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Religion Library: Islam

Sacred Space

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Kaaba, closer. Source: omarsc @ FlickrKaaba means cube, and that is the shape of the shrine. Its corners align with the four points of the compass. The interior is nearly empty, with only three pillars supporting the roof, and ceiling lamps made of gold and silver. Islamic tradition holds that after he and Eve were expelled from paradise, Adam built the Kaaba, which is a copy of God's heavenly house. Adam's shrine was destroyed in Noah's flood, except for the foundation, and Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it. Later, Muhammad also rebuilt the Kaaba and was entrusted to place the cornerstone in the building.

Entrance to the Kaaba. Source: AljazerrahThe Black Stone of Mecca, a black rock approximately 12 inches in diameter, is fixed in the wall of the eastern corner of the Kaaba. Tradition holds that the Black Stone was given to Adam when he and Eve were expelled from paradise, and was placed in the Kaaba by Abraham and Ishmael. It is the symbol of God's covenant with Abraham, Ishmael, and the Muslims. Pilgrims to this holy site walk counter-clockwise around the Kaaba seven times in imitation of the angels walking around God's heavenly throne. When possible, pilgrims will touch or kiss the Stone, which absorbs the sins of those who touch it. Islam teaches that the Stone was originally pure white, but has turned black from absorbing the sins of the faithful.

Sufi and Shi'i Muslims have built shrines over the tombs of holy men and women in many parts of the Muslim world. These are also pilgrimage sites, and some have also served as mosques. They are believed to possess special spiritual power, which can be received as a blessing by pilgrims. Some shrines are believed to have healing powers. Because they are segregated in the mosques, some Muslim women opt to pray in a shrine instead.

The Imām Husayn Mosque in Karbala, Iraq. Source: Public DomainFor the Shi'a, the shrine of Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, and the shrine of Husayn ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson, are especially holy. Both are located in Iraq—the shrine of Ali in Najaf, and the shrine of Husayn in Karbala. Both are important religious and education centers, and the shrine of Husayn is second in importance to Shi'i pilgrims after Mecca. For Sufi Muslims, the heart, the holder of the soul, is the most important place in the world.

Study Questions:

1.     What is a mosque? Where does the inspiration for its design originate?
2.     Describe the structure within a mosque, and the ritual that takes place.
3.     How does the location of Mecca orient Muslims’ ritual?
4.     What is the black stone of Mecca? What is its significance to Islamic faith?


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