Millions of Muslims make the pilgrimage to the holy Kaaba every year. But between battling through the devout crowds and making heartfelt prayers to God, how many of us have had the time or felt the curiosity to thoroughly examine the details of the kiswah, the black cloth that covers the Kaaba? What do the golden embroideries on it say, precisely?
Our Omani photo storyteller, Adnan Al Balushi, visits the factory in which the kiswah is made, to answer questions like this and to find out more about the history of the kiswah.
Located in the Umm Al Jud area of Mecca, the new Kiswat Alkaaba Almusharrafa Factory was established in 1976, after its 1927 predecessor in Ajyad was closed down. The factory was founded as a result of an earlier order by King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud that the kiswah be made locally in Saudi Arabia. For decades prior, it had been manufactured in and sent over from Egypt.
Staffed by more than 200 Saudi male employees, who are extensively trained to make the kiswah, to visit this factory you have to first make an application to The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque, seemingly due to the delicateness of the crafting process, which is composed mainly of three stages.
1. Dyeing and weaving
The finest natural silk threads, brought all the way from Italy, are dyed black in the factory, after which they are weaved together by state of the art machines to make the kiswah.
Phrase ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammed is His Prophet’, and divine praises ‘Subhan Allah wa bihamdih’, ‘Subhan Allah Aladeem’, and ‘Ya Hannan ya Mannan’, are weaved in throughout.
Though the kiswah of the holy Kaaba is primarily black today, this was not always the case. Scholarship suggests that the color continuously changed throughout history. It is said that the Prophet clothed the Kaaba in a red and white lined kiswah, for example. Throughout the Fatimid era, the kiswah is said to have mostly been white. During the Abassid era the kiswah is said to have been white at times and red and green at others, until Caliph Alnasser changed it to black in congruence with the Abassid flag, which was also black. The color seems to have mainly stuck since.
The interior of the Kaaba is also clothed in a kiswah– a fact that many are unaware of- but one that is green in color. Like the exterior kiswah, it is also made from Italian silk, but the silk is dyed green in the factory instead of black. The Quranic verses and the religious phrases that are embroidered on it are all in white.
2. The making of ‘the belt’
Placed on the Kaaba at a nine-meter height, the uppermost part of the kiswah containing gold inscriptions is known as the hizam or ‘the belt’. The hizam is made of plain, black silk and all the letters embroidered on it of gold-plated silver wires. It is composed of a total of 16 pieces, four for each side of the Kaaba.
The hizam features Quranic verses that mention the Kaaba, its construction, and its status, as well as verses about pilgrimage, such as the following:
‘And [mention] when Abraham was raising the foundations of the House and [with him] Ishmael, [saying], “Our Lord, accept [this] from us. Indeed You are the Hearing, the Knowing.’
وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنَ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ
‘And [mention] when We made the House a place of return for the people and [a place of] security. And take, [O believers], from the standing place of Abraham a place of prayer.’
وَإِذْ جَعَلْنَا الْبَيْتَ مَثَابَةً لِّلنَّاسِ وَأَمْنًا وَاتَّخِذُوا مِن مَّقَامِ إِبْرَاهِيمَ مُصَلًّى
‘And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House – for whoever is able to find thereto a way. But whoever disbelieves – then indeed, Allah is free from need of the worlds.’
فِيهِ آيَاتٌ بَيِّنَاتٌ مَّقَامُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ ۖ وَمَن دَخَلَهُ كَانَ آمِنًا ۗ وَلِلَّهِ عَلَى النَّاسِ حِجُّ الْبَيْتِ مَنِ اسْتَطَاعَ إِلَيْهِ سَبِيلًا ۚ وَمَن كَفَرَ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ غَنِيٌّ عَنِ الْعَالَمِينَ
All the verses and phrases featured on the Kaaba were hand-written in the thulth style of writing by the now late Sheikh Abdul Raheem Ameen Bukhari, one of the oldest employees of the factory, who had worked there since the reign of King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud. His name continues to be embroidered below each verse to honor him.
3. The making of ‘the burqa’
Alongside Quranic verses, geometric Islamic art heavily appears on the part of the kiswah that partially covers the door to the Kaaba, which is also known as ‘the burqa’ or ‘the sitarah’. Inside the geometric shapes are phrases such as ‘Allahu Hasbi’ and ‘Allahu Rabby’.
On the bottom left-hand corner of the burqa, the name of the Saudi king under whose administration the kiswah is made and gifted, is also embroidered. This is a tradition that began in the Abassid era.
The outer kiswah is annually changed on the Day of Arafah (the 9th of the Hijri month of Thul Hijjah). However, the inner kiswah is changed every four to five years due to its comparatively lower exposure to external elements.
The old kiswahs are kept in a special storage space and pieces of them are gifted. One regular recipient of this kind of gift is the Bani Shaybah tribe of Mecca, who has held the keys to the Kaaba since the pre-Islamic days of Aljahiliyyah.
A burqa made during the reign of King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and gifted to Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, UAE, is currently on display at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.
Adnan Al Balushi is a photo storyteller from Oman.