Covered by a single black curtain, and located in what is today the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, the Kaaba is a stone, cube-like building that stands roughly fifty feet high with a base of about thirty five by forty feet. (Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Kaʿbah”) It is, to Muslim devotees, the holiest structure on earth.
Besides being the building that devout Muslims face five times a day during prayer, the Kaaba is also the destination of the sacred pilgrimage Muslims are expected to take at least once in their lifetimes. Once there, pilgrims typically kiss the holy “Black Stone” located at one corner of the Kaaba.
But, according to many ancient writings, before the founding of Islam (Jahiliyyah), the Kaaba enshrined a multitude of polytheistic idols.
Why would such “unholy” objects be venerated in such monotheistically holy grounds?
According to the Torah (Old Testament), Ishmael, the figure said to have been banned to the desert, built together with his father, Abraham, the Kaaba as an orthodox shrine to the one God. The shrine’s original use as a shrine to God, however, Islam says, became long forgotten. Needless to say, it’s an interpretation based on what Muslims believe is the message Muhammad received from the absolute, one and only God, Allah.
We (self-designation for Allah) made the House a resort and a sanctuary for mankind, saying: ‘Make the place where Abraham stood a house of worship.’ We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves.
(N.J. Dawood, trans., The Koran [London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1999], The Cow, 2: 124)
Here “House” signifies the Kaaba, and “where Abraham stood” is a reference to the location of the sacred Black Stone. “Those who walk round it” is an allusion to the meandering, circular route the ancient pilgrims took in their prayerful path to the Black Stone.
Following the Koran’s description of Abraham and Ishmael’s building of the Kaaba, the father and son dedicate the structure to Allah and pray:
Accept this from us, Lord. You are the One that hears all and knows all. Lord, make us submissive to You; make of our descendant a community that will submit to You.
(The Cow, 2: 127)
But they have a request:
Lord, send forth to them (“our descendants, future generations”) an apostle of their own who shall declare to them Your revelations, and shall instruct them in the Book and in wisdom, and shall purify them of sin. You are the Mighty, the Wise One.
(The Cow, 2: 129)
Here, because “the Book” is a clear reference to the Koran, we can conclude that Muhammad’s receiving of Allah’s revelation is the fulfillment by Allah of Abraham and Ismael’s wish from ancient times.
But first, back to the “holy prophet” himself.
Remember that, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad lived much of his life as an upright merchant in the seventh century on the Arabian Peninsula, where he eventually married a wealthy widow named Khadija, who, the story goes, at fifteen years his senior, fell in love with his exemplary integrity.
Without financial worries, Muhammad was able to make regular visits to the outskirts of Mecca, to the so-called Hira cave where he confined himself inside in prayer. Something was obviously troubling him. You could say Muhammad was seeking a religious solution to the social disease afflicting the pre-islamic world in which he lived—constant fighting and bloodshed of tribal society left many children, including himself, orphaned.