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Unveiling the Ka’ba

A meditation on the coy symbolism of the shrine’s hidden truth

Elliot R. Wolfson
September 17, 2015
G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
The Kaaba, Mecca, ca. 1910G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress
The Kaaba, Mecca, ca. 1910G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Of the many intricate elements connected to the Ka’ba, one of the two most sacred sites in the Islamic faith, special attention is to be given to the kiswa, the velvet covering (predominantly black since the 13th century) with golden embroidery that is draped over the cubic structure. To attend properly to the matter of the kiswa, it is necessary to consider it from the perspective of the veil. Given the prominence of the veil (ḥijāb) in the dress code of Arabs before and after the rise of the prophet Muhammad—originally, it seems, part of the attire for men as a sign of their being desert warriors and eventually transferred to Muslim women (apparently under the jurisdiction of ’Umar Ibn al-Khattāb on the basis of certain verses in the Quran, especially sūra 33) as an external mark of modesty, subservient social status, or self-effacing complicity in the renunciation of physical beauty, in order to demarcate the boundary between believers and non-believers and thereby maintain the ummat al-mu’minin (the community of the faithful) and its symbolic order—it should come as no surprise that the veil, and the acts of veiling (satr) and unveiling (kashf) related to it, have not only played a prominent role in Muslim devotion but also have served externally and internally as distinctive marks of Islamic culture. It is within this context that one must examine the kiswa, whose spiritual intent, and by extension the ritual meaning of the gesture of circumambulation (ṭawāf), can be ascertained by heeding the paradoxical nature of the veil as the site of concomitant disclosure and concealment.

Suffice it to say that from a relatively early period the image of the veil was utilized to convey mystical enlightenment or awakening, based on verses in the Quran (50:22; 53:57-58; 82:1-6) wherein lifting the veil is associated with the vision that will be manifest on the day of judgment (yawm ad-dīn). Sufīs borrowed this metaphorical image and transferred it from its eschatological context to describe mystical illumination in the present, as in the unveiling of the beloved to his lovers at the end of the path, articulated in the eighth century by Rābi’a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya of Basra, one of the most famous women in the history of Islamic mysticism. In the 11th-century compendium of the principles of Sufī piety, ar-Risala al-Qushayriya, also known as ar-Risala ila’s-Sufiya, ’Abd al-Karīm ibn Hawāzin al-Qushayri cited the following in the name of one of the Sufīs: “Certainty is unveiling, and unveiling takes place in three ways: by means of informing, by means of disclosure of the power [of God], and by means of the truths of faith.” Explaining this dictum, al-Qushayri advises the reader:

Know that in their way of speaking, unveiling consists of the revelation of something to the heart when it is possessed by remembrance of Him with no doubt remaining. Sometimes by unveiling they mean something similar to what is seen between waking and sleep. Many times they designate this state as steadfastness.

Kashf is related more specifically to the manifestation of truth in the heart (qalb), the site that is habitually delineated as the locus of spiritual vision in Sufī teaching, a manifestation that is all-encompassing, a point related to another technical expression in Sufī practice dhikr, the “remembrance” of the real—that is, the singular, meditative focus on the divine occasioned by the repetition of divine epithets or Quranic phrases. Significantly, the unveiling designates a state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. We are not told more about this state, but I would surmise that al-Qushayri chose this image to convey the idea that this mode of awareness is like a dream, whose very endurance consists of its ephemerality. Similarly, the unveiling is marked by pure mobility, the moment of wavering designated, paradoxically, as “steadfastness,” baqā’, the Sufī expression that denotes persisting in the real.

To grasp the identification of absolute motion and absolute stability, one must bear in mind that in the technical Sufī terminology traced to Abū l-Qāsim al-Junayd baqā’ is dialectically intertwined with fanā’, annihilation of the individuated and differentiated ego-self. From the perspective of laying out the mystical path sequentially, abiding must be preceded by annihilation, but from the perspective of the experience of enlightenment the two occur concurrently—the annihilation is in the abiding and the abiding in the annihilation, an idea that is captured in the utterly profound claim ascribed to al-Junayd in his account of the passing away of oneself from one’s ecstasies (mawājīd) when one is overpowered by the real, “At that moment you both pass away and abide and are found truly existent in your passing away; through the found existence (wujūd) of your other; upon the abiding of your trace in the disappearance of your name.”

True abiding, therefore, as Abū Yazīd al-Bistamī, al-Junayd, and other Sufī masters put it, consists in the passing away of passing away (fanā’ al-fanā’). As al-Qushayri expressed the matter, following the teaching of al-Junayd, the first passing away is the “passing away of the self and its attributes to endure through the attributes of the real”; the second passing away is the “passing away from the attributes of the real through witnessing of the real”; and the third and final passing away is “a person’s passing away from witnessing his own passing away through his perishing in the ecstatic existentiality (wujūd) of the real.” When one takes hold of this insight, then one can appreciate al-Qushayri’s account of the unveiling as a state between sleep and wakefulness, the place of non-duality where to subsist one must subside, and to subside one must subsist.

In one of the oldest and most celebrated Persian treatises on Sufism, Kashf al-Mahjūb, “The Unveiling of That Which Is Hidden,” al-Jullābā al-Hijwārā writes that the veils that obstruct one’s knowledge of God are a result of ignorance; once the ignorance is annihilated, the veils vanish. The master of esoteric gnosis, accordingly, is one who manages to gaze beyond the veil of the veil-keepers in the quest for a vision of the face hid behind the veil. By contrast, majḥub, “veiled,” assumes the negative connotation of one that is not spiritually illumined and therefore does not perceive the divine light without the veils of sentient and rational forms. I note, parenthetically, as Fritz Meier has pointed out, that the practice of veiling the face as early as the ninth century could also symbolize the mystery of sanctity, that is, he who veiled his face was thought to be the incarnation of the hidden and impenetrable light of the divine. Like Moses, according to a verse in Hebrew scriptures, the holy man in Islam had to veil his face so that the radiance of his countenance would not harm others.

This positive use of the veil notwithstanding, the negative connotation as that which obstructs knowledge is far more prevalent, and hence lifting the veil (mukāshafa) is utilized as the key metaphorical expression to demarcate the epiphany of the true reality that results in gnosis (ma‘rifa), illumination (ishrāq), intuition (dhawq, literally, tasting), knowledge by presence (al-‘ilm al-hudūrī), and the apprehension of the “oneness of existence” (waḥdat al-wujūd) in which the particularity of beings is annihilated like water dissolved in water or the flame conjoined to the flame. Epistemologically, the veil conveys both the dissimilarity of the face and the image of the face seen through the veil (for the image that is seen is not the face) and the similarity of the face and the veil (for the face can only be perceived through the veil and thus the veil is the mirror through which the face is seen). Lifting the veil, therefore, is the metaphorical depiction of discarding the shells of ignorance that blind one from seeing the light wherein God and world are identical in their opposition. The paradox can be expressed in the more conventional terms of immanence and transcendence—the transcendence of God, the unity of the One (aḥadiyyat al-aḥad), renders all theological discourse at best analogical since there is no way to speak directly about that which transcends all being, yet the divine is immanent in all things—indeed, mystically conceived, there is nothing but the single true reality that is all things, the unity of multiplicity (aḥadiyyat al-kathra).

The Sufī, accordingly, is the master of the veil, as he knows that the light is too bright to be uncovered except through a covering. In the last chapter of Mishkāt al-anwār, “The Niche of Lights,” which deals with the Quranic passage that is known in the tradition as the verse of light (24:25), the 11th-century Iranian mystic al-Ghazālī reflects on the following ḥadīth of the Prophet: “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to lift them, the august glories of his face would burn up everyone whose eyesight perceived him.” Al-Ghazālī comments:

God discloses himself to his essence in his essence. Without doubt, the “veil” is understood in relation to the thing that is veiled. The veiled among the creatures are of three kinds: those who are veiled by darkness alone, those who are veiled by sheer light, and those who are veiled by light along with darkness.

At the conclusion of these classifications there is a further specification of several sub-groups of the ones “veiled by sheer lights,” the highest being “those who have arrived.”

To them it has been disclosed that the one who is obeyed is described by an attribute that contradicts sheer oneness and utmost perfection. This belongs to the mystery which is beyond the capacity of this book to unveil … the relationship of this one who is obeyed is that of the sun among the lights. Therefore, they have turned their faces from the one who moves the heavens. … They have arrived at an existent thing that is incomparable with everything their sight has perceived. Hence, the august glories of his face—the first, the highest—burn up everything perceived by the sights and insights of the observers.

Even at this level where vision is blindness and blindness vision, there are different stages of attainment. For some the objects of vision alone are effaced, but for the “elect of the elect” the perceived and the perceiver are effaced. This is the supreme mystical state of fanā’, passing-away, the annihilation of the self as a discrete entity that is ontically separate from the One. “They become extinct from themselves, so that they cease observing themselves. Nothing remains save the One, the Real. … This is the ultimate end of those who have arrived.” For al-Ghazālī the removal of the veil, the symbolic deed that signifies the true declaration of unity (tawḥīd), is the inner meaning of the Quranic verse “There is no god but he. Everything will perish except his own face” (28:88). In the end, when the veils are removed, there is naught but pure light, the face that has no form and is thus visible only as the invisible.

The self-revelation of God (tajallī), therefore, must be through the multitude of veils that make up the world; disclosure, on this score, is occlusion, since what is disclosed can only be disclosed by being occluded. To unveil the veil would be to obscure the light because the light can only be seen through the veil. From that perspective all that we consider real is in truth a veil, and truth ultimately would be unveiling the veil as that which prevents one from seeing the face and makes the face visible as the face, since the truth cannot be seen as it is in itself but only from behind the veil. Al-Niffari, a 10th-century Sufi, thus wrote that throwing off of the veil is itself a form of veiling:

Once you have seen me, unveiling and the veil will be equal.

You will not stand in vision until you see my veil as vision and my vision as veil.

There is a veil that is not unveiled, and an unveiling that is not veiled. The veil that is not unveiled is knowledge through me, and the unveiling that is not veiled is knowledge through me.

No veil remains: Then I saw all the eyes gazing at his face, staring. They see him in everything through which he veils himself. He said to me: They see me, and I veil them through their vision of me from me.

Several centuries later Ibn al-‘Arabī elaborated the paradoxical nuances of the mystery of the veil and its unveiling. “There is nothing in existence but veils hung down,” he wrote. “Acts of perception attach themselves only to veils, which leave traces in the owner of the eye that perceives them.” All that exists is but a veil hiding the one true being, the necessary of existence, but it is precisely through this concealment that the invisible is rendered visible. “Thus the Real becomes manifest by being veiled, so He is the Manifest Veiled. He is the Nonmanifest because of the veil, not because of you, and He is the Manifest because of you and the veil.” In another passage, Ibn ‘Arabī expresses the matter as a commentary on the aforementioned ḥadīth that God possesses 70 veils of light and darkness:

The dark and luminous veils through which the Real is veiled from the cosmos are only the light and the darkness by which the possible thing becomes qualified in its reality because it is a middle. … Were the veils to be lifted from the possible thing, possibility would be lifted, and the Necessary and the impossible would be lifted through the lifting of possibility. So the veils will remain forever hung down and nothing else is possible. … The veils will not be lifted when there is vision of God. Hence vision is through the veil, and inescapably so.

The veil thus came to signify the hermeneutic of secrecy basic to the esoteric gnosis of Sufism, envisioning the hidden secret revealed in the concealment of its revelation and concealed in the revelation of its concealment.

It is possible to view the kiswa in precisely these terms. The covering of the Ka’ba—whose structure signifies the cubic form of the Throne or Temple as well as the four limits or cardinal points of the physical cosmos—functions in a fashion analogous to the veil, and hence it is the concealment that discloses the disclosure that it conceals. Moreover, just as the veil is intimately linked to the feminine in Islamic culture, so, too, through time the kiswa (and, by extension, the Ka’ba as a whole) has been treated by many pilgrims as the bride vis-à-vis the community of the faithful, who represent the groom. Here it is also important to recall that a central aspect of the religious obligation of the Hajj pilgrimage is the requirement to walk several times around the Ka’ba, which is cast symbolically as the external correlate to the heart, the intermediary that bridges heavenly and earthly, suprasensible and sensible, absent and present, the vehicle that transposes the cube into a circle, the mundane into the divine. It is not unreasonable to ascribe to the circumambulation implicit sexual connotations—encircling the square ritualistically enacts the union of male and female.

It is also of interest to note that, traditionally, on the kiswa there is a gold-embroidered calligraphy of the Quranic text and the Shahadah, the first pillar of Muslim faith, the declaration that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah (Lā ilaha illa al-Lāh, Muhammadum rasūlu l-Lāh). A fundamental tenet of classical Muslim belief is the view that each letter of the Quran is a sign—at once aurally and visually manifest—that comprises an infinity of meaning, inasmuch as the text is the embodiment of the divine form; hermeneutically, the matter of infinity is manifest in the potentially endless explications of the text elicited by countless readers, links in the cumulative chain of interpreters that stretches across the divide of time. The words of the Quran, the inscripted text of revelation, the “rolled-out parchment,” are considered to be signs of divine intention, linked especially to the eschatological day of judgment, comparable to entities in nature such as the mountain and the sea (512:1-8). The esoteric reading elevates the book itself to a supreme position, embellishing the tradition that assigned the Quranic expression umm al-kitāb, literally, “mother of the book” (3:7, 13:39, 43:4), to the Quran itself, also depicted as the “well-preserved tablet,” al-lawḥ al-mahfūz (85:21-22), the Urschrift, as it were, the fore/script that comprises the forms of all that exists. According to a tradition transmitted in the name of the Prophet, “The superiority of the Quran to other forms of speech is comparable to God’s superiority over His creatures, for the Quran proceeded from Him (minhu kharaja) and will return to Him.” The Quran, consequently, is not only the record of the divine words revealed to Muḥammad by the angel Jibrīl (Gabriel), but it is itself akin to the hypostatic word (kalām) that is separate from and yet emanates out of the essence. Even though the Quran is not identified with the essence, it is distinguished inasmuch as it proceeds from and will return to God. It is thus reasonable to presume that the letters of the matrix text, semiotic ciphers at once visible and audible—seen as heard, heard as seen, are signs that point to the unseen and thereby reveal the light by concealing it. As Annemarie Schimmel put it: “Learning the Arabic letters is incumbent upon everybody who embraces Islam, for they are the vessels of revelation; the divine names and attributes can be expressed only by means of these letters—and yet, the letters constitute something different from God; they are a veil of otherness that the mystic must penetrate.”

The metaphor of the veil is instructive, as the function of the veil is to disclose but at the same time to hide, indeed to disclose by hiding, to hide by disclosing. In a similar vein, the letters of the Quranic body reveal and conceal the divine essence—the face beyond all veils, the pre/face, devoid of form, the pre/text, devoid of letter—through an implicational model of poetic allusion. The inscriptions on the kiswa, accordingly, endow it with the potency of the supreme textual artifact, transforming it thereby into a semiotic veil through which the unfathomable essence is revealed and concealed. The sacred covering of the Ka’ba has the potential to remind the pilgrim that truth exceeds the letters, and yet it is only by way of the letters that one accesses truth. The goal of the path, as Sufīs have continually emphasized for centuries, is to lift the veil to see the face, but it is only through the veil that one can see the face. To see with no veil, therefore, is to see that there is no seeing without a veil, a seeing that liberates the mind of the fanciful urge to posit a face beyond the veil.

Elliot R. Wolfson holds the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.

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