The Ka’bah – What is it really?
The Hajj season is upon us, when millions of Muslims journey to Mecca and circumambulate the Ka’bah, that simple square building that we face toward when we pray. How strange it is that an insignificant structure such as this is the center of our hajj rites and the direction of our prayers! Why is this tiny stone cubic house so important? The Ka’bah has great cosmological significance that we all should understand in order to make better sense of our rites and prayers. The Ka’bah is the physical correspondence of the highest heaven.
The Ka’bah is called the Bait al Allah or Kaba e Allah, meaning House of God. But we know God needs no house, and is not confined to any space. It is also called the first house of mankind. Yet no human is known to have ever lived in it, so what does that mean? It is certain that Abraham (as) constructed the Ka’bah. But, before he built it, when he moved Hagar and Ishmael (as) to the empty desert, he said, “O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Thy Sacred House….” (Qur’an 14:37) So he was already aware of the Ka’bah before he built it! Many scholars say that the Ka’bah was first built by Adam (as) but the structure had wasted away. All agree at least that it existed somehow prior to Abraham (as).
The Ka’bah is like the Bait ul Mamur (the Oft-Frequented House) and is said to be built directly under it. The Bait ul Mamur is a house located in the fourth heaven that angels circumambulate and enter. Several traditions state that Adam (as) had prayed at that house, as well. So to understand the Ka’bah, we need to understand the Bait ul Mamur. So what is the significance of Bait ul Mamur? Both the Ka’bah and the Bait ul Mamur are symbols of how God brings about and attends to His creation.
To understand that, we have to first understand how the decrees of Allah swt come to reality. The Qur’an says, “And your Cherisher-Lord creates what He wishes….” (28:68) and “Surely His commanding is such that, when He desires a thing, He just says to it, “Become!” and it becomes.” (36:82) These two ayahs describe creation as mashi’ah (wishing), iradah (desiring), and amr (commanding), as well as symbolizing it by speech of Allah swt. All of these indicate that creation is the production of the outcome of Allah’s mashi’ah. A hadith of Ahlulbayt (as) says, “Allah created the Wish through itself, then He created the things through the Wish.” The Wish is symbolized as “the Water” or “Waters” in Qur’an and hadith. For example, “And from the Water We made everything alive.” (21:30) The scholars tell us this ayah also shows that every created thing is alive in some fashion. The fact that water (H2O) is repeatedly described as Mercy from Allah swt contributes to the symbolism of the Wish from which creation begins as the ultimate Mercy of the Creator.
The Creator-created relationship is a polar one, with the Creator in the seat of guardianship and authority. This position of guardianship is in the Qur’an called ‘arsh, which is translated most often as “throne (raised, shaded seat of authority)” or “empyrean” (the highest heaven). As Allah swt is not confined to a body, it does not mean a literal chair throne. The Arabic verbal root meaning of ‘arsh is a pillared structure raised from the ground. The Wish descends from and is beneath the empyrean “… and His empyrean was over the Water.” (Qur’an 11:7) Imam Ali bin Husain (as) said that in the ‘arsh or empyrean is a likeness of every created thing, and this is the meaning of “And there is not a thing except that its treasuries are with Us.” (15:21) The empyrean is also the gate of Allah’s administration over Creation: “He projects His guardianship uniformly to all creation over the empyrean; He administers the command.” (10:3)
Imam ‘Ali (as) has said that the empyrean is a cubical structure made of four pillars of light – one white, one yellow, one green and one red. The white light is the light of consciousness (‘aql) and knowledge and is the first, foundational pillar. Its symbol in the Qur’an is the pen (qalam). The green light is the Preserved Tablet (Lawh Mahfuz), the record or soul (31:28) of creation in the empyrean. The yellow light pillar is the Spirit (Ruh) as mentioned in Qur’an 17:85. It is through the Spirit that prophets and those close to Allah swt receive their knowledge and power. Ruh is related to rih, the wind. Thus, according to Imam Baqir (as), just was the Wish is symbolized by water, the Spirit is symbolized by wind - a movement and energy that effuses everything. The red light of the empyrean is the blood line that connects the empyrean to the physical universe or nature; it carries all the vibrations of created things.
So the Ka’bah is itself an ‘arsh, representing the ‘arsh of Allah swt, the highest heaven. Like the empyrean, it is a cube, with four corners mirroring the four corners of the empyrean. Imam Sadiq (as) quoted the Prophet (saw) about this correspondence. “The Ka’bah is called the Ka’bah because it is square-based. It is square-based because it is in correspondence to the Bayt ul Mamur. The Bayt ul Mamur is square-based because the empyrean is square-based. The empyrean is square-based because the phrases upon which Islam is based are four: Subhanallah, Alhumdulillah, La ilaha illa allahu, and Allahu akbar!” The corner with the black stone corresponds to the corner of the empyrean of the white light (consciousness). Incidentally, some hadith say that the black stone is actually white, but blackened by repeated touching. As pilgrims move around the Ka’bah, the move past the pillars of consciousness (white), then Spirit (yellow), then Soul (green), then nature (red).
With this knowledge, we can understand why we face toward the Ka’bah when we pray. We are facing toward the symbol of the highest heaven where Allah’s swt guidance, mercy and creation are all projected from. So facing toward the Ka’bah symbolizes facing towards the gateway between the physical Universe and Allah swt. This does not imply that Allah swt is confined out of the physical Universe, but rather refers to the methodology of creation, guardianship, and bestowal of mercy.
Scholars have noted that the Ka’bah is empty and has in its cubic shape all cardinal directions in three dimensions. All to be seen there is absoluteness, eternity. It is not a shrine. It is a symbol, a projection, a source of connection to the highest heaven, and an opening for the descent of Allah swt’s Wish into manifestation in the physical Universe. Some hadith indicate that the creation of the land of the Earth began at the location of the Ka’bah, as it is the Origin of physical creation. It is the symbol of our original home as we manifest from Wish in the empyrean, and that is why when we go for pilgrimage, we do not pray shortened prayers like travelers. We are going back to our source.
The hajj rites all are steeped in symbolism. We recreate the actions of Abraham (as) and Hagar (ra) to represent and learn from their deeds. Therefore, it is probable that the symbolism of the Ka’bah as the ‘arsh has a significant meaning in the context of those rites and our understanding of our roles in the Universe and in the Ummah. Knowing that the Ka’bah is itself a symbol can give us much to ponder about the possible meanings of events in history such as Imam ‘Ali (as) being born in the Ka’bah. At the very least, the Ka’bah as a symbol of the ‘arsh has very deep implications about the direction we face when we pray.
The History of Ka’bah by Hasan Zafar Naqvi
Islam Dynamic: The Cosmology, Spirituality and Practice of Walayah by Idris Samawi Hamid
Hajj: Reflections on its Rituals by Ali Shariati