The Kiswa is the black drapery that covers the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Makkah. This article relates briefly the history of the Kiswa and one man's personal experience with it in the Haram in Makkah.
WEAVE THE SECRET OF LIGHT
by John Herlihy
When the Muslims circumambulate the Ka’aba seven times upon enter the Haram of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, it is in recognition of the sacred significance of the simple cubical building that represents the earthly center of the horizontal axis and the vertical point of return to our Divine origins. In fact, they are walking in the shadow of the house that Allah built through Abraham and his son, Ismael. It was Abraham who established the yearly pilgrimage to this sanctuary in Makkah and not the Prophet Muhammad as many may suppose. The simple cube of masonry is not considered a work of art in the proper sense of the term ; but it is considered a form of proto-art with a spiritual dimension that corresponds to both myth and revelation and contains a symbolism suggestive of both origin and center as it draws the soul and spirit of the Muslims back into the wealth of the Beloved Presence. The building itself, however, has been traditionally covered with a ‘vesture’, or vestment if you will, of black cloth embroidered with gold lettering. The edifice, cloaked as it is in this unique garment, proclaims in a dramatic manner the symbolic and mysterious aspect of this otherwise simple structure, made of cinderblocks.
The custom of “clothing” a sacred edifice such as the Ka’aba is an extremely ancient and venerable Semitic tradition, a practice that considers certain buildings as a living body that needs to be clothed in the style of a sanctuary, elevating the structure to a kind of “divine dwelling” or a sanctum sanctorum that bears with it all the trappings of true spiritual blessing. If the Ka’aba represents the “center of the world”, then it can be affirmed that God dwells in the absolute center of the world, just as he dwells in the innermost center of every individual within humanity. It recalls the Holy of Holies within the inner sanctum of the Temple at Jerusalem, also in the shape of a cube like the Ka’aba. The Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant, whereas the interior of the Ka’aba is empty; it contains only a curtain, which oral tradition calls the “curtain of Divine Mercy” (Rahmah).
The Kiswah, the name by which the cloth covering of the Ka’aba is known, was first introduced during the pre-Islamic era. It is disputed whether the Kiswah was made by Ismael, or the great-great grandfather of Muhammad, Adnan bin Ad. However, most sources agree that Tuba, King of Humayyur in Yemen was the first to start the tradition of draping the Ka’aba with cloth. Muhammad and his initial companions and followers did not participate in the draping of the Ka’aba in Makkah until the conquest of the city in 630 CE (7 AH), because the ruling tribe, the Quraish, did not allow them to do so. When Makkah was taken by the Muslims, they decided to leave the Kiswah as it was until a woman lighting incense in the Ka’aba accidentally burned it. Muhammad then draped it with a white Yemeni cloth. Caliphs Umar and Uthman followed his example by covering it with an Egyptian white cloth. Harun Al-Rasheed also used a white Kiswah. Down through history, the cloth came from Baghdad, Egypt and Yemen depending on whose influence was greater in Makkah at a given time. The Viceroy of Egypt, Mohammad Ali Pasha, after splitting from the Turkish Empire, made the making of the Kiswah the responsibility of the state. The Kiswah was brought by annual caravan from Cairo. Nassir Abbasi (1160-1207) started using a green Kiswah and later shifted to black. Since that time, the black Kiswah has become the tradition.
The Ka’aba is draped in a new Kiswah every year during the Hajj. Expert artisans embroider the cloth with gold and silver threads to create an embedded calligraphy using the verses from the Holy Qur’an. The Kiswah is made of approximately 670 kilograms of pure white silk, which is later dyed black and around 150 kilograms of gold and silver thread are used. It costs more than SR 20 million to create and is considered one of the most exquisite works of Islamic art. The Kiswah is composed of three parts, a Sitaar (curtain) for the Ka’aba door, an inner lining curtain inside the Ka’aba and a Hizam (belt). It is manufactured in the Kiswah factory outside of Makkah. More than 240 people work in the factory. Skilled craftsmen use a combination of the latest technology, ancient looms and artistic calligraphy to produce a work of exotic beauty. It consists of 47 pieces of cloth and each piece is 14 meters long and 101 cm wide. The Kiswah is wrapped around the Ka’aba and fixed to the ground with copper rings.
We have presented in this context the history and creation of the Kiswah for today’s readers, partly because they may not be familiar with the making of this incredible garment, and partly because the Kiswah covers, as in an elaborately woven cloak of many threads and colors, the physical Ka’aba itself, situated according to Muslim belief at the very center of the earth in Makkah, just as the cloth of our thoughts and actions, our faith and devotion, our spiritual practices and their ensuing virtue becomes the sacred tapestry that overlays the Ka’aba of the heart that lies within us as center and source of our inspiration and our true selves. Interwoven through the pure, natural silk that has been dyed black lies the sacred formulas and epithets that are sprinkled in the Qur’an and that slip off the tongue of faithful Muslims throughout their lives, drawn periodically from the well of their heart sympathies, especially when they need the truth of these celestial realities to come down into their consciousness to support their decisions and their actions as living truths to give shape and coloration to their lives.
I remember the first time I entered the sacred precinct of the Haram and beheld the vision of the Ka’aba, the House that Allah built for humanity through the patriarch Abraham and his son Ismael, surrounded by the broad expanse of white marble plates fanning out in concentric circles like an intricate spider’s web providing the concourse around which the pilgrims make their way seven times in circumambulation, following in the footsteps of those who have followed this tradition down through the ages. I have beheld the empyrean of cathedral domes across Europe, I have observed the ancient, primeval ruins of Stonehenge standing noble and silent on an English plane, I have prayed in the Dome of the Rock and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah; still nothing compares to the somber and primeval construction of this simple dwelling, so full of symbol and archetype and iconic character. As I stood there, a kind of celestial light filled my body. It began in my head and then flowed out and down along the streams and meridians, the ravines and caves, of my chest, arms and legs. The glow that I felt within me brought me back to the time of my first conversion and my first full surrender, when the mind felt enlightened with the mystery of the true Reality and the heart was ablaze with the love of God. The mind seems to be flooded with light and the heart is in flames, burning with desire for the Beloved.
I remember every subsequent time that I entered the Haram and beheld the great colossus of the sacred house rising up from the floor of the mosque like some primeval monolith looming above the surrounding worshippers, draped in the majestic black cloth in stately silence. There it is forever eternal, to stand or sit and drink in its presence, as if passing some lazy afternoon within eternity and seeing it for the first time, with the same sense of reverence, quaking within the ground of my own sensibility, my heart melting once again in commemoration of every prayer and holy aspiration that I had sent heavenward, facing the qiblah of this sacred house and, as a result, uniting my own center with the very Center of the universe. I was alert to the sparkle of the moment that would last forever as a dreamy memory of the mind, every time in the future when I would stand up to pray. If out-of-body experiences have been documented and are possible within the rigidity of this world, then this is the moment when Muslims can take leave of the “senses” and float on high, lifted off the ground and given wings by the experience of the Divinity that lies as a sacred presence within the sanctified precinct of the Ka’aba in the Grand Mosque.
In front of me, drenched in the full light of the relentless, daytime desert sun, the ancient Ka’aba lay situated in all its sublime magnificence, primitive in its construction and primordial in its projection, elegantly robed in the thick black Kiswah, covering the ancient cuboid structure with this decorative and protective garment, hanging in noble simplicity for all the worshippers to behold. Interwoven within the warp and weft of the textured fabric lies hidden as a perennial secret the pattern of the supreme name of Allah, and the Shahadah, La ilaha illa ‘Llah (There is no god but God) and Muhammad Rasul Allah, the proclamation of Muhammad as the messenger of Allah, buried within the darkness of the cloth. Public proclamations are prey to the destructive powers of time; only the secrets woven within a fabric remain untouched by past, present and future of time to survive as an eternal promise. The intricate threading of the sacred phrases is repeated again and again in multiple waves throughout the weave of the cloth, in intricate threads black upon black, like countless affirmations and embedded deep within the texture of the fabric like an indelible watermark secreted within ancient parchment.
Surat al-Ikhlas, one of the shorter chapters from the Qur’an, and well beloved among the Muslims because its liturgical weight in its recitation equals one third of the entire Book, is embroidered in circles with gold thread on the four corners. The sight of the Ka’aba adorned in this manner and standing there in all its sacred mystery was always a first sighting and an initial encounter to my eager eyes, thirsty for any image with the power to transport me beyond myself. No matter how many times I had the good fortune to visit the Grand Mosque, I always experienced this sublime sense of otherworldliness. It is the most powerful affirmation of the Divine Majesty that a Muslim will ever experience in “this world”. In the shadow of this sublime setting, all else seems to melt away into the unreality that it truly is, at least for a few precious moments. Then, the world comes back again to greet us with the sight of the ever-changing stream of pilgrims circumambulating the Ka’aba in fluid harmony, raising their hands in salutation of the Divinity as a reflection of their elevated hearts beating to the rhythm of their sacred sentiments. In this unique tableau, we should not forget to mention the beloved swallows that fly in, around, and about the top of the Ka’aba, as if they were on a sacred mission to guard the primordial dwelling. The joyous birds seem to wheel round and round the sacred structure in communal bliss, expressing their own form of worship amid the flutter of wind and wings.
Finally, I suspect that there is not a Muslim alive who has not taken advantage of the opportunity of approaching the sacred house of Allah and actually laying hands of the fabric of the Kiswah, so tempting and magnetic is the draw of its sacred presence and symbolic significance. Years ago, at a time when the Haram was less crowded with multitudes of pilgrims that we find today at any time of year in Makkah, I often sat in the sacred precinct in relative proximity to the Ka’aba and would take the opportunity to draw near the building as the crowd dispersed later on in the evening. Whispering the sacred epithets that are deep in the heart and close to the tongue of every sincere Muslim, I approached and laid my forehead and hands on the intricate weave of the black fabric, as though one were touching the hem of the cloak of the Divinity. There before my eyes, I could see deep within the weave the essence of a knowledge and reality proclaimed through the very threads of the cloth, hoping all the while that the weave of my own heart would reflect these sacred sympathies and would be accepted by God in return as the essential truth of my own being, at least in principle and hopefully as a living reality throughout the course of my life.
It was deep in the night, whose darkness matched the darkness of the Kiswah, when I closed my eyes and laid my forehead against the holy drapery. It felt cool to the touch and emanated an unearthly smell as of some celestial perfume, brought down to earth to tempt humans with the ancient memory of transcendence and fulfillment that lies in the peace and love of God.