إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيْتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنَّاسِ لَلَّذِى بِبَكَّةَ مُبَارَكًۭا وَهُدًۭى لِّلْعَـٰلَمِينَ
Indeed, the first house to be set up for mankind is the one at Bakkah, blessed and a guidance for all nations.
(Sūrat Āli Imrān no.3, verse 96)
The lexical meaning of the word “bakkah” is a place of swarming and gathering. It refers to the city of Makkah, which some suggest is the same word, and more specifically, the Holy Ka‘bah as a place where people congregate for worship and circumambulation. This verse asserts that the Ka‘bah is the “first house” of worship set up for humankind, in answer to the taunts of the Jews who, after the changing of the Islamic qiblah from Masjid al-Aqsā to Masjid al-Harām, accused the Muslims of choosing a place of worship different from what the previous prophets had prescribed. Allah ‘azzal wajall in this verse clarifies that it is in fact the Holy Ka‘bah which is and will remain the “first” place of worship. The meaning of “first” in this verse isn’t simply a primacy in relation to other things such that there is a first after which comes a second, third, and so on. Rather, “first” here in is the meaning of essential primacy. It is a first that accepts no second. No other can compare to its majesty and spiritual station. All other mosques and places of worship are mere manifestations of the Holy Ka‘bah and beacons that point towards it.
From this, the importance of this beautiful symbol of tawhīd becomes apparent. Understanding the reality of the qiblah has the ability to transform our lives, orienting us away from the lowly and material towards higher spiritual realities. Though most see it simply as a physical direction we must face during our daily prayers, the true significance of the qiblah goes much deeper. Many ahādith encourage us to face the qiblah as much as possible, even within the more mundane aspects of our lives such as cooking or studying. In fact, the only instances in which we are forbidden to face towards it is when carrying out base acts which could be considered disrespectful to the sanctity of the Ka‘bah, such as passing bodily wastes. Thus, we witness all believers across the entire world having a constant orientation towards a singular direction, implying that even the apparent aspects of a tawhīdī community are geared towards a unified reality. In truth, tawhīd is made tangible by means of the singular qiblah. This unity is made even more palpable during Hajj, when not only is there a singular qiblah towards which all fixate, there is uniformity even in dress and conduct.
Beyond just this physical aspect, however, there is a higher reality of facing the Ka‘bah. In verse 21 of Sūrat al-Hijr Allah says: There is not a thing but that its sources are with Us, and We do not send it down except in a known measure. That means that all that exists on the material plane has a reality on the higher planes as well. The greater the reality of something on the higher realms, the loftier and more magnificent it will be on the lower. Regarding the higher reality of the Ka‘bah, in one Hadith we find that Imam Ja‘far al-Sādiq (a) was asked why the Ka‘bah has four corners (i.e. is in the shape of a square). The Imam explains that this is because the Ka‘bah is a manifestation of the four-pointed bayt al-ma’mūr (the “greatly-frequented house” which is a place of worship for the angels located in the fourth or seventh heaven), which in turn is a manifestation of the divine throne (‘arsh) that is comprised of four pillars, and which itself is a lower reality of the tasbīhāt al-arba‘ (the Four Praises) upon which all of Islam rests. (See Bihār al-Anwār, 96:57).
The Ka‘bah, then, is ultimately a manifestation of the highest praises, the highest of Allah (swt)’s Beautiful Names from which all of existence is sourced. This is why, in another Hadith, Imam al-Sādiq states: The Ka‘bah is a qiblah from its physical position on this earth all the way into the heavens – meaning on the higher planes of existence. All of creation on all planes of existence is attuned towards the Ka‘bah and the lofty realities from which it originates.
In light of this understanding, facing the qiblah has two facets: one is the physical moving of our body towards a specific spatial direction, and the other is an internal orientation of our souls towards the metaphysical realities contained within the tasbīhāt al-arba‘. Hajj, then, is supposed to not only be a physical pilgrimage, but rather an internal movement away from the multiplicity of this lowly world towards the unity of the higher realms, and the true haji becomes reborn in the light of tawhīd upon completing his journey. However, the internal, metaphysical facing of the qiblah is always available to all of us, whether or not we are blessed to go for Hajj. When the Prophet (s) and Imams (a) advise us to face the qiblah as much as possible, they are not only enjoining a physical edict, but rather are encouraging us to attune our inner realities to the higher facets of tawhīd. The first house set up for mankind is not only a physical place of congregation and worship, but rather a metaphysical point of attunement for all of creation and is therefore amongst the highest manifestations of tawhīd. Perhaps that is why the verse ends by describing the Ka‘bah as a blessing and guidance; it is blessed because it is a source of unending goodness, and it is a guidance for all of creation for it orients us towards the highest of truths; tawhīd.
This Hajj season, let us create within our hearts a love for the Ka‘bah as a powerful symbol of tawhīd and foster a desire to be in its proximity. Blessed are the true visitors of the Holy House! May we be counted amongst them, even if we are unable to perform the physical pilgrimage within our lifetimes.
Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āytaullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (ed), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Agha Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr.