The Kaaba: Guarding the Centre, Generating the Circumference

by H. Masud Taj

We are all born with six fundamental orientations: front and back, left and right, up and down. They are the three pairs that make up the three dimensions that we can tell with our eyes closed. Which is why we have three semi-circular canals in our inner ear, which are responsible for our sense of balance, and we move our heads along the same three planes. These planes are arranged at right angles to each other along the x-, y- and z-coordinate axes that we studied in school.

There is something else we were taught in school: that there are only five possible symmetrical solids in the universe. A symmetrical solid is one that is made up of similar faces that meet each other at the same angle: in the whole Universe, there are only five ways of doing that! Plato discussed them in the Timaeus and hence they are also called Platonic bodies. The Greeks named them after the number of faces (or hedrons) they had. Hence they ranged from the minimal four-faced tetrahedron to the 12-faced dodecahedron.

Because there is no solid beyond the dodecahedron, it was regarded by astronomer al-Biruni as a symbol of the universe. Midway in the Platonic series occurs what the Greeks called the hexahedron (the six-faced solid), which in English we call the cube and in Arabic, the Kaaba. Of the fundamental five Platonic solids, it is only the cube that has six faces which face the same three pairs of orientations that are intrinsic to us: front and back; left and right; up and down. Hence at the centre of the fundamental solids that make up the universe, we have one that is uncannily anthropomorphic.

And it is the cube that the patriarch of the Jews, the exemplar to Christians and the prophet of Islam is asked to repair: “va’ahidna ilaa ibrahima wa isma’eela an ttaheera bayti littaaaeefeena wal’akeefeena warukka’issujjud” – “. . . and we commanded Abraham and Ishmael: Purify My House (the Kaaba) for those who circumambulate, those who contemplate and those who bow down and prostrate themselves (in prayer)” Qur’an 2:125 (part).

Let us visit the historical cube in Mecca to conduct a thought-experiment: Imagine you are suspended in space in a satellite directly above the cube in Mecca. Presume also that it is night and all the lights in the world have been switched off. Now switch on the lights that shine on the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Mecca in which the cube is located and also switch on the lights of all the mosques of the world.

This is what you will see: directly below you will be the black square of the Kaaba at the centre of a vast concentric system of white circles that emanate from it like ripples. The innermost circles are in constant motion around it, and they are packed close together. White wheels within wheels unceasing in their motion. They are encircled by white circles that have a space between each other. These do not move around the cube but they do sway towards and away from it. Radiating away are unmoving white dots that make up bigger and bigger circles at greater distances from each other.

What are these three sets of ripples that emanate from the cube and what have they got to do with God asking Abraham to repair the cube?

The three sets of circles we saw while being suspended in space above the Kaaba were gatherings of people in different acts of worship (the word “ecclesiastical” which means “of the church” is from the Greek word ekklesia which means an assembly or gathering of people). Closest to the cube, the Kaaba, are the pilgrims dressed in the stipulated white unstitched garments, akin to their shrouds, circumambulating; walking seven times around the cube chanting to God, “Labaik, allahumma labaik” -“I am here, for You, I am here”. They form the first set of moving concentric circles.

The next set of circles are pilgrims in concentric rows: standing, bowing and prostrating to God in the prescribed prayer. If the first set of circles move along the circumference then this set of circle moves along the radius, where each worshipper, while going from the standing, bowing and prostrating mode, is moving radially towards the centre of the cube and then receding. From your vantage viewpoint up in the night sky, this second set of circles would appear as white rings that pulsate: expanding in width and contracting. Finally, you have the distant circles that are made up of white dots that are the mosques of the world: segments of great circles (were you to light up all the graves of Muslims in the world, they too would lie in concentric ripples emanating from the Kaaba).

Thus, the mosque is defined as a segment of a circle whose centre is the Kaaba. For instance a mosque in New York would be a segment of the circle that passes through Canada, and crosses the Arctic to Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Singapore, and then crosses Antarctica, Peru, Colombia and Cuba, before re-entering the United States. The circle is made up by connecting the mosques, the white dots you saw from outer space that make the circle whose centre is the cube in Mecca.

This global concentric system made up by all the mosques in the world oriented to a single centre is a geometrical analogue of Tawhid – a doctrine of the Oneness of God and the unity of all existence. Tawhid is the foundation of Islam. Hence the cube is an ordering device; it is a marker that locates the centre of the concentric system. In it, all the axes of our horizontal plane of material existence converge and connect to the vertical axis mundi.

It is as an ordering device that the second, and less known, meaning of the word Kaaba comes into play. Kaaba, in Arabic, means the “cube” and also “a shape that emerges”, i.e. both the form and the emergence of form. If the form is the cube, then what form remains to emerge?

As an ordering device, the Kaaba is not the modest cube in Mecca but a monumental project that has, for over a millennium now, been redefining the world in its own image. It has been constructing its circumferences (without which the centre is a point without identity). Each time a group of Muslims gather in prayer or build a mosque, each time Muslims follow the Prophet’s practice of sleeping on the right side with their faces towards the Kaaba, each time a Muslim dies and is buried in a grave that is always oriented towards the Kaaba, in each instance a fragment of a circumference is being put into place. Prayer-halls, beds and graves are all rectangles with their larger side facing the Kaaba; all chords of its circumnavigating circles. With the global consolidation of a sacred centre, the faithful barely perceive that with their bricks and their bodies, they construct and constitute an international installation, the mother of all Monumental Art.

(This essay is based on the author’s talk, “Mosque as Metaphor”, delivered at The Hall of Philosophy, Chautauquan Institution, New York, on July 27, 2000.)

(The author is a poet, architect and architecture critic, raised in Ooty and Mumbai and now resident in Ottawa.)  ARTICLE SOURCE