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Chapter I

Prologue: The Kaba

W e shall begin our investigations into the

art of Islam with a description of the
Kaba and its liturgical role, the literally central
both from the Jews, who pray facing Jerusa
lem, and the Christians who orientate them
selves literally by facing the sunrise; he elects to
importance of which for Islamic art, and above join the religion of the center, which is like
all for its architecture, is quite clear. As is well the tree from which the other religions stem.
known, every Muslim faces the Kaba to recite Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian, says
the canonical prayers, and every mosque is ac the Koran, but detached (anf) and submit
cordingly orientated in this direction; in the ting (muslim) (3:67). The impact of these
subsequent chapters we shall demonstrate ev words is that the faith of Abrahamwho is
erything that follows from this. here the very typification of a Muslimis free
There is a further reason for speaking about from the specializations and limitations repre
the Kaba at the beginning of this book. It is sented, in Muslim eyes, by the Jewish concept
the only worked object that plays an obligatory of a people chosen to the exclusion of all others,
part in Muslim worship. If it is not a work of art and by the Christian dogma of a unique savior,
in the proper sense of the termbeing no more the Son of God.
than a simple cube of masonryit belongs Let us note that the Koranic account of
rather to what might be termed proto-art, the building of the Kaba by Abraham does
whose spiritual dimension corresponds to myth not stress his role as ancestor of the Arabshis
or revelation, depending on the point of view. descendants through Ishmael and Hagarbut
This means that the inherent symbolism of the his function as the apostle of the pure and
Kaba, in its shape and the rites associated with universal monotheism that Islam purposes to
it, contains in embryo everything expressed by renew. Whatever the historical basis2 of this
the sacred art of Islam. account, it is inconceivable that the Prophet
The Kabas role as the liturgical center of should have invented it for more or less politi
the Muslim world is bound up with the fact cal motives, apart from questions of sincerity.
that it demonstrates Islams link with the Abra- The pre-Islamic Arabs were obsessed with ge
hamic tradition and thereby with the origin of nealogywhich is, in any case, a characteristic
all the monotheist religions. According to the of nomadsand would never have accepted
Koran, the Kaba was built by Abraham and his the interpolation of a hitherto unknown
son Ishmael, and it was Abraham who estab- ancestor.3 If the Bible makes no reference to a
lished the yearly pilgrimage to this sanctuary. sanctuary founded by Abraham and Ishmael in
Center and origin: here are the two aspects of Arabia, this is because it had no cause to re
one and the same spiritual reality, or again, one fer to a sanctuary placed outside the land and
could say, the two fundamental options of every destiny of Israel. It nevertheless recognized the
spirituality.1 spiritual destiny of the Ishmaelites by includ
For the generality of Muslims, to pray fac ing them in Gods promise to Abraham. Let us
ing the Kabaor facing Mecca, which comes note finallywithout straying too far from our
to the same thingexpresses a priori a choice: subjectthat it is typical of a divine geom
by this gesture, the Muslim is distinguished etry, which is both strict and unforeseeable, to
2 rologue: e aba

make use of an Abrahamic sanctuary lost in the climate, where the idea of divine transcendence
desert and forgotten by the great religious com outweighs everything. But God dwells, as it
munities of the time, in order to have a starting were, in the ungraspable center of the world, as
point for renewing monotheism of a Semitic he dwells in the innermost center of man. It
complexion.4 The question so many students will be recalled that the Holy of Holies in the
of Islam ask themselves: What happened at Temple at Jerusalem which was likewise a di
Mecca to bring about a new religion?, could vine habitation, had the shape of a cube, like
well be put the other way round: For what rea the Kaba. The Holy of Holies, or debir, con
sons did the new, nascent religion first manifest tained the Ark of the Covenant, whereas the
itself in this spot? interior of the Kaba is empty;6 it contains only
The eminently archaic form of the Mecca a curtain, which oral tradition calls the curtain
sanctuary accords well with the Abrahamic of Divine Mercy (Ramah).
origin attributed to it. It has, indeed, been The cube is linked to the idea of the center,
frequently destroyed and rebuilt, but the very since it is a crystalline synthesis of the whole of
name Kaba, which means cube, is a warrant space, each face of the cube corresponding to
that its shape has not been essentially modified; one of the primary directions, namely the ze
it is slightly irregular, being twelve meters long, nith, the nadir, and the four cardinal points. Let
ten meters broad and about sixteen meters us remember, even so, that the positioning of
high. the Kaba does not entirely correspond to this
The building is traditionally covered with a scheme, because it is the four corners, and not
vesture (kiswah) which is changed yearly and the sides of the Kaba, which face the cardinal
which has, since the Abbasid period, been made points, doubtless because the cardinal points
of black cloth embroidered with gold lettering, mean, in the Arab concept, the four corner pil
which bespeaks in striking fashion the both ab lars (arkn) of the universe.7
stract and mysterious aspect of the edifice. The The center of the terrestrial world is the
custom of clothing the sanctuary was appar point intersected by the axis of heaven: the
ently introduced by an ancient Himyarite king, rite of circumambulation (awf), around the
and seems to be part of an extremely venerable Kaba, which is to be found in one form or
Semitic tradition which is, in any case, alien in other in the majority of ancient sanctuaries,8 is
style to the Greco-Roman world: to clothe a then seen to reproduce the rotation of heaven
house is, in a way, to treat it as a living body or around its polar axis. Naturally, these are not
as an ark bearing a spiritual influence, and that the interpretations attributed by Islam to these
is how the Arabs understood it. As for the cele ritual elements, but are inherent a priori in
brated black stone, it is enclosed not in the cen a view of things shared by all the religions of
ter of the Kaba but in an outer wall close to its antiquity.
meridian angle. It is a meteorite, and therefore The axial character of the Kaba is, how
a stone fallen from heaven, and the Prophet did ever, affirmed by a well-known Muslim legend,
no more than confirm its sacred character.5 Fi according to which the ancient house, first
nally, let us mention the outer precinct, roughly built by Adam, then destroyed by the flood
circular, of the aram, which forms part of the and rebuilt by Abraham, is situated at the low
sanctuary. er extremity of an axis which traverses all the
The Kaba is the only Islamic sanctuary heavens; at the level of each heavenly world,
which can be compared to a temple. It is com another sanctuary, frequented by angels, marks
monly called the house of God (baytu Llh), this same axis, the supreme prototype of each
and it has in fact the character of a divine dwell of these sanctuaries being Gods throne, around
ing, paradoxical as this may seem in a Muslim which circulates the chorus of the heavenly

Opposite: 2. The Kaba at Mecca

rologue: e aba 3
4 rologue: e aba

spirits; but it would be more exact to say that tion of his islm: arriving at the threshold of the
they circulate within it, since the divine throne sacred area surrounding Mecca, the pilgrim di
encloses all creation. vests himself of all his clothing, purifies himself
This legend bears clear witness to the re with water from head to toe, and garbs him
lationship which exists between ritual orienta self in two pieces of seamless cloth, one around
tion and Islam as submission or abandonment his waist and the other over one shoulder. It is
(islm) to the Divine Purpose. The fact of turn in this consecrated state (irm) that he ap
ing in prayer to a single point, ungraspable as proaches the Kaba to accomplish the rite of
such but situated on earth and analogous, in circumambulation (awf), ceaselessly invok
its singleness, to the center of every world, is ing God. Only after this visit to the house of
eloquent of the integration of human will in God does he set out for the various places as
the Universal Will: and to God are all things sociated with sacred history, and completes his
returned (Koran 3:109). At the same time, it peregrination by sacrificing a ram in memory of
will be seen that there is a difference between Abrahams sacrifice.10
this symbolism and that of Christian worship, We shall see later how these two modes of
where the point of orientation is that part of the adoration, the one static and the other dynamic,
sky where the sun, the image of Christ reborn, are reflected at different levels in the world of
rises at Easter. This means that all orientated Islam. In the present context we wish to show
churches have parallel axes, whereas the axes of only one thing, namely, that the Muslim soul
all the mosques in the world converge. and, thereby, Muslim art are grounded in a
The convergence of all the gestures of ado world that is closer to that of the Old Testa
ration upon a single point becomes apparent, ment Patriarchs than to the Greco-Roman uni
however, only in the proximity of the Kaba, verse, to which Islam had to turn for the first
when the host of believers bows down in com elements of its art. Let us not forget that Islam
mon prayer from all sides towards a single cen was born in a no mans land between two great
ter; there is perhaps no more immediate and civilizations, the Byzantine and the Persian,
tangible expression of Islam.9 which were at the same time empires disput
It will have been gathered that the liturgy ing Arabia, and which Islam had to fight and
of Islam is linked to the Kaba in two differ overcome for its own survival. Compared with
ent but complementary modes, one static and these two worlds, both of which had an artistic
the other dynamic: the first mode means that heritage11 tending towards naturalism and ra
every place on earth is directly attached to the tionalism, the Kaba and its associated rites are
Meccan center, and it is in this sense that the like an anchor cast in a timeless deep.
Prophet said, God has blessed my community
by giving them the face of the whole world as @!
a sanctuary. The center of this unique sanctu
ary is the Kaba, and the believer, who prays in When the Prophet had conquered Mecca, he
the universal sanctuary, finds that all distance went first to the sacred enclosure and performed
is momentarily abolished. The second mode, the circumambulation of the Kaba on camel-
which is dynamic in nature, is made manifest in back. The pagan Arabs had surrounded this
the pilgrimage, which every Muslim must make area with a girdle of 360 idols, one for each
at least once in his lifetime, if he is able. There day of the lunar year. Touching these idols with
is an aspect of divestment in the pilgrimage, his riding stick, the Prophet overturned them
and this ordinarily transmits itself to the entire one after the other, while reciting the verse
Islamic ambience; at the same time, its impact from the Koran, Truth has come; vanity has
on the believer is that of a dramatic recapitula vanished; in truth vanity is evanescent (17:81).
rologue: e aba 5

3. Detail of embroidery with lettering from a kiswah (vesture of the Kaba)

He was then handed the key of the Kaba and habited it, represent the passions which invest
went in. The inner walls were adorned with the heart and impede the remembrance of God.
paintings executed by a Byzantine artist on Therefore, the destruction of idolsand, by ex
the orders of the Kabas pagan masters; they tension, the putting aside of every image likely
portrayed scenes from the life of Abraham and to become an idolis the clearest possible
certain idolatrous customs. There was also a parable for Islam of the one thing necessary,
representation of the Holy Virgin and Child. which is the purification of the heart for the
Protecting this icon of the Holy Virgin with sake of tawd, the bearing of witness or the
both hands, the Prophet ordered that all the awareness that there is no divinity save God.
others be effaced. The icon of the Virgin was To create a new Muslim iconography would
later destroyed by a fire.12 This traditional story be superfluous after such an example and would
demonstrates the meaning and the scale of what deprive the parable of its meaning. In Islam,
is erroneously called Muslim iconoclasm, and icons are replaced by sacred writing which is, as
which we would rather call aniconism: if the it were, the visible embodiment of the Divine
Kaba is the heart of man, the idols, which in Word.
Notes to Chapter I
1. The whole existence of the peoples of antiquity, and of 9. Inside the Kaba there is no more ritual orienta
traditional peoples in general, is dominated by two pre tion; the dierence between each convergent direc
siding ideas, the idea of Center and the idea of Origin tion is annulled, and the custom of the Prophet re
(Frithjof Schuon, Light on the Ancient Worlds [London: quires that four brief prayers be made, facing each side
Perennial Books, 1965], p. 7). of the sanctuary in turn. Thus it is that in the worlds
spiritual center, the contrasts or oppositions which typ
2. It is possible for a sacred story to be more truein the
ify the world are no longer dominating but dominated.
sense of having a greater realitythan a purely empirical
According to a Su interpretation, the Kaba corre
or historical account of the events.
sponds to the heart as the seat of the Divine Presence,
3. See Y. Moubarac, Abraham in the Quran, coll. tudes and the encircling movement of the pilgrims around the
musulmanes (Paris: Vrin, 1958). Kaba recalls the movement of thoughts or meditations
turning perpetually around the souls ungraspable center.
4. There are forms of monotheism which lie outside Se
mitic or Abrahamic lineage. 10. The great pilgrimage moves across the Islamic world as
the circulation of the blood moves through mans body, the
5. For all the peoples of antiquity, a stone fallen from the Kaba being the heart.
sky could not be other than sacred, and necessarily so, for
things are what they mean. 11. This heritage cropped up occasionally in Europe and,
with the Renaissance, nished by engulng the funda
6. This is true also of the cell of certain Hindu temples, mentally Christian civilization of the Middle Ages.
and this cell or matrix (gharbagriha) has also the shape
of a cube. 12. According to al-Azraq, the author of the oldest his
tory of Mecca. The icon portrayed the Holy Virgin with
7. St. Johns Apocalypse describes the Heavenly Jerusalem the Infant on her knees.
as an imperishable synthesis of the world in the shape of
a cube.
8. Notably in Hinduism and Buddhism, but also in me
dieval Christianity, in the form of processions around a
saints tomb.

Prologue: The Kaba

Features in

Art of Islam, Language and Meaning: Commemorative Edition

2009 World Wisdom, Inc.

by Titus Burckhardt, Foreword by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Introduction by Jean-Louis Michon

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