Reflecting on the Ka‘bah’s uniqueness to restore the heart’s primordial pledge
By Rasheed Rabbi
The Ka‘bah is the building of Ibrahim, son of Azar.
The heart, on the other hand, is Allah Almighty’s place of sight.
— Abd al-Rahman Jami (d.1492)
The Ka‘bah, the center of all Muslim prayers, is venerated as the shrine of Ibrahim, the patriarch of monotheism. Bringing his bondwoman Hagar and their infant son Ishmael to the barren valley of Makkah, only to abandon them to the Mercy of Allah, exemplifies a devoted heart fully content with God’s disposition. So does the attempt of Hagar, a distraught and thirsty woman who, following the divine plan, ran between the Safa and Marwa hillocks to find water for her son, until the Zamzam stream sprang forth. Ishmael grew up, Ibrahim returned to Makkah and together they rebuilt the Ka‘bah to re-institute the hajj (2:125-31), which culminates in monotheism’s highest teaching: divine unity.
Ever since, these accounts have served as the rite’s theological basis for ordinary pilgrims. However, for mystics each anecdote emits endless clues on how to become an Ibrahim-like hanif (2:135 and 3:96), an ardent believer maintaining his or her fitra (primordial nature; 30:30). Fitra means a heart that is unswervingly and inherently submitted to Him. Thus, visiting Ibrahim’s Station (2:125) entails recovering one’s original state to experience God’s friendship, just like Ibrahim did. Rumi (1207-73) cried out:
O people who have performed hajj, where are you?
The Beloved is near, come here.
You have visited that House a hundred times,
Come and visit this house of the heart, if only once.
Without experiencing the divine presence in our hearts that ‘Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani (1098-1131) alluded as “Scent,” visiting the Ka‘bah is worthless:
Without the Beloved’s Scent, the Ka‘bah is just a house of idols.
But with the Friend’s perfume, an idol temple turns into the Ka‘bah.
Pursuing Ibrahim-like divine intimacy finds a simile in rebuilding the Ka‘bah, a repetition of Adam’s task to regain his lost proximity to the Divine. After losing access to paradise and angelic whispers, Adam continued to grieve, repent, pray and journey across the planet to Makkah, until God commanded him to build “the first House of worship … a blessed sanctuary and a guide for humanity” (3:96).
Located directly beneath the Throne of God, this first Ka‘bah was a temple for the faithful to circle around, just as the angels circle around the Throne. Imitating this heavenly model makes the faithful’s heart long for the Throne, desperately yearning to attract His gaze, which should be the ultimate qibla to direct all worship and action. Hence, Rumi said:
The qibla of those who worship the form: an image of stone.
The qibla of believers is He, the Lord of the Grace.
Thus, the Ka‘bah is merely a metaphorical window or spiritual airport that transports us to the Throne on which the exalted Lord is sitting (20:5). Visiting it entails a metaphysical return, back in time, 2,000 years before the world’s creation, when the Ka‘bah was created (Malise Ruthven, “Islam in the World,” 2006, p.78) to personify the recovery of our original state. For contemplative minds, it lends a divine proximity, prefigured in a primordially sacred place that is “out of this world” to the Ka’bah’s original location in heaven, where its model still exists.
From here began the creation of our planet and the consolidation of its mountains, and from its clay Adam’s head and forehead were created. This heavenly origin of the Ka‘bah is to reawaken our original state of purity, when “the Children of Adam, from their loins, … bear witness” of His Absolute Lordship (7:173).
These theological beliefs embody a human being as far more than a passive entity belonging to an imaginable past to an interactive and prehistoric being who carries a proven record of participating in sacred rhetoric with God. Journeying to the Ka‘bah materializes a metaphysical return to our original home, which is beyond time and space and supersedes all geographical coordinates and historical reference points.
However, the true homecoming only happens after we restore our fitra, the essence of humanity. This perception ingests a sense of being eternal beyond our physical capability to justify our elevated status over all of creation (33:72). We feel empowered to embrace the true Divine Eternal Being. Our submission remains no longer some passive act of worship, but becomes an active and deliberate manifestation of fitra.
The fundamental reality of such submission is both universal and the quintessence for humanity as a whole. An urge to subsume all diversity is further etched into the Ka‘bah’s legacy of being built from stones taken from five sacred mountains: Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and prophethood; the Mount of Olives, where Jesus gave his final sermon and ascended to heaven; Mount Lebanon, which represents the northwestern limit of the Israelites’ conquest under Moses and Joshua; Mount al-Judi, where Noah’s Ark came to rest; and Mount al-Hira, where the Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) met Jibreel (‘alayhi as salam) to inaugurate his prophethood.
This genesis underscores the fact that Ibrahim, Adam and other prophets (radi Allahu ‘anhum) were chosen for their desire to maintain their fitra, despite differences in creeds and practices. Similarly, our personality, practice and perception of rituals may vary, but all worship must be directed to restoring us to our post-fall state “to the lowest of the low” (95: 4-5) and manifest innate submission. Visiting holy places can only supplement this pursuit. That’s why Abd al-Rahman Jami says:
If you look for the God, look for Him in your heart,
Not in Jerusalem, in Mecca, nor in the hajj.
As our preoccupation with worldly commitments often makes us oblivious and permits less time to contemplate these mystical aspects of the Ka‘bah, the hajj’s ultimate objective remains unrealized and overlooked by the pilgrim’s naive enthusiasm of visiting this physical temple. Deeper contemplation that transcends this ritual’s minutia can help us avoid such spiritual incompleteness.
As one’s heart engages in mystical yearnings, a sense of the sacred permeates every aspect of the Ka‘bah. Even the translation of the words Ka‘bah — square, cube or high — and tawaf, which represents circles around this cubic House, become the source of sacred geometry and acquire a new meaning. This particular square can be viewed as a manifest and comprehensible world and the circles around it as a pure, unmanifest spirit-space. As did Robert Lawler, who envisioned tawaf as squaring the circle or embracing Infinity in all its varied dimensions or qualities through finite human actions (“Sacred Geometry: Philosophy & Practice,” 1982).
The seven circumambulations no longer remain the sum of six plus one; rather, they appear as an indefinite round number, meaning “many” or “infinite” ways to reorient the endless array of images, patterns and paradigms toward one’s unity with Oneness. Circling the Ka‘abah becomes a mysterious spiral to resolve the multiplicity and diversity to an absolute unity.
Every circumambulation exemplifies the human being’s orderly movement toward the eternal, from an infinite formlessness to an endless interconnected array of forms. Pilgrims move from the periphery of existence toward the center of creation, from a state of worldly scatteredness to that of sacred unity and wholeness.
As the sense of being eternal emerges within us, our movements become a whirlwind of changes transcending every contour of the cosmos, from its physical notation to a metaphysical perception. For Abul-Qasim Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri (986-1072), seven tawafs become a way to master the seven seas that contain both the benefits and livelihood for creatures and the felicity and salvation for those seeking unity.
For Najmuddin Kubra (c.1145-1221), seven tawafs correspond to crossing the seven heavens to explore the unseen mystery experienced by the Prophet during his mi‘raj. To other mystics, these seven circles correspond to crossing the seven depths of hell on the road to paradise. Just as the number 7 alludes to infinity, tawaf offers infinite approaches to regain our fitra. As Awhad al-Din Kirmani (1166-1238) said:
… and round the unit One
All numbers circle if ye reckon clear,
To add or to divide, the great, the small,
One as the center symbol doth appear.
Just as everything is hidden beyond the visible horizon of the Pleiades’ seven stars, so does the human mystical experience remain hidden and unutterable after the seventh tawaf, depending solely on the pilgrim’s sincerity of heart. Hence, Rumi suggested making the pilgrimage to one’s heart:
On God’s pathway there are two Ka‘bahs.
One is the Ka‘bah you can see;
The Other is unseen, the Ka‘bah of the heart.
As much as you can, make pilgrimage to the heart —
The heart’s value is greater than a thousand Ka‘bahs.
Such a pilgrimage opens infinite ways to revive our fitra. It transforms tawaf into seven stages of spiritual rebirth, just as a human ovum completes its bodily cycle within its mother’s womb in seven stages of 40 days each, thereby re-instilling the seven words of tawhid — la ilaha ilIa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah. Thus, making pilgrimage to one’s heart corresponds to the hidden virtues that bring out our primordial being, as well as to the universal, moral and spiritual perfection needed to remain constantly immersed in the Divine unity.
Rasheed Rabbi, an IT professional who earned an MA in religious studies (2016) from Hartford Seminary and is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry from Boston University, is also founder of e-Dawah (www.edawah.net) and secretary of the Association of Muslim Scientists, Engineers & Technology Professionals. He serves as a khateeb and Friday prayer leader at the ADAMS Center and is a certified Muslim chaplain at iNova Fairfax, iNovaLoudoun and Virginia’s Alexandria and Loudoun Adult Detention Centers.
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