Q. I have heard various stories about the black stone in the Kaaba, for example, it used to be white and as more people commit sins in the world, the blacker it gets. What is the origin of this stone and what is its significance?

A. The Qur'an mentions nothing about the stone in particular, but directs us to ask "ahl al dhikr" about certain things of the past. Had the orientalists not applied their tunnel vision to the Bible, they would have realized that the concept of using stones to mark holy places is reported in the Bible in many instances. For example, there is the case where Jacob dreamt of wrestling with the Lord, and in remembrance of that dream, marked the spot with the stone which he had used as a pillow, naming the spot Beth-el (the house of God). This is reported in Genesis 28:18 and 35:14. Jacob also erected a stone marker over Rachel's grave (Gen. 35:20). And in Genesis 31:45, stones marked the spot of a contract between Jacob and the Arameans. Exodus 24:4 shows Moses marking places for the twelve tribes with stones.

For whatever reason, researchers seem to have overlooked the obvious link between the Biblical accounts of the children of Abraham and the aspect of stone placements, and in making a connexion between these Biblical events and Islam. Instead, the majority of them have sought to show the possibility of pagan rituals being adopted by Islam, going as far as to state that the significance of the stone was from the jahilliyya and referred to in the Qur'an, for example in 5:90. These are the same researchers (or at least they belong to the same ilk) who when they found stela in Palestine, were quick to assume that this was evidence of Canaanite cultic pagan practice. Critical studies have shown them to be in harmony with the Biblical pictures presented above, having nothing to do with paganism.

Since the Qur'an mentions the Kaaba and Abraham building it, is there any reason to accept any story other than that the spot was already marked by a stone? Did he mark this spot because, as suggested by some researchers, the well of ZamZam sprung up in that area (see Gen. 21:19)? There is no definitive proof for any of these postulates, no matter how strong they may appear to be. The legend about the stone being white is simply a creation to give it some sort of miraculous aura, so the answer to the first part of the question is that these tales are reductio ad absurdum, baseless.

It is interesting too that in Jacob's naming of the stone as Beth-el to communicate that place where God came to him, and the term for the Kaaba, Baitul (Allah), the same meaning is given in two very related languages. This only adds stronger proof to the connection between the black stone and the early Abrahamic connection, for where would Jacob have learnt this practice? As stated in the Qur'an, when death approached him, he said to his sons: "What will you worship after me?" They said: "We will worship your Lord, the Lord of your fathers Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac -- one God, and we will be unto Him as Muslims" (2:133). The taking of the stone and naming it Beth-el was not a mundane act but one related to worship, the form taught to him by his fathers.

We do not doubt that in the long interim between the corruption of the monotheism of Ishmael and the jahilliyya period before the Prophet Muhammad, that the people had taken the stone and its surrounding Kaaba and transferred pagan practices to them. Yet in spite of these innovations, as noted in the Encyclopedia of Islam (second edition), the black stone and the Kaaba have all the usual qualities of a Semitic sanctuary. A question may be asked as to whether there is any connection between "Bethel" and "Baituloi" of Greek origin, the latter meaning "meteorite (animated stone)." There may very well be, but there is no evidence to suggest that the Hebrew form came from the Greek. What is more likely is that the Hebrew traditions reached the Greek areas, and that when they saw meteorites, they considered them as coming from the gods, and being aware of Semitic traditions, adopted a word from that language and Hellenised it to "baituloi."

The black stone has no divine qualities. The story of Umar clearly illustrates this when he reportedly said: "I know you are nothing but a stone..." In the year 64, when Abdullah b. Zubeyr was besieged there and the place was set on fire, the stone broke into three pieces. In the restructured Kaaba, the pieces were joined together by a silver band. In 317, the Qarmatians took the stone to Taif and kept it there for 20 years. During all this time, the stone has become eroded with touching, rubbing, and kissing, and now at about twelve inches in diameter, it sits in the Kaaba. It would seem that the significance is to mark a noteworthy spot where something related to Allah happened. The origin is akin to what is reported in the Hebrew Bible, details of which Allah knows is unimportant to repeat, since they are there for us to read in that Book. Certainly it would seem that only Muslims are currently following this particular tradition of Abraham's children.

In closing, perhaps it would be wise to summarize some of what Shaykh Muhammad Abduh mentioned in his tafsir on Q2:127 (see Tafsir al Manar). After relating some of the tales regarding the Kaaba, he stated that the storytellers sought to enhance and embellish the religion with these narrations. What is necessary for us to know is that the honor and elevation given to that place is solely because Allah chose to call it "His House." After quoting Umar's famous statement regarding the black stone (I know you are nothing but a stone, and can neither harm nor benefit, but I saw the Prophet kiss you and so I kiss you… or words to that effect), the Shaykh analyzed the situation wonderfully. This statement of Umar, he posits, is authentic as opposed to the variant traditions about the stone, which are contradictory and without proper chains of transmission, and shows that the stone has no special distinguishing quality.

It is like any other stone, and its matter is one that pertains to those rites of worship -- wherein facing the Kaaba was deemed by Allah to be like facing Him -- He who is not limited by place, nor restricted to direction. It was probably a case of Divine acknowledgement of man's instinct to venerate certain structures and shrines. Abduh gets a bit polemical and states that if the stone were indeed from Paradise, then it would not have changed throughout the centuries, but would have remained in the same pristine condition as when it first reached earth. So I think that the stone and the Kaaba are relics of the ancient Abrahamic religion, as clearly shown by the Qur'anic story, supported by the Biblical evidence we have shown above. And Muhammad Abduh's analysis is to my mind the best given so far. And Allah knows best.

Posted April 24, 2000