The Holy Kaaba stands at the very heart of the Islamic world both physically and figuratively. It is the focal point of the city of Makka, or Mecca.
The holy Kaaba is both a spiritual sanctuary and symbolic monument of Islam. Every year millions of Muslims flock to this shrine to fulfil the rites of umra and hajj, the latter being obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman at least once in their lifetime.
In the initial years of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed SAW and his followers would pray in the direction of al-Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. Subsequently, a divine injunction revealed while the Prophet SAW was in prayer, ordained that they change direction towards the holy Kaaba in al-Makka al-Mukarrama. The Prophet SAW turned immediately during the prayer whilst from those with him at that time, many followed his lead and others – perhaps bewildered by it all – continued praying as they were.
The Holy Quran narrates that the prophets Ibrahim AS and Ismail AS ‘Raised the foundations of the house (Kaaba)’ i.e. built the physical structure of the holy Kaaba. It has been named in the Quran by five different names: al-Bayt, al-Bayt al-Harām, al-Kaʿba, al-Bayt al-Muharram and al–Bayt al-ʿAtīq .1 The site itself and the city of Mecca around it has been sanctified as al-haram by the Prophet SAW, meaning a hallowed place of peace and refuge where animals cannot be hunted and even trees must be protected.
Originally, the Kaaba is believed to have been a simple unroofed cuboid structure, however, it has been rebuilt and renovated several times in history until taking its present form.
The initial renovations occurred twice before the advent of Islam by the Amaliqa and Jurhum tribes who are considered to be one of the oldest peoples to inhabit the Arabian Peninsula. Not much is known about the exact scale of their renovations except for the fact that they were necessitated by the vicissitudes of time.
Thereafter, the Quraysh tribe, to which Prophet Mohammed SAW belonged, decided to rebuild the structure. Prophet Mohammed SAW also partook in the reconstruction which took place before his receiving the revelation of prophethood.
Among the modifications made by the Quraysh were:
- elevating the entrance doors of the Kaaba,
- adding the roof of the Kaaba, as it was hitherto without one,
- installing the outlet for rainwater known as the mīdhāb on the roof in the direction of hijr Ismail (hatīm) area,
- extending the overall elevation of the Kaaba to approximately eight metres.2It is said that when the time came to install al-hajar al-aswad (the black meteoric stone) in the eastern corner of the Kaaba, a dispute erupted among the clans with each wanting the honour of placing it. They came to an agreement that they would appoint the next person to come upon them as a mediator and it so happened that the young Mohammed SAW was that person. Upon seeing him, they stated: ‘This is the amīn (trustworthy) who has come upon us.’Mohammed SAW was told of the argument and in response, he laid out his cloak and placed the hajar aswad in the middle of it and instructed that a member of each clan of Quraysh hold onto the sides of the cloak. They thus lifted the hajar aswad in unison and brought it to its designated place after which the Prophet Mohammed SAW installed it in its corner with his own hands. All members of the Quraysh tribe respected and honoured this decision.3
After the Prophet’s SAW demise, the sanctity of this site was violated twice during a civil war between H 63 – H 75/ 683-694 CE. The first of these was during a power struggle between Yazid bin Muawiyah and Abdullah bin Zubayr, where the former sent a general by the name of al-Huṣayn al-Sakuni to subdue Abdullah. Al-Huṣayn pelted the Kaaba with stones using trebuchets and set fire to it.4 This weakened the structure of the Kaaba and was repaired by Abdullah bin Zubayr in H 65/683 CE. Thereafter, in the year H 73/692 CE another general by the name of Hajjaj bin Yusuf al-Saqafi led an army into Mecca and pelted the Kaaba from the top of the Abi Qubays mountain which sparked another fire on the Kaaba and caused severe damage to its structure. Hajjaj having killed Abdullah and conquered the city restored the Kaaba thereafter.
In H 1039/ 1630 CE, during the reign of the Ottoman King Murad IV, heavy rains resulted in the flooding of the grand masjid and damaged a wall of the Kaaba whilst weakening the other walls. Provisions in the form of utilities, equipment, wood, nails, ropes and metal were procured from Misr (modern-day Cairo) and the Kaaba was renovated in the year H 1040/ 1631 CE.5
In more recent times, the holy Kaaba was renovated twice in the years H 1377/ 1958 CE and H 1417/ 1996 CE, when the outer walls were smoothed, with the roof, ceiling and pillars being reconstructed.6
Although history bears testimony to the fact that the Kaaba has been attacked and its sanctity violated, the Fatimi Imams were always conscious of the need to protect its sanctity and uphold its honour by making critical decisions to avoid bloodshed therein.
When Imam Husain AS, the Prophet’s SAW grandson, was in Mecca, he came to know that his enemies were planning an attempt on his life. He decided to leave Mecca even though it was the day hajj was to begin. He was asked to reconsider his decision and stay back, but the Imam AS was determined to safeguard the sanctity of Mecca from any transgressions.7 He thus embarked on his final journey towards the city of Kufa.
Another instance was during the reign of al-Imam al-Mustansir bi Allah AS, when the guardianship of the city of Mecca was under the Hasanīyīn (those who trace their lineage through Imam Hasan AS to Imam Ali bin Abi Talib AS). During this period, Syedna Ali bin Mohammed al-Sulayhī RA, the representative of Imam Mustansir AS in Yemen, embarked upon hajj. While there, the Imam’s AS foes in Mecca conspired to spark a feud between Shukr al-Hasani, the guardian of Mecca, and Syedna Ali RA. The feud escalated to such an extent that Syedna Ali RA wrote to Imam Mustansir AS beseeching his permission to depose the guardian from his position. The Imam AS in his reply pacified Syedna Ali RA and directed him to be patient and not become the perpetrator of bloodshed in the haram (hallowed sanctuary.) Syedna Ali RA obeyed the injunction and resisted further escalation.8
Today the Bohra faith honours the Fatimi legacy of reverence for the holy Kaaba, both its physical structure and symbolic meaning. Those who lay eyes upon it are quick to pronounce, ‘O Allah increase this house in grandeur’ and those yet to visit, long for the day when they too shall be among the zuwwār al-bait (visitors of the house).
(Another historically important feature of the Kaaba is its adornment in a black coloured curtain known as the kiswa. To read more about it, click here.)
- Majmaʿ Akhbār Bayt Allah 1435 H, Pg 14. ↩
- Majmaʿ Akhbār Bayt Allah 1435 H, Pg 64. ↩
- Majmaʿ Akhbār Bayt Allah 1435 H, Pg 62. ↩
- Syedna Idris Imaduddin RA,ʿUyūn al-Akhbār, Vol. 4. ↩
- Majmaʿ Akhbār Bayt Allah 1435 H, Pg 74. ↩
- The History of Makkah Mukarramah, Dr Mohammed Ilyas Abdul Ghani, Pg 60. ↩
- Syedna Idris Imaduddin RA,ʿUyūn al-Akhbār, Vol. 4. ↩
- Syedna Idris Imaduddin RA,ʿUyūn al-Akhbār, Vol. 7. ↩