For Muslims, Mecca — a city in Saudi Arabia — is believed to be the birthplace of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed and is considered the holiest city in the world. When Muslims pray, they position their bodies to face Mecca, and all devout Muslims, if they are able, are obliged by their faith to to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca once in their lives. Within Mecca is the Kaaba (or Kaba), a cube-like building that is the destination of the Muslim pilgrimage. At the southeast corner of the Kaaba is a small black cornerstone that is one of the holiest relics in the Muslim world.
Though there is no explicit mention of the stone in the Quran, there are other theologic accounts of its origins, which Muslims often view as a heavenly object.
Muslims believe the Kaaba, which houses the black stone, was first built by Adam, who placed the black stone in the structure, and that when Abraham and Ishmael later rebuilt the Kaaba, the Angel Gabriel returned the stone to them.
Muslim historians also believe the stone has been removed and replaced several times. At one point, the Kaaba was heavily weathered and flood-damaged and regional tribes worked together to rebuild the structure. The chiefs, however, were unable to decide who should receive the honor of replacing the black stone. In the end, the chiefs laid the stone on a cloth and each grabbed a corner. After carrying the stone to its intended location, the Prophet Muhammad lifted it into place.
The black stone plays a major role in the annual hajj, the massive pilgrimage to Mecca which can include up to two million Muslims. Twice during the hajj, Muslims perform a ritual — the tawaf — in which they circle the Kaaba seven times as a representation of the angels circling God's heavenly throne. The stone, fixed into the wall of the Kaaba roughly five feet above the ground, is worn smooth from the hands and lips of Muslims who touch and kiss the stone as they pass in the belief that the stone can absorb the sin of the individual who touches it. Pilgrims who choose not to, or cannot get close enough to kiss the black instead salute it at each pass.
The Kaaba is considered an earthly representation of God's house and Muslims believe it was the initial house of worship. The sacred black stone is viewed as a symbol of the covenant between God and Abraham, and to Muslims, the stone is an indication that that covenant extends to the whole Muslim community.
From a scientific perspective, the origin of the stone is a matter of some debate. Though many consider the stone to be a meteorite of some kind, other scientists have hypothesized the stone is more likely an agate.
The fascination on heavenly rocks, however, extends beyond the scope of Islam, and rocks have served as religious symbols for centuries. The Bible's Old Testament calls God "The Rock of Ages," while Jesus in the New Testament speaks of building his temple on a rock. Early civilizations used unusual stones or meteorites to mark houses of worship and numerous other cultures have recognized the symbolism of stones.
- University of Wisconsin: Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates
- al-islam.org: Ka’aba The House Of Allah
- Robert Dietz and John McHone: Kaaba Stone: Not a Meteorite, Probably An Agate
- University of Mississippi: Al-Kabaah
- Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: "What is the Kaaba?" from Oxford Islamic Studies Online
- Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: 'Hajj' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online
- Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs: Islam
- Thomas Patrick Hughes' Dictionary of Islam: H
- Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, pg. 91
- The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Prophet
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images