. In 1631, the Kaaba and the surrounding mosque were entirely rebuilt after floods had demolished them in the previous year. This mosque, which is what exists today, is composed of a large open space with colonnades on four sides and with seven minarets, the largest number of any mosque in the world. At the center of this large plaza sits the Kaaba, as well as many other holy buildings and monuments.
The Kaaba with surrounding colonnades and minarets, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631–32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: marviikad, CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Kaaba with surrounding colonnades and minarets, pre-Islamic monument, rededicated by Muhammad in 631–32 C.E., multiple renovations, Mecca, Saudi Arabia (photo: marviikad, CC BY-NC 2.0)
The last major modifications were carried out in the 1950s by the government of Saudi Arabia to accommodate the increasingly large number of pilgrims who come on the hajj. Today the mosque covers almost forty acres.

The Kaaba today

Today, the Kaaba is a cubical structure, unlike almost any other religious structure. It is fifteen meters tall and ten and a half meters on each side; its corners roughly align with the cardinal directions. The door of the Kaaba is now made of solid gold; it was added in 1982. The kiswa, a large cloth that covers the Kaaba, which used to be sent from Egypt with the hajj caravan, today is made in Saudi Arabia. Until the advent of modern transportation, all pilgrims undertook the often dangerous hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in a large caravan across the desert, leaving from Damascus, Cairo, or other major cities in Arabia, Yemen or Iraq.
Kiwa of the Kaaba at the gold door, 2016 (photo: Abdullah Shakoor, CC0 1.0 public domain)
Kiwa of the Kaaba at the gold door, 2016 (photo: Abdullah Shakoor, CC0 1.0 public domain)
The numerous changes to the Kaaba and its associated mosque serve as good reminder of how often buildings, even sacred ones, were renovated and remodeled either due to damage or to the changing needs of the community.
Only Muslims may visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina today.
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Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, “Mecca” in The Grove encyclopedia of Islamic art and Architecture, Oxford University Press, 2009.
K. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, Oxford University Press, 1932/revised and enlarged 1969.

Essay by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Isabelle Willame
    Hi
    Since there is a door in the Kaaba that means that you can actually go Inside ? If yes does it happen and by whom for what reason ?
    Is it an empty space or is tehre something Inside ?
    (19 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Maliha Hossain
      Inside the Kaaba are two rooms. One bigger and the other is much smaller. Every year, it is opened once by the Saudi King or Badshah. It is his sacred duty vested upon him by Allah or The One God of Muslim community. The king must change the outer silk cover of Kaaba and clean the interior rooms. After over watching every procedure, he performs the prayer. Although the bigger room can be visited by the companions of the King but the smaller room is open only for the king. After finishing prayer, the Kaba is again closed until the next year.
      (9 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Mary Villela
    Hello,
    I am very sorry, but I have some questions in the most respectful way. Please, excuse my ignorance in the subject (that is why I enrolled :))! 1. Why did the Angel Gabriel gave them the Black Stone? Was it given for the sole purpose of building a house of worship? 2. Why do muslims must go there (if able)? If anyone in this forum has been there, I would love to know how this impacted their spiritual life. 3. Has anyone tested the Black Stone to know what type of elements it has? I would understand if no one has due to his historical and religious value, but I am just curious. Again, I ask this very respectfully to understand better both history and beliefs. Thank you!
    (16 votes)
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    • purple pi purple style avatar for user Hanouf
      Hello,
      1 - (Was it given for the sole purpose of building a house of worship) you could say that. In hadith the stone mentioned as stone that Angel Gabriel brought from heaven when Abraham was looking for last stone so the building is completed. 2 - Muslims must go to Mecca to "pilgrimage" at least once in their life (if able). i've been there several times but never to hajj. Everybody i know who been there to pilgrimage describe how much it was different experience for them than any other time they been there. 3 - The Black Stone wiki article have section that talks about its scientific origins. Sorry, I hope i was of help, my writing skills are not that good.
      (14 votes)
  • spunky sam blue style avatar for user RoboticLady
    What does the angel of gabriel have to do with muslims?
    (6 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Benny C
      Gabriel is important to Islam because he's one of the primary messengers sent from God. They believe he is the angel who spoke the Quran to Mohammed and continued to talk to Mohammed throughout his life. Muslims also believe he told Mary about giving birth to Jesus, and also communicated with Ibrahim (Abraham).
      (25 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user TAalaka
    Do you guys ever plan on visiting the Kabba and getting a closer look or even the dome of rock? Or maybe one person gets you the video and you comment on type of it or use skype. I know this sections is dedicated to medieval art but since it happens to be so religious because of the advent of christianity and islam i was wondering if you guys had a jewish art section or would that be in the ancient arts section?
    (6 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user ymjonas
    Does the veil over the Kaaba have any significance?
    (5 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user rbattistoni
    How long has Mecca and Medina been restricted to Muslims only? And why?
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Govaars, Elly
    I am wondering if the religion that is practiced in the Kaaba has changed a lot over time, or if Islam has not been modified a lot since the time of the Prophet Muhammad. This interests me because my grandmother was always fascinated by other cultures and religions, and I feel as if I should also know these things to follow in her legacy as a teacher and a pupil.
    (4 votes)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Ruba Saud
      I'm not sure if the other answer was helpful, but that's what I know: when prophet Ibrahim "Abraham" first built the Kaaba he believes ONLY in one god -that's the same with all the prophets- but then over the time people started building some status for the most religious people from their time and placing it in front of Kaaba to remind them to be always good as those, but another generation didn't actually know why they are there and they thought that God loves those people and if anybody else loves them God will love them too, so they started praying for those status and practicing hajj for them instead of God, until prophet Mohammad Came and returned them to the reality of the ONE AND ONLY GOD and that's when Islam have seen the light.
      hope that was helpful.
      (3 votes)
  • leafers tree style avatar for user Aditi
    What is inside of a mosque?
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink orange style avatar for user ermine
    I don’t follow any religion but I’m trying to understand all religions for educational purposes.
    I do understand why we may need religions (for example, for moral, political and other reasons). In my opinion, Christian stories are illogical. It seems to me that Islam is partly based on Judaism and Christianity.
    I’m under the impression that Islam was mostly created for cultural purposes and to unify the masses for political reasons.
    However, I find that it is very restrictive. It is as though I would pray fives times per day to the direction of the Moon, thinking that the god is there or attaching another importance to it (this example is only an analogy, I didn’t know how else to explain this concept).
    My question is what would happen if you pray to another direction (other than Mecca) or miss a prayer? Can you somehow bypass other restrictions if you are a Muslim?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine seed style avatar for user aishathzarashiyam
      (I am a muslim)
      - We have to face the direction of the kaaba then there will be an order in the ummah .We do not worship the kaabah.
      -Islam is based on Christianity and Judaism . Islam believes in all the prophets including Jesus (AS) , Moses (AS) and Abraham (AS) but we believe that Muhammed (SAW) is the last prophet and messenger sent by Allah(SWT) and that the Quran is the updated version of all the books revealed to the prophets before Muhammed(Moses (Torah), Jesus (Bible) etc. )
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Julia Kopell
    hi!
    when talking about the fire and restoration, they say "the part of the building that Muhammad is thought to have designed" but was it not built by Ibraham and Ismail much before Muhammad's time?? How could he have designed its structure?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf yellow style avatar for user ✿ ✨💎 мααяiуα 💎✨ ✿
      It is believed that Ibrahim and Ismail (peace be upon them) first made the Kaaba, but they were thousands of years before the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It was restored many times over the years. I guess they mean that the newly restored Kaaba was designed by Muhammad. That Kaaba was different to the one prior to it, and the current one is extremely different to that one! The Kaaba is refurbished all the time. In fact there is only one part of the Kaaba that has remained the whole time, and that is the Black Stone, which was believed to have been sent to Ibrahim from heaven to place in the Kaaba when it was being made! (It wasn't black then, though, it's just coloured over time ;) )


      Really great question - I hope I have answered it well :)
      (3 votes)