For a Muslim, the Kaa’ba and the Haram area are one of the most sacred sites in the Islamic world. Why, you may ask? What is so significant about this black cube-like structure and why do millions from around the world throng to the city of Makkah each year to perform Umrah and Hajj?
It is a pillar of Islam to perform Hajj at least once in a person’s lifetime. Umrah is optional. To perform these pilgrimages, one must travel to the city of Makkah and perform a series of rituals in the Haram. The Haram literally translates to ‘holy site’ or ‘sanctuary’ in Arabic. This is the site on which the Kaa’ba has been built and the surrounding area of the holy mosque.
As described in my previous article on my personal Hajj experience, the Kaa’ba is a cube-like building covered in a black cloth (Kiswah). This cloth is adorned with Arabic calligraphy and a new one is thrown over during the period of Ramadan. The Kaa’ba is known as the House of Allah, and is located within the Masjid Al-Haram. Know that this is the most sacred of all Islamic sites because all prayers conducted by Muslims around the world are directed in the path of the Kaa’ba. No, this isn’t idol worshipping – the Kaa’ba is only a representative of the House of Allah which is in the above heavens. The direction of which all Muslims pray towards is what is most significant and important in this act.
Building the Kaa’ba
The Kaa’ba was originally built using granite quarried from the nearby hills. Note that it stands on a marble base and is approximately 40-42 feet in height. The interior of the Kaa’ba is made of marble and limestone. It has one entrance, which is often partially covered by cloth-like tablets with Arabic inscriptions and golden Qur’anic verses. It is opened twice a year for a ceremony known as the cleaning of the Kaa’ba. This is done with simple brooms with the use of holy Zam-Zam water and rose water.
Each corner of the Kaa’ba has different indications – the northern corner is called Ruknu l-Iraqi (the Iraqi corner), the western corner is called Ruknu sh-Shami (the Levantine corner), the southern corner is called Ruknu l-Yemeni (the Yemeni corner) and the eastern corner is called Al-Hajaru Al-Aswad because this is the corner of which the Black Stone has been placed. The story behind the Black Stone goes as follows; it was sent in fragments during the time of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Representing objects that were sent from the heavens, these were initially white in colour and placed on one corner of the Kaa’ba and protected by a silver oval shaped object. Muslims touch and kiss this stone and so they say that their sins are therefore washed off. It is their sins that have turned the colour of the fragments black over the years.
A semi-circular wall is seen on the side of the Kaa’ba. They say that this used to be a part of the Kaa’ba, for the holy structure was rebuilt many times over the past centuries. It is closed off during prayer time.
The Holy Qur’an states that the construction of the Kaa’ba was anointed to the Prophet Ibrahim. It further states that Almighty himself showed Prophet Ibrahim as to where to lay the foundation stone and begin construction – around 2130 BC. Years later, during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the people living in Makkah were idol worshippers. They placed idols on the inside of the Kaa’ba and prayed to them. When Islam was finally received by the people of Makkah, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) entered the Kaa’ba and destroyed each and every one of the idols. During his lifetime, and in the years to come, the Kaa’ba has been repaired and reconstructed many times.
The Masjid Al-Haram is the surrounding area around the Kaa’ba. Including indoor and outdoor space that can accommodate over two million worshippers, it has undergone many repairs and constructions as well over the years.
Unlike in mosques around the world, segregation here (they say) is not necessary. Women and men are allowed to pray together but Saudi officials and guards in the Haram close off sections and segregate prayer areas for women and men. I would however like to stress on the fact that this is not necessary.
The first major expansion of the Haram under the Saudi royals was done between the years 1955 and 1973. Four more minarets were added, the ceiling was refurbished and the floor was replaced with artificial stone and marble. The Sa’i area, where the short run between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah is performed, was enclosed via roofing. Later on, a new wing and outdoor prayer area was added. The new wing for prayers can be accessed even today through the King Fahd Gate. This extension lasted six years and was completed in the year 1988.
During the third extension, more minarets, more gates, three domes and other modern developments such as air conditioning, escalators and a drainage system were added. This took place between the years 1988 and 2005. If you happen to travel to Makkah even today, the fourth extension is currently under way. This began in the year 2005. Saudi officials say it will be completed only in the year 2020. The Haram area is to be expanded to increase the capacity of pilgrims to over two million on the inside. The northern expansion of the mosque will take a year and a half to complete. A new gate after the King Abdullah will be added along with two new minarets. All closed areas will be air conditioned after the expansion.
There are many controversies regarding the expansion projects. One is that many Islamic heritage sites have been destroyed in order to give way for the expansion, this includes the house where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was born (which has been rebuilt as a library), the first Islamic school where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught which was also flattened and so on. The expansion also does not allow every pilgrim and every Muslim a clear view of the Holy Kaa’ba. The further the expansion, the further and lesser the view. Currently, from personal experience, only from the very near areas can the Kaa’ba be sighted. This was rather disappointing for me, because one enters the Haram in the hopes to pray looking at the Kaa’ba but what is the point of it when you cannot see it?
**As published in the Ceylon Today newspapers**