At the center of the Islamic religion lies the Ka‘ba. Uniting the aspects of the divine beauty and the divine majesty, it is ‘a place of resort and safety for human beings’. It lies in a city protected by the prayer of Ibrahim al-Khalil, alayhi’l-salam: ‘My Lord, make this land a sanctuary.’
The Ka‘ba has many meanings. One of these pertains to the Black Stone, which is the point at which the pilgrims come closest to its mystery.
‘Ali ibn Abi Talib narrated that when God took the Covenant, He recorded it in writing and fed it to the Black Stone, and this is the meaning of the saying of those who touch the Black Stone during the circumambulation of the Ancient House: ‘O God! This is believing in You, fulfilling our pledge to You, and declaring the truth of Your record.’’
The Ka‘ba therefore, while it is nothing of itself – a cube of stones and mortar – represents and reminds its pilgrims of the primordial moment of our kind. Allah speaks of a time before the creation of the world:
‘when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, He said: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said, ‘Yea! We testify!’ That was lest you should say on the Day of Arising: ‘Of this we were unaware.’’ (7:171)
When we visit the House, we are therefore invited to remember the Great Covenant: that forgotten moment when we committed ourselves to our Maker, acknowleding Him as the source of our being. The Black Stone itself is, according to a hadith which Imam Tirmidhi declares to be sound, ‘yaqutatun min yawaqit al-janna’ – a gemstone from Paradise itself.
The Ka‘ba functions, in the imagination of those who visit it on Hajj, or turn towards it in Salat, as the centre and point of origin of all diverse things on earth. It is oriented towards the four cardinal points of the compass. Its blackness recalls the blackness of the night sky, of the heavens, and hence the pure presence of the Creator. Allah tells us that there are signs for us in the heavens and the earth; and recent astronomy affirms that the spiral galaxies are revolving around black holes. A powerful symbol, written into the magnificence of space, of the spiritual vortex which beckons us to spiral into the unknown, where quantum mechanics fail, where time and space are no more.
The yearning for the Ka‘ba which sincere Muslims feel whenever they think of it is therefore not, in fact, a yearning for the building. In itself it is no less part of the created order than anything else in creation. The yearning is, instead, a fragment, a breath of the nostalgia for our point of origin, for that glorious time out of time when we were in our Maker’s presence.
That yearning is the central emotion of Islam. It is of the heart: the heart knows the Ka‘ba’s splendour; the mind cannot understand it: it is, after all, only a cube 12 metres high.
Hence Jalal al-Din Rumi says:
‘The intellect declares: The six directions are limits, and there is no way out.
Love says: There is a way, and I have travelled it many times.’
And later he says:
‘By the time the intellect has found a camel for the hajj, love has circled the Ka‘ba.’
This fundamental emotion of the Islamic religion, which is in fact part of the fitra – the primordial human nature, the state of grace into which we were born – is love, mahabba, a painful desire to return to the beloved.
Wa’lladhina amanu ashaddu hubban li’Llah. ‘Those who have faith’, as the Qur’an insists, ‘have the greatest love for God’. (2:165) To know one’s origin is to love it.
This nostalgic yearning to return, to circle back to the point of origin, for which the Ka‘ba is no more than the earthly symbol and reminder, is the most common theme in the splendid and subtle poetic tradition of Islam. Here, for instance, is a poem by the 13th century Turkish poet and lover of Allah, Yunus Emre:
‘We need to serve a King who never may be driven from His throne
To rest within a place which we may ever feel to be our own.
A bird we need to be, to fly, to reach the very rim of things,
To drink that cordial whose joy we never may disown.
We need to be a diving bird, to plunge into the waters’ flow;
We need a gemstone to recover such as jewellers cannot know.
To enter in a garden, there to dwell in contentment’s shade;
To pass the summer as a rose – a rose whose petals never fade.
Mankind must lover be, must ever search to find the true Beloved;
Must burn within the flame of Love – nor burn in any other flame.’
Islam is hence the religion of the Alastu bi-rabbikum: ‘Am I not your Lord?’. We follow the Great Covenant, unlike adherents of previous religions who follow lesser, local, ethnic covenants. The Ka‘ba represents our way of centring ourselves directly on the divine presence, the origin of all manifestation.
We need to ponder the divine wisdom in this. Islam appeared in a time and place where there was no civilisation. If a Quraishite Arab had travelled five hundred miles north, south, east or west, he would have found a developed culture. But Arabia was a pocket of primordial simplicity. And Allah subhanahu wa-ta‘ala chose this vacuum for His final message, the one that would end all previous covenants with Him, and gather the nations of the earth to the restored Great Covenant itself.
One deep wisdom to be gained from this is the fact of Islam’s simplicity. Our doctrine could not be more straightforward. The most pure, exalted, uncompromising monotheism: the clearest idea of God there has ever been. A system of worship that requires no paraphernalia: no crosses, confessionals, priests or pews. Just the human creature, and its Lord. The Hajj and Umra also take us back to an ancient time, as we wear the simplest of garments, and perform primordial rites that reconnect us with the symbolic centre, around the purest building there has ever been. The fast of Ramadan is also timeless: bringing us into contact and continuity with one of the oldest of all religious devotions. In fact, some ulema say that fasting is the oldest religious commandment of all: for in the Garden, the grandfather and grandmother of humanity were under only one instruction: to refrain from eating from a particular tree.
By stepping inside the protecting circle of Islam, the human creature is thus reconnected to the ancient simplicity and dignity of the human condition. Islam allows us to reclaim our status as khalifas: Allah’s deputies on earth.