The Kaaba (Arabic: الكعبة al-Kaʿbah IPA: [ʔælˈkæʕbɐ], “The Cube”), also known as al-Kaʿba(tu) l-Mušarrafah (الكعبة المشرفة; “The Noble Cube“), al-Baytu l-ʿAtīq (البيت العتيق; “The Primordial House“), or al-Baytu l-Ḥarām (البيت الحرام; “The Sacred/Forbidden House“) is a cuboid-shaped building in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, and is the most sacred site in Islam.
The building has a mosque (Masjid) built around it, the Masjid al-Haram. All Muslims around the world are supposed to face the Kaaba duringprayers, no matter where they are. From any given point in the world, the direction facing the Kaaba is called the Qibla.
One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the Hajj pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime if able to do so. Multiple parts of the Hajj require pilgrims to walk seven times around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction (as viewed from above). Thiscircumambulation, the Tawaf, is also performed by pilgrims during the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). However, the most dramatic times are during the Hajj, when about 6 million pilgrims gather to circle the building on the same day.
The Kaaba is located inside the Masjid al-Ḥarām (المسجد الحرام, the “Sacred Mosque”) in the center of Makkah (مكة Makkah). It is a cuboid-shape structure which is made of granite quarried from nearby hills. Standing upon a 25 cm (10 in) marble base that projects outwards about 35 cm (14 in). It is approximately 13.1 m (43 ft) high, with sides measuring 11.03 m (36.2 ft) by 12.86 m (42.2 ft).
Inside the Kaaba, the floor is made of marble and limestone. The interior walls are clad with marble halfway to the roof. The marble is inset with Qur’anic inscriptions. The wall directly adjacent to the entrance of the Kaaba has six tablets inlaid with inscriptions. The top part of the walls are covered with a green cloth embroidered with gold Qur’anic verses. Caretakers anoint the marble cladding with scented oil used on the Black Stone outside. Three pillars stand inside the Kaaba, with a small altar set between one and the other two. Lamp-like objects (possible cruciblecensers) hang by a rope above the platform. An enclosed staircase leads to the roof.
Each numbered item in the following list corresponds to features called out in the diagram image.
- Al-Ħajaru l-Aswad, “the Black Stone“, is located in the Kaaba’s eastern corner. Its northern corner is known as the Ruknu l-ˤĪrāqī, “the Iraqi corner”, its western as the Ruknu sh-Shāmī, “the Levantine corner”, and its southern as Ruknu l-Yamanī “the Yemeni corner”. The four corners of the Kaaba roughly point toward the four cardinal directions of the compass. Its major (long) axis is aligned with the rising of the star Canopus toward which its southern wall is directed, while its minor axis (its east-west facades) roughly align with the sunrise of summer solstice and the sunset of winter solstice.
- The entrance is a door set 2.13 m (7 ft) above the ground on the north-eastern wall of the Kaaba, which acts as the façade. In 1979 the 300 kg gold doors made by chief artist Ahmad bin Ibrahim Badr, replaced the old silver doors made by his father, Ibrahim Badr in 1942. There is a wooden staircase on wheels, usually stored in the mosque between the arch-shaped gate of Banū Shaybah and the Zamzam Well.
- Rainwater spout made of gold. This was added in the rebuilding of 1627 after the previous year’s rain caused three of the four walls to collapse.
- Gutter, also added in 1627 to protect the foundation from groundwater.
- Hatim, a low wall originally part of the Kaaba. It is a semi-circular wall opposite, but not connected to, the north-west wall of the Kaaba known as thehatīm. This is 90 cm (35 in) in height and 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in width, and is composed of white marble. At one time the space lying between thehatīm and the Kaaba belonged to the Kaaba itself, and for this reason it is not entered during the tawaf. Some believe that the graves of Ismail and his mother Hagar are located in this space. Pilgrims do not walk in the area between this wall and the Kaaba.
- Al-Multazam, the part of the wall between the Black Stone and the entry door.
- The Station of Abraham, a glass and metal enclosure with what is said to be an imprint of Abraham’s foot. Abraham is said to have stood on this stone during the construction of the upper parts of the Kaaba, raising Ismail on his shoulders for the uppermost parts.
- Corner of the Black Stone (South-East).
- Corner of Yemen (South-West). Pilgrims traditionally acknowledge a large vertical stone that forms this corner.
- Corner of Syria (North-West).
- Corner of Iraq (North-East).
- Kiswa, the embroidered covering. Kiswa is a black silk and gold curtain which is replaced annually during the Hajj pilgrimage. Two-thirds of the way up is a band of gold-embroidered Quranic text, including the Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith.
- Marble stripe marking the beginning and end of each circumperambulation.
- The station of Gabriel.
The Haram is the focal point of the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages that occur in the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the Islamic calendar and at any time of the year, respectively. The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the Pillars of Islam, required of all able-bodied Muslims who can afford the trip. In recent times, about 3 million Muslims perform the Hajj every year.
Some of the rituals performed by pilgrims are symbolic of historical incidents. For example, the episode of Hagar’s search for water is emulated by Muslims as they run between the two hills of Safa and Marwah whenever they visit Mecca.
The Hajj is associated with the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad from the 7th century, but the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of sayidna Ibrahim (Abraham).
According to Islamic tradition the Kaaba was re-constructed by Abraham. It is stated in the Qur’an that this was the first house that was built for humanity to worship Allah.
The early Arabian population consisted primarily of warring nomadic tribes. When they did converge peacefully, it was usually under the protection of religious practices. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Islam, Wensinck identifies Mecca with a place called Macoraba mentioned by Ptolemy. His text is believed to date from the second century AD, about 400 years before the coming of Muhammad, and described it as a foundation in southern Arabia, built around a sanctuary. It probably did not become an area of religious pilgrimage until around 500 A.D. It was then that the Quraysh tribe (into whichMuhammad was later born) took control of Macoraba and made an agreement with the local kinanah Bedouins for possession. The sanctuary itself, located in a barren valley surrounded by mountains, was probably built at the location of the water source today known as the Zamzam Well, an area of considerable religious significance to Muslims.
In her book, Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong asserts that the Kaaba was dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols that either represented the days of the year or were effigies of the Arabian pantheon. Once a year, tribes from all around the Arabian peninsula, whether Christian or pagan, would converge on Mecca to perform the Hajj.
Imoti contends that there were multiple such “Kaaba” sanctuaries in Arabia at one time, but this was the only one built of stone. The others also allegedly had counterparts of the Black Stone. There was a “red stone”, the deity of the south Arabian city of Ghaiman, and the “white stone” in the Kaaba of al-Abalat (near the city of Tabala, south of Mecca). Grunebaum in Classical Islam points out that the experience of divinity of that period was often associated with stone fetishes, mountains, special rock formations, or “trees of strange growth.” The Kaaba was thought to be at the center of the world, with the Gate of Heaven directly above it. The Kaaba marked the location where the sacred world intersected with the profane; the embeddedBlack Stone was a further symbol of this as a meteorite that had fallen from the sky and linked heaven and earth.
According to Sarwar, about 400 years before the birth of Muhammad, a man named “Amr bin Lahyo bin Harath bin Amr ul-Qais bin Thalaba bin Azd bin Khalan bin Babalyun bin Saba”, who was descended from Qahtan and was the king of Hijaz (the northwestern section of Saudi Arabia, which encompassed the cities of Mecca and Medina), had placed a Hubal idol onto the roof of the Kaaba. This idol was one of the chief deities of the ruling Quraysh. The idol was made of red agate and shaped like a human, but with the right hand broken off and replaced with a golden hand. When the idol was moved inside the Kaaba, it had seven arrows in front of it, which were used for divination.
To maintain peace among the perpetually warring tribes, Mecca was declared a sanctuary where no violence was allowed within 20 miles (32 km) of the Kaaba. This combat-free zone allowed Mecca to thrive not only as a place of pilgrimage, but also as a trading center.
The genuine antiquity of Caaba ascends beyond the Christian era: in describing the coast of the Red sea the Greek historian Diodorus has remarked, between the Thamudites and the Sabeans, a famous temple, whose superior sanctity was revered by all the Arabians; the linen of silken veil, which is annually renewed by the Turkish emperor, was first offered by the Homerites, who reigned seven hundred years before the time of Mohammad.—Edward Gibbon, Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, Volume V, pp. 223–224
Gibbon, however, had misinterpreted Siculus’s text. Siculus described the location of this temple as being on a bay that extends deep inland to a distance of about 500 stades (about 80 km), and that the entrance of this bay is obstructed by a rock extending into the sea. Here is the description from Diodorus Siculus:
Next after these plains as one skirts the coast comes a gulf of extraordinary nature. It runs, namely, to a point deep into the land, extends in length a distance of some five hundred stades, and shut in as it is by crags which are of wondrous size, its mouth is winding and hard to get out of; for a rock which extends into the sea obstructs its entrance and so it is impossible for a ship either to sail into or out of the gulf. Furthermore, at times when the current rushes in and there are frequent shiftings of the winds, the surf, beating upon the rocky beach, roars and rages all about the projecting rock. The inhabitants of the land about the gulf, who are known as Banizomenes, find their food by hunting the land animals and eating their meat. And a temple has been set up there, which is very holy and exceedingly revered by all Arabians.—Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica volume iii.44, p. 217
There is no bay that matches this description along the coast near Mecca. Furthermore, Siculus describes this area as lying between the Thamudites and the Nabataeans, not the Thamudites and the Sabeans as Gibbon erroneously stated, which would put it much farther to the north, around the area of Tabuk. It is widely believed that this bay and temple described by Diodorus is in fact the bay adjacent to Ash-Sharmah in Tabuk Province.
In Makkan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Patricia Crone argues that the identification of Macoraba with Mecca is false and that Macoraba was a town in southern Arabia in what was then known asArabia Felix.
G. E. von Grunebaum says,
Mecca is mentioned by Ptolemy. The name he gives it allows us to identify it as a South Arabian foundation created around a sanctuary.—G. E. Von Grunebaum, Classical Islam: A History 600–1258, p. 19
Many Muslim and academic historians stress the power and importance of the pre-Islamic Mecca. They depict it as a city grown rich on the proceeds of the spice trade. Crone believes that this is an exaggeration and that Mecca may only have been an outpost trading with nomads for leather, cloth, and camel butter. Crone argues that if Mecca had been a well-known center of trade, it would have been mentioned by later authors such as Procopius, Nonnosus, or the Syrian church chroniclers writing in Syriac. The town is absent, however, from any geographies or histories written in the three centuries before the rise of Islam.
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “before the rise of Islam it was revered as a sacred sanctuary and was a site of pilgrimage.” According to German historian Eduard Glaser, the name “Kaaba” may have been related to the southern Arabian or Ethiopian word “mikrab“, signifying a temple. Again, Crone disputes this etymology.