The Kaaba reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Kaaba

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The Kaaba in the mosque known as Masjid al Haram in Mecca (Makkah) is one of the holy places of Islam. It is a small brick building in the shape of a cube. The structure is 50 ft. high (15.24 m), the shorter walls are about 35 ft long (10.67 m) and the longest walls are 40 ft. long (12.19 m). It is covered by golden lettered and black silk cloth, known as the Kiswa, which is replaced yearly [1] [1]. It contains the Hajar el Aswad (the sacred "Black Stone"), which is presumed by most sources to be a meteorite remnant.

At the time of Muhammad, his tribe, the Quraysh was in charge of the Kaaba, which was at that time a shrine to Arabic pagan gods. Muhammad, preaching the doctrines of one God (called Allah) and the threat of the Day of Judgment, did not at first have much success in the city of Mecca.

The Quraysh persecuted and harassed him continuously, and he was forced to flee to Medina. On his return from the Hijra, the Kaaba was re-dedicated as a temple to Allah.

According to tradition, the Kaaba was built by the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ishmael.

The Qibla and prayer

At prayer in DamascusEnlarge

At prayer in Damascus

The Qibla, for any point of reference on the Earth, is the direction of the Kaaba. In Muslim religious practice, supplicants must face this direction in prayer. It should be noted that Muslims do not worship the Kaaba or its contents, any more than Christians worship churches or crosses; the Kaaba is simply a focal point for prayer.

The Qibla points along the shortest path to the Kaaba. Because the Earth is approximately spherical, this path will be a great circle such as airplanes fly. The location of the Kaaba (at 21° 25' 24" N, 39° 49' 24" E) can be used together with spherical geometry to determine the Qibla for any given point on the Earth.

In ancient times, Muslims traveling abroad used an astrolabe to find the Qibla.

In the early years of Islam, Muslims used to pray towards the al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (and it is therefore called the First of the Two Qiblas). One day, during Muhammad's exile in Medina, the Qibla was changed to the Kaaba, where it has remained ever since.

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