The Kaaba
The three holiest sites in Islam are 1) the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, (in Mecca); 2) the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, or Prophet's Mosque (in Medina); and 3) Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Every year millions of Muslims from all over the world visit Masjid al-Haram and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi as part of the Hajj pigrimage.

The two holiest sites in Shia Islam after Mecca and Medina are the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf and the Imam Husayn shrine in Karbala. A significant practice of Shia Islam is that of visiting the shrines of Imams in Iraq and in Iran. In Iraq, these include the tomb of Imam Ali in An Najaf and that of his son, Imam Husayn, in Karbala, because both are considered major Shia martyrs. Before the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), tens of thousands made the visits each year. Other principal pilgrimage sites in Iraq are the tombs of the Seventh Imam and the Ninth Imam at Kazimayn near Baghdad. In Iran, pilgrimage sites include the tomb of the Eighth Imam in Mashhad and that of his sister in Qom. Such pilgrimages originated in part from the difficulty and the expense of making the hajj to Mecca in the early days.*

Websites and Resources: Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam ;

Qur’an (Quran, Koran) and Hadith:
Quran translation in English ; Quran in Easy English, Urdu, Arabic and 70 other languages ; ; ; Quranic Arabic Corpus, shows syntax and morphology for each word ; Word for Word English Translation – ; Digitised Qurans in the Cambridge University Digital Library ; ;
Hadith – search by keyword and by narrator


Mecca (45 miles east of Jeddah) is the Islam’s holiest city. Situated in barren basin between two ranges of steep hills, it is where the Prophet Mohammed was born and raised and had his first revelations from God. After being banished from the city he returned and conquered it and then cleaned a huge black box, called the Kaaba, of idols, an act as important to Muslims as the crucifixion of Christ is to Christians. Each year millions of Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca for the Hajj to the relive the cleaning of the Kaaba and other events central to Muslim faith.

Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. The sanctuary there with the Kaaba is the holiest site in Islam. As such, it is a deeply spiritual destination for Muslims all over the world; it is the heart of Islam. Mecca is a place that is holy to all Muslims. It is so holy that no non-Muslim is allowed to enter. Adorning the holy sanctuary in Mecca has traditionally been part of the reverence owed to this sacred place. Made from the best materials and inscribed beautifully with verses from the Qur’an and pious expressions, the textiles have become some of the most iconic objects related to the Hajj.

Mecca was major religious center long before Islam. Located at the crossroads for all major caravans in the area, it attracted ancient caravans, trade fairs and pilgrims who payed a fee to see the 360 idols in the Kaaba, which including an image of Uzza (the Arabian version of Aphrodite) and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba. The city also has links to Abraham. Non-Muslims are not only banned from Mecca they are banned from an area 25 kilometers around it.

The Kaaba

Black stone
The Kaaba is a 45-high-foot, 33-foot-wide, 50-feet-long empty box made of cement and draped in black silk. Regarded as the House of God, it is most sacred thing there is in Islam. It is as important to Muslims as the True Cross and the Holy Grail are to Christians, and what makes it better is that it is still around. Even so, it is not an object or worship; it simply signifies a direction imposed by God to maintain unity and uniformity among the faithful.

The Kaaba is an imperfect cube structure that lies at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It is extremely old and its origins are unknown, Muslims believe it was originally part of temple erected in the beginning of second millennia B.C. by Abraham and his son Ishmael at God’s command. Abraham is regarded as the founder of monotheism. Some say the temple he established was raised on the site of a sanctuary built by Adam.

The Kaaba is neither a temple or shrine. It is empty except, Muslims say, for the presence of God, and symbolizes the abstractness and oneness of Allah. When pilgrims circle the shrine they recite in Arabic: "Lord God from Distant Land I have come unto Thee...grant me shelter under Thy throne”; or they chant "In the name of God; God is most great!"

The Kaaba contains some lamps that illuminate its interior. It has been rebuilt several times because of floods, political struggles and time. The place were Abraham is said to have stood to build the Kaaba is marked by a small structure called the “Station of Abraham.” The “ kiswa” , the embroidered black cloth covering the Kaaba, is made with about 1,000 pounds of silk. It is entirely decorated with woven calligraphy of Qur’anic scriptures, including the Shahada and the text about Muhammad cleansing the Kaaba: “Truly God has fulfilled the vision of his messenger. You will enter the sacred mosque in security.”

Black Stone

The Black Stone is a 12-inch-in-diameter sacred stone set in silver into the wall on the southeast corner of the Kaaba, near the door. It is said to be the only remaining relic of the temple erected by Abraham and his son Ishmael. Many Muslims believe it was given by the archangel Gabriel to Adam, and Abraham later put it in the Kaaba.

The black stone is may be a meteorite that someone may have picked up after watching it impact with the earth. Some have said it was originally white but was turned black by the sins of mankind. It is perfumed, and has been rubbed smooth with the kisses and caresses of hundreds of millions pilgrims over the centuries.

Muhammad at the Kaaba

Pilgrims are anxious to kiss or touch the Black Stone because the believe it represents the right hand of god. During the Hajj pilgrims are nearly crushed to death as the make their way through the multitudes to touch it with their right hand. The holy wall between the back stone and door is also regarded as extremely holy. Pilgrims try to press their entire bodies against it.

Muhammad Cleanses the Kaaba

In pre-Islamic times the Kaaba was surrounded by 360 idols (likely one for each day of the year) and included an image of Uzza (goddess of the morning star and the Arabian version of Aphrodite), Awf, the Great Bird and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba. It was circled seven times by worshipers as is done by pilgrims on the Hajj today.

Muhammad returned to Mecca in A.D. 630, eight years after being exiled. His return allowed him to fulfill a promise he made to Gabriel in A.D. 610 to cleanse the Kaaba of idols. Muhammad touched the black stone and circled the Kaaba seven times. He cleansed the Kaaba by smashing the idols and then dedicated the empty box to the worship of one God. One early Arabic source wrote the Kaaba contained paintings as well as statues and that Muhammad ordered them all destroyed except for a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary which were spared, some suggest, so as not to offend Muslim that had converted from Christianity.

Muhammad called for a cloak to spread on the ground at the base of the Kaaba and ordered the black stone to be placed on it. With a noble of each major tribe holding a corner, he ordered the cloak to be raised, He then took the black stone and placed in the spot it remains today. Meccans filed past the Kaaba and declared their allegiance to Allah. Many of pagan rites that revolved around the Kaaba and Mecca were linked to the stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ismail and presumably without much alteration they became Islam rites.

In some accounts Abraham built or rebuilt the Kaaba. The Qur’an states that as he and his son rebuilt the Kaaba walls they prayed: “My Lord, make this a City of Peace.” Muhammad wanted Muslims to constantly remind themselves of their line to Abraham. When his companions asked him how this should be achieved, Muhammad replied “Say: may the blessings of God be upon Muhammad and his progeny” and then say “May the blessings of God be upon Abraham and his progeny.” This is now part of Muslims’ daily prayers.

Kaaba Customs

The Kaaba is where Muslims direct their prayers when they bow towards Mecca. Traditionally the Holy City was placed at the center of Muslim maps. Muslims developed a system resembling longitude and latitude very early because it was important for them to fix the position of Mecca for their daily prayers. The North Star was seen as confirmation that "Mecca was opposite the center of the earth."∞

Every year in a special ceremony presided over by the King of Saudi Arabia in which the gold and silver door of the Kaaba is opened, the Kaaba is cleaned and the kiswa that covers it is replaced. It is an immense honor for a Muslim dignitary to be invited to the ceremony. The Kaaba is cleaned two other times. The door is built seven feet off the ground to keep it from being flooded. During the cleaning a special ladder is pushed up against the door.

Visiting The Kaaba

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Trying to touch the
Black Stone during the Hajj
The Kaaba was cleansed of idols by Muhammad during his triumphnat return to Mecca, an act as important to Muslims as the crucifixion of Christ is to Christians. Each year millions of Muslim pilgrims descend on Mecca for the Hajj to the relive the cleaning of the Kaaba and other events central to Muslim faith. In ancient times members of caravans and trade fairs and pilgrims payed a fee to see the 360 idols in the Kaaba, which including an image of Uzza (the Arabian version of Aphrodite) and representations of celestial gods for the moon, sun and morning star from ancient Sheba.

Today the Kaaba lies at the center of Harram Mosque in central Mecca, one of Islam's holiest shrines. Also known as the Sacred Mosque or the Great Mosque, it is comprised of a perimeter of buildings that surround a massive courtyard and a gallery that encloses the hills of Safa and Marwah, where it is said Abraham's servant and lover, Hagar, searched for water for her son Ismail. At the center of the massive courtyard is the Kaaba, the House of God, Islam’s holiest object. When Muslims bow to Mecca five times a day this is where their prayers are directed. During the hajj pilgrims enter the courtyard through the outer buildings at the Gate of Salvation.

The Kaaba is brilliantly lit at night. Some say the best time to visit it is around midnight when you can quietly sit in the steps in the courtyard and reflect upon it, You won’t have it to yourself. Even late at night people gather around it. Around this time you can hear the faithful murmuring prayers and smell the scent of detergent is in the air from the soap used to wash down the marble floor of the courtyard. The Kaaba itself is cleaned with water from the Zamzam well and perfumed with incense, before a new textile covering for the Ka‘ba is laid.

Describing the scene around the Kaaba,Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Around me the pious from all the Muslim world paid homage to God in the birthplace of their faith. A circle of schoolboys cradling the Qur’ans chanted their catechism;joyous pilgrims splashed themselves with water from the sacred Well of Zamzam; the very old, with eyes on the next life, washed clothes and laid them in the courtyard to dry. A trace of incense wafted on the reverent murmur of a thousand prayers."

Saleena Nurmohamed, who undertook the Hajj in 2006, at the age of ten, wrote: "I made my way inside cautiously, not wanting to set my eyes on the Ka‘ba (House of God) until I was able to get a clear and unobstructed view, in order to properly savour the moment. I also wanted to pray for three things dear to me as prayers get granted when you first cast your eyes on the Ka‘ba. Words cannot describe the emotions that are created when one looks at the Ka‘ba, such a simple object structurally yet so majestic and awe-inspiring that it is difficult to take your eyes off it. After emotionally gathering myself, I started my Pilgrimage.” [Source: British Museum =]

Kabbah Textiles


According to British Museum: “The sacred textiles comprise a number of different elements, including an overall covering (kiswa) and a belt (hizam) placed at about two-thirds of the height of the wall of the Ka‘ba. Over the door is a curtain (sitara or burqu‘). Inside the Ka‘ba are other textiles: a curtain to the door leading to the roof known as Bab al-Tawba, and red and green textiles with chevron designs on the inside walls. Within the sanctuary, the Maqam Ibrahim was also covered with a textile.”[Source: British Museum =]

“The Maqam Ibrahim (Abraham) where he is believed to have stood when rebuilding the Ka‘ba with his son Isma‘il (Ishmael), traditionally had its own decorated textile. The cover was made in four panels, of which this piece is the last. The fabric used is a piece of the kiswa of the Ka‘ba. The piece here is made of black silk and embroidered with gold metallic thread, silver-gilt strips and sequins and cotton thread padding. The lower part of each side is inscribed with the names of the Prophet’s family. Here, the names of his grandsons Hasan and Hussein can be clearly seen. =

“This sumptuous and heavily embroidered textile was made to be placed over the door of the Ka‘ba. The piece here is of black silk with red silk appliqués embroidered with silver and silver-gilt wire. It is lavishly decorated with bold arrangements of Arabic inscriptions from the Qur’an and other phrases. In the central black rectangle is the dedication in the name of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I (r. 1839 – 61). The curtain was made at the Dar al-Kiswa in Cairo, it was renewed annually, and was carried along with the mahmal as part of the Hajj caravan. This honoured cloak was ordered by our lord the sultan king of the kings of the Arabs and Persians, lord of the Hijaz region, the sultan Abd al-Majid Khan son of Mahmoud Khan, son of Abd al-Hamid Khan son of the sultan Ahmad Khan, may his caliphate continue, 1263.’ =

“The hizam– or belt - is placed over the black kiswa on all four sides of the Ka‘ba, and at about two thirds of its height. This section, for one side, is nearly seven metres long. It is embroidered with silver and silver-gilt wire. It was made in Cairo and sent with the Hajj caravan. Although the sitara (the curtain for the door of the Ka‘ba) was replaced every year, the belts were sometimes returned and repaired before being sent back to Mecca. The red roundel on the left bears the name of the Ottoman sultan who commissioned it, Selim II (ruled 1566 –74). The central inscription is in thuluth script. It contains Qur’anic verses identifying the Ka‘ba as "the first House [of worship] appointed for all people". =

kiswa up close

“Square embroidered panels were made to be placed over the kiswa at the four corners of the Ka‘ba below the belt. They are known as samadiyya because of the words from Chapter 112 of the Qur’an ‘Allahu al-Samad’, ‘God, the Eternal’, embroidered within the circle of text. They were also known as kardashiyya. This example was made of black silk with red silk appliqués embroidered in silver and silver-gilt wire over cotton and silk thread padding. =

“The kiswa is a textile that was made to cover the Ka‘ba. Traditionally black and made from thirty-four pieces stitched together, the design consists of invocations to God and the Profession of Faith woven into the fabric. These are composed in a style known as jali thuluth, part of which is in mirror writing, where one side of the text echoes the other. The Ka‘ba is never left without a covering – as the old one is unfastened, the new one is immediately lowered from the roof. =

“A special textile was made for the internal door of the Ka‘ba beginning in the mid-19th century. It is made of green silk with red and gold silk appliqués, embroidered in silver and silver gilt wire over cotton and sild thread padding. The inscription indicates that this was ordered by Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) and presented by Abbas Hilmi the Khedive of Ottoman Egypt (1874-1931). =

“The designs for the textiles placed inside the Ka‘ba, established in about 1600, continued with little variation for centuries. The bold inscription within the wide bands is the Profession of Faith. In the narrow bands are verses that are specific to the importance of the Ka‘ba in Islam (Qur’an 3:96). In flask-shaped medallions and roundels are inscribed three of the Names of God. This textile is likely to have been made by Indian craftsmen in Mecca. A similar example is in the Museum of the Haramayn in Mecca.” =

Inscriptions on the Kaaba

Inscriptions on the Kaaba include 1) The Shahada (‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’); 2) “God has truly fulfilled His Messenger’s vision: God willing, you will most certainly enter the Sacred Mosque in safety” (Qur’an 48:27); and 3) The Throne Verse (Qur’an 2: 255-6): “Who is there that can intercede with Him except by His leave? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, but they do not comprehend any of His knowledge except what He wills. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth; it does not weary Him to preserve them both. He is the Most High, the Tremendous.” [Source: British Museum =]

putting embroidery on the Kaaba

On the Curtain for Door of Repentance are the Lines: 4 ‘In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate. When those come to you who believe in our signs say peace be upon you. Your Lord has inscribed for himself mercy and if any of you did evil in ignorance and then repented and amended his conduct, he is most forgiving and merciful.’

On the left of the Curtain for Door of Repentance are the words:‘This noble sitara was ordered by our lord the sultan Abd al-Hamid, may God grant him victory.’ ‘Truly God our Lord and Creator, the Exalted, the Merciful has spoken the Truth, as has his messenger, the one who brings good tidings and warns from evil- sura.’

On the right of the Curtain for Door of Repentance are the words: “In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate. Remember we made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety and take the Station of Abraham as a place of prayer.’ ‘Truly God our Lord and Creator, the Exalted, the Merciful has spoken the Truth, as has his messenger, the one who brings good tidings and warns from evil- sura’

Contents of the Kabbah

Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “A fascinating document is provided by the list of objects sent to Mekkah and kept there in the Ka'bah. This list can be made up from different authors, especially from al-Azraqi whose early date (ninth century) is of particular significance to us. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]

“In pre-Islamic times the Mekkan sanctuary had contained paintings and sculptures, which were destroyed on the Prophet's order. Apparently until the time of Ibn al-Zubayr the shrine also kept the two horns of the ram which had been sacrificed by Abraham and other prophets; when he destroyed the Ka'bah, Ibn al-Zubayr reached for them but they crumbled in his hands. In Islamic times a new series of objects was brought into the holy place. Umar hung there two crescent-shaped ornaments taken from the capital city of the Persians. Yazid I gave two ruby-encrusted crescents belonging to a Damascene church, together with two cups.

Muhammad removing a dragon from the Kaaba

Abd al-Malik sent two necklaces and two glass cups, al-Walid I two cups, al-Walid II a throne and two crescent-shaped ornaments with an inscription, and al-Saffah a green dish. Al-Mansur had a glass cup of an ancient Egyptian type hung in the shrine. Harun al-Rashid put there two gilded and bejeweled cases containing the celebrated oaths of allegiance of his two sons to the complex political system he had established. Al-Ma'mun sent rubies attached to a golden chain, while al-Mutawakkil had a necklace of gold with precious stones, rubies, and topazes hung on a chain of gold. At a later date the agreement between al-Muwaffaq and al-Mu'tamid about the division of the empire was also sent to the Ka'bah. But the most important group of objects from our point of view is that which was sent by al-Ma'mun. |

“The text of al-Azraqi is somewhat confused on this score, and two more or less contemporary sets of events seem to have been mixed up by the chronicler. First, an unnamed king of Tibet had an idol of gold with a crown of gold and jewels set on a baldachin throne of silver covered with a cloth with tassels in the shape of spheres. When this king became a Muslim, he gave the throne and the idol to the Ka'bah. They were sent to Mekkah in 816-17 and exhibited at the time of the pilgrimage with an inscription emphasizing the fact that the throne was given to the Ka'bah as a token of the king's submission to Islam. During the revolt a year later the throne was destroyed, but the crown remained in the Ka'bah certainly until the time of al-Azraqi. Second, the Mekkan sanctuary also acquired the spoils of the Kabul-shah, a rather mysterious prince from Afghanistan, who submitted and became converted in 814-15. His crown seems to have been taken to Mekkah immediately, as is ascertained by an inscription of that date. The throne was kept for awhile in the treasury of the oriental provinces before being moved to Mekkah in 816. The inscriptions that were put up together with these two objects emphasize the victory of the "righteous" prince al-Ma'mun over his perjured brother and the victory of the "Commander of the Faithful" over the unbelievers. |

“These objects in the Ka'bah can be divided into three categories. Some were merely expensive gifts whose purpose was to emphasize the holiness of the place and the piety of the donors; just as in Byzantium these were preponderantly royal jewels. Another category need not concern us here: the statements of oaths, which were put in the sanctuary not to enhance its holiness but to acquire holiness and sacredness from it. The third group of objects from Umar's gift acquired in the palace of the Persian kings, to the throne and crown of Kabul-shah were used to symbolize the unbeliever's submission to Islam through the display of his Herrschaftszeichen, or symbols of power, in the chief sanctuary of Islam, and as such had an uplifting value to the beholders. |

Sacred Mosque in Mecca

Harram Mosque (central Mecca) is Islam's holiest shrine. Also known as the Sacred Mosque or the Great Mosque, it is comprised of a perimeter of buildings that surround a massive courtyard and a gallery that encloses the hills of Safa and Marwah, where it is said Abraham's servant and lover, Hagar, searched for water for her son Ismail. At the center of the massive courtyard is the Kaaba, the House of God, Islam’s holiest object. When Muslims bow to Mecca five times a day this is where their prayers are directed. During the hajj pilgrims enter the courtyard through the outer buildings at the Gate of Salvation.

The original structure was begun in the 8th century and reconstructed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan (1490-1588). In the 1960s a $100 million, 15-acre addition was added that completely surrounded the courtyard. Later more money was spent to double the mosque’s floor space to over 3.5 million square feet with the construction of a four tiered area that could handle two million people on the first day of the hajj. No mosque is allowed to have more minarets than the Sacred Mosque and according to one story a seventh minaret was added by the Ottoman Turks so that the Blue Mosque in Istanbul could have six.

The Great Mosque is now an air- conditioned super complex dominated by Egyptian-style, neo-Ottoman Empire structures built in the 20th century, with octagonal minarets and granite and marble walls. High-tech additions include domes that open and close according to the weather and huge mechanical umbrellas that provide shade. Few people are allowed to climb the 100-meter-high minarets for a look. A wide avenue leads to the mosque. There is large square around the mosque lined with shops and hotels. People enter the mosque through enormous outer galleries beneath two towering minarets.

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Pilgrims gather around the Kaaba at al-Haram Mosque


Medina (400 kilometers north of Mecca, connected by a superhighway) is Islam’s second holiest city after Mecca. It is where Muhammad fled with a handful of followers after he was banished from Mecca. In Medina he established the first Muslim community and built and lead an army that raided Meccan caravans. After conquering Mecca, Muhammad returned to Medina and spent most of his last years there and died there in the lap of his favorite wife. Medina is also where the first Muslim caliphs launched the conquest that would make much of world Islamic.

Medina is known in Arabic as (al-Madina al-Munawwarra (the Illuminated City). Its importance lies in the fact that it was the place that the Prophet Muhammad migrated to in 622 – the first year of the Islamic calendar. The Prophet built the first mosque at Medina. Although visiting Medina is not an official part of Hajj, most pilgrims will go there before or after visiting Mecca. Amir Ahmad ‘Alawi (1879–1952) wrote: “The long line of camels…and the pilgrims waiting eagerly to catch their first sight of the house of their beloved messenger of Allah caused a strange welling up of emotions inside me. Tears came into my eyes.” [Source: British Museum]

Medina contains Muhammad’s tomb as well as the tombs of two of Shiite Islam’s most important imam Ali and Hussein. In Muhammad’s time Medina was an oasis and caravan stop called Yathrub. Later it became known as Madinat al Nabi "City of the Prophet" and finally, simply as Al Madinah, "The City." Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Mecca awes, overpowers; Medina is more to a human scale. Despite comfortable modern suburbs, it retains the pious charm of a religious scholars town, a retreat where the pilgrim can rest his spirt after the cosmic experience of Mecca."

In the narrow streets of the old town, beyond the bazaar, balconies from opposite buildings almost meet. Here you can find old cobblestone streets, lively markets with street dentists and merchants selling flat bread, carpets, colorful silk and cotton cloth, prayer beads, prayer rugs, Qur’ans, precious stones and dates for which the city is famous. Many of the buildings feature Turkish architecture, evidence of the long Ottoman occupation. The wooden latticed balconies on the narrow streets of Aguwat recall Istanbul. At “a small, domed library endowed by a Turkish savant, scholars sit cross-legged, scrutinizing rare Islamic texts.”

Prophet's Mosque in Medina

Medina is also a modern city filed coffeehouses, air conditioned hotels and wide avenues. During prayer times everything come to a stop, including the traffic, as the faithful bow towards Mecca. Gravel and rock mountains in the distance. Medina is closed to nonbelievers, but the outskirts of the city are open to travelers. This includes the airport and some hotels such as the Medina Sheraton.

Muhammad's Mosque

The Prophet built the first mosque at Medina and for Muslims this place has great significance. The Prophet’s Mosque contains within it the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the tombs of his companions and successors Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. Other members of the Prophet’s family — including his daughter Fatima and several of the Imams revered by the Shi‘a branch of Islam — are buried in the Baqi‘ cemetery outside the mosque. [Source: British Museum =]

The Prophet's Mosque in Medina is where Muhammad is buried. The second most important Muslim site after Mecca and known in Arabic as Masjid ar-Rasul, it features towering minarets and is supported by arches of basalt and limestone with geometric designs. A high green dome marks Muhammad's tomb, which contains gold and silver grillwork around green-draped bier. On the red carpets believers pray and read Qur’ans. It is forbidden to pray to Muhammad so the pilgrims that gather here direct their prayers to Allah.

The simple mosque that Muhammad built is a simple green-domed structure within the Prophet's Mosque. The mosque complex also contains the grounds of Muhammad's house. Muhammad said that the empty space between the house and mosque — an area of a few hundred square feet — is the garden of Paradise, the only earthy manifestation of heaven,

The Prophet's Mosque is dominated by Egyptian-style neo-Ottoman Empire structures built in the 20th century. The Prophet's Pilgrims was renovated under the Ottoman Caliph Abd al-Majid in 1860 and enlarged by the Saudi government in 1955. In the 1980s and 90s, it was enlarged to ten times the Ottoman-era size to 165,000 square feet. A state-of the-art air conditioning system in another building is considered the largest of it kind in the world.

Muhammad's Tomb

near Muhammad's tomb

The tomb chamber of the Prophet has a green dome and is surmounted by a fiery nimbus. The grille and tomb itself are covered with a green-and white, chevron-patterned textile The Prophet’s pulpit (minbar), on which he preached sermons to the community, is depicted within the arcades on the right. In the centre is the tomb of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, in the garden that she planted with two palm trees when her father was alive. The tombs of some of the Prophet’s companions — including the tombs of the first two Caliphs (the Prophet’s successors) and of the Prophet’s daughter — are beyond the sanctuary walls. Outside the walls is an area used by Hajj pilgrim, that in the old days contained camels, luggage and tents. The historical sites of Mount Hira and Mount Uhud are beyond the walls.

In addition to the textiles made for the Ka‘ba and the holy sanctuary in Mecca, similar textiles were also made for the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina. These textiles either adorned the tomb of the Prophet or hung on the grille near the tomb. Fragments of a cover for the Prophet’s tomb were highly treasured. After the cover had been taken down from the tomb chamber it was cut up and lined with another fabric to preserve it.

Dome of the Rock and El Aqsa Mosque

Dome of the Rock (in the middle of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) is world’s oldest and, in the minds of many, most beautiful mosque. Known to Muslims as the Mosque of Omar, it is an eight-sided structure with a golden dome that was built by the Umayyad Muslim Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik between A.D. 688 and 692. The first great building built in the Muslim world, it symbolizes the ascent that all Muslims make to God, who is represented by the circle of mosque’s great golden dome.

The Dome of the Rock was the first real mosque and it set the tone for all mosques that were to follow. Simple and austere, it contains no human figures and instead was decorated with Qur’anic verses written with Arabic calligraphy. The great dome suggests balance and space. Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker, “Here the Arab love of mystical geometry and intricate ornament has been given its greatest expression. The structure...may be imagined as three rectangles, encompassing a circle. Hushed, sombre, but almost always overwhelmingly sensual, the chamber imbues one with a sense of religious awe that few holy places in the world can match.”

Dome of the Rock

The rock inside the temple under the dome is a room-size slab of weathered sandstone sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many say it is where God stood when he created the world, where Adam was made and where Cain killed Abel. A golden dome sits over the rock and a wooden balustrade surrounds it. Pillars of marble and porphyry support the inner dome. Surrounding it are marble floors, large red and green oriental carpets and a neck-high wall that children need a boost to see over but tall people can reach over and touch the rock. There isn't a whole lot of standing room between the wall and the circle of blue and white alabaster columns and striped arches that support the wooden inner surface of the dome. Illuminating the rock and the golden swirling tiles above the arches are rays of lights colored by stained glass windows in the dome.

El Aqsa Mosque (near the Dome of the Rock) is the largest mosque in Israel. Constructed by the Umayyad Muslims in A.D. 715, rebuilt several times and extensively renovated in the 1930s, it is built on the site a simple wooden mosque raised Caliph Omar in the 640s. It lies right next to the Western Wall and is where, Muslims believe Muhammad tethered his horse before he rose to heaven. Al-Aqsa Mosque is said to rest on the place where the scales of justice will be set up on the Judgement Day. It is vast and airy and filled with marble columns and pigeons. It is used as a place of worship by local Muslims. Open to the public when prayers are not in session, it boasts a silver dome made with lead and long stable-style blocks with hidden sanctuaries. It doesn’t have any minarets.

Umar and the Dome of the Rock

Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “The conquest of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 637 was a major moment in the conquest of Syria. The Christians demanded the presence of the caliph Umar himself for the signing of the treaty of capitulation, and once the treaty was signed Umar, accompanied by the patriarch Sophronius, was led through the city. As this tour of the Holy City was endowed by later writers with a series of more or less legendary incidents, it is not easy to ascertain what happened. Most sources, early or late, Muslim or not, seem to agree on two points. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]

“First, Umar was intent on seeing one specific site in the Holy City. All sources agree on that, and, in later traditions his quest and the patriarch Sophronius's opposition to it were transformed into a dramatic contest. Second, the early sources refer not to the Rock as the main object of Umar's quest, but to the Haram area in general, which they saw as the site of the Jewish Temple, the mihrab Dawud ("sanctuary of David") of the Qur’an (38.20-21) or the naos ton loudaion ("temple of the Jews") of Greek sources. The latter mention only Umar's interest in the area of the Jewish Temple and add that a Muslim sanctuary was built on its emplacement. Although mentioned in the tradition transmitted by the Muslim historian Tabari, the Rock plays no part in the prayer and recitations made by the caliph when he reached the Haram area, and in this tradition Umar rejects the suggestion made to him by Ka'b, a Jewish convert, that the Rock be on the qiblah side of the Muslim sanctuary, that is, that the faithful at prayer turn themselves toward it, because this would be reverting to a Jewish practice. |

El Aqsa Mosque

“In these texts then, the Rock, together with the whole Haram area, appears primarily as the symbol of the Jewish Temple, but the Rock itself was not taken into any particular consideration by Umar. It may be that Umar was merely looking for a large area on which to build a mosque and that Sophronius used the Haram's Jewish background to persuade the caliph to build the mosque in the empty space of the Haram. But it is perhaps more likely, in the face of the enormous impact of Jewish traditions on early Islam and specifically on Umar at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem, that the caliph was genuinely interested in reviving the ancient Jewish holy site, inasmuch as it had been the first Muslim qiblah. At any rate, the Muslims took over the Haram area with a definite knowledge and consciousness of its significance in Jewish tradition, but with very few clear Muslim associations. |

“Later chroniclers very clearly point out that Umar withstood pressures to transform the site into a major center of Muslim worship. This fact shows, on the one hand, that Umar was pressured by Jewish and Christian groups to take up their religious quarrels. By wisely remaining aloof, the caliph emphasized the unique character of the new faith in the face of the two older ones. But, on the other hand, in building anew on the Temple area, even though in primitive fashion, the Muslims committed a political act: taking possession for the new faith of one of the most sacred spots on earth and altering the pattern imposed on that spot by the Christian domination, without restoring it to its Jewish splendor. In all these undertakings the Rock itself played but a minor part...Some sixty years after the conquest of Jerusalem, however, the Rock had become the center of the whole area.” |

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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