The Ka`ba

Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani

Facing Qiblah

The worshipper faces the Ka`bah, the holy shrine of Islam, as determined to the best of his or her ability by simple means. This directional focus is called the qiblah.

The Ka`bah is the House of Allah, located in the holy city of Mecca in present-day Arabia. It is the goal of the pilgrimage, which is the fifth pillar of Islam. In Islamic teachings, the Ka`bah is said to mark the location where the Divine House in the Seventh Heaven, beyond which stands the Supreme Throne, which angels constantly circle in praise and worship of Allah, descended to Earth after the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were cast out of Paradise for their mistake. In the time of Noah’s flood, this heavenly sanctuary was taken up to heaven again. Millennia later, Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka`bah in the same location, where it stands until today, the first house of worship dedicated to Allah. By facing this location in prayer, each Muslim aims and hopes to reach that holy location at some point in her or his life.

Initially, in the early days of Prophet Muhammad’s mission, the believers faced Jerusalem when they prayed, out of respect for the Temple there. This direction represented respect for the previous Divine dispensations brought by Moses and Jesus and the Israelite prophets. Later, Divine legislation altered the direction of prayer to face the Holy House in Mecca:

قَدْ نَرَى تَقَلُّبَ وَجْهِكَ فِي السَّمَاء فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةً تَرْضَاهَا فَوَلِّ وَجْهَكَ شَطْرَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ وَحَيْثُ مَا كُنتُمْ فَوَلُّواْ وُجُوِهَكُمْ شَطْرَهُ وَإِنَّ الَّذِينَ أُوْتُواْ الْكِتَابَ لَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ وَمَا اللّهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ

We see thee (O Muhammad) turning of thy face for guidance to the heavens: now shall We turn thee to a prayer-direction that shall please thee. Turn then thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque [Ka¿ba]: Wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction.[1]

Thus, wherever Muslims live, their prayers have a common focus: the Ka¿bah.

Because of the presence of this blessed shrine, the area surrounding the Ka¿bah is holy. These environs are called the Ħarām, literally “prohibited,” meaning a place where sins are prohibited. The Ka¿bah itself is located within the “Prohibited Mosque,” Masjid al-Ħarām.[2] The name Prohibited Mosque was given because no one may act on bad desires there. While it is called a mosque, Allah made it more than that. In reality, it is a place where sins are utterly rejected, not only in their outward forms but also in their inner realities. There, even negative thoughts and intentions are considered blameworthy. Only pure, positive desires and good thoughts are accepted. Indeed, within the confines of that holy sanctuary, no hunting is allowed; even the cutting of trees and vegetation is proscribed.

Allah said in the Holy Qur’ān:

سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَى بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلاً مِّنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ البَصِيرُ

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who Heareth and Seth (all things).[3]

This verse describes the important journey that Prophet Muhammad ÿ made between the Prohibited Mosque in Mecca and the Temple in Jerusalem (referred to as the Farthest Mosque, Masjid al-Aqsā[4]), a journey that in one moment bridged three divinely-revealed religions.

Significance of the Ka`bah

One of the distinctive characteristics of Islamic ritual prayer is that the worshipper is obliged to keep his vision, both external and internal, concentrated upon the qiblah. The focus of every worshipper is, and must be, a holy place. People whose understanding is purely external believe facing the Ka`bah is of intrinsic value.

Those with a mystic understanding know that the Ka`bah represents the spiritual pole of this world, around which all creation turns. Looking at photographs of the Ka`bah taken from above, we see the worshippers moving around it in perfectly arranged concentric circles. This assembly gathers in imitation of the heavenly kingdom, for all these circles have one center regardless of their distance from it. At the spiritual level, that center is the Divine Presence. While each worshipper faces the Ka¿bah’s walls of stone and mortar, these are not the focus. If we remove the four walls, what do we find? Each person facing someone else. In this is a deep and subtle secret that we leave for the reader to ponder.

When the spiritual seeker realizes his station on the circle of the People of the Qiblah, he enters what is known as the Circle of Unconditional Lovers (dā’irat al-muħibīn). That is the circle of Muslims at the first level in the way of Allah: the level of love. Such love is not related to any desire, but is a purely Platonic, spiritual love between the believer and his or her Lord. Allah is the center of the circle, and the believers are each a point on its circumference. Each has his or her own connection to the center. That means each has his own direction, qiblah, towards the Divine Presence. As that connection becomes apparent to the believer, that radius becomes like a tunnel into which the seeker begins to step from the circumference of the circle. Upon making his first steps into that tunnel, he begins to discover countless negative characteristics within himself. As he discovers one characteristic after another, he begins to eliminate them, progressing down the tunnel to become a “seeker in the circle of lovers on the spiritual journey,” progressing ever nearer to the qiblah at the center. In the metaphysics of Ibn ¿Arabi, the renowned mystic scholar speaks of a spiritual hierarchy in which the emanations from the Divine are received by a single human receptor who is the leader of all these circles of lovers and through him spreads to the rest of humanity, each according to his or her degree or station. This individual represents the Prophet in his time as the perfect servant of Allah. Thus, under one spiritual leader, all are moving constantly closer to the Divine Presence.

In the Sufi understanding, which delves deeply into the mystic knowledge and symbolism of Islam’s outward forms, it is said the Prohibited Mosque represents the heart of the believer. Thus, the inner direction of prayer is towards the sanctified heart. What is the sanctified heart? At the first level of spirituality, the sanctified heart is the heart that is purified of all wrong thoughts, negativity and dark intent. This level is called the Level of the Secret (sirr). Once that secret is opened within the sanctified heart, the seeker moves to the heart of the heart, known as Secret of the Secret (sirr as-sirr). That is the level of purification from any attachment to worldly desires. Beyond these levels of the heart are “the Hidden” (khafā) and “the Innermost” (akhfā) levels, representing further stations of purity, in which the heart becomes ever more removed from attachments, turning away from all that is worldly to focus instead on the spiritual realm of the Hereafter. At the highest level, the heart turns away from even that and begins to focus solely on the Divine Presence.

These are levels of achievement. On the spiritual dimension, the believer’s focus is to reach a perfected level of character, to learn from it and to be enlightened from it. In order to progress beyond our state of ignorance we must strive to learn and educate ourselves. This can only be accomplished by keeping the company of enlightened individuals who have successfully traversed the Path of Allah, to Allah, and who are granted the ability to guide others.  Allah says:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ اتَّقُواْ اللّهَ وَكُونُواْ مَعَ الصَّادِقِينَ

O ye who believe! Fear Allah and be with those who are true (in word and deed).[5]

Allah is aware of every heart. The Holy Qur’ān states:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

Those who struggle for Us, We will guide them in the right ways, the ways that are suitable to them.[6]

The polished heart of the sincere and true believer (šādiq) is a receptacle for Allah’s Heavenly Lights and Divine Blessings. Such a person is like the sun. When the sun rises, the whole world shines from that source of energy and light, the light of mystical gnosis that makes all things visible. For that reason, the Prophet said, “The heart of the [true] believer is the House of the Lord.”

[1] Sūratu ’l-Baqarah[The Heifer], 2:144.

[2] Also translated as the “Sacred Mosque.”

[3] Sūratu ‘l-Isrā [The Night Journey], 17:1.

[4] Abdullah Yusuf Alī’s commentary on this verse summarizes traditional commentaries: “The Farthest Mosque,” he writes, “must refer to the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem on the hill of Moriah.”

Muslims purposely built a mosque on this hill, according to tradition on the verified site of earlier sanctuaries. It was a strong concern of the early Muslims to restore the site to its earlier function as a place of supplication venerated by all the prophets, including Abraham, David and Solomon. Tradition relates that when the Caliph `Umar visited Jerusalem after its conquest, he searched for David’s sanctuary or prayer niche (mihrāb Dāwūd), which is mentioned in the Qur’ān (38:21), the same site on which his son Solomon later erected the Temple. Satisfied that he had located it, Caliph ¿Umar ordered a prayer-niche (mušalla) to be established there which evolved into a mosque complex later known as the Ħaram ash-Sharīf, according to Prophetic tradition the third most venerated location in Islam.

[5] Sūratu ’t-Tawbah [Repentance], 9:119.

[6] Sūratu ’l-`Ankabūt [The Spider], 29:69.