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[This is an excerpt from the first chapter of a forthcoming book ab out the power of certain individual objects in the human mind and human histor y.-ST]


The Black Stone of the Ka‘ba in Mecca has probably been touched, caressed, kissed, by more people than any other object in the history of the planet. In the 21 st century more than two million people converge every year to brush their fingers or lips against its surface, continuing a tradition unbroken for at least 13 centuries. Five times every day, around the world, perhaps a billion people 1 look to architecture, compass needles, stars, or iPhone apps to point out its direction and pray.

The Black Stone is a rock (or more precisely, sev eral fragments of rock) set into the eastern corner of the Ka‘ba, the cubical shrine around which the Great Mosque in Mecca is built. According to the Keeper of the Ka‘ba, the Black Stone is “the holiest place in this great house of God… the right hand of God on Earth.” 2 Touching it negates the past, and affirms a new submission to God. It marks the point toward which Muslim corpses face on burial.

Precisely what type of rock it is, geologically, is impossible to know: the guardians of Mecca are not about to drill samples. It has been described as smooth, “hummocky,” reddish black in color, and flecked with yellow particles. In 1814 the Swiss adventurer John Lewis Burckhardt reported it was “an irregular oval, about seven inches in diameter, with an undulating surface.” (Non-Muslims are forbidden entry to Mecca, but Burckhardt was one of many who sneaked in disguised as pilgrims.) 3 Observers have identified it as lava, basalt, 4 agate, or “a common aërolite,

The Power of Things: The Black Stone

covered with a thick, slaggy coating, glossy and pitch-like, worn and polished.” 5 Modern geologists have theorized that its hardness is probably Moh 7 given its survival of all that stroking. 6 Muslim accounts take a different tone: “the stone, when one kisses it, has a softness and moistness which so enchant the mouth that he who puts his lips to it would wish them never to be removed,” wrote Ibn Jubayr, a 12 th century pilgrim from Valencia.

Over the dramatic course of its history, the Black Stone has been buried,

burned, kidnapped, smashed, bathed in perfumes and wrapped in brocade and



It may be only a few inches in diameter but it ser ves a critical public function: one of

the acts of faith required of every Muslim who is fit and wealthy enough is to make the journey to the Ka‘ba, and there to circle the building seven times in a ritual of prayer and commemoration. The Black Stone marks the starting point of this

circumambulation (tawaf.)

Thus it denotes the center point of pilgrimage in a religion

that makes pilgrimage central to religious life.

The masses that swirl like a human

vortex on the bright marble plain of the Great Mosque are set swirling by the Black Stone.

The Black Stone can be seen, in quite a literal way, as the cornerstone of Islam. But here is the odd thing: of all the “religions of the book” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – Islam is the most vehement in its repudiation of idolatry, in its admonitions against any kind of ecclesiastical acce sso ry that might distract from God: it has no jeweled cross es, gilded reliquaries or chalices, monstrances, tabernacles, thuribles, or censors. This is a manifestation of Islam’s deepest directive, to maintain wholeness and unity (tawhid), without divisions into “this world and the hereafter, the natural and supernatural, substance and meaning, body and spirit;” 7 to inveigh against disintegration; to repudiate shirk, a term that means associating things that ought not to be associated, in particular, associating the creations of God with the power that is God. 8

The Black Stone -- a physical thing at the center of a religion that repudiates the worship of physical things -- illuminates our paradoxical need for material things to provide proof of a world beyond material things, our reliance on physical stuff

evidence to evoke ideas, knowledge, beauty, spirituality, God.

It is a profound

embodiment of our aspirations to understand the universe, and of our ultimately

limited capacity to respond to



The reverenc e and passions expended on the Black Stone are all the more remarkable, at least from a Western perspective, because it is nothing much to look at.

It is not a work of art, not a glittering jewel. To most eyes it would appear to be just

what its name declares – a black stone.

A non-Muslim cannot help but to wonder:

why this rock rather than any other? Why a rock at all, for that matter?

To understand the Stone’s cosmological importance within Islam, it is

... necessa ry to look, not at the rock, but at the stories told about it.

Islamic traditions tell us that the stone was, from the first, inseparable from the Ka‘ba, the building of which it is a part, and that the Ka‘ba is older than Creation,



present in the mind of God before the sun and stars took shape. It is, in fact, often difficult to tell when early Muslim writers were writing about the Stone, the Ka’ba as a

building, the place where the two stand, or the spiritual reality that underlay



Adam, expelled from Paradise and clinging, as exiles do, to the totems of home, asked God if he might have the Stone. In the pitiless dese rt of his new life he wished to imitate the angels on high circling round the throne of the Almighty, and he wanted the Stone so that he might circle round this remnant of Heaven, this touchstone of God. 9

According to the Meccan historian Al-Azraqi, it was one of the stars of

... Paradise, so dazzlingly bright that “if God had not effaced it, it would have illuminated everything between east and west.” The Stone was black by the time Al-Azraqi was writing in the 9 th century, but its blackness was not God’s doing alone, for he also said that it had “shone like the moon for the people of Mecca until the pollution of impure people caused it to go black.” 10 Other accounts suggest that it had once been itself an

angel. In many stories it has the power to act: it is credited with swallowing the document with which men swore their fealty to God, 11 and the Keeper of the Ka’ba tells us that “on the Day of Judgment, it will bear witness for those who surrendered

to the truth and touched it.” 12 The stone, the angels, the building, and the spot in the desert that echoes Heaven above all run together in the different tellings of the tale. Perhaps they are the same thing, or were at some point, or will be again, or always

have been.

Mythology and deep history are like that. However the stories are

braided, two facts remain: there is a stone, and there is a sanctuary, a building, a“house.”


[Many generations later, Abraham and his son Ishmael return to the same Valley of Adam’s exile] In the Quran Abraham himself describes it as a “valley without

cultivation ...

But it was here that God commanded Abraham to rebuild the Ka‘ba as

a sanctuary for men and an abode for the One God; and it was here that Ishmael, guided by the angel Gabriel, unearthed the Black Stone and replaced it in its proper location in the corner of the Ka‘ba. 13 And there, according to the traditions of Islam, it has remained – apart from one famous abduction – ever since; a vital, physical link from God to Adam to Abraham to the pilgrim whose lips are touching it as I write this sentence.


By the time that Jesus of Nazareth was born some 800 miles to the north, the desert children of Ishmael had filled their sanctuaries with a variety of figures that they took for gods. They worshipped stones and statues and a date-tree by the name of Ozza. Idols from other places were imported – Hubal, the Mesopotamian moon god; al-Uzza, an Isis–Aphrodite type; Manat, the Nabatean goddess of time; the Jewish prophet Jesus and his mother Mary. They sacrificed animals to their idols and

smeared them with blood and offal.

They asked advice of them, and solicited their

intersession with gods more powerful still. The descendents of Ishmael thus fell into the sin of shirk, associating with God things that were not God. 14 Muslim writers describe this as “the time of ignorance” – the Jahaliyya.


The Power of Things: The Black Stone


A sanctuary so rich in gods naturally attracted not only pilgrims but jealous


Abraha marched on Mecca with 40,000 men and battle elephants. (Or

perhaps battle elephant; but even one rampaging elephant would instill justifiable

terror in a hamlet of mud huts.)

as Abraha’s army approached, the sky blackened

... with birds carrying stones that rained down on the attackers, forcing their retreat...

Later it would be said that two momentous things happened in Mecca in the Year of the Elephant: armed birds defeated pachyderms, and the Prophet Muhammad was born. 15 Muhammad would resurr ect the religion of Abraham, reassert the absolute singularity of God, and destroy the idols and the confusion they wrought. He would also reaffirm the sanctity of the Ka‘ba, its eastern corne r, and the Black Stone embedded there.

... Muhammad was forty years old when he began to receive revelations from the

angel Gabriel, instructing him to reassert the religion of Abraham. This message was perceived by the Quraysh as a threat to the Ka‘ba and to the income derived from it. After years of persecution, Muhammad fled the city with a band of followers and in the oasis settlement of Medina he set up his Ummah, a utopian community dedicated to

the worship of the one God. calendar, Year One.

This move was the Hijra, the beginning of the Islamic

There is no telling exactly when the most important moment in the earthly caree r of the Black Stone occurred, but sometime during these years in Medina,

Muhammad changed the direction of Muslim prayer from Jerusalem to



When the Qur’an says, “O Muhammad, many a time We noticed you turning your face towards heaven; now We will make you turn towards a Qiblah that will please you.

Turn your face during Salah towards the Sacred Mosque; wherever you are turn your

face in that direction,” 16 it marks a newly assertive Arab identity.

The Ka‘ba may still

have been sullied with pagan idols, but it nonetheless repr esented a specifically Arab holy site.

some eight years after leaving Mecca, Muhammad returned as its conquerer,

... and master of a large part of the Arabian Peninsula. 17 Once in Mecca, Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law Ali went to the

sanctuary and entered the Ka‘ba. 18 Muhammad then rode around the Ka‘ba seven times on his camel, and each time he passed the Black Stone he cried out “Allaahu akbar” (God is great), touched the Stone with a crooked staff, and kissed the staff that had touched the stone. Then he addressed himsel f to the 360 idols of the place, saying, “the truth has come and falsehood has passed away.” When he pointed at them with the stick that had touched the Black Stone, the idols “collapsed on their backs one after the other.” 19 From within the Ka‘ba “he carried the idols out before the assembled

crowd and, raising them over his head, smashed them to the ground.”

The idols were

then washed away with Zamzam water; all that is, except Jesus and Mary. The Prophet covered those two with his hands and said, “wash out all except what is beneath my hands.” He took the idol of Hubal, hacked it up with his sword, and used



the bits as a doorstep to the newly sanctified Ka‘ba. Finally, he stood at the door of the Ka‘ba and announced the fundamental truth of the new faith: “There is no god but God alone; He has no associates.” 20


After Muhammad’s death the new Caliph, Umar, who had been one of the Prophet’s earliest companions, returned to Mecca. Standing before the Black Stone, Umar spoke to it, saying, “no doubt, I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit anyone nor harm anyone. Had I not seen Allah’s Apostle kissing you I would not have kissed you.” 21 Then he touched it with his hand, and kissed his hand, establishing in clear terms both the ritual and its justification, and setting a precedent that would be followed by hundreds of millions of pilgrims from that day down to the present.

The Black Stone had helped to cast out the idols: the staff that touched it had sent those stones flying because, no matter what shape they were carved in, they were only rocks. The Black Stone is also a rock, as Umar’s statement makes clear. Whatever power passed through it to Muhammad is not its power, but God’s power. It isn’t a vessel, it’s a conduit; not a text, but a telephone. From two thousand years before the creation of the world, the Black Stone had served as a punctuation point marking God’s link to the physical world of man, a tangible remnant of an intangible heaven, a promise of the special destiny of one place and one people.

Of course, it might not have happened like that at all.

Like exhibits offered in a court of law, objects are often taken as a form of proof more substantial than words. But only, of course, if we believe what is said about

them. Physical evidence doesn’t lie, we are told.

It may not lie, but it is frequently

mute. The task of the historian and the archaeologist is to find the words to wed to the object. Without the stories of Adam and Abraham and Muhammad, the rock really is

just a rock. And this is where things become confusing.

Any encyclopedia will tell you that Muhammad lived between 570 and 632 CE, in the towns of Mecca and Medina, but there are no contemporary documents or

physical artifacts to corroborate this fact.

We have no eyewitness accounts written at

the time, little material evidence, no external reports. The nomadic inhabitants of the

Arabian Peninsula left few monuments for archaeologists to discover, even if the Saudi

government were keen on archaeology, which it is not.

The landmass of the Arabian

Peninsula is enormous – larger than that of India or Europe – and though the Hijaz

area in which Mecca lies was surrounded by the world’s densest network of literate cultures – Greeks, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Jews, Romans, and Christians – the

Hijaz itself remained something of a historical black hole.

Yemen and Sheba to the

south, and Syria and Palestine to the north, figured in trade and in the imperial ambitions of Persians, Romans, Abyssinians and Byzantines, but the Hijaz remained an unwanted wilderness of sand, rock, and illiterate tribes. In an age of maritime empires


The Power of Things: The Black Stone

it had no useful anchorages and no cities. While some trade ran through it – most notably the trade in aromatics between Yemen and the Levant – little trade stopped in


The wild nomads that occupied its interior were met occasionally at its periphery,

and looked upon with that mixture of terror and disdain with which civilized people regard ‘savag es.’ Herodotus described it as a land of “vipers and winged serpents.” The

Alexandrian Periplus of the 1 st century described the region as “fearsome in every respect.” Standard historical sources tell us next to nothing about that narrow valley. In 1911, the Encyclopedia Britannica could only say “before the rise of Islam, Mahomet’s native place, Mecca, appears to figure nowhere in historical records.” According to the contemporary scholar F.E. Peters, “there are no non-Arab texts that reasonably confirm anything about Mecca – including its very existence, perhaps.” 22

The only sources we have for the pre-Islamic history of the Ka‘ba and the Black Stone are Islamic traditions that, if read as historical fact, are both confusing and contradictory. It is often unclear whether the subject is the Ka’ba, the Black Stone, or other aspects of the sanctuary, such as the Maqam Ibrahim (another stone, upon which Abraham is said to have stood), or even the Jewish “foundation stone” (eben shetiyah),

upon which the whole world is said to be balanced. 23 The story the traditions tell is a good one, but it relies on forms of proof and logic not sanctioned by secular academic thought, which argues there might have been no Adam, no Abraham, no Ishmael.

There might have been no ancient sanctuary to resurr ect.

There might have been no

idols to destroy. There is a prominent group of Anglo-American scholars who think it possible that, prior to the triumph of Islam in the centuries after Muhammad’s death,

nothing worth mentioning happened in Mecca at all. * ...


The upshot is a spectacular spread of opinion: at one end, historians such as Patricia Crone have questioned the very existence of a person named Muhammad in the town we now call Mecca in the 7 th century, while at the other end the Saudi Ministry of the Hajj website states flatly (in and around information on how to make hotel reservations for your pilgrimage) that the stone “was brought from Paradise by the Archangel Gabriel and was set into one corner of the Kaaba.” Other websites will assur e you, without qualm or caveat, that the Black Stone is “an image of the goddess as giver of life”, “an object of continuing pagan worship”, “the corner stone of the Kingdom of God,” and “a meteor that fell at the feet of Adam and Eve.”

There is also a secular ve rsion of the Black Stone’s story. It goes like this: at some point in the distant but humanly populated past, a bit of interstellar flotsam was hurled to Earth in an meteor storm and landed in the vast deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. The spectacular fireball it caused was observed by the awestruck inhabitants, who recognized the surviving stone as something extraordinary,


This particular stone became the center of a cult among the tribes

who roamed that part of Arabia, and eventually it formed the center of a religious




... Stones were often a focus of sanctuaries in Middle East,


there are

multiple points of convergence between the Black Stone and the Judaic “Foundation Stone:” both are blindingly bright; both carry tales of having been buried and

recover ed; both can claim heavenly origin and super-lapidary powers. 24

Finally, in

... Islamic cosmology, the Ka’ba – with Black Stone -- is the center of the world, the point from which the winds originate.

Mixing and mingling with representatives of adjacent cultures this meteor- owning tribe would have absorbed bits of Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. The story of their stone became linked with other stories: Adam, Abraham, Abraha. Finally a charismatic religious reforme r came along who sought to unite these tribes

under One God, and did so by grafting a Jewish history onto an Arab site, its rituals,

and its stone.

A book was written, and the message spread.

The meteor idea has obvious appeal: it niftily links religious narrative (a

... souvenir of heaven) with scientific plausibility (a specimen from space.) And, as it happens, one of the world’s major meteor impact sites, Wabar, is located in southwest


But while fission-track analysis of Wabar fragments in early 1970s had

suggested an impact date some 6,400 years


more recent thermoluminescence

measurements indicated an event “less than 450 years ago.” There are preciou s few people in the Empty Quarter to make note of anything, but there had actually been reports of a great fireball seen over the desert in 1863 ...

The meteor explanation appeals to the secular-minded population as strongly as the Abrahamic explanation appeals to the religiously-minded, but it is equally short on proof. The observation that the existence of meteors in general can be proved, while that of angels cannot, hardly demonstrates anything specific about the origins of the Black Stone. Of the meteor theory one can say exactly what historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook said of Muslim tradition: “while there are no cogent internal grounds for rejecting it, there are equally no cogent external grounds for accepting it.” 25

Ultimately the Black Stone is a chunk of rock wrapped in a mantle of mystical and hypothetical narratives. The absence of a clear history allows it to shift shape, to be this and that: the meteor and the ruby, the angel and the agate, the proof and the paradox. In a sense it does not matter. The Black Stone is what it is, and functions as it does, because of what people believe about it.

By the time of the earliest explicit accounts of the Black Stone were written, in

the 8 th and 9 th century, the Stone was essential to the rites connected with the Ka‘ba. By this time, the revelations of the Prophet had been collected and committed to writing, and the Qur’an had taken its fixed form -- not just as a revelation, but as an


Islam had spread from the rough desert tribes of its birthplace to the

sophisticated literary cultures of Persia and Mesopotamia.



The Power of Things: The Black Stone

The political center of Islamic power moved from Medina, to Kufa, to Damascus to Baghdad. When Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols, it shifted to the Mamluks in Egypt, until seized by the Ottomans in Turkey at the beginning of the 16th Century. The one thing that remained constant through all this was the Hajj – the occasion on which the Islamic world presents itse lf in person to a space seven inches in diameter. Control of the Ka‘ba gave Mecca a power no Islamic ruler could afford to ignore,...”


That said, Mecca was no Rome or Jerusalem. Sandwiched between the stifling Red Sea Coast an ocean of sand, it had no natural beauty, no mighty rivers, no great seat of learning. The first few Caliphs tried to improve the place -- Umar (634-44) and Uthman (644-56) are reported to have razed houses adjoining the Ka‘ba to clear a small area for the tawaf, 27 and the Caliph Mu’awiya, (whose opposition to Ali laid the ground for the Sunni / Shi’a split) made a big splash by building with baked bricks and mortar for the first time – but these stories only drive home what a primitive place

Mecca must have been. 28 Today we use the name Mecca metaphorically to designate some magnetic locus of desire, but the actual place was, by all description, small, cramped, blisteringly hot, dusty and shabby. In the 11th century, when the Persian writer Nasir Khusraw went on a pilgrimage, the town measured “only two arrow shots square.” At the beginning of the 16 th century, when we begin to get accounts of non- Muslims who sneaked into Mecca, Ludovico de Varthema expressed his opinion that “the curse of God has been laid upon the said city, for the country produces neither

grass nor tree s.”

It had no agriculture, no industry, and no crafts to speak of. Ali Bey

(an incognito Catalan spy operating under a nom de plume) complained, “there is not a

single man to be found who knows how to engrave an inscription, or any kind of

design upon a hewn


not a single gunsmith or cutler able to make a screw.” Its

economy depended entirely on the Hajj. (Pilgrimage would remain Arabia’s biggest business until the discovery of oil in the 20 th century.) And yet little was done to make the hajjis visits pleasurable: Joseph Pitts, an Englishman who was captured by Algerian pirates in 1678, sold into slavery and subsequently converted to Islam, wrote that Mecca “affords little or nothing of comfortable provisions,” and the fleecing of pious pilgrims provoked constant outrage. Nothing much had improved by the 19 th century: “Tottering ruins may be found by the sides of the most thronged thoroughfare

in every part of the city,” wrote John Keane. “Nothing resembling a row or street could by any stretch of the imagination be extricated from such a chaos of masonry.”

And, as the spiritual center of a mighty empire, it was subject to periodic bloodbaths...

In 928, the leader of a breakaway Shi’a sect in eastern Arabia called the Qarmatians 29 perceived the astrological conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as a sign of the end of the Islamic era. In the tradition of apocalyptic religious leaders, Abu Tahir Sulayman predicted the immanent appearance of the Mahdi or Messiah, and set out to prove the point by laying waste to much of what is now Southern Iraq. The Hajj, with its long files of travelers crossing the desert between Mecca and Baghdad constituted a particularly symbolic and vulnerable target (not unlike passenger jets today), and was attacked repeatedly by the Qarmatians.



Then, on the opening day of the Hajj in January 930, when the sanctuary was thronged with pilgrims, Abu Tabir attacked Mecca itself. The Qarmatian army rode

into the unarmed, circumambulating crowds, swords swinging.

Estimates of the death

toll vary, but the most cited figure is 30,000. “The well of Zamzam and all the other

wells and pits of Mecca were filled to overflowing with the remains of the martyrs,” according to the Ottoman historian Qutb al-Din. “Such a catastrophe had never previously been inflicted on Islam.” 30 The ruler of Mecca was killed clutching the door of the Ka‘ba, his head falling on its threshold.

The motivation for the attack was made clear to one victim who lay wounded amidst the bodies when a Qarmathian fighter rode up and asked mockingly whether the wounded hajji knew the Qur’anic verse about the Year of the Elephant, and if so, just where did he think that miraculous flock of stone-carrying birds was now? “Where God wishes them,” the hajji answered piously. The Qarmatian retorted, “You are ass es. You worship rocks, you make processions around them, you kiss them and

dance in their

only a force of arms can bring a stop to this idiocy.” 31

Worshipping rocks was not just a sign of idiocy – it was shirk, the one


Qarmathians had looked at the rites surrounding the Black

Stone and found, not a mystical paradox, a finite thing that connects us with the

infinite, but idolatry pure and simple.

When they had finished slaughtering the men and enslaving the women and children, the Qarmathians looted the Ka‘ba: they took the earrings of Mary, the ram’s horn of Abraham, and the rod of Moses, covered in gold and jewels. It took 50 camels to transport the booty from the sanctuary back across the desert. 32 Finally, “a drunken Qarmatian” rode up to the Ka’ba, and, “dealing a heavy blow with a hammer, knocked

the [Black] Stone down from its setting and took it



Nasir Khrusaw, writing shortly after these events, said the Qarmatians believed that “the Stone was a ‘human magnet’ that attracted people.” They did not understand, Khrusaw explained, that it was actually not the Stone, but “the nobility and magnificence of Muhammad (peace be on him) that drew people [to Mecca], for the Stone had laid there for long ages without anyone paying any particular attention to it.” 34

People had, of course, paid attention to it. But Khrusaw was drawing the distinction made again and again in the history of ritual: the difference between a tool that launches one toward the godhead, and a totem thought to contain the godhead. Islam is a religion predicated on the expulsion of false gods – specifically false gods in the form of objects. The story of Muhammad destroying the 360 idols of the Ka’ba, whether historically accurate or not, is true: the religion of the One God swept aside all the Al-Uzzas and Awks, and the conception of a God so incomprehensibly infinite he could not be contained, or even represented, in stone wholly overpowered the limited magic of Hubal. Islam does not, as is often stated, forbid all images, but Islamic vigilance with regard to idolatry is nonetheless more rigorou s and straightforward than that of Christianity or Judaism. The Muslim Student Union at the University of Southern California maintains a website that details the shirk implicit in Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Yoruba religion, Zulu religion, Jainism,


The Power of Things: The Black Stone

Atheism, Anthropomorphism, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. 35 Articulating and

defending the absolute Oneness of God is the very heart of Islam. 36


destruction of the idols in the sanctuary marked the deliverance of his people from the Age of Ignorance, when “we [the Arabs] were a barbarous people who worshipped idols, ate carrion, and committed shameful deeds,” 37 into the pure light of strict


If Abu Tabir’s aim had been to put an end to the Hajj, like the Grinch stealing presents to put an end to Christmas, he (like the Grinch) did not succeed. Though the theft of the stone was “one of the greatest catastrophes ever to strike Islam and the most severe tests of the faith,” and though the absence of the stone “caused people’s hearts to dissolve,” pilgrims continued to come to Mecca, and they continued to venerate the stone in its absence, putting their hands into the hole it left behind and kissing it, “seeking blessings from its site.” 38 Its absence was as physically palpable as its presence.


Finally, twenty-two years after the massacre in Mecca, the Qarmatians agreed to return the stone, reportedly in exchange for a large sum of money. A Meccan who was present at the return of the Stone confirmed ancient reports that only the upper surface of the stone was black while the remainder was white, and that it could float...

Periodically, then, the Black Stone was the target of iconoclastic rage – sometimes political, sometimes religious in origin. But the Qarmathian charge that the

stone was worshipped as an idol seems never to have had much traction within Islam


For medieval Christians and Jews, however, it was an essential prop in the

portrayal of Islam as a religion steeped in idolatry, a kind of gussied up paganism in

which benighted pilgrims bow down before a magic rock.

John of Damascus, the

Syrian monk who was Chief Counselor in the Umayyad Caliphate during Islam’s first century, responded to Muslim accusations that Christians “worshipped” the cross by pointing to the rites of the Ka‘ba, which he claimed revolved around an idol carved in the image of Aphrodite. 39 John acknowledged that the Qur’an dictated a rigid

monotheism, but saw the Black Stone as a remnant of ancient Arab paganism, never entirely eradicated. (Islam, of course, concurs that the rites are a continuation of those performed during the Age of Ignorance; but ascribes the origin of those rites to the

pre-pagan religion of Abraham.)

The bizarre link that John established between the

Black Stone, the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and the worship of the morning star was later elaborated full-throttle: Nicetas Byzantius wrote that Muhammad ordered his followers to prostrate themselves before an idol of Aphrodite in the Ka‘ba, inclining their heads while holding their ears, turning round and round until they fell down. 40 The notion that Muslims worshiped a statue of Aphrodite at the Ka’ba served a clear polemic function: a hunk of stone carved in the image of a beautiful woman and given the name of a goddess is a pretty clear-cut thing. A rock that is just a rock is altogether more confusing. 41



By medieval times the image of Muslims as rock-worshippers, idolaters and planet-gazers was well established in Europe among both Christians and Jews. 42 Judah Halevi observed that Muhammad had eliminated the idols from the Ka‘ba, but not the idolatrous practices that surrounded them. 43 His contemporary, Petrus Alfonsi, a Sephardic convert to Christianity who provided medieval Europe with much

of its dodgy knowledge of Islam, thought that Muslims worshipped two stones in the Ka‘ba: a white one called Chamos, associated with Mars, and a black one called

Mercury, which he identified with Saturn.

The idolatrous carving on the face of

stone, he said, had been turned into the wall to hide it. The great Maimonides concluded, “the Ishmaelite today is an idol worshipper although he is unaware that he worships.” 44

In Christian writing, even Muhammad’s monotheism was called into question through idolatry. The medieval French romance, Song of Roland, depicts Muslims as pagans worshiping the gods “Mahum, Apolin, and Tervagent.” In other medieval

romances the Muslim god count climbed as high as thirty. 45

When Chaucer’s Parson

described the gold-worshipping sinner for whom “every floryn in his cofre is his Mawmet,” he used a word for ‘idol’ derived from the very name of Muhammad. 46

By the 16 th century, Christians were mired in their own battles over idolatry, and iconoclastic riots raged through the churches of Northern Europe. At the same time, more Europeans traveled to Mecca (by hook or by crook) and reported more accurately on the rites surrounding the Black Stone. Finger-pointing at “mawmets” decreas ed. Under the Ottoman Empire, Hajjis came and went in greater or lesser numbers depending on prosperity, and Meccans continued to draw their livelihood from the presence of the Stone and the Ka‘ba. Islamic rulers spruced up and aggrandized the mosque area around the Ka‘ba, adding marble pavements and covered porticos, vaulted arcades, mosaic gates, and minarets, 47 ...

Meanwhile, in the desert wastes of Najd, hundreds of miles east of Mecca, a

puritan reform of Islam was taking hold that would have dramatic implications for the city of Mecca and the artifacts of Islam. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab taught that God and God only was worthy of worship, and he saw the veneration of saints, angels,

and prophets – including Muhammad -- as smacking of idolatry.

For Ibn Wahhab,

... however, as for the Quarmatian’s, such “veneration” was simply a slippery slope towards worship. He rejected it all. So much so that the first observer to describe the sect to the West, the Danish Explorer Carsten Niebuhr, questioned whether “a religion so stripped of everything that might appeal to the senses could maintain its ground among the Arabs.” 48 Perhaps not. Wahhabism might well have petered out in Najd had not Wahhab succeeded in making a convert of an ambitious local sheik named Ibn Sa’ud.

Ibn Sa’ud combined religious zeal with political aspirations and liberal use of the sword. By the beginning of the 19 th century Saudi armies had wrested most of the Arabian Peninsula from Ottoman control, 49 and set their sights on the holy cities of

Mecca and Medina, with their wealth of relics from the time of Muhammad.

In 1802

Wahhabi warriors sack ed both cities, 50 destroying the tombs of the Prophet and his


The Power of Things: The Black Stone

companions in Medina as well as chapels and monuments dedicated to the Prophet and his family in Mecca. Their aim was to root out all temptation to idolatry. Unlike

the Qarmathians, however, they did not go after the Stone.

The sanctuary

surrounding the Ka‘ba and the Black Stone itself were “re spected and preserv ed

entire.” 5152


Set up by the British, Mecca declared its independence in 1916 (in the ensuing battle the Ka’ba was hit with a shell, but the Stone escaped damage,) but independence was short lived. In 1932 a “wretched” Afghani nicked a piece of the Black Stone for good luck. The luck didn’t hold -- he was beheaded -- and the chip was reaffixed to the stone with cement, musk and ambergris by King Abdul Aziz of the freshly minted Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 53


There is, within Islam, no real ambiguity about the proper role of the Black Stone: “the Stone is not to be worshipped or regarded as anything but a marker;” 54 the “‘Black Stone’ is just that, a stone that has no power, no blessings and no benefit to anyone.” 55 The stone is protected from external threat by Saudi security, and from the possibility of Saudi iconoclasm by its traditional history. It may, perhaps, also be protected by its peculiar opacity. The Stone has a terrestial job to do, directing the

tawaf, and it is has a spiritual function as a refere nce to God, but it does not look like anything but a rock. Unlike the idols destroyed by Muhammad, it bears no resemblance to what it represents; one cannot confuse image and substance. Its job is

to set into motion prayers that are not addressed to, or even through, it. not bow down before it, they touch it and – literally – move on.

Pilgrims do