Last Hajj month one of my friend’s family went to Makkah for Haj. They brought from there the sacred water of Zamzam well, which is drunk as a part of the Haj ritual. I was offered this water and I drank it. The way to drink this water is to face the direction of the Kaaba (West in India), cover one’s head and drink it. It has an earthen smell mixed with the fragrance of the fresh water. Hinduism has a similar custom of drinking the sacred water of the river Ganga or the water from any other water body near a pilgrimage centre. I was quite surprised to know that Islam too has a similar ritual!
Hajj Pilgrims in the Hajj Dress called Ihram, similar to the Traditional Indian Dress for Men
Shaving off the Head During Hajj, similar to a common Hindu ritual
I explored the details of the Haj pilgrimage and found that some Muslims shave their head after throwing stones at the three pillars, which is again similar to the practice some Hindus observe during a pilgrimage – usually after a wish they asked for has got fulfilled. The Haj pilgrims also wear a white cloth draped around them, which looks very similar to the traditional Indian dress for men. Besides, circumambulating the Kaaba is an essential part of Haj. This ritual of circumambulating the cultic object or the shrine is also an integral part of the worship system of all Indian religions. I am not suggesting here that these aspects are borrowed from India, rather just wondering at their similarities.
The accounts of the evolution of the Kaaba through history vary in different realms of discourse, depending on who is narrating the account.
In order to understand these discourses, we should look at the pre-Islamic overview of the region.
It is well-known that Kaaba existed in Makkah even before the rise of Islam in Arabia. It was the shrine where the Arab tribes used to worship their deities fixed around the cubical structure. There were 360 deities in all – one for each day of the year and each tribe having its own set of deities. The chief amongst them were Hubal the moon god, Al-Uzza the goddess signified by the morning star, Al-Lat, which means the Goddess and Manat the goddess of destiny. These were daughters of Allah the chief god. It has also been suggested by some authors that the word Allah was derived from Al-Lat. Some others believe that Hubal the moon god has been transformed into Allah. That these terms certainly existed before Islam and even outside Arabia is attested by archaeological evidence from the surrounding regions.
Nabataean inscriptions mention the names (see link for an overview of the Nabataeans) of Allah, Al-Lat, Manat, Uzza etc. These inscriptions pre-date Islam for several centuries – they are datable from about 2nd century BCE. The Nabataean language developed out of Aramaic and from 4th century CE, there began a two-way exchange between Nabataean and Arabic – the latter so far an oral language – so that Nabataean language shifted from Aramaic to Arabic in its vocabulary, while lending its cursive script to Arabic around 5th century CE i.e., before the rise of Islam. hence the origin of Arabic script lies in Nabataean in pre-Islamic times (see also Abraham Negev, Nabataean Archaeology Today, New York University Press, New York).
Fig. 2 The Black Stone at Kaaba (Hajar Aswad)
The existence of these goddesses at the pre-Islamic Kaaba and similar goddess cults in the neighbouing regions in West Asia and the Mediterranean have led some scholars to conclude that the Kaaba was originally a shrine of the cult of goddess worship, the crescent moon forming the symbol of the goddess (another association with the moon, apart from Hubal the moon god), which was later adopted by Islam. The Black Stone at the Kaba was the symbol of the sexual organ (called “yoni” in India, also associated with the fertility cults, in one form associated with the cult of Shiva, worshipped as a phallus [linga] joined with the yoni). Incidentally, Shiva has a crescent moon on his head. There is another interesting feature related to this issue – the Sanskrit “S” and “Sh” sounds are often rendered into “H” in Arabic and Persian. Thus, the Sanskrit “Sindhu” became “Hind” in Arabic and Persian, giving rise to the European “Indus” and “India.” If we apply this rule to the Arabian moon god Hubal, then it can be rendered into “Shubal” or “Shuval” which is thus, phonetically close to the Hindu god “Shiva” who wears a crescent moon on his forehead. The only difficulty in this is that in Sanskrit, “Shiva” is pronounced as “Shiv”, making “a” in the end silent. However, the goddess associated with Shiva has many names and one of them is “Shivaa”, pronounced with a long “a” (as in “card”), which can be phonetically transliterated into “Hiva” or “Huba” and rendered into “Hubal” as shown above. In the Hindu iconography, the goddess Shivaa also wears a crescent moon on her forehead and is worshipped as a mother goddess. All these evidences lead to the argument that this crescent moon symbol may have been a part of a cultural continuum from the South Asia to the West Asia to the Mediterranean), worshipped by the pre-Islamic Arab tribes as a part of a fertility cult that existed there. It is further stated that the maiden name of Al-Lat was Qure, thus lending the designation Quraish to the tribe that was the guardian of the Kaaba in pre-Islamic times. The name Qure has continued into modern times in the name of the University of Al-Qura established at Makkah. The sacred text of the Muslims is called the Quran, which means “reading.” But it is contemplated by the scholars whether this word came from “reading the word of Qure” that may have existed in pre-Islamic times. Islam substituted the “reading the word of Qure” to “reading the word of Allah,” but retaining the original term. It is remarkable that Kore was a moon goddess in ancient Greece as well. Since Al-Uzza was the morning star and Hubal was the moon god, cosmic symbolism was also important at the Kaaba. It has been discovered that the geometric alignment of the Kaaba is accurately aligned to the phases of the moon and to the rise of Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius. Indeed, in a desert environment where more activity took place after the scorching sun set, it was only natural that the moon and the stars would be important to the Arab tribes living there. It is to be noted that the “day” in Arabia began at the time of sunset and the sighting of the crescent moon (Hilal) – a system continued by Islam. The pre-Islamic tribes performed the Hajj to Kaaba to bring about the winter-rains. Some fertility rites were also associated with this Hajj, which later survived in the form of the temporary Misyar marriages of the Shia community performed at Makka, though banned by the Quran. (For more on this theme, see Rufus C. Camphausen, ‘The Ka’bah at Mecca’, Bres (Holland) No.139, 1989, Richard Burton, A personal narrative of a pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, London 1856 and this well-research internet site).
Fig. 3 Al-Uzza in the Centre of the Zodiac, surmounted by the Moon, Petra, Jordan
Al-Lat also had a temple dedicated to her in the Temple-compound of Sun-god Shamash at Hatra in Iraq (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, Hammondsworth, 3rd Edition, p. 420). At Saba in what is roughly now Yemen (called Sheba in Hebrew), some Arab population from central and western Arabia settled in the 2nd millennium BCE. Their capital, Ma’arib was excavated in the 20th century and yielded an imposing temple dedicated to the moon god. From about 700 BCE, a temple dedicated to the queen of Sheba, called Mahram Bilquis was excavated. The Sabaean archaeology shows that the worship of the moon cult continued in this region till about the 5th century CE, when it was overtaken by Judaism and Christianity, a century before the rise of Islam.
Fig. 4 Interior Cross-Section of the Kaaba
The archaeological account above suggests that the cults of the astronomical deities prevailed over much of West Asia before the rise of Islam and Arabia was a part of this religious matrix. These cults were very ancient and had existed there for centuries. Besides, from about 4th century CE onwards, Judaism and Christianity had begun to influence the region. This had led to the emergence of a sect of monotheists called Hanifs at Makka, who wanted to reconstruct the original Abrahamic monotheism, now lost to the world (the modern Hanfi sect of liberal and modern form of Islam prevailing in the majority of the non-Arab Islamic world is different from this). They began to label the existing astronomical religion of Arabia false and tried to gain followers for their monotheistic philosophy. This obviously led to conflicts between the polytheistic Arabs and the Hanifs. One of the major followers of this monotheism was Zaid ibn Amr, the half brother of Umar bin Al-Khattab. He used to malign the astronomical cults of the Arabs and call their gods as false gods. This enraged Umar bin Al-Khattab so much that he began to persecute him and he had to leave his family and go and reside in the mountains surrounding Makka.
There is evidence that Muhammad before he became the Prophet used to visit Zaid ibn Amr in the caves of these mountains where he lived. At this time, Muhammad had not received his revelations and he followed the ancient religion of the Arabs like everyone else. During these meetings Zaid used to teach him about monotheism and inspire him to leave the astronomical religion he was following. There is a narrative that once Muhammad went to meet him with a bag of meat and offered it to him. Zaid however, refused to take it and said he never accepted anything that had been offered to the idols. He also prevailed upon Muhammad never to offer any sacrifices or worship any of the idols and Muhammad followed him till he received his revelations (see M. J. Kister, “A Bag of Meat: A Study of an Early Hadith,” in The Bulletin of the School Of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Cambridge University Press, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1977, pp 267-275, citing the Qurawiyun Manuscript at the Library at Fez in Morocco, folios 37b-38). Ibn Ishaq the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad who lived in the 7th-8th centuries CE, has included some of the poetry composed by Zaid Ibn Amr in his work. It has been ascertained by some that the spiritual poetry of Zaid ibn Amr shows some similarity in its ideas with some verses of Quran.
Fig. 5 Map of the Kaaba and the Grand Mosque Around it (Shami refers to Syrian or Levantian)
It appears that Prophet Muhammad was influenced by the spiritual ideas of the Hanifs and the Sabaeans of his time, who were monotheists. The Hanif ideas came to him from Zaid ibn Amr and he used to meet the Sabaeans during the commercial ventures he used to manage for Khadija, who became his first wife. It’s also possible that he received his revelations in the cave of Hira in the mountains of Makka after listening to the discourses of Zaid ibn Amr who had gone to stay there.
Fig. 6 Map of the Kaaba and Surroundings
It is well-known that in the beginning Prophet Muhammad and his followers used to face Jerusalem during prayer and only later, when he gained a large number of followers, did he ask them to turn towards the Kaaba. Kaaba was still a sanctuary for the pre-Islamic deities. Prophet Muhammad instructed the new adherents of Islam that this had been the sanctuary created by Abraham to worship Allah and hence, it should become the focal point of worship for the Muslims. Hence, the Kaaba remained the axis of devotion for the tribes of Arabia, but instead of the astronomical deities, now it was the symbol of the throne of Allah. The images were removed from the sanctuary, except the Black Stone and it became the axis of Islamic worship. The Black Stone is said to be a white meteorite originally, which gradually turned black – a normal characteristic of the meteorite stones which turn from white to black due to oxidisation.
Fig. 7 Venerating the Black Stone
The Black Stone has got cracked into several pieces long time back because of centuries of pilgrimage and it is held together only by a silver band. It must be remembered that Muslims don’t worship the Kaaba; they worship Allah. Kaaba is only the axis for the direction of their prayers and veneration.
Fig. 8 Kaaba Covered with Kiswa and the crescent-shaped wall called Hateem (Early 20th Century)
The sanctuary of Kaaba is covered by a black cloth called the Kiswa. It has a band of Quranic calligraphy embroidered in gold thread around it. This cloth had for centuries been a symbol of the combined participation of the Muslims from outside Arabia. Till 1927, this cloth was brought every year by the Egyptian artisans from Cairo in a special caravan when they came for Hajj, when the cloth was changed every year. In this sense, the Kaaba was not a domain of the rulers of Saudi Arabia alone. However, this changed in 1927, when this practice was discontinued and henceforth, the Kiswa was made locally by the Arab artisans. The present Al-Saud dynasty came to power in Saudi Arabia four years later in 1931, but the first King bin-Saud had controlled Kaaba even in 1925.
Fig. 9 Kaaba in 1917
The sanctuary of the Kaaba has undergone several renovations and expansions so that it accommodates around 2 million Muslims now. The original wood and brick structure has been lined with white marble. The interior of the sanctuary holds nothing but three pillars. Originally, there were twelve of them, but they have been reduced to three now. There is only one door near the Black Stone and entry into the sanctuary now is restricted to some privileged people like the King of Saudi Arabia and some important clerics. There is a crescent-shaped wall outside one face of the Kaaba called Hateem, which is believed to have been part of the sanctuary earlier. The crescent-shape is striking here again.
Fig. 10 Kaaba and its Surroundings in Early 20th Century