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The Ka'aba (الكعبة, lit. "the Cube") is the holiest mosque in Islam located in Mecca (Muhammad's city of birth) and is figuratively known as the "House of God" (or Bayt Allah, lit. "House of Allah"). Another name for the Ka'aba is Masjid al-Haram, which means "Mosque of the sanctuary", where "the sanctuary" is the name for the part of the city of Mecca that is considered sanctified. Muslims face its direction in daily prayer and it is intrinsic to the Hajj pilgrimage, two of the five pillars of Islam. In the Quran and Islamic tradition the Ka'bah is identified with the site of a sanctuary built by Abraham where he went to sacrifice his son Ishmael.
Origins and ritual significance
Prior to Muhammad claiming to receive revelations from Allah, the Ka'aba served as a popular pre-Islamic shrine, which according to hadith tradition housed 360 idols and images of mostly pagan deities and attracted pilgrims and trade from many parts of Arabia. There were also eye-witness reports that figures of Mary and Jesus were in the Kaaba narrated from Muslims who died in the early 2nd century. According to a hadith, the Ka'bah may have contained pictures of Abraham and Mary (see Sahih Bukhari 4:55:570 and similarly Sahih Bukhari 4:55:571). Also according to tradition, particularly emphasized at this shrine during Muhammad's pre-Islamic years was the worship of the pagan Arab god Hubal.
History of the house of Abraham mythology
The Quran frequently mentions a secure sanctuary or house where rituals take place, which it names "the Ka'bah, the sacred house" in Quran 5:95-97. Traditionally, this is identified with the "foundations of the house" raised by Abraham and Ishmael in Quran 2:127, which is probably the intended implication. See also Quran 3:96 which says the first house for mankind where Abraham used to pray was built at Bakkah, generally understood to mean Mecca, and Quran 14:35-41 where the sacred house built by Abraham is described in the same terms as the Ka'bah in other verses. Even more explict is Quran 22:26-29 where the site of the house of Abraham is identified with the "ancient house" which it permits pilgrims to circumambulate. There is, however, little to no direct evidence on the pre-Islamic history of the Ka'bah in Mecca. In contrast, there is some significant indirect evidence bearing on the question and it does not favour the traditional understanding.
In his paper Foundations of the house, Joseph Witztum discusses this verse (Quran 2:127). He argues that the Quranic scene reflects a number of post-Biblical traditions building on Genesis 22 where Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac (in the Quran, instead it is Ishmael). In later exegetical traditions, Abraham builds an altar for the sacrifice and Isaac willingly offers himself for slaughter. By the time of Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews 1:227 (1st century CE), Isaac even helps in its construction. In the 4th to 5th centuries several (mostly Syriac) Christian homilies take up this motif. Then a 6th century CE Syriac homily by Jacob of Serugh on Genesis 22 describes them as building not just an altar but a "house" (Syriac: bayta), like in the Quran (Arabic: bayt). Witztum argues that the Quran transfers this imagery associated with Jerusalem to Mecca. The clearly late development of the idea that Abraham build a sacred house in which to sacrifice his son undermines the idea that there is any history to the story, let alone that the Ka'bah in Mecca is the location where it happened. For many more examples of Syriac Christian narrative elements in the Quran, see the article Parallels Between the Qur'an and Late Antique Judeo-Christian Literature
Witztum's findings are also summarised by Gabriel Said Reynolds in his academic commentary on the Quran. At the same time Reynolds notes that the 5th century CE Byzantine historian Sozomen (d. 450 CE) records that the Arabs made an annual pilgrimage to Hebron near Jerusalem where Abraham traditionally received a divine visitation (Genesis 18). Reynolds suggests the possibility that this Arab pilgrimage was eventually transferred to Mecca. Indeed, it seems strange that these Arabs would go all the way to Hebron for pilgrimage if Abraham's house was already identified with a sanctuary in Mecca at that time. Professor Sean Anthony has written a useful further discussion on the topic. Patricia Crone is widely considered to have established that Mecca was of no wider importance at the time of Islam's emergence, was not on the major trade route, and traded in goods like leather, wool and other pastoral products.
A place called Macoraba in Arabia is mentioned in a geographic work by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. Many academic scholars believe this is a reference to Mecca (first proposed in the 16th century), and some even think that the name derives from an ancient South Arabian word for temple, mkrb. Others historians such as Patricia Crone and Ian D. Morris have argued that there is no good reason to believe Macoraba and Mecca are the same place. The idea has never been backed by any significant academic investigation, nor has any other ancient source been shown to describe Mecca or its temple.
It seems that Muhammad unwittingly merely continued a pre-Islamic tradition of worship and pilgrimage at the Ka'bah. Its identification with the house of Abraham is without any historical foundation. Evidence suggests that not even the story that Abraham and his son built a sacred house at all had any significant antiquity.
Qibla, or direction of prayer
Muslims worldwide face the Ka'aba in Mecca five times a day to preform their daily prayers (one of the Five Pillars of Islam). In this capacity, as the direction of prayer, the Ka'aba is referred to as the Qibla. While it is taught by orthodox Islam that the Qibla changed during Muhammad's lifetime from Jerusalem to the Ka'aba, some recent critical scholarship has suggested that early Muslims after Muhammad's death used to face the city of Petra for several decades. However, this view has been widely rejected by other academic scholars who have discussed the theory.
Today, as with many Arabs during the pre-Islamic period, Muslims travel to the Ka'aba to perform the Hajj ceremony (which reflects in great detail the pilgrimage rituals of the pre-Islamic Arabs) at least once during their lifetime if they are financially and physically able. The Hajj is another of Islam's Five Pillars and has its rituals outlined in some detail in the Qur'an.
Housed in the eastern corner of the Ka'aba's walls is the black stone, which is known to have been a sacred baetyl revered by the pre-Islamic Arabs. Islamic scriptures teach that the stone fell from heaven and was once completely white, only to be lost during Noah's flood and blackened by the sins of mankind. This stone is then said to have been provided back to Ibrahim by Gabriel as Ibrahim was constructing the Ka'aba
According to historians
The above view is outlined by Crone as a possibility among others (see also: Hubal).
Islamic scriptures state that the original Ka'aba built by Abraham was rather more rectangular than cubic, but that due to reconstruction the Ka'aba had lost its original dimensions. The story recorded suggests that the Ka'aba, when Muhammad was growing up, used to be rectangular in shape but that a natural disaster decimated the structure such that it had to be rebuilt. The Quraysh, revering this structure, are said to have lacked sufficient "clean money" (that is, money untainted by sinful business, such as gambling and prostitution), and thus were only able to rebuild the temple in the shape of a cube. It is thus suggested that the short, semi-circular wall opposite the Iraqi (northwestern) wall of the Ka'aba delineates the portion of earth which in fact, counts as a part of the Ka'aba itself, despite its falling beyond the Ka'aba's walls. Consequently, pilgrims circumambulating the Ka'aba are able to earn the blessing of having "entered it" without having to step inside.
The Ka'aba has been destroyed deliberately and by natural disasters and thus reconstructed several times over since the seventh century. 
The following verses describe the origins of the Ka'aba
Note that "Becca" here is said to refer to Mecca, although some critical scholars have suggested that the word is simply a typographical error or misspelling.
97. Wherein are plain memorials (of Allah's guidance); the place where Abraham stood up to pray; and whosoever entereth it is safe. And pilgrimage to the House is a duty unto Allah for mankind, for him who can find a way thither. As for him who disbelieveth, (let him know that) lo! Allah is Independent of (all) creatures.
126. And when Abraham prayed: My Lord! Make this a region of security and bestow upon its people fruits, such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day, He answered: As for him who disbelieveth, I shall leave him in contentment for a while, then I shall compel him to the doom of Fire - a hapless journey's end!
127. 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.
128. Our Lord! And make us submissive unto Thee and of our seed a nation submissive unto Thee, and show us our ways of worship, and relent toward us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Relenting, the Merciful.129. Our Lord! And raise up in their midst a messenger from among them who shall recite unto them Thy revelations, and shall instruct them in the Scripture and in wisdom and shall make them grow. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Mighty, Wise.
The following verse suggests that fighting should not take place around the Ka'aba unless it is instigated
The following verses describe the Qibla, or direction of prayer, as having shifted to the Ka'aba and further argue that the Jews and Christians (referred to in Islam as the People of the Book) of Muhammad's time knew of the Ka'aba (presumably as having Abrahamic rather than pagan origin) "like they knew their sons" (i.e. "like the back of their hands")
Note that "the inviolable place of worship" here is Pickthall's translation of Masjid al-Haram (one of the names of the Ka'aba) which can mean both the "Mosque of the sanctuary" as well as the "the sanctified mosque"
145. And even if thou broughtest unto those who have received the Scripture all kinds of portents, they would not follow thy qiblah, nor canst thou be a follower of their qiblah; nor are some of them followers of the qiblah of others. And if thou shouldst follow their desires after the knowledge which hath come unto thee, then surely wert thou of the evil-doers.
146. Those unto whom We gave the Scripture recognise (this revelation) as they recognise their sons. But lo! a party of them knowingly conceal the truth.
147. It is the Truth from thy Lord (O Muhammad), so be not thou of those who waver.
148. And each one hath a goal toward which he turneth; so vie with one another in good works. Wheresoever ye may be, Allah will bring you all together. Lo! Allah is Able to do all things.
149. And whensoever thou comest forth (for prayer, O Muhammad) turn thy face toward the Inviolable Place of Worship [the Ka'aba]. Lo! it is the Truth from thy Lord. Allah is not unaware of what ye do.150. Whensoever thou comest forth turn thy face toward the Inviolable Place of Worship [the Ka'aba]; and wheresoever ye may be (O Muslims) turn your faces toward it (when ye pray) so that men may have no argument against you, save such of them as do injustice - Fear them not, but fear Me! - and so that I may complete My grace upon you, and that ye may be guided.
- See this Twitter thread by Professor Sean Anthony - 11 July 2022
- Joseph Witztum, The Foundations of the House (Q 2: 127), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 72, no. 1, 2009, pp. 25–40 ]
In the Book of Jubilees (2nd century BCE), an altar built by Abraham in Hebron is mentioned. Abraham's house is also mentioned many times but only in the sense of his actual home or household, not a sanctuary.
- Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Qur'an and the Bible: Text and Commentary, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018, pp. 69-70
- Sean Anthony (2018) Why Does the Qur'an Need the Meccan Sanctuary? Response to Professor Gerald Hawting's 2017 Presidential Address, Journal of the International Qur'anic Studies Association, Vol. 3 pp. 25-41
- This was definitively argued by Crone in her 1987 book Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, and further defended and refined in her 1992 article Serjeant and Meccan Trade and her 2007 article Quraysh and the Roman Army: Making Sense of the Meccan Leather Trade
- See the conclusion in Ian D. Morris (2018) Mecca and Macoraba in: al-Usur al-wusta vol. 26 (2018)