The Kaʿbah, the Abrahamic Call & the Spiritual Meaning of Hajj:
رَبَّنَا إِنِّي أَسْكَنتُ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي بِوَادٍ غَيْرِ ذِي زَرْعٍ عِنْدَ بَيْتِكَ الْمُحَرَّمِ رَبَّنَا لِيُقِيمُوا الصَّلاَةَ فَاجْعَلْ أَفْئِدَةً مِنْ النَّاسِ تَهْوِي إِلَيْهِمْ وَارْزُقْهُمْ مِنْ الثَّمَرَاتِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَشْكُرُونَ
‘Our Lord! I have settled one of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House so that, O Lord, they may establish the prayer. Thus make the hearts of people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ [14:37]
This duʿa was made around 2000 BC. But let’s go even further back in sacred time to the dawn of man’s arrival on earth, to 3000 years earlier; or much more so:
It’s been said that Adam, the first man and prophet, having been told to leave Paradise for this dusty earth, was ordered to undertake a great journey.
Guided by Heaven, he travelled far till he came to the deserts of the Hijaz and stood, at last, in a valley ringed by mountains; a barren place of rock and sand. There he built a holy structure, a place of worship; and when this task of his was complete, he left. And for a great length of time, silence and stillness descended upon this sacred place, and windblown sand covered what Adam had built. The Qur’an says of this sacred House and valley:
إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيْتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنَّاسِ لَلَّذِي بِبَكَّةَ مُبَارَكًا وَهُدًى لِلْعَالَمِينَ
The first sanctuary ever built for mankind was that at Bakkah [Makkah], a blessed place and a guidance for the worlds. [3:96]
The hadiths about Adam’s role in erecting the Kaʿbah aren’t definitive, their soundness questionable. What is certain, though; what does constitutes sound sacred history, is that:
After long ages had passed, two people came over the desert into the Makkan valley, with a child. The one, an elderly man in his eighties, Abraham by name and a prophet by destiny. The other, Hagar, his Egyptian maid-servant who had borne him this child in his old age: Ishmael. Near the mound that now covered the Sacred House, Abraham left both Ishmael and Hagar to the divine mercy and under divine instruction, leaving with them a few dates and a water skin.
Thirsty, hungry and perhaps by now distraught, Hagar left the child under a sheltered spot and began looking for water and help. Following a path that led her to the hilltop of Safa, there she saw no spring nor signs of habitation. She ran to the neighbouring hilltop, Marwa; again she saw nothing. Seven times she ran between the two hilltops, calling on Allah for mercy. It was then she heard the sound of a voice. Hurrying back to her son, she saw standing besides him an angel who was now striking the earth with his wing so that water gushed forth. This was the spring of Zamzam, from which the pilgrims in their millions drink even today. Here it was that Hagar settled, and reared Ishmael, soon to be joined by a wandering tribe from the north, the Jurhumites; and it is here she died and here he thrived.
Abraham would often come back to Makkah. On one such return, when Ishmael had grown to manhood, both father and son set about rebuilding the Kaʿbah; repeating Adam’s deed, as all men must in one way or another. Father and son dug the earth, found the foundations of the original structure, and rebuilt the Kaʿbah as a simple structure of four walls, setting in one corner of this House a white stone:
وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنْ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ
And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord! Accept from us [this act]; You are indeed the Hearing, the Knowing.’ [2:127]
On another earlier occasion, according to one of two authoratative readings, Abraham came to fulfill a dream about him and his first born, Ishmael:
فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَابُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَى فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَى قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ سَتَجِدُنِي إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنْ الصَّابِرِينَ. فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ. وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ. قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ. إِنَّ هَذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلاَءُ الْمُبِينُ. وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ.
And when [his son] was old enough to walk with him, [Abraham] said: ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so what do you think?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you have been commanded. Allah willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ So when they had both surrendered to Allah and he had turned him down on his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision. Thus We reward the doers of good.’ That was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-07]
And then there is this duʿa spoken by Abraham, perhaps when he was leaving Makkah for the last time, or perhaps when he was back in the fertile land of Canaan:
رَبَّنَا وَابْعَثْ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِكَ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمْ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ
‘Our Lord! Raise from their midst a Messenger who shall recite to them Your signs, and teach them the Book and the Wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]
More than two millennia passed before Abraham’s prayer was answered. By that time, the worship of the One true God taught by Abraham was mixed with much idolatry, the Kaʿbah had been defiled with idols in and around it, and the pure white stone set in the eastern corner had been blackened because of the sins of men. Once more, the sacred House was largely forgotten, except to the Arabs and a few scattered tribes of nomads, of whom history took little notice.
But the time was at hand when the Abrahamic call would be reinstated, re-energised, and its scope made universal. And in the fullness of time, with destiny being ripe, there was born from Ishmael’s seed, among the Arabs, from the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hashim, a Messenger of God, a final Prophet, in a line of prophets extending all the way back to Adam and his descendents: Muhammad ﷺ – mercy to the worlds. Under the weight of the final divine Revelation, the Prophet ﷺ restored the primordial Adamic faith and reestablished the salvic truths of Abrahamic monotheism.1
The Pilgrimage to Makkah and to the Kaʿbah, as well as involving the continuity of a number of ancient rites, contains potent spiritual symbolism. The physical journey from one’s homeland is a reminder that one must eventually leave this world forever. Wearing the ihram reminds one that each will be buried in a shroud when they die and shall meet their Maker, shorn of any ability to hide behind clothes of pretension or of status. The huge multitudes of people camped out on the plain of Arafat, or under the desert sky of Muzdalifah, brings to mind the tumult and terror of the Resurrection, when all shall be marshalled together for judgement. But of course, the most potent symbol, and the one that most links us to the Abrahamic legacy, is the ritual sacrifice, in remembering Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. For Abraham’s story is a story of loving submission – and it is loving submission and surrender that lie at the very heart of Islam.
1. See: Gai Eaton, Islam & the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 46-48.