Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1990 Volume 4. Nuria J. Lawrence. "The Symbolism of the Ka'aba"

There is both physical and mystical meaning in the hub of the Muslim world.

The Ka'aba is the centre of the Muslim world. For modern Islam, it focuses dialogue between the many different Muslim nations, as each year more than a million of the faithful make the pilgrimage here. The importance of the Ka'aba and Mecca in the development of Islam can be divided between the physical significance, and the mystical interpretation given to the centre by Islamic Sufis such as Ibn 'Arabi.

A cubic structure located in Mecca, the Ka'aba is said to have been built by Abraham. Sura II of the Koran refers to Abraham and Ishmael raising up the foundations of the house, and Sura XXIII tells of God settling "for Abraham the place of the House. The Abrahamic origin of the Ka'aba is stressed in modern Islam, but there are other legends that associate it with Adam and the creation of the world, legends that give rise to the notion of the Ka'aba as physical centre or navel of the world.

The physical orientation of the Ka'aba supports this interpretation. Its four corners point very nearly in the cardinal directions, and the major and minor axes correspond to the risings and settings of the sun, moon and Canopus, the brightest star in the southern hemisphere. Pre-Islamic Arabs had a well established astronomy, and it was believed that winds blew in directions defined by various astronomical phenomena. The four walls of the Ka'aba are aligned so that these astronomically defined winds would strike them head on, and it has been suggested that the Ka'aba was therefore constructed as an architectural microcosm of the pre-Islamic universe.

This interpretation does harmonize with some of the legends connecting the building to Adam. There are different accounts of Adam's involvement, but all of them seem to have their source in the earlier noted Sura II. This passage, which speaks of raising up the foundations of the house, could be interpreted to mean that Abraham built upon the pre-existing foundation of a now vanished building. Which building? According to legend, to the original Ka'aba, built by Adam and destroyed during the flood.

In one version of this legend, when Adam was thrown out of paradise, Gabriel showed him the foundation which had been laid on the 'seventh earth.' Stones were brought from four (or sometimes five) sacred places to build it There is some discrepancy about which mountains the stones were taken from — some accounts include the Mount of Olives and Mount Sinai — but the actual mountains are not as important as the synthesis they represent: Islam, following the 'seal of the prophets,' must somehow incorporate the traditions preceding it. It is perhaps only natural that the sacred building of the religion of unity is itself an embodiment of the unity of Semitic faiths.

The idea of synthesis can also be seen in another legend regarding the reconstruction of the building under 'Abdu '1-Muttalib, the grandfather of Prophet Mohammed. "The Ka'aba being considered too low in its structure, the Quraish wished to raise it; so they demolished it and then they rebuilt till the work reached the place of the black stone. Each tribe wishing to have the honour of raising the black stone into its place, they quarrelled amongst themselves. But they at last agreed that the first man who should enter the gate of the enclosure should be umpire. Muhammad was the first to enter, and he was appointed umpire. He thereupon ordered them to place the stone upon a cloth and each tribe by its representative to take hold of the cloth and lilt it into its place. The dispute was thus ended, and when the stone had reached its proper place, Muhammad fixed it in its situation with his own hand."

The meaning of this story is clear: Prophet Mohammed came to unify the tribes, both politically and religiously, and the Ka'aba is a symbol of this unity. Muhammad helped to rebuild it, to bring the Arabs back to the 'true religion' from polytheism.

The sanctuary not only unified Islam, it also unified the universe. In one version of its origin, Adam was shown a vision of a "building roofed with one great ruby and supported by columns of emerald," the reflection cast by the heavenly centre, the throne of God. The heavenly counterpart, while the most perfect version, was not the only one, for according to 'Abd Allah ibn Abbas, 'This Ka'aba is one dwelling among fourteen dwellings." There was thought to be a sanctuary in each of the seven heavens and earths, directly in line with the one in Mecca, thus placing the Ka'aba firmly at the central point of the universe.

This centrality is not only legendary, for the Ka'aba is the centre of the Muslim world in a very physical sense. Five times each day, every Muslim turns and faces Mecca and the Ka'aba to pray. In medieval times, there were various methods employed to determine the appropriate direction. Some were based on highly technical mathematics, but the variety of mosque orientations suggest that these calculations were seldom used. Systems based on astronomical alignments were more widely employed, perhaps because there were simpler for the layman to understand, and thus could be used by travellers or those without access to a mosque.

Another possible explanation, and one that accords with the mystical interpretations of the Ka'aba developed in about the same period, is that the use of astronomical alignments placed the worshipper in the same relationship to the universe as was the Ka'aba itself, owing to its own astronomical alignment. If the Ka'aba was the centre of the universe, and the spot on earth closest to Allah, then by aligning oneself to the heavens in the same manner, one could participate in this special position as if present at the Ka'aba itself. This could also be the reason for not adopting a generic qiblah such as the Christians have, wherein by facing east one is deemed to be facing Jerusalem, regardless of orientation. (The Christian scheme may also be open to a mystical interpretation, however — that in facing the east, one is facing the returning sun/son.) Each Muslim, therefore, was required to align himself with God, or to entrust himself to someone who knew the proper alignment.

The personal orientation to the reflection of the Throne of God, the centre of the world, provides the bridge to understanding the mystical symbolism of the personal orientation to the Throne of God, the centre of the person. Just as a person trained in the ways of the skies could show a devotee the qiblah, but it was the devotee himself who had to stand correctly, so a person trained in the ways of the heart could show his mureed the way to turn towards God, but the actual turning was the responsibility of the mureed.

Turning inwards, towards the heart, is the essence of Sufi doctrine and practice, for the heart is the connection with God, the point at which the transcendent and immanent meet. To quote one hadith qudsi, "My earth does not encompass Me, nor does My heaven, but the heart of My servant, the man of true faith, does encompass Me." There has been a traditional rejection of intellectualism as a means of reaching gnosis of God. While a certain amount of intellectualism had its place, Sufis like Al-Ghazzali have declared that it must be balanced by mystical understanding. The intellect must be transcended, and attention focused on the heart.

Mysticism traditionally makes extensive use of symbolism as a means of conveying information in a concise form that cannot easily be otherwise expressed. Once someone has experienced the inner reality of the heart, as Fritz Meier says, "every commission and omission, every event and phenomenon, everything he perceives in life and the world, appears to him as a pars pro toto, vehicle of a meaning and an idea, an allusion to a secret which can be found by inner contemplation. We call such vehicles of meaning, which all things now become, symbols the visible part of a whole whose other half was invisible or absent".

For some Sufis, the Ka'aba fulfilled just such a function, becoming a metaphor for the relationship between God and man, between the person and the heart Ibn 'Arabi (1165-1240 CE) was perhaps the most explicit in his formulation of this symbolism, developing it from his own experience at the Ka'aba, described in the preamble to his book Meccan Revelations.

During a pilgrimage in 1201 CE, as he was performing the tawaf, or ritual circumambulation, Ibn 'Arabi passed the Black Stone and encountered a mysterious youth, who told him, "I am knowledge, the known and the knower; I am wisdom, the wise man and his wiseness." The youth could be seen as a manifestation of Ibn 'Arabi's higher self, the spark of the divine sought in mystical contemplation. He enjoins Ibn 'Arabi to "behold the secret building before it is too late, and thou wilt see how it takes on life through those who circle round it and walk round its stones, and how it looks out at them from behind its veils and cloaks!" Ibn 'Arabi answers with a poem:

I see the building animated by those who circle round it.
And there is no self-animation, except through a physician with effective power.
But this is rigid matter which neither feels nor sees,
Which is without understanding or hearing!
A lord spoke: This is our duty
Imposed on us all our lives by religious dogma.
I answered him: That is what thou sayest. But hear
The discourse of him to whom science has been revealed by the rite! [the higher self]
Thou seest only solid mineral, without life of its own,
Harbouring neither benefit nor harm.
But for the eye of the heart it contains visibilities
If the eye have no weakness or flaw.
To this eye it is so sublime when it reveals its essence,
That no creature can withstand it...

When Ibn 'Arabi entered the Ka'aba with the youth, he was told, "I am the seventh at the stage where spiritual growth and the secrets of existence, of the individual, and of the Where are encompassed." This has been interpreted to mean that the seven circuits of the Ka'aba signify the acquisition of the seven divine attributes as consciousness ascends to the sphere of the Self.

The Ka'aba thus becomes the point of union between the human self and the cosmic self. Expressed geometrically, two concentric circles are formed, the larger of which represents the cosmic self, and the smaller the human self, both being centred on the Ka'aba.

The tawaf therefore becomes an opportunity to combine the esoteric and exoteric. The tawaf, though, occurs only after the pilgrim has reached Mecca. The long and arduous journey to reach this point is part of the symbolism surrounding the Ka'aba.

However, the journey is not seen in solely symbolic terms. The physical journey is also an opportunity to practice obedience to the law. It is possible that the external benefits of the Hajj applied more to the regular Muslims than to the Sufis. However, both ideas can be found in Sufi thought. Stories about the performance of the Hajj show both esoteric and exoteric elements.

On the exoteric end of the spectrum is Fariduddin 'Attar (1140 — 1234 CE) who tells several stories of pilgrimages, including that of one performed by Bayazid Bastami.

On his way to Mecca, Bayazid encounters a poor man, who asks him how much money he has with him for the journey. When Bayazid tells the man that he has two hundred dinars, the man asks for the money to feed his children, telling Bayazid that he will be benefited by circumambulating him seven times. Bayazid does as he is told, "and lo! he gained immensely in his spiritual experiences, and his later words which were ecstatic effusions were so enigmatic and erratic that it became difficult to understand them."

While the circumambulation of a person instead of the Ka'aba becomes the focus of later stories, this version seems meant to emphasize reliance on God, and the ascetic aspect of the pilgrimage. It can be related to a story about Shaqiq of Balkh, also recorded by Attar.

It is related of Shaqiq of Balkh that he once said to his disciples,
"I put my confidence in God and went through the wilderness with only a small coin in my pocket. I went on the Pilgrimage and came back, and the coin is still with me."

One of the youths stood up and said to Shaqiq:

"If you had a coin in your pocket, how could you say that you relied upon anything higher?"

Shaqiq answered:

"There is nothing for me to say, for this young man is right. When you rely upon the invisible world there is no place for anything, however small, as a provision!

A similar idea can be seen in the story of one of Rabi'a's pilgrimages, during which her donkey died. She refused the help of her fellow pilgrims because, "she had set forth for the Hajj not under their shelter but under the Lord's." They left her, and she prayed: "O master of the worlds! I am a desolate, meek and poor woman. You first invited me to Thy House, Ka'aba, and now killed my donkey, leaving me alone in the wilderness." At this, the donkey revived, and she continued on her way.

While this reliance on God is primarily external, it also implies a spiritual dimension. Relying on no-one but God means that every pilgrim must make the journey essentially alone. In Rabi'a's case, this is true of the external journey. Bayazid, travelling with many people, even prayed to be left alone on one of his pilgrimages. But with hundreds of people on the physical pilgrimage at the same time, this is not always possible. The solitude of the journey is thus primarily inner in nature. The existential knowledge of the higher self can only be achieved by each individual by his or her self.

Both the solitary nature of the journey and the relationship between the external ritual and internal spirit are expressed in the following account of another of Rabi'a's pilgrimages.

Next time when Rabi'a proceeded on a pilgrimage to Ka'aba, and was passing through the wilderness, she observed that Ka'aba, the House of God, was coming to welcome her. Seeing it, she said "What shall I do with the House? I want to meet the Master of the House — the Lord Dost not the Lord say that he who advances a step towards Him, He goes out to meet him seven steps? I cannot be pleased with seeing the Ka'aba; I seek His vision.

At this time Ibrahim Adham was also on his way to Ka'aba, and it was his practice to offer prayers at every step on his way. Thus it had taken him fourteen years to reach the Ka'aba. On his arrival, he found that the Ka'aba had disappeared He was very much disappointed. The Divine Voice thereupon told him, The Ka'aba is gone to meet Hadrat Rabi'a.' When the Ka'aba returned and Rabi'a arrived leaning on her staff due to old age, Ibrahim approached her and said 'Rabi'a, why do you by your queer acts create hue and cry in the world?' Rabi'a replied 'I do nothing of the sort; rather it is you who, to gain publicity, thus reach Ka'aba in fourteen years.' Ibrahim admitted that he did offer prayers at every step of his journey. Rabi'a said, 'You covered the way by saying prayers, whilst I have covered the way through meekness and humility.'

The message of this is obvious: while ritual may eventually take one to God, it is not as effective as heart-felt sincerity. The external elements are not enough by themselves, they must be infused with spirit. With this story, 'Attar is leaning towards the internal emphasis, but still maintains the separation inherent in Rabi'a, who does not (in this story, at least) express a desire to unify with God, merely to see Him. 'Attar would thus seem to be a bridge between the early devotional balance of external and internal, exemplified by Rabi'a (717-801 CE), and the monistic tendencies of his close contemporaries, Rumi and Ibn 'Arabi.

These latter thinkers developed the idea of the mystic as the point at which the external, ritual and the internal, spiritual meet. For them, the mystic has no choice but to infuse his every action with meaning, for once he recognizes himself as an aspect of the self of the cosmos, all other aspects take on a new significance. Thus the true mystic is incapable of engaging in any merely ritual activities. To reach the true Ka'aba of the heart, one has to be personally involved in the deepest sense.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the difference in emphasis is to give a later version of Bayazid's pilgrimage. In this version, he meets the head of the saintly hierarchy, who tells him,

"Of a truth that is God which your soul sees in me,
For God has chosen me to be His house.
When you have seen me, you have seen God
And have circumambulated the real Ka'aba.
To serve me is to worship and praise God;
Think not that God is distinct from me.

Taken from the Masnavi by Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273 CE) this rendition exemplifies Rumi's monism. As a result of his belief that nothing exists save God and that individual existence was ultimately illusory, he held that God could be found within each person. He saw the Ka'aba as unnecessary. If, as the Koran says, God is closer to man than his jugular vein, then there is no need to travel to Mecca to find Him.

We take long trips.
We puzzle over the meaning of a painting or a book,
when what we're wanting to see and understand
in this world, we are that.

It was Rumi who founded the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes, also known as the Whirling Dervishes.' If Rumi saw the person as the house of God, a living Ka'aba, perhaps the famous spinning is an adaptation of the tawaf. If the circumambulation of the Ka'aba as the heart of the world is symbolic of its function as the seat of God, then circumambulation of the inner heart could be equally symbolic of the same function.

Regardless of whether this is the source for the practice of turning or not, the idea that the real Ka'aba is the heart is an idea that Rumi shares with other Sufis. Muhammad b. al-Fadi is credited with saying:

I wonder at those who seek His temple in this world; why do they not seek contemplation of Him in their hearts? The temple they sometimes attain and sometimes miss, but contemplation they might enjoy always. If they are bound to visit a stone, which is looked at only once a year, surely they are more bound to visit the temple of the heart, where He may be seen three hundred and sixty times in a day and night. But the mystic's every step is a symbol of the journey to Mecca, and when he reaches the sanctuary he wins a robe of honour for every step.

According to one legend, seeing the Ka'aba as a mystical symbol has the capacity of bringing man back to the status of Adam in paradise.

Before the fall, Adam was said to have been so tall that he "could hear the song of the heavenly hosts around God's throne." When he was expelled from paradise, he was shortened, and "lamented to God that the higher spheres were now closed to him. God then sent down the tent around which Adam now performed the tawaf, following the example of the angels." This experience can be seen to transform us into pre-fall Adam.

The Ka'aba can be seen in many lights. In the mythology surrounding its origin, it is the centre, the point nearest God. It plays a pivotal role in the legends surrounding the saints, the people closest to God. As a mystical symbol, it shows us how we can become one with God. Through all of these, the Ka'aba functions as a link to a past in which it was possible to commune with God, and a reminder to the present of the responsibility to reawaken that possibility in the future.

The orientation of the Ka'aba. The direction
one must face was established by astronomy and convention. Thus, Muslims in China faced
north-west while praying.


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