What is the Kaaba?:
The Kaaba is Islam’s holiest site and, as such, knowing more about it is critical to knowing more about Islam itself. The history of the Kaaba is intertwined with the origin of Islam because it appears that Muhammad used the Kaaba for political purposes, promoting new stories about the Kaaba's history in order to connect his new created religion with ancient Judaism. These efforts failed, but the stories remain and continue to feed the idea that Islam is the most valid religion. Knowing more about the Kaaba thus means knowing that not everything Muslims believe about Islam and Muhammad is true.
The Role of the Kaaba in Islam:
The Kaaba (Ka’aba, Ka’bah, “Cube,” “House of God”) is a Muslim shrine located in a square adjacent to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. The surrounding square has been enlarged to over 16,000 square meters and can accommodate over 300,000 Muslim pilgrims. When Muslims pray the required five times each day, they face not simply Mecca, but the Kaaba in Mecca; Muslims praying in Mecca turn towards the Kaaba instead of facing just any direction. The true origin and nature of the Kaaba is disputed, but Muslims treat it as holy anyway.
The Kaaba Before Islam:
Muslims acknowledge a pre-Islam Kaaba, but primarily in the context of the religious traditions they believe they are continuing. Before Islam was created by Muhammad, the Kaaba appears to have been an important pagan shrine in Mecca. What this means is that most recent religious traditions which Islam is continuing are all pagan; critics argue that this helped promote conversion to Islam, while the stories connecting the Kaaba to ancient Jewish stories were created in order to separate Muslim beliefs from paganism.
The Kaaba and Muhammad:
When Muhammad received his revelations from God, the Kaaba was under the control of one of the most important tribes of Mecca, the Quraysh. It was used as a shrine for pagan idols, especially al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, known together as al-Gharaniq (Daughters of God), and Hubal, a marriage god. When Muhammad took control of Mecca he cleaned out the idols and dedicated the Kaaba to God. Christians converting pagans in Europe frequently rededicated ancient temples, holy sites, and holy days in order to facilitate the change in religion; Muhammad was likely doing the same for Islam.
The Kaaba in Muslim Mythology:
According to Muslim traditions, Adam built the original Kaaba as a copy of and directly below God’s throne in heaven. This Kaaba was destroyed during the great Flood, leaving behind nothing but the foundation. The current Kaaba was rebuilt by Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ishmael (Ismail). A gilded cage near the Kaaba holds a stone preserving a footprint of Abraham. There is no reference to the Kaaba in ancient Jews texts and these Muslim traditions are likely just an attempt to establish a more ancient pedigree for Islam — perhaps in part to help Muhammad convert the Jews, which ultimately failed anyway.
The Kaaba and the Hajj Today:
At least once in their lives, every Muslim is supposed to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. The central event of the hajj is a visit to the Kaaba: Muslims walk en masse counterclockwise around the Kaaba seven times (tawaf). This ritual is supposed to represent the angels walking around the throne of God and allows Muslims to symbolically enter the presence of God. For something so holy and representative of Islam, the hajj is often marred by great suffering as large numbers of people are templed under the feet of zealous crowds.
The Kaaba and the Black Stone of Mecca:
Measuring about 12 inches in diameter, the Black Stone is probably a meteorite, though no scientific tests have ever been done on it. When they walk around the Kaaba, Muslim pilgrims often try to reach out and touch or kiss the Black Stone. Today it is worn and cracked from centuries of pilgrimages and is only held together by a wide silver band. Muslims insist that the Black Stone is not an idol: prayers are directed to God alone. In practice, Muslim behavior appears to treat the black stone like an idol; such practice may be consistent with pre-Islamic, pagan ritual practices involving the Kaaba.
The Kaaba, the Black Stone, and Muslim Sins:
The Black Stone is believed to have been a gift from God to Adam when he and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and later became a symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham, Ismail, and thus the Muslim community. Curiously, there is no record of this in ancient Jewish texts — a fact that would be consistent with Muhammad making up the story in order to connect his new religion with ancient Judaism. Muslims believe it was originally white, but went black by absorbing sins; it thus serves as a symbol of human degradation and need for God’s forgiveness.
The Quran and the Kaaba:
Despite its importance in the practice of Islam, the Kaaba isn't mentioned too often in the Quran:
We have rendered the shrine (the Kaaba) a focal point for the people, and a safe sanctuary. You may use Abraham’s shrine as a prayer house. We commissioned Abraham and Ishmael: “You shall purify My house for those who visit, those who live there, and those who bow and prostrate.” ... And when Abraham and Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House, (Abraham prayed): Our Lord! Accept from us (this duty). Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower. (2:125-127)
Lo! (the mountains) As-Safa and Al-Marwah are among the indications of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who is on pilgrimage to the House (of God) or visiteth it, to go around them (as the pagan custom is). And he who doeth good of his own accord, (for him) lo! Allah is Responsive, Aware. (2:158)