What If We Prayed Inside the Ka'ba of the Heart?

Thursday, June 4, 2015 - 6:23am
Photo by Fadi El Benni

What If We Prayed Inside the Ka'ba of the Heart?

A few days ago, a blog post went viral among Muslims.

It is a simple post, containing pictures from the rarely photographed inside of the Ka‘ba, the House of God in Mecca. The comments ranged from sheer awe to tears at finally seeing the inside of this much adored site, to bewilderment at a young man who is inside God’s temple, yet seems to be more absorbed in the conversation on his cellphone.

Why did this simple pictorial essay capture the imagination of so many, including me? And what secrets does the Ka‘ba’s inside hold?

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims perform the Tawaf ritual around the Ka'ba at Mecca's Grand Mosque on December 4, 2008. The Ka'ba, covered with a black drape, stands in the center of the Grand Mosque and contains the holy Black Stone which is believed to be the only piece remaining from an altar built by Abraham.

(Khaled Desouki / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

It is towards the Ka‘ba that Muslims worldwide orient themselves for the daily prayers. The usual pictures of the Ka‘ba are familiar, elegant, comforting, “home.”

There is the Ka‘ba, the center, the heart. Mostly we see the façade of the Ka‘ba from majestic angles: The familiar cube is covered in an elegant black cloth, adorned by beautiful Qur’anic inscriptions.

Muslim pilgrims reach out to touch the door of the Ka'ba inside Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest shrine, during their off season pilgrimage, known as Umra.

(Hassan Ammar / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

There is something powerful in the symbolism of the pilgrimage of prayer towards the Ka‘ba: orientation towards God. We move from the periphery of our existence towards the center, from a state of scatteredness to that of unity and wholeness. We leave behind the sense of forgetfulness that characterizes so much of our busy lives, and come back to life, come back to prayer, come back to who we are called to be.

So in America and in China, in Turkey and in Switzerland, in South Africa and Pakistan, and all over the world, Muslims face Mecca at the time of prayer. We turn our faces, and with it, our hearts, back towards God.

We remember who we are by remembering who God is.

We recall Abraham, who along with his son Ishmael built the oldest temple for God. We meditate on the sacrifice that Abraham was asked to make. We walk in the footsteps of Hagar, the woman whose courage, faith, and perseverance Muslims embody in the Hajj pilgrimage. We remember Muhammad cleansing the temple, and restoring faith in the One God.

Thousands of Muslims gather in the Grand Mosque, in Islam's holiest city of Mecca.

(Amer Hilabi / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

During the pilgrimage, we see millions of Muslims circumambulating the Ka‘ba. A beautiful circle is formed, moving round and round in adoration of God. It is a walk, a dance, a prayer rolled into one. Before long, the Ka‘ba is the still point that connects earth and heaven, and the whole rest of the world is caught up in an ecstatic whirling. Here is the stillness, the axis of the world, around which all dance, activity, motion takes place.

But I’m not content to stop the symbolism at that level. There is yet another question that comes to my heart: What if we were inside the Ka‘ba? Which way would we face? In which direction would we pray?

So long as we are “outside” the temple, we orient ourselves towards this ancient temple which bears the fragrance of Abraham and Muhammad. What if we were on the inside? Do we line up to the East? The West? North? South?

The Ka'ba cover is called Kiswa and is changed every year at the culmination of the annual hajj or pilgrimage. This picture shows a part of the inner lining protective cover of the Kaaba at the Kiswa factory in the holy city of Mecca on November 8, 2010.

(Mustafa Ozer / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

Or would we, finally, ultimately, let go of directions and directionality. Perhaps we would finally realize that God is not “here,” “there,” above, below, but simply all that there is.

What if we finally abandon looking for God, and simply be with God? To pray inside the Ka‘ba is for the fish to become aware that it’s been in an ocean all along. To pray inside the Ka ‘ba is to breathe the awareness that we are bodies swimming in spirit; that we are loved. To pray inside the Ka‘ba is to realize that we are, already, immersed in God. God encompasses us.

There is, at long last, no “outside” of God for us to be in. This is in fact what the Qur’an promises us: God encompasses us from the behind. We are tangled up with God, in God.

Even more amazing is this realization: within the Islamic tradition, we are told again and again that the Ka‘ba is made of clay (“gel” in Persian), but the ultimate Ka‘ba is the heart (“del” in Persian). The Ka‘ba of clay is lovely, but we have to learn to find God inside the Ka‘ba of the heart.

And how lovely to pray inside the Ka‘ba of the heart. No more turning, seeking, chasing, rejecting, or even “finding.” There is only being.

A photo taken on the inside of the Ka'ba, the Muslim holy site in Mecca.

(Yasser Ahmad)

There is what the Qur’an promises:

“The East and the West belong to God. Whichsoever way you turn, there is the Face of God.”

How sweet: to not want anything from the one we love, only to be with the beloved.

How beautifully we hear the old Sufi story: An old woman was in despair, because her life was coming to an end. She had saved some money but not enough to make the trip to Mecca. The Sufi master lovingly glanced at her, held her hand, and had her walk with around his illuminated heart. He then told her to give the money to the poor, and consider her pilgrimage performed.

A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Arafat during the Hajj rituals in 2014.

(Mohammed Al-Shaikh / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

It’s always best to pray with a community. One doesn’t set out on a pilgrimage alone. How lovely to be praying inside the Ka ‘ba with friends whose heart sings to the same music. And how lovelier to be taken inside a luminous Ka‘ba of the heart.

My friend, beloved:
Can I pray inside your Ka‘ba?
Will you pray inside mine?

I have, for years, cleansed it of all the idols
Making it worthy of You.

Dare we say it? That ultimately we have to find God not in a building, but inside our own selves, inside each other. Then the breath that goes into the heart is nothing but the Spirit of God.

For a breath or two, to have been inside this Ka‘ba of the heart, praying from the inside.
Breathe in God, breathe out God.
The one who adores is the One adored.
The lover is the beloved, is love itself.

Bathed in light
Being with the one we love.

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Contributor

Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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Excellent article,

I was somewhat confused when the paragraph ended with "God encompasses us." It was heartening to read on to the fact that God is within us. In other words, to stab at another, is to stab at God. Although I am not Muslim, I believe it is a wonderful religion and always look forward to meetings with my Sufi friends.

We are all one. This is so lovely.

Perhaps the end of all mystic traditions would read the same sentence.... "to be one with the one we love...."

Your message is simple... "God is love"... thanks for sharing... Your prose inspires me to become a better human being.

Your writings touch me deeply and I am grateful for your columns. Seeing the holy among and within us; what a change in our world if we all strove to have this perspective. It is not unique to Muslim teachings but a gentle reminder that perhaps that is what it is all about.

Good work