The building has a mosque built around it, the al-Masjid al-Haram. One of the Five Pillars of Islam is that every Muslim who is able to do so, must travel to Mecca at least once in their lifetime to perform the Hajj pilgrimage, which includes a series of rituals. Multiple parts of the Hajj require that the pilgrims walk several times around the Kaaba in a counter-clockwise direction. This cirumambulation, the Tawaf, is also performed by pilgrims during the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). However, the most dramatic times are during the Hajj, when two million pilgrims simultaneously gather to circle the building on the same day.
The Kaaba is covered by a black silk curtain known as the kiswah, which is replaced yearly. About two-thirds of the way up runs a band of gold-embroidered calligraphy with Qur'anic text, including the Islamic declaration of faith, the Shahadah.
In modern times, entrance to the inside of the Kaaba is generally not permitted except for certain rare occasions and for very limited numbers of guests. When open, the Kaaba is entered through a door set above the ground on the north-eastern wall of the Kaaba, which acts as the façade. There is a wooden staircase on wheels, usually stored in the mosque between the arch-shaped gate of Banū Shaybah and the well of Zamzam. Inside the Kaaba, there is a marble floor. The interior walls are clad with marble halfway to the roof; tablets with Qur'anic inscriptions are inset in the marble. The top part of the walls are covered with a green cloth decorated with gold embroidered Qur'anic verses. Caretakers perfume the marble cladding with scented oil, the same oil used to anoint the Black Stone outside.
Although not directly connected to it, there is a semi-circular wall opposite the north-west wall of the Kaaba known as the hatīm. It is in height and in length, and is composed of white marble. The space between the hatīm and the Kaaba was for a time belonging to the Kaaba itself, and so is generally not entered during the tawaf (ritual circumambulation). It is also thought by some that this space bears the graves of Abu Simbel, prophet Ishmael and his mother Hagar.
Muslims throughout the world face the Kaaba during prayers, which are five times a day. For most places around the world, coordinates for Mecca suffice. Worshippers in the the Sacred Masjid pray in concentric circles radiating outwards around the Kaaba.
As little is known of the history of the Kaaba, there are various opinions regarding its formation and significance.
The early Arabian population consisted primarily of warring nomadic tribes. When they did converge peacefully, it was usually under the protection of religious practices. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Islam, Wensinck identifies Mecca with a place called Macoraba mentioned by Ptolemy. His text is believed to date from the second century AD, before the rise of Islam, and described it as a foundation in southern Arabia, built around a sanctuary. The area probably did not start becoming an area of religious pilgrimage until around the year 500 AD. It was around then that the Quraysh tribe (into which Muhammad was later born) took control of it, and made an agreement with the local Kinana Bedouins for control. The sanctuary itself, located in a barren valley surrounded by mountains, was probably built at the location of the water source today known as the Zamzam Well, an area of considerable religious significance.
Eiichi contends that there were multiple such "Kaaba" sanctuaries in Arabia at one time, but this is the only one built of stone. The others also allegedly had counterparts to the Black Stone. There was a "red stone", the deity of the south Arabian city of Ghaiman, and the "white stone" in the Kaaba of al-Abalat (near the city of Tabala, south of Mecca). Grunebaum in Classical Islam points out that the experience of divinity of that time period was often associated with stone fetishes, mountains, special rock formations, or "trees of strange growth.
According to Karen Armstrong, in her book Islam: A Short History, the Kaaba was dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols which either represented the days of the year, or were effigies of the Arabian deities. Once a year, tribes from all around the Arabian peninsula, be they Christian or pagan, would converge on Mecca to perform the Hajj.
To keep the peace among the perpetually warring tribes, Mecca was declared a sanctuary where no violence was allowed within of the Kaaba. This combat-free zone allowed Mecca to thrive not only as a place of pilgrimage, but also as a trading center. According to the Boston Globe, the Kaaba was a shrine for the Daughters of God (al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat) and Hubal.
The Kaaba was thought to be at the center of the world with the Gate of Heaven directly above it. The Kaaba marked the location where the divine world intersected with the mundane, and the embedded Black Stone was a further symbol of this as a meteorite that had fallen from the sky and linked heaven and earth.
According to Sarwar, about four hundred years before the birth of Muhammad, a man named "Amr bin Lahyo bin Harath bin Amr ul-Qais bin Thalaba bin Azd bin Khalan bin Babalyun bin Saba", who was descended from Qahtan and king of Hijaz (the northwestern section of Saudi Arabia, which encompassed the cities of Mecca and Medina), had placed a Hubal idol onto the roof of the Kaaba, and this idol was one of the chief deities of the ruling Quraysh tribe. The idol was made of red agate, and shaped like a human, but with the right hand broken off and replaced with a golden hand. When the idol was moved inside the Kaaba, it had seven arrows in front of it, which were used for divination.
Patricia Crone disagrees with most academic historians on most issues concerning the history of early Islam, including the history of the Kaaba. In Makkan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Crone writes that she believes that the identification of Macoraba with the Kaaba is false, and that Macoraba was a town in southern Arabia in what was then known as Arabia Felix.
Many accounts, including Muslim accounts, and some accounts written by academic historians, stress the power and importance of the pre-Islamic Mecca. They depict it as a city grown rich on the proceeds of the spice trade. Crone believes that this is an exaggeration and that Makkan may only have been an outpost trading with nomads for leather, cloth, and camel butter. Crone argues that if Mecca had been a well-known center of trade, it would have been mentioned by later authors such as Procopius, Nonnosus, and the Syrian church chroniclers writing in Syriac. However, the town is absent from any geographies or histories written in the last three centuries before the rise of Islam.
According to The Encyclopaedia Britannica, "before the rise of Islam it was revered as a sacred sanctuary and was a site of pilgrimage. According to the German historian Eduard Glaser, the name "Kaaba" may have been related to the southern Arabian or Ethiopian word "mikrab", signifying a temple. Again, Crone disputes this etymology.
According to the Qur'an, the Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ismāʿīl (Ishmael). Islamic traditions assert that the Kaaba "reflects" a house in heaven called al-Baytu l-Maʿmur (البيت المعمور) and that it was first built by the first man, Adam. Ibrahim and Ismail rebuilt the Kaaba on the old foundations.
At the time of Muhammad (570-632 AD), his tribe the Quraysh was in charge of the Kaaba, which was at that time a shrine to numerous Arabian tribal gods. Muhammad earned the enmity of his tribe by claiming their shrine for the religion of Islam that he preached. He wanted the Kaaba to be dedicated to the worship of God alone, and all the other statues evicted. The Quraysh persecuted and harassed him continuously, and he and his followers eventually migrated to Medina in 622.
After this pivotal migration, or Hijra, the Muslim community became a political and military force. In 630, Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca as conqueror, and he destroyed the 360 idols in and around the Kaaba. While destroying each idol, Muhammad recited which says "Truth has arrived and falsehood has perished for falsehood is by its nature bound to perish."
Islamic histories also mention a reconstruction of the Kaaba around 600. A story found in Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasūl Allāh (as reconstructed and translated by Guillaume) shows Muhammad settling a quarrel between Meccan clans as to which clan should set the Black Stone cornerstone in place. His solution was to have all the clan elders raise the cornerstone on a cloak, and then Muhammad set the stone into its final place with his own hands. Ibn Ishaq says that the timber for the reconstruction of the Kaaba came from a Greek ship that had been wrecked on the Red Sea coast at Shu'ayba, and the work was undertaken by a Coptic carpenter called Baqum.
Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr, an early Muslim who ruled Mecca for many years between the death of ʿAli and the consolidation of Ummayad power, is said to have demolished the old Kaaba and rebuilt it to include the hatīm, a semi-circular wall now outside the Kaaba. He did so on the basis of a tradition (found in several hadith collections) that the hatīm was a remnant of the foundations of the Abrahamic Kaaba, and that Muhammad himself had wished to rebuild so as to include it.
This structure was destroyed (or partially destroyed) in 683, during the war between al-Zubayr and Umayyad forces commanded by Al-Hajjaj bin Yousef. Al-Hajjaj used stone-throwing catapults against the Meccans. This episode has been depicted by many Muslim chroniclers as a black mark against the Ummayad caliph Yazid I, who ordered the campaign against Mecca. Yazid died in 683, the year his forces attacked the Hijaz.
The Ummayads under ʿAbdu l-Malik ibn Marwan finally reunited all the former Islamic possessions and ended the long civil war. In 693 he had the remnants of al-Zubayr's Kaaba razed, and rebuilt on the foundations set by the Quraysh. The Kaaba returned to the cube shape it had taken during Muhammad's lifetime.
During the Hajj of 930, the Qarmatians attacked Mecca, defiled the Zamzam Well with the bodies of pilgrims and stole the Black Stone, removing it to the oasis region of Eastern Arabia known as al-Aḥsāʾ, where it remained until the Umayyad ransomed it back in 952 CE.
Apart from repair work, the basic shape and structure of the Kaaba have not changed since then.
The building is opened twice a year for a ceremony known as "the cleaning of the Kaaba." This ceremony takes place roughly fifteen days before the start of the month of Ramadan and the same period of time before the start of the annual pilgrimage.
The keys to the Kaaba are held by the Banī Shaybat (بني شيبة) tribe. Members of the tribe greet visitors to the inside of the Kaaba on the occasion of the cleaning ceremony. A small number of dignitaries and foreign diplomats are invited to participate in the ceremony. The governor of Mecca leads the honored guests who ritually clean the structure, using simple brooms. Washing of the Kaaba is done with a mixture of Zamzam and rosewater.
Like Jews, the earliest Muslims prayed facing Jerusalem. According to Islamic tradition, when Muhammad was praying in the al-Qiblatain Masjid (in Medina), he was ordered by God to change the qibla from Jerusalem to Mecca and the Kaaba. Various theories are advanced as to the reason for the change.
Muslim groups in the United States differ as to how the qibla should be oriented - some believe that the direction should be calculated as a straight line drawn on a flat map, like the familiar Mercator projection of the globe; others say that the direction is determined by the shortest line on the globe of the earth, or a great circle. At times this controversy has led to heated disputes. Flat-map Muslims in the United States pray east and slightly south; great-circle Muslims face in a north-easterly direction. In both cases, the exact orientation will vary from city to city.
Qibla compasses are available that tell Muslims which direction to face no matter where they are. This method requires one to align the north arrow with a particular point on the compass corresponding to one's location. Once so aligned, one simply turns toward the direction indicated by the compass's qibla pointer, which is often in the shape of a minaret. "Qibla numbers" for various locations are listed in an accompanying booklet and also indexed online.