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History of the Ka’bah

© Zurijeta | shutterstock.com
© Zurijeta | shutterstock.com

Two years ago the 3 million mark was broken.[1] For the first time on record, over 3 million pilgrims, cultures and nationalities, descended upon a narrow, otherwise barren stretch of land in the heart of Arabia to fulfil their obligation as Muslims. The annual gathering of the Hajj requires attendees to visit a series of spiritual and sacrosanct monuments across a thirty kilometre radius, all within the space of five to six days. One such monument stands undisputed as the single most sacred, revered and Holy Shrine of Islam; the compass point for which the Muslim world aligns itself on a daily basis in prostration to God. Its name is the Ka’bah, literally translating from Arabic as ‘the cube’, but is synonymously referred to as Baytul Haram or ‘the Sacred House’. Its sanctity for Muslims stems from two main sources; firstly, that the Prophet Muhammadsa was instructed to restore the previously idolatrous temple to its original function as the unifying symbol of God and monotheism, and secondly, that the Qur’an claims it to be “the first House founded for mankind[2] (the word ‘house’ referring to a place of worship). It is the latter assertion that has been cause for vociferous debate, not just between Muslims and non-Muslims who argue over the legitimacy of such a claim, but also within Muslim scholarly circles who remain divided in charting its chronological background, and disagreeing upon when it was actually built.[3] It is on this premise that this article will explore the issue of the Ka’bah’s origins, and attempt to elucidate the increasingly blurry dialectic which has since surfaced between those who deny the Ka’bah’s ancient origins and those who firmly accept its historical legacy.

Reproduction of 16th century map of Africa engraved and colored by the famous dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius. © Malgorzata Kistryn | shutterstock
Reproduction of 16th century map of Africa engraved and colored by the famous dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius. © Malgorzata Kistryn | shutterstock

The role of archaeology is pivotal in exploring this and other pertinent questions such as what is the physical evidence for the Ka’bah and how far back does its origins trace? Does its inception lie with the earliest human populations – viz-a-viz Adamas and his Community – or were Abrahamas and his son Ishmaelas the individuals responsible for its initial erection? Such questions are necessary to explore when considering the origins of this unique building and if proven to be accurate, would not only reinstate the validity of the Qur’an as a source of knowledge, but also reassert the spiritual connection associated with the site of the Ka’bah and the surroundings of Makkah, the city in which this monolith resides. If a book revealed fourteen hundred years ago was able to accurately claim that any given structure was the first unified, monotheistic place of worship for mankind – prior to the advancements of archaeology and radiocarbon dating – then the divine nature of such written text would only be reinforced. With this in mind, it is necessary to start from the very earliest era in attempting to understand how and when this structure came to be.

Origins: Migration of Humans and Adamas as the first Hajji

Some 150 thousand years ago, modern homo sapiens exclusively resided in Africa. Humans were few in number, relied on hunting and gathering as their means of subsistence and survival, and lived amongst small communities of ten to fifteen individuals.[4] By 60 thousand BC, we had colonised much of southern and eastern Africa and continued to expand territorially, instigating a necessity to explore newer and further horizons. It was this expansionist strategy that drove our early ancestors to undertake voyages beyond the continent within which they were so familiar. Interestingly, the most practical route would have been to continue westwards, into more central and western Africa which remained relatively uninhabited and unfrequented by other humans. Instead, the route they chose was east, into the expanse of land referred to as the Hejaz, stretching along the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula.[5]

The relevance of this decision within this discussion comes from the knowledge that Makkah, and by extension the Ka’bah, are both situated within the Hejaz. Indeed the modern capital of the Saudi municipality of the Hejaz is Makkah. Therefore the first question which immediately comes to mind is why? Why did the first groups of migrants embark on a journey eastwards, ultimately nearby the site, which was to host the “first house of worship” according to the Qur’an?

A brief digression is necessary here to address a pivotal issue. Islamic scholars widely agree that the Ka’bah, at whatever point it was first contrived, had almost completely degenerated prior to its reconstruction by Abrahamas. This is best summarised by Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmadra, the Third Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, who writes:

“The progeny of Adamas who had dispersed to become separate and distinct nations and who enjoyed the company of their exclusive Prophets, lost all interest in the House of Allah founded for all mankind. They neglected the House of Allah to such an extent that, in consequence of vicissitudes of life, lack of maintenance, and for not being inhabited, even the traces of this House, the Ka’bah, were obliterated.”[6]

This leaves archaeologists with a paradoxical conundrum; if there was no trace of the Ka’bah prior to Abrahamas, how then do we go about finding evidence for its early existence? And if we lack evidence for its early existence, how then do we prove the Ka’bah was the first ‘house’ founded for mankind? This methodological problem is not uncommon for archaeologists exploring our deep past. Very few artefacts and materials can survive such lengths of time, and organic material –anything made of wood, leather, plant materials etc. – almost never survive unless preserved in certain niche conditions. Instead, archaeologists rely on secondary evidence, an example being the migration of the first humans to far off lands such as Indonesia and Australia. We know that they must have travelled by some form of boat to reach such localities, but the evidence for wooden boats or rafts are almost non-existent due to taphonomic (preservation) issues. Similarly, we can search for the existence of the Ka’bah through secondary forms of evidence, as in this case with the first migration of humans into the Hejaz.From the offset, the notion that the area of Makkah held an almost gravitational lure, inspired by divine munificence, can be postulated. This is not to confirm from the outright that the reason humans moved eastwards was for this purpose, but it could have given birth to the notion of pilgrimage. The general concept of pilgrimage is underpinned by the idea of a strenuous voyage. Even modern pilgrims, aided by the technological advancements in transportation, still prepare well in advance for the trials and trepidations which are associated with the entire process. Our early ancestors may have sanctified this first passage out of Africa by constructing a place of worship, and thereafter revisiting it in commemoration; in essence the early precursor to the Hajj.

As for the theological debate on the role of Adamas in the construction of the Ka’bah, it appears he indeed was its original architect, and therefore the original Hajji. Despite certain Muslim academics arguing against this claim[7] – instead claiming the birth of the Ka’bah to have coincided with Abrahamas – the position of Adamas as the first individual to undertake the Hajj is well supported by prominent figures in Islamic history (e.g. al-Tabari, al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir and Ibn al-Jawzi).[8] Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmadra similarly championed this claim in his thorough research of the topic. In this regard, the he writes, “God Almighty, in His perfect Wisdom, vouchsafed the revelation to Adamas and had His House rebuilt for all peoples of that time and linked all the descendants of that Adam to it.”[9]

This leaves archaeologists with a paradoxical conundrum; if there was no trace of the Ka’bah prior to Abrahamas, how then do we go about finding evidence for its early existence? © Marques | shutterstock
This leaves archaeologists with a paradoxical conundrum; if there was no trace of the Ka’bah prior to Abrahamas, how then do we go about finding evidence for its early existence?
© Marques | shutterstock

In extension to this, the Qur’an in reference to Abraham’sas construction of the Ka’bah says, “…‘Purify My House for those who perform the circuit and those who remain therein for devotion and those who bow down and fall prostrate in Prayer.’”[10] The key word here is ‘purify’. Had there been no prior association with the Ka’bah or indeed Makkah as a place of worship, then the verb ‘purify’ would be deemed redundant as a new building is inherently pure. The mention of the word ‘purify’ suggests that it had existed beforehand but fallen into a state of disuse, or even misuse, and subsequently required purification through Abrahamas. As such, it appears the mantle of the first Hajji can safely be attributed to that of Adamas rather than Abrahamas.

The Legacy of the Ka’bah and the Origins of Civilisation

What is fascinating from an archaeological perspective is that the Ka’bah appears to have created a legacy from a very early age, a legacy which transmitted across the wider landscape. Several archaeological sites pertaining to the Neolithic period resemble a distinct pattern in their structural makeup, specifically in the architecture associated with the construction of temples. By around 10 thousand BC, the introduction of farming in the Neolithic led to communities slowly abandoning their nomadic lifestyles and for the first time, creating occupied settlements, some of which contained sizeable sanctuaries of reverence.[11] Evidence from archaeological sites across the Middle East resemble a distinct pattern of veneration or religious worship. Many of these temples are noticeably similar in their makeup, consisting of a circular enclosure with a single or sometimes multiple central stone structures which form the focal point of attention. Sites such as Altit Yam in Israel and most noticeably, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey provide examples of the phenomenal architectural features which communities began to construct.[12] Gobekli Tepe in particular is peppered with vast stone slabs and similar megalithic enclosures which, despite their opposing purpose, does bear resemblance to what the Ka’bah and its immediate surroundings could have looked like. This habitual practice was not restricted to the modern day Arabian region alone. Hagar Qim in Malta, dated to around 3 thousand-six-hundred BC is yet another incredible megalithic compound formed of stones set within circular enclosures.[13]
By around 3 thousand BC, the concept of farming which originated from the Middle East had arrived to the British Isles, and followers of this lifestyle set about constructing yet another sacred, monumental centre of worship – the famed circular structure known as Stonehenge. Stonehenge is no exception in Britain, it is estimated over 1 thousand stone circles were erected across the UK, extending its remit as far as the northern tip of Scotland. What is unique about Stonehenge though is that it quickly became associated as a site of pilgrimage. Recent studies on the body of a man buried near the site, since nicknamed the Amesbury Archer, have shown that he had walked the length of the European continent from Italy to Stonehenge – a journey of over 5 hundred miles – as a pilgrim.[14] It therefore becomes necessary to retrace the origins of this practice following its perpetual degradation, as it dissipated from its Middle Eastern core.

Given the above, the notion of the Ka’bah’s legacy begins to remerge as a palpable thought. As the spread of populations dissipated from the Hejaz region, their remembrance towards the root concepts of monotheism, singularity and unity which stemmed from the structure of the Ka’bah gradually diluted. As its sanctity seemingly degenerated over time with the corruption of beliefs and dispersal of people from its immediate vicinity, its very existence seemingly dissolved into a distant memory. Yet, aspects of its image clearly remained in the constructs of worship which developed, plainly noticeable within archaeological sites of this era. It is likely that the image of the Ka’bah had survived over millennia across the Middle East and beyond, but its original concept had diverted so far from the founding ideology that it had now been converted to a polytheistic beacon. It was not until the coming of Abrahamas that the first restoration project could begin.

Abrahamas and the return of the ‘Hajj’

By the time of Abrahamas, believed to be around 2 thousand BC, the socio-political landscape of the Middle East was undergoing fundamental changes. The city of his birth is widely acknowledged to be that of Ur, a Sumerian capital which at the time is estimated to have been the single most populated city in the world with some 65 thousand people.[15]

Abrahamas perhaps plays the most important role from a historical perspective in relation to the Ka’bah, and the Qur’an recurrently places the notion of the Hajj, and the first associated rituals, to have originated with him. It states, “And remember the time when Abrahamas and Ishmaelas raised the foundations of the House, praying, ‘Our Lord, accept this from us; for Thou art the All-Hearing, the All Knowing.’”[16] It is clear that a fundamental shift occurred with the advent of Abrahamas. Previously the Ka’bah, in whatever shape or form, had stood in isolation amidst a relatively barren landscape. With Abraham’sas prayers in the abovementioned verse, the creation of a dwelling in the surrounding vicinity began to take fruition. From this, the town of Makkah was born, providing a place of security and peace for thousands of years even until the modern era. From a logistical standpoint, the creation of a town within this region would seem illogical given its poor potential for agricultural produce. One Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammadsa) provides a unique insight into the difficulties Abrahamas and his family undertook. The Prophetsa relates:

Hagar inquired of Abrahamas why he was leaving them in a valley without any friend or sympathiser and without any food to eat. She asked the same question several times, but Abrahamas (probably overpowered by feelings) kept silent and made no reply. At last, she asked whether he was doing this under the order of God, and to this Abrahamas replied in the affirmative. Thereupon, Hagar said that in that case God would never let them perish. Then Abrahamas returned, and standing on a hillock, where he could not be seen by Hagar, he turned his face to the Ka’bah and raising both of his hands, offered the prayer: Our Lord, I have settled some of my children in an uncultivable valley near Thy Sacred House.[17]

Image from “Sword of Islam,” (1905), Wollaston, Arthur Naylor, Sir, p.406.
Image from “Sword of Islam,” (1905), Wollaston, Arthur Naylor, Sir, p.406.

This passage identifies two things. Firstly, that despite the aridity of the surrounding area, a town was able to not only develop, but flourish for millennia onwards, and secondly, that Abraham’sas migration to the Hejaz ended with the construction of the building which personifies the modern day Hajj. It was during this period that the Middle East witnessed a demographic explosion and the birth of substantial cities subsequently followed. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that the reconstruction of the Ka’bah is timed with this episode in human history, to coincide with a period of great socio-political tension and upheaval. The Egyptian Empire was approaching its territorial zenith, as was the Assyrian empire, whilst the Babylonians were emerging as important political players to the east. More pressingly, political rulers were increasingly associating themselves as deities and enforcing their subjects to worship them as representations of God on earth. The concept of monotheism had all but receded from mainstream public view. Given this pretext, Abraham’sas mission could not have been timelier, and the development of a serene town of worship devoted to one God appears even more remarkable in contrast to developments in the world stage at this point. The need to reassert the Ka’bah as the epicentre of worship was necessary. It is following the development and growth of Makkah that the recognition of this town begins to emerge in the historical record, subsequently underlining its distant origins.

Makkah post-Abarahamas and return of idolatry

One interesting concept which is reflected in the story of the Ka’bah is its cyclical appropriation as a symbol of monotheism, then becoming a polytheistic shrine, and back again to its original state once again. This process represents a very similar disposition to religion in general. Monotheism develops first, over time it gradually corrupts and the original teachings are diluted, only for revelation to return and reconfirm monotheism as the underlining concept. Following Abraham’sas mission, the gradual decline of the Ka’bah is noticeable and the misinterpretation of its purpose begins to dominate. Despite this steady erosion of ideals, the point of emphasis remains that the site of the Ka’bah sustains its image of serenity and reverence, with historical accounts strongly supporting the notion of a pre-Islamic, pre-Muhammadsa Ka’bah. This last point is necessary to highlight as a common criticism by certain non-Muslim clergy is that Makkah was a relatively new settlement emerging some few centuries prior to the birth of the Prophet Muhammadsa. Instead, we find continual mention of the Ka’bah in well-known and highly credible historical scriptures, all of which associate it as an important temple or place of worship. The prominent Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily (who lived sometime around 30-60 BC and therefore some 6 hundred years prior to the advent of Islam) referring to the Hejaz region makes note of a structure “specially honoured by the natives” and continues to add that “an alter is there built of hard stone and very old in years […] to which the neighbouring peoples thronged from all sides”.[18] The description matches that of the Ka’bah perfectly, being a highly revered structure, constructed of masonry and attended by people of distant lands. In a similar vein, the Greco-Egyptian polymath Ptolemy (born ca. 90AD) compiled a history, in which he refers to an area in the Arabian heartland as ‘Macrobia’ which appears to have been a Greco-Arabian hybrid for the name of Makkah.[19]

Even the Bible refers to the surrounding valley as an area frequented by pilgrims and associated by a wide demographic as an important sanctuary. In the book of Psalms, it is noted that “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.[20] Baka is widely acknowledged as the name for the surrounding valley in which Makkah is situated. Indeed the Qur’an similarly makes reference to this name stating, “Surely the first House founded for mankind is that at Becca...”[21] Certain Christian scholars are quick to deny this assertion but its context is irrefutable. Baka or Becca is where Makkah is situated, and this notion is only strengthened by the reference of “your house” and “a place of springs” in the Pslams verses; Makkah is famous for its springs such as that of Abi Zam Zam which sprouted on Abraham’sas arrival. The body of evidence referring to the ancient origins of the Ka’bah are only enhanced by such explicit references in historical text. Even depictions in later historical sources suggest that the prominent military leader Alexander the Great (who lived in the fourth century BC) visited the Ka’bah during his campaigns to the east, although this remains debatable.

What is clear is that the site of the Ka’bah was continually associated with great respect and reverence. Even prominent rulers are referred to as acknowledging its sanctity by sending gifts to the site, as was undertaken by Sasan, the ancestor of the Sasanian Persian dynasty.[22] Given that is was known across distant lands, it is not unperceivable that certain Prophets could have travelled to the site to become Hajjis.

Ultimately it fell to the Nabataen Empire to assume the mantle of safeguarding the Ka’bah and continuing its association as a site of pilgrimage, but doing so under their doctrine of idol worship. The Nabataens – famed for their architectural prowess and the construction of temples into rock such as at Petra and Mada’in Saleh – imposed their idols onto, and indeed into, the Ka’bah. It is estimated that some 3 hundred-and-sixty idols were stored within the structure, one for each day of the year.[23] Their influence and rituals imparted on the Arabs up until the advent of the Prophet Muhammadsa. Two deities in particular, Al-Lat and Al-Uzza, are mentioned in countless histories and sayings of the Prophet Muhammadsa in reference to the prevailing religious scope by the seventh century AD, as it was these two deities that the tribe to which the Prophet Muhammadsa was born (the Quraish) submitted to. What is clear is that all of the above highlight the continual association and recognition of the Ka’bah as an irrefutably sacrosanct shrine, and that historical accounts provide sufficient evidence in asserting this claim.

Muhammadsa and the final refurbishment of the Ka’bah

At the time of the Prophet Muhammadsa in the seventh century AD, the town of Makkah remained a central site of pilgrimage. The custodians of the Ka’bah were the tribe of the Quraish, who remained obligated by the clans of Arabia to protect and admit any worshipers to this Holy Shrine. This belief of admittance was sustained by the Prophet Muhammadsa with one noticeable exception, that just as God was One and for all of mankind, so should the Ka’bah be held as a representation of unity and universality for all of mankind. And so the various idols and totems were removed and replaced by nothing, other than the single, masonry cube itself. The importance was not necessarily the structure, but more the symbol to reinforce the belief of monotheism and belief in one God.

Hence, with the arrival of Islam came the arrival of continuity for the Ka’bah. Having changed hands, changed character, changed purpose and changed in religious practice, the Prophet Muhammadsa returned to the Shrine and cleared its content of any idolatrous resemblance for the final time. The Ka’bah continued to personify the prevailing consensus by nature, now standing as the central, monotheistic house of worship for all humanity; just as Islam claimed to represent the whole of humanity. Now it stood for the rest of time as an undisturbed, everlasting emblem of God, just as Islam claimed to remain as the everlasting religion of God. It became the axis for which all Muslims orientate themselves towards as part of their five daily prayers. There can be few more symbolic icons of unity and singularity than an entire body of people, in the current day numbering in the billions, to stand and prostrate in unison, facing towards the cuboid structure that represents the essence of their faith. From Adamas to Abrahamas to Muhammadsa and in between, the archaeological and historical evidence proves that the character of the Ka’bah provides an astonishingly accurate account of religious activity and adaptation. Most pertinently, it provides strong evidence to support the claim that the Ka’bah was indeed the first House of Worship founded for mankind.

Rizwan Safir studied MA Near Eastern Archaeology from Leiden University and has worked as Site Supervisor for The British Museum’s excavation at the Ancient town of Amara West in Sudan.

 

Endnotes

1. “3,161,573 Pilgrims Perform Hajj This Year”, Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, October 27, 2012, http://www.saudiembassy.net/latest_news/news10271201.aspx.

2. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Hajj, Verse 27.

3. P. Webb, “The Hajj Before Muhammad: Journeys to Mecca in Muslim narratives of Pre-Islamic history,” in The Hajj: Collected Essays, 2012.

4. C. Scarre, The Human Past (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005).

5. S.J. Armitage and S.A. Jasim and A.E. Marks and A.G. Parker and V.I. Usik and H.P. Uerpmann, “The Southern Route Out of Africa: Evidence For An Early Expansion of Modern Humans Into Arabia,” in Science 331 (6016) (2011), 453–6.

6. Hazrat Hafiz Mirza Nasir Ahmadrh, Twenty-three Great Objectives of Building the House of Allah (2012), 7.

7. Ibn Hisham I:195, Ibn Habib (1942), 156-7, 178-81, 311-15.

8. Al Azraqi I: 43-51, Al Ya’qubi, I: 5-7 and al-Tabari I: 43-51.

9. Hazrat Hafiz Mirza Nasir Ahmadrh, Twenty-three great objectives of building the House of Allah (2012), 7.

10. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 126.

11. I. Kuijt, Life in Neolithic Farming Communities (New York: Kluwer Academic Press, 2000).

12. C. Schmidt, “Gobekli Tepe and the Early Neolithic Sites of the Urfa Region”, in Neo-Lithics 1/01 (2001).

13. K. Rowntree, “Re-Inventing Malta’s Temples: Contemporary Interpretations and Agendas”, in History and Anthropology13 (2002), 31-51.

14. M. Baleter, “Life and Death and Stonehenge”, in Science343 (2014), 20-21.

15. T. Chandler, Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census (1989).

16. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 128.

17. Hadith of Bukhari.

18. C.H. Oldfather, Diodorus Of Sicily Volume II, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: London & Harvard University Press, William Heinemann Ltd., MCMXXXV), 217.

19. A. J. Wensinck, Encyclopaedia of IslamIV (2004) 318.

20. Psalms. 84:3-6.

21. Holy Qur’an, Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, Verse 97.

22. Al-Mas’udi (1966), 575.

23. K. Armstrong, Islam: A short history (Pheonix Publishers, 2001).

 

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  • This is an excellent article. It brings you through a historical journey arriving at the clear concision
    that the Khana Ka’aba was in existence before Abraham and rebuilt by him.