The Black Stone (called الحجر الأسود al-Hajar-ul-Aswad in Arabic) is a Muslim object of reverence, which according to Islamic tradition dates back to the time of Adam and Eve. It is the eastern cornerstone of the Kaaba, the ancient sacred stone building towards which Muslims pray, in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Stone is roughly 30 cm (12 in.) in diameter, and 1.5 meters (5 ft.) above the ground.
When pilgrims circle the Kaaba as part of the Tawaf ritual of the Hajj, many of them try, if possible, to stop and kiss the Black Stone, emulating the kiss that it received from the Islamic prophet Muhammad. If they cannot reach it, they are to point to it on each of their seven circuits around the Kaaba.
The Stone is broken into a number of pieces from damage which was inflicted during the Middle Ages. It is now held together by a silver frame, which is fastened by silver nails to the Stone.
According to Islamic tradition, the Stone fell from Heaven during the time of Adam and Eve, when it was a pure and dazzling white, but has since turned black because of the sins it has absorbed over the years. It is said that it was Abraham who found the black rock and when he rebuilt the Kaaba, the Archangel Gabriel brought the Stone out of hiding and gave it to him.
Muhammad is credited with playing a key part in the history of the Black Stone. In 602, before the first of his prophetic revelations, he was present in Mecca during the rebuilding of the Kaaba. The Black Stone had been temporarily removed while a new structure was being constructed. A story found in Ibn Ishaq's Sirah Rasul Allah (as reconstructed and translated by Guillaume) shows Muhammad settling a quarrel between Meccan clans as to which clan should set the Black Stone 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.
Grunebaum, in Classical Islam, says that the Kaaba was a place of pilgrimage even in pre-Islamic times, and was probably the only sanctuary built of stone, but that there are other sources which indicate there were other "Kaaba" structures in other parts of Arabia. A "red stone" was the deity of the south Arabian city of Ghaiman, and there was a "white stone" in the Ka'ba of al-Abalat (near the city of Tabala, south of Mecca). He 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.
The physical properties of the Black Stone were first described in the 19th and early 20th centuries by European travellers in Arabia who visited the Kaaba in the guise of pilgrims. The Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who visited Mecca around 1815 in the guise of a pilgrim, provided a detailed description in his 1829 book Travels in Arabia:
It is an irregular oval, about seven inches in diameter, with an undulating surface, composed of about a dozen smaller stones of different sizes and shapes, well joined together with a small quantity of cement, and perfectly well smoothed; it looks as if the whole had been broken into as many pieces by a violent blow, and then united again. It is very difficult to determine accurately the quality of this stone which has been worn to its present surface by the millions of touches and kisses it has received. It appeared to me like a lava, containing several small extraneous particles of a whitish and of a yellow substance. Its colour is now a deep reddish brown approaching to black. It is surrounded on all sides by a border composed of a substance which I took to be a close cement of pitch and gravel of a similar, but not quite the same, brownish colour. This border serves to support its detached pieces; it is two or three inches in breadth, and rises a little above the surface of the stone. Both the border and the stone itself are encircled by a silver band, broader below than above, and on the two sides, with a considerable swelling below, as if a part of the stone were hidden under it. The lower part of the border is studded with silver nails.
Visiting the Kaaba in 1853, Sir Richard Francis Burton noted that:
The colour appeared to me black and metallic, and the centre of the stone was sunk about two inches below the metallic circle. Round the sides was a reddish brown cement, almost level with the metal, and sloping down to the middle of the stone. The band is now a massive arch of gold or silver gilt. I found the aperture in which the stone is, one span and three fingers broad.
The Black Stone has been described variously as basalt lava, an agate, a piece of natural glass or — most popularly — a stony meteorite. It is evidently a hard rock, having survived so much handling. A significant clue to its nature is provided by an account of the Stone's recovery in 951 AD after it had been stolen 21 years earlier; according to a chronicler, the Stone was identified by its ability to float in water. If this account is accurate, it would rule out the Black Stone being an agate, basalt lava or stony meteorite, though it would be compatible with it being glass or pumice.
It has been suggested that the Black Stone may be a glass fragment from the impact of a fragmented meteorite some 6,000 years ago at Wabar, a site in the Rub' al Khali desert some 1,100 km east of Mecca. The craters at Wabar are notable for the presence of blocks of silica glass, fused by the heat of the impact and impregnated by beads of nickel-iron alloy from the meteorite (most of which was destroyed in the impact). Some of the glass blocks are made of shiny black glass with a white or yellow interior and gas-filled hollows, which allow them to float on water. Although scientists did not become aware of the Wabar craters until 1932, they were located near a caravan route from Oman and were very likely known to the inhabitants of the desert. The wider area was certainly well-known; in ancient Arabic poetry, Wabar or Ubar (also known as "Iram of the Pillars") was the site of a fabulous city that was destroyed by fire from the heavens because of the wickedness of its king. If the estimated age of the crater is accurate, it would have been well within the period of human habitation in Arabia and the impact itself may have been witnessed.
Apart from the ritual role of the Black Stone, its black colour is deemed to symbolise the essential spiritual virtue of detachment and poverty for God (faqr) and the extinction of ego required to progress towards God (qalb).
The Black Stone is broken into a number of fragments, with varying accounts putting the number at between seven and fifteen, held together by a silver frame. The damage appears to have occurred in several stages. Legend has it that during the siege of Mecca in 683, the Kaaba was ignited by a flaming arrow and the fire's heat cracked the Black Stone into three large parts and several smaller fragments. In 930, the Black Stone was seized by the Qarmatians and carried off to their base at Bahrain. According to the historian Al-Juwayni, the Stone was returned in 951 under somewhat mysterious circumstances; wrapped in a sack, it was thrown into the Friday Mosque of Kufa accompanied by a note saying "By command we took it, and by command we have brought it back." Its abduction and removal caused further damage, breaking the stone into seven pieces. Some Muslims believe the Black Stone should be less accessible to the general public, as a way of protecting such a relic.
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