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Mecca or Makkah?
For most English speakers, “Mecca” has long been the accepted transliteration of the original Arabic for the holy city. The word Mecca in English has gone on to refer to any center of activity sought by a group of people with a common interest. Las Vegas, for example, is considered the “gambling Mecca” (even though gambling is strictly prohibited by Islamic law). Many Muslims find these out-of-context uses offensive.
In an effort to distinguish between the metaphorical and official references to the holy site, the Saudi Arabian government began promoting a new transliteration, Makkah al-Mukkaramah, in the 1980s. Many English-speaking Muslims now consider this the preferred spelling, and closer to the original Arabic. While this new usage has been officially adopted by the U.S. Department of State, its spread is still incipient among anglophones at large.
“God has made the Kaba, the Sacred House, an asylum of security, Hajj, and ‘Umrah (pilgrimage) for mankind…” (Quran 5:97)
The building is known by many names, and Bait al-Ateeq (البيت العتيق Baytu l-‘Atīq, “the Ancient House”), referring to its construction by the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) in ancient times; Bait Ullah (“House of Allah/God”);and Bait al-Haram (البيت الحرام Baytu l-Ḥarām, glossed as Sacred House). The Arabic word Kaabacomes from the Arabic ka’bah meaning “square house,” which in turn comes from ka’b, “cube. Its equivalent or replica in heaven is traditionally situated above the Kaaba, and is known as Bait al-Ma’mur, which is how Muhammad described it after narrating about his Isra and Miraj journey.
Amongst the traditions of Prophet Muhammad we learn that his beloved wife Aisha asked about the wall and the door. She says, “I asked the Messenger of God about the wall and whether it was part of the House [the Kaba]. He said, ‘Yes.’ I asked, ‘So why is it not incorporated into the House?’ He said, ‘Your people ran out of money.’ I asked, ‘What about the door? Why is it high up?’ He said, ‘Your people did that so they could let in whomever they wanted and keep out whomever they wanted. If it were not for the fact that your people are still new [in Islam] and too close to their time of ignorance , I would incorporate the wall into the House and bring the door down to ground level.’”
According to the Quran, the Ka’aba was built by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael as a house of monotheistic worhip. However, by the time of Muhammad, the Ka’aba had been taken over by pagan Arabs to house their numerous tribal gods. In 630 A.D., Muhammad and his followers took over leadership of Mecca after years of persecution. Muhammad destroyed the idols inside the Ka’aba and re-dedicated it as a house of monotheistic worship.
“And (remember) when Abraham and (his son) Ishmael were raising the foundations of the House (the Kaba at Mecca), (saying), ‘Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us. Verily, You are the All-Hearer, the All-Knower’” (Quran 2:127)
According to archaeologists, the Ka’ba certainlypredates Islam. It was rebuilt several times by the tribes ruling Mecca, who used it to house sacred objects, including the Black Stone, and as a shrine to Arabian tribal gods.
At the time of Muhammad, his tribe, the Quraysh, was in charge of the Ka’ba. Desert tribesmen, the Bedouin, and inhabitants of other cities would join the annual pilgrimage to the Ka’ba to worship and to trade. Caravan-raiding, common during the rest of the year, was suspended during the pilgrimage, making it a good time for travel and trade.
The prophet Muhammad, preaching monotheism and the Day of Judgment, faced mounting opposition in Mecca. The Quraysh persecuted and harassed him and he and his followers eventually migrated to Medina in 622 CE. In 630 CE, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca as conquerors and rededicated the Ka’baas an Islamic house of worship. Henceforth, the traditional annual pilgrimage was to be a Muslim rite, the Hajj.
After Muhammad’s victory, the Quraysh triberebuilt the Ka’ba with alternating courses of stone and wood. The inner space was divided into two rooms, one of which housed the Black Stone. The exterior was covered with the habrat cloth from Yemen.
Early Islamic chroniclers say that the Ka’ba was rebuilt during Muhammad’s youth, and that there was some contention among the Quraysh, Mecca’s ruling clan, as to who should have the honor of raising the Black Stone to its place in the new structure. Muhammad is said to have suggested that the Stone be placed on a cloak and that the various clan heads jointly lift the cloak and put the Stone into place.
During the conflict between Ibn Zubayr of Mecca and the Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiyah, the Ka’ba was set on fire and the Black Stone broke into three pieces. Its parts were reassembled with silver by Ibn Zubayr, who also ordered the rebuilding of the Ka’ba in stone and in accordance with the original dimensions believed to be set by Abraham, and paved the open space around it. The shrine at this time had two doors and a wooden staircase for roof access.
In 692, after taking over Mecca, Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik bin demolished the Ka’ba and rebuiltit based on the Qurayshi version. The Abbasid Caliphs contributed the kiswa cover, a black cloth brought from Tanis in Egypt. The kiswa comprised of eight curtains (a pair on each side of the cube) embroidered with gold calligraphy expressing the Muslim shahada, or oath, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is the Prophet of Allah.”
Following Mamluk rule of the Hijaz, which lasted from 1269 to 1517, Mecca came under the control of the Ottoman Sultans. In 1553, SultanSüleyman I (1520-1566) renovated the roof of the Ka’ba and ordered the wooden ceiling painted with golden calligraphy and floral patterns.
Damaged in a flood in 1611, the Ka’ba was rebuilt once again by Sultan Murad IV (1623-1640) in 1629. The new foundation was laid according to Abraham’s plan, while the upper structure was built with large granite blocks resting on a 25 cm-high marble base.
Three columns were built to support the roof on the inside; they were covered with golden decorations. Silver and golden lamps were suspended from the ceiling. The silver door offered by Sultan Süleyman was placed off-center on the northeast wall, two meters above ground level. The Ka’ba was then covered with two kiswas, a red cloth covered with a black one, that were annually replaced.
During the first Saudi extension to Masjid al-Haram in 1976, the interior of the Ka’ba was decorated with gold geometric motifs and inscribed with Quranic verses.
The Black Stone, an ancient sacred stone, is embedded in the eastern corner of the Kaba, one and a half meters above the ground. Prophet Muhammad, may the mercy and blessings of God be upon him, said , “The black stone came down from paradise and it was whiter than milk, but the sins of the sons of Adam turned it black”