The Veiled House
The first and most prominent feature of the Holy Kaaba that comes to mind whenever its name is invoked, is the exterior curtains that have been draped on its walls since time immemorial. The curtains are so inextricably linked with the structure of the Holy house and its image in the collective mind, that one seldom realises their unconventional placement on the outer walls and the origin of this intriguing custom.
In this article we explore the curtains of the Kaaba, both on the outside and the inside, their history and philosophical significance.
It is narrated that Tubbaʿ Asʿad ِAbu Karib al-Himyarī, a Yemeni King was the first person to have ever made the kiswa (curtains) of the Kaaba along with its door and key. In a dream he had, the King saw that he was the one who drapes the Kaaba with curtains and so in the year 220 before hijra he draped the Kaaba in curtains made of antāʿ (animal hide) and wasail (a valuable Yemeni fabric). The Prophet Mohammed SA decreed that the King’s pious effort to drape the Kaaba had warranted that no person should ever speak ill of him.
In a continuation of this practice, even much before the advent of Islam, the Kaaba was draped each year on the day of ʿĀshūra (the tenth day of the first Islamic month, Muharram al-Harām). The Prophet Mohammed SA endorsed this practice. As the years progressed however, the date varied and sometimes the curtains were changed multiple times in a single year. Today the curtains of the Kaaba are mostly changed on the 9th of Zīlhijja al-Harām.
Although predominantly black in recent times, the curtains of the Kaaba were not always so. Historic references speak of the Kaaba being veiled in a variety of colours during different periods in history.
During the golden era of Fatimi rule in Egypt, in keeping with this tradition, the imams expended great effort and expense in the creation of exquisite curtains for the Kaaba.
A special type of curtain commissioned by al-Imam al-Muʿizz li dīn Allah AS holds a distinct place in the history of the Kaaba. Made entirely of pure red silk, the curtain was square in shape and measured 144 shibr (the length of a hand’s span). The curtain was adorned all around with 12 crescent moons made of gold. Each crescent contained a circular melon like motif which was also in gold. Within each melon like gold motif were fifty pearls shaped like the eggs of a pigeon. The curtains were ornamented further with rubies as well as yellow and blue sapphires.
Quranic verses pertaining to hajj were inscribed with green emeralds and decorated with all kinds of precious stones. The curtain was then perfumed with musk and exhibited in the īwān (ceremonial hall) for all to see. Before it was sent to Makkah, festivities would take place in Cairo which saw the curtain being placed on a palanquin, and eventually being sent to Makkah accompanied by an armed escort which included cavalry as well as foot soldiers. When the curtain arrived in Makkah it would be welcomed with great fervour and then finally placed on the roof of the kaaba on yaūm al-Nahr (referring to ʿīd al-Aḍhā, the 10th day of zīlhijja al-Harām)
The 51st Fatimi Dāʿī Syedna Taher Saifuddin RA, in the year 1354 H commissioned the interior curtains of the Kaaba which were placed on the inner walls. They were made of red silk and contained a zig zag motif which was similar to a mamlūkī era set of curtains displayed in a museum in Istanbul. The curtains were made in India and transported to Mecca where they remained in the Kaaba for 45 years. Pieces of this historic kiswah can be seen perfectly preserved on the walls of the īwān at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Surat.
In Fatimi philosophy, literature and culture, the veil is employed not only as a means of obscuring or obstructing, but also as a means of making something apparent in a different light. When a thing is veiled, there is bound to be a shift in the viewer’s perspective.
In theology therefore, when an exoteric veil is drawn on abstract esoteric concepts, the intention may not be only to conceal, but also to spark curiosity as to what lies behind the veil.
Bereft of the veil, the Kaaba is a simple composite of inanimate stone. Rows upon rows of granite held together to form a cubical structure. Once veiled, the perspective shifts. The raw physical element of the house is no longer dominant and one wonders what lies beyond the veil, beyond the stone. And the realisation is sublime.1Notes
- All historic facts and images in this article are taken from Majmaʿ Akhbār Baīt Allah 1435 H, an Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah publication