Saturday, 29 May 2010

Kiswah - Veiling the Ka'bah

When the caliph Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi performed the Hajj in 160 AH he was informed about the build up of the previously place kiswahs upon the Ka'bah. From then it was decided to replace the kiswah once a year. The covering of the Ka'bah precedes the message brought by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and is thought to have initiated with the son of Abraham, Ishmael, peace be upon them. It was originally clothed in various coverings and during the time of the Prophet at the conquest of Mecca it was decided to leave it as it was but an accident burnt it and it was then clothed in white linen from Yemen. Since then the colour of the kiswah has altered from green to the present black. Around 1340 CE the kiswah began to be embroidered and the present appearance with the intricate gold-weave is what has been the underlying condition of the covering. The cost of the kiswah is estimated at SR 17 million and contains at least 670 kilos of pure silk and 15 kilos of gold thread. In looking up the history of the Ka'bah I was surprised that there was no suggestions as to why the Ka'bah was closed so I started to muse on the subject. This has ranged from the obscure to the curious and indeed whether the expenditure of the present kiswah is a waste of money.

The tradition or custom of clothing the Ka'bah is in itself a strange thing. Modern man can only ever really conceive of painting a building and the idea that a specially constructed "cloak" be made to cover a building causes the mindset of the modern man to freeze in consternation. One automatically thinks it is for the purposes of adoration and ornamentation but this cannot be true. If one goes back and looks at the history of the kiswah it becomes apparent that the cloth was nothing more than a dressing and the decorative scriptural references now adorning the kiswah are an addition but not an essential one. In Islam "innovation" is considered a major sin except if the increase of the "deen" is manifestly enhanced by the obvious good in a new thing. One example of this, and perhaps the best, is the collecting of the Qu'ran to ensure its inseparability over the passage of time. The complex needlework on the kiswah gives praise and glory to Allah, glorify His name and how can one think ill of such beauty.

Aesthetically the present kiswah is pleasing to the eye and one of the most familiar images in history - but only from the perspective of the last 150 years or so, since the invention of photography. Previous to that the record of the the Ka'bah was minimal and was subject to the interpretation of pilgrims and their observations. We conceive of the Ka'bah as we are now familiar with it but ponder this - if the present guardians of the Ka'bah took it upon themselves to revert to how the Ka'bah was dressed during the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, would such an action incur any unnecessary consequences? Could the site of a white enshrouded Ka'bah cause consternation amongst those who pray 5 times a day in the direction they are commanded to?

The Ka'bah used to be covered on the 10th of Muharram but this gradually shifted to the end of the Hajj, on the 10th. Above you can see the plain bricked structure that is at the physical centre of Muslim devotions. As Muslims we know the Ka'bah is the House of God and was instituted by Him to help us worship Him. When Abraham, peace be upon him, was ordered to erect the house he did so knowing how sacred such an action was. It was here that the direction of prayer to the One God was confirmed. The sacredness of the site does not take away the fact that we, as Muslims, do not pray to the House of God, in truth that is only the direction we are commanded to pray to and to submit to. In this way all Muslims, from any point on the earth turns towards the Ka'bah to fulfil his duty to the Most High. It is a focal point of attention.

The movement of the desert peoples meant that stabilised residences were not high on the agenda and the adapted practise of hauling tents and ones home around with them also meant that any place reserved for worship had to have some significant grounding in either folk or mythic memory. Over the Arabian peninsula you can chart a course between places of veneration, usually to all forms of idolatrous practises but the Ka'bah was the first place where the worship of Allah was centralised into an important fixed point. The building of a structure is actually a physicality of man's obedience to the Will of God and so any worship towards the Ka'bah is never centred on the building but upon the command of He who ordered its raising.

The problems arise with man's intractable sense of the need to believe in something they can see. The removal of the Ka'bah would not affect any true believer for they know that Allah is above all and belief in Him does not require objectification. In other religions the need to have a focus is none the less diminished, be it Christianity or Judaism, and traditionally the direction of worship had been Jerusalem. During the Diaspora worshipping Jews focused their prayers towards the destroyed city of their disgraced nation. In this way they were looking towards a future and the advent, promised them, of the Messiah. Christians use to pray in the same direction but their focus since the middle ages has been more inclined to the self, though the statues and ornament of both Eastern and Western churches show the need for the mind to be able to have something physical to fix on. It use to be that one could pray inside the Ka'bah, hence inside the dressed House of God. We know that when we wash for prayer we are removing that which despoils us and inside the Ka'bah, at the heart of our deen, we find ourselves with nothing to focus on except what is in our souls. That is why the issue of the kiswah is incidental but important in understanding its necessity.

My contention is about whether the Ka'bah truly needs such an elaborate cloth. As depicted by the picture above the barrenness of the structure can be seen to be both deprecating to the serenity of the mind and the aesthetics of the soul but as said a true believer has no need of such things. So is it a case of window dressing? Should the House of God not be regaled by His worshippers in the best manner they see fit? It is no coincidence that the main constituents of the kiswah presently are silk and gold, resources forbidden to Muslims to wear, the idea being that such finery belongs to the residents of al-Jannah, and those who take them now will not enjoy them later, for man falls in love with that which he craves.

In dressing the House with two of the most valuable produces known to man is the Muslim actually directing his love towards that which is clothed in these objects which are 'haram'. Is the kiswah, with its calligraphic pronouncements weaved in gold and silk, hiding that which dwells in the heart of every Muslim? Indeed because of the Muslim's love for His Lord does it not mean that there is a need to lavish on their love the best of things?

The cost of the kiswah spirals with each year and a return to the austerity of the original clothing would save money but is that the point? We known we do not worship the Ka'bah, and the sight of it in newspapers or books should make not one jot of difference if it was clothed as it is now or in plain white Yemeni linen. Personally I go along with the ummah in this matter. When the kiswah is removed and a period of undress, during hajj, begins, the Ka'bah is then re-veiled and the year old kiswah is cut into pieces and handed out to pilgrims. May Allah have mercy on us.

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