Five times a day from sunrise to sunset, practising Muslims prostrate in prayer towards Makkah. In the courtyard of Makkah’s Grand Mosque stands this hallowed symbol and is known as the Kaaba (meaning cube), a stone structure sheathed in black silk and cotton. It is the epicentre of the Hajj. It is considered by Muslims to be the bayt Allāh, the “House of God” a stepping-stone to paradise. The slaughter of animals and other rituals – circumcision’s weddings funerals – always take place facing this navel of the world.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform it once in their lifetime. The Hajj is seen as a chance to wipe clean past sins and start fresh.
During the hajj pilgrimage the pilgrims’ enter Makkah and walk seven times around the Kaaba, kiss or touch the Black Stone (Ḥajar al-Aswad) in the Kaaba, pray twice in the direction of the Maqām Ibrāhīm and the Kaaba, and run seven times between the minor prominences of Mount Ṣafā and Mount Marwah. This step of the pilgrimage is the most iconic, and the one that most people think of when they think of the Hajj – masses of people moving in a continuous circle around the Kaaba.
Constructed of gray stone and marble, it is oriented so that its corners roughly correspond to the points of the compass. The interior contains nothing but the three pillars supporting the roof and a number of suspended silver and gold lamps. During most of the year the Kaaba is covered with an enormous cloth of black brocade, the kiswah.
Set in its southern corner is the Black Stone no larger than a loaf of bread that fell from heaven and is considered a “fragment of paradise”. Believers gain absolution for their sins by touching or kissing the stone. According to tradition, this stone was given to Adam on his expulsion from paradise in order to obtain forgiveness of his sins. Legend has it that the stone was originally white but has become black by absorbing the sins of the countless thousands of pilgrims who have kissed and touched it.
The Kaaba is also referred to in the Qur’an as the “first house established for mankind,” meaning, according to the foremost medieval commentator on the Qur’an, al-Tabari, that it is the first building ever consecrated to the worship of God.
The great Islamic scholar and acclaimed translator of the Qur’an Muhammad Asad consider its simplicity awesome. He observed: “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… 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.”
It is a symbol, as 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.”