Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il and the Ka’bah

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

An artist’s imaginary rendition of the valley of Makkah before Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il built the Ka’bah Image

An artist’s imaginary rendition of the valley of Makkah before Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il built the Ka’bah. Courtesy of the Dar al-Madinah Museum, Madinah, Saudi Arabia.



There is little disagreement about Prophet Ibrahim’s relationship with the Ka’bah and al-Masjid al-Haram: about building it and actualizing its projected status and function. This is so because the Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah are at once explicit and eloquent as regards the subject matter, unlike the eras that preceded Prophet Ibrahim and the relationship between their own prophets and the Ka’bah — if we assume that the Ka’bah was built before Ibrahim. While the Qur’an discloses that Ibrahim was shown the site of the Ka’bah (al-Hajj, 26), that he and his son Isma’il raised its foundations (al-Baqarah, 127), and that they were directed to purify or sanctify it for those who compass it round, or use it as a retreat, or bow, or prostrate themselves therein in prayer (al-Baqarah, 125), there are scores of authentic traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) which describe even certain details of their building it.



For example, after Prophet Ibrahim had left his wife Hajar and toddler son Isma’il in Makkah, where back then there was nobody, nor was there any water, an angel appeared to Hajar and, consoling her, said to her: “Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah (Ka’bah or al-Masjid al-Haram) which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.” The Prophet (pbuh) then added: “The House (i.e., the Ka’bah) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left.” Then when the time for building the Ka’bah came, during one of Ibrahim’s subsequent visits from Sham (Syria and Palestine) to Makkah and his family, he said to his son Isma’il: “O Isma’il! Allah has given me an order.” Isma’il said: “Do what your Lord has ordered you to do.” Ibrahim asked: “Will you help me?” Isma’il said: “I will help you.” Ibrahim said: “Allah has ordered me to build a house here,” pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it. The Prophet (pbuh) added: “Then they raised the foundations of the House (i.e., the Ka’bah). Isma’il brought the stones and Ibrahim was building, and when the walls became high, Isma’il brought this stone and put it for Ibrahim who stood over it and carried on building, while Isma’il was handing him the stones, and both of them were saying: “O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” The Prophet (pbuh) added: “Then both of them went on building and going round the Ka’bah saying: “O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (al-Baqarah, 127) (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 583)

The stone over which Ibrahim stood and built is called maqam Ibrahim (Ibrahim’s station). It is still in existence today and is revered by all Muslims. Even some religious rituals are directly associated with it. Just like Prophet Adam, Ibrahim, too, is said to have built the Ka’bah using building materials from five special earthly mounts: Hira’, Tur Sina’, Tur Zayta’, Jabal Lubnan and al-Judiyy. For the foundations, he used only materials from Hira’ (or the Nur hill), where Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) received his first revelation.

If the last account entails any symbolic significance, then it will be with respect to the notion that it was emblematically appropriate to use materials for the Ka’bah groundwork or foundations from a hill where the final prophethood contact between the heavens and the earth was made, and where Prophet Muhammad’s mission officially commenced. Such was an occurrence that, as a matter of fact, signified the climax of Ibrahim’s own mission and efforts, because he besought God to make happen that which indeed many centuries later started to happen on the Hira’ (Nur) hill in the Hira’ cave. It therefore was not by chance that in the course of constructing the Ka’bah Ibrahim prayed to God about Muhammad (pbuh) and about the substance of his forthcoming mission. Prophet Ibrahim thus supplicated: “Our Lord, and send among them a Messenger from themselves who will recite to them Your verses and teach them the Book and wisdom and purify them. Indeed, You are the Exalted in Might, the Wise.” (al-Baqarah, 129). Hence, Ibrahim laid the spiritual foundation of Prophet Muhammad’s mission by invoking God to send him, and by (re)building the Ka’bah, the epicenter and nucleus of Muhammad’s prophethood and his overall spiritual and civilizational legacy. Making the matter more perceptible, suggestive and redolent with meaning, Ibrahim used the Hira or Nur hill resources for the groundwork of the Ka’bah, thus symbolizing its integrity, strength and longevity as the depository of all imminent spiritual goodness, potency and riches that will start fulfilling its full potential only by the inauguration of Muhammad’s calling. This way, the end of one historic and exceptional mission connoted the beginning of another even more historic and extraordinary mission. Indeed, the interplay between the concepts of the foundations, commencement, strength and resources, as implied above in relation to the underpinning of the infinite reputation of the Ka’bah and the underpinning of the ultimate success of Muhammad’s prophethood, is subtle and puts forward some profound correlations and meanings. In any case, this by no means contradicts the belief that the foundations of the Ka’bah were laid the moment God created the universe, due to which Ibrahim’s and Isma’il’s task of building was described as “raising the foundations of the House” (al-Baqarah, 127) after its site had been shown or assigned to them (al-Hajj, 26). This is so because the foundations of the Ka’bah might have existed before Ibrahim only conceptually — plus the Mosque’s exact site — to which Ibrahim later gave a physical form. Or, the physical foundations of the Ka’bah did indeed exist before Ibrahim, but Ibrahim made use of building materials from the Hira’ (Nur) hill for other at once necessary and supplementary foundation works before the actual structure could be raised or built.

Ibrahim used to live in the Sham region. When he was commanded to travel to Makkah to settle his wife Hajar and toddler son Isma’il there, and to be shown the veiled site of the Ka’bah – and to later undertake its building as one of the most momentous and celebrated assignments in the history of mankind — Ibrahim was accompanied by the angel Jibril. Jibril acted as a guide to the location and exact parameters of Makkah as a sanctuary (haram) and to the site of the Ka’bah. Ibrahim was not immediately asked to build the Ka’bah, nor was he shown its foundations. That happened during one of his subsequent visits to the place from Sham, most probably during his third visit. Before leaving Makkah for Sham, Ibrahim, following a divine counsel from Jibril, lodged his wife and son in a shelter (‘arish) in an area adjacent to the very location of the Ka’bah. Ibrahim himself said about it in one of his supplications that it was a place “near or by Your Sacred House” (Ibrahim, 37).


An artist’s imaginary rendition of the valley of Makkah after Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il had built the Ka’bah Image

An artist’s imaginary rendition of the valley of Makkah after Prophets Ibrahim and Isma’il had built the Ka’bah. Courtesy of the Dar al-Madinah Museum, Madinah, Saudi Arabia.


Going somewhat off the point, what is identified today as Hijr, or Hijr Isma’il or Hatim, which is 8.46 meters long, constitutes the crescent shaped section immediately beside the Ka’bah. A part of it – or even all of it — represents a fragment of the site of the original Ka’bah which the Quraysh tribe during their reconstruction work could not incorporate into the Ka’bah proper due to their inability to collect enough funds for the project. Some contend that a tiny section of today’s Hijr is part of the location where Hajar and Isma’il lived. Some even reason that Hajar and Isma’il were buried in the area. In any case, it is nigh on impossible to ascertain today where exactly the boundary is which separates the fragment of the original foundations of the Ka’bah, which the Quraysh could not incorporate into the reconstructed Ka’bah proper, from the site where Isma’il and his mother dwelled. It is roughly estimated that it should be about three meters from the northwestern wall of today’s Ka’bah. Differences of opinion revolve around approximately half a meter extra or less. Some people, on the other hand, would like to include the whole Hijr area into the Ka’bah’s original plan.

The belief that Isma’il and Hajar lived partly or completely in what is today called Hijr does not hold true because it was very unlikely that Ibrahim would settle his wife and son above, or on, some of the foundations of the Ka’bah – if we accept that the entire Hijr zone was part of the original Ka’bah. Besides, Ibrahim explicitly said that he had lodged his family members near or by, and not above or on, the (foundations of the) Sacred House (Ibrahim, 37). Yet, Ibrahim might have left Hajar and Isma’il in an adjacent place called Hijr after all, as put forward by al-Azraqi. But that was not by any means what people call today Hijr. Since there could not exist two Hijrs so close to each other, there must have been only one such place, but which people later for some reasons mistook for the portion of the Ka’bah that the Quraysh were unable to integrate into their reconstruction plans.

Some scholars in equal measure dismiss the possibility that Hajar and Isma’il were buried in the area of Hijr as farfetched, hard to be substantiated by credible and trustworthy sources, even though Ibn Hisham in his Sirah (biography) of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and Ibn Kathir in his Stories of the Prophets (Qisas al-Anbiya’), and many others, explicitly say so. Ibn al-Jawzi even reports that Isma’il is one of only three prophets whose graves are known; the other two are Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and Hud. Those who argue to the contrary, however, contend that many companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were present when the Quraysh rebuilt the Ka’bah and they witnessed the digging of the foundations at that time, but not one of them reported that they saw any trace of a grave. If that had been true, it would not have been permissible for us to step on the site of a grave, because the Prophet (pbuh) forbade us to walk or sit on graves. Lastly, it is implausible that particularly Isma’il was buried inside Hijr because he died many years following the completion of the Ka’bah. What we term today Hijr was in all likelihood part of the Ka’bah then, so when Isma’il died, if he was buried inside Hijr, that would imply that he was buried inside the Ka’bah proper which is highly improbable bearing in mind how resolutely the tawhidic (monotheistic) message of Islam repudiates the prospect of burying the dead inside mosques. Isma’il, therefore, had to be buried somewhere else in the vicinity of, or far from, the Ka’bah. Whatever that location was, it was not what we designate today as Hijr.

According to a number of scholars, the entire Hijr section indicates that fragment of the site of the original Ka’bah which the Quraysh could not integrate into the Ka’bah proper during the rebuilding process. Therefore, it is thus called. The word Hijr is derived from a verb hajara which among other things means establishing and marking limits by stones or a wall made of stones. Hence, the word hajar means a stone, haajir a wall or a barrier, hajara to forbid and prevent, and hujrah a room and especially designated space. Accordingly, Hijr would be an open and unroofed area designated as a part of the original Ka’bah by means of a wall. For that reason is it included as part of the tawaf or circumambulation ritual. Cutting short the tawaf through Hijr renders the tawaf null and void. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 187) That said, it stands to reason that calling the place Hijr Isma’il would be wrong and inappropriate, and may cause confusion. Based on this understanding, the original Ka’bah, as built by Ibrahim and Isma’il, appears to have been curved on its northwestern side and looked like a semi-circle. It had only two corners on its opposite southeastern side or wall: a corner with al-Hajar al-Aswad or the Black Stone, and a Yamani corner. One of those who were of the view that the entire Hijr area is part of the Ka’bah was an eminent companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Abdullah b. ‘Abbas.

However, in accordance with another somewhat more plausible school of thought, only an area of approximately three meters of Hijr adjacent to the Ka’bah’s northwestern wall constitutes that excluded part of the Ka’bah. The rest of Hijr, which is crescent shaped, falls outside the Ka’bah. Still, as a precautionary step, the tawaf rite must be performed outside the total Hijr parameters since the demarcation line between the two zones is imprecise, and also because the Prophet (pbuh) has said so. Obligatory prayers are not to be performed therein either. Accordingly, the original Ka’bah was of a rectangular shape. Only the Quraysh’s rendering it smaller on its northwestern side made it a cuboid shape. Hence, the Ka’bah’s northwestern wall does not rest on Ibrahim’s foundations. That northwestern segment of the original foundations is about three meters further inside the Hijr area before the same starts bending, forming a curved walled off precinct.

The latter view is based on the following words of the Prophet (pbuh). “‘A’ishah, if your people had not been recently polytheists (and new converts to Islam), I would have demolished the Ka’bah, and would have brought it to the level of the ground and would have constructed two doors, one facing the east and the other one to the west, and would have added to it six cubits of area from Hijr, for the Quraysh had reduced it when they rebuilt it.” (Sahih Muslim, Hadith No. 3082) Moreover, the rebuilding of the Ka’bah upon the exact foundations of Ibrahim by Abdullah b. al-Zubayr strongly supports the above viewpoint as well, as we will see later.


Kaaba CloseUp Image


Returning to the subject of Ibrahim’s travel to Makkah, he, just like Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during his Isra’ and Mi’raj (Night) journey, rode a Buraq, a creature from the heavens which transported the prophets. Not only for his first journey to Makkah, but also for all the subsequent journeys, did Ibrahim ride it. As said earlier, for his first trip, Ibrahim together with his family was accompanied by the angel Jibril. But for his third visit, when he was shown the foundations of the Ka’bah and was asked to build the Mosque, a cloud, a wind, as well as the angel Jibril himself have been mentioned as playing some roles in accompanying Ibrahim to the place and directing him to the foundations of the Ka’bah. Their roles at times seemed to be overlapping each other. The cloud is described as having a head which talked to Ibrahim. The cloud stopped above the site on which the Ka’bah was to be constructed, and Ibrahim laid the foundations on the outlines of its shadow. As regards the wind, it likewise had a head that resembled a snake, and two wings. It swept the site of the Ka’bah and guided Ibrahim to its exact foundations.

Nevertheless, there seems to be neither contradictions nor inconsistencies in those reports. The only one who fully and actively accompanied Ibrahim throughout his journeys was, in all probability, the angel Jibril. The presence of the cloud and wind, physical or otherwise, brief or continual, might have been just the signs of Jibril’s presence, as well as the instruments and means of his functioning and operations, but should not be ruled out altogether. Only their purpose and affiliation with the constant presence of Jibril are to be reconsidered.

This is so, firstly, because the appearance of Jibril — or other angels as God’s messengers and executors of divine commands — to prophets, including Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), is often associated with the appearance of a cloud. In a tradition, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “…I lifted my head towards the sky to see a cloud shading me unexpectedly. I looked up and saw Jibril in it.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 454) Moreover, unexpected clouds are said to have occasionally miraculously shaded Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Children of Israel, too, were miraculously shaded by clouds while in wilderness. (al-Baqarah, 57) Also, when the non-believers, as a sign of their obstinate rejection of the truth, requested that God should appear to them with His angels in His glory, God revealed using the metaphor of clouds: “Will they wait until Allah comes to them in canopies of clouds with angels, and the question is thus settled?…” (al-Baqarah, 210).

Furthermore, the idea of a wind is sometimes directly correlated with the angels as well, serving an identical purpose. For example, in the context of the Battle of Khandaq or Trench in the 5th year following the migration or hijrah from Makkah to Madinah, God divulges that as His favor upon the believers, he sent upon the enemy a wind and armies of angels: “O you who have believed, remember the favor of Allah upon you when armies came to (attack) you and We sent upon them a wind and armies (of angels) you did not see. And ever is Allah, of what you do, Seeing.” (al-Ahzab, 9). Also, the Qur’an says that the ‘Ad people, to whom Prophet Hud had been sent, was destroyed “by a furious violent wind” (al-Haqqah, 6), though there is no explicit mention of the direct involvement of the angels.

 Besides, the wind that accompanied Ibrahim to Makkah is called sakinah. The word sakinah is regularly translated as tranquility, peace, help, support, etc. Not even remotely does it mean a wind. So, was it a wind or something else that accompanied or was bestowed on Ibrahim? When, while performing the migration or hijrah, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) with his companion and friend Abu Bakr hid from their pursuers in the Thawr cave, he according to the Qur’anic account was given sakinah (calmness, tranquility and help) and was additionally supported by angels on his way out of the predicament. (al-Tawbah, 40) That said, Ibrahim, too, as a form of blessed favor and assistance might have been granted by God tranquility and peace as a spiritual and psychological state whose most assuring sign throughout his journey was the presence of the angel Jibril? The presence of Jibril was also a source of constant tangible help and support. This probability could be further corroborated by the fact that in the Qur’an the word sakinah, as a divine favor upon the believers, is mentioned six times and each time it implies calmness, tranquility, help and support. The word is mentioned four times together with the notion of angels in which case God’s favors are presented as both amplified and blessed. In none of those six Qur’anic instances is sakinah meant to imply a wind.

Finally, even in the Old Testament, the concepts of the cloud and wind played somewhat a similar religious role. For example, the cloud was the sign of God’s presence to the Israelites. On their way from Egypt, the Israelites were guided directly by God who went ahead of them in “a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way” (Exodus, 13:21). Moreover, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Solomon’s Temple, the glory of the Lord filled his Temple. The sign of that glory was a cloud which “filled the Temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud.” (1 Kings, 8:10-11) Also, according to Ezekiel, the veil behind which God concealed himself consisted of an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. (Ezekiel, 1:4)


Kaaba current century Image


Following the event of building the Ka’bah, Isma’il, who earlier married into the Arabic tribe of Jurhum, which came to and settled in Makkah, continued living there till his death. Parenthetically, the valley of Makkah was on a caravan route between Yemen and Sham. Nobody was interested to stop and settle down in the place because it was devoid of any water or vegetation. Hajar and Isma’il were the first inhabitants there. However, following the discovery of the Zamzam well, Makkah’s popularity rapidly grew. It became a popular stop for caravans. The Jurhum tribe was the first to permanently settle in the area, thus denoting the actual beginning and gradual urbanization of the city of Makkah. According to some accounts, however, even before the arrival of Ibrahim and some of his household members to Makkah, there resided some communities from the ‘Amaliq tribe in nearby areas surrounding the city of Makkah.

According to Haykal, it is difficult to trace Makkah’s origins. “In all likelihood these origins lie thousands of years in the past. It is certain that even before Makkah was built, the valley on which it stands must have been used as a resting point for the caravan routes. Its number of water springs made it a natural stopping point for the caravans going south to Yemen as well as for those going north to Palestine. Isma’il, son of Ibrahim, was probably the first one to dwell there permanently and establish it as a permanent settlement after it had long been a resting station for transient caravans and a market-place in which the north-bound and south-bound travelers exchanged their goods.”

Prophet Isma’il had a hundred and thirty, or a hundred and thirty seven, years when he died. He is reported to have had twelve sons. From some of them – especially from the eldest son Nabut and the second son Qedar — all Arabs of the Hijaz region in Western Arabia originated, making thus Prophet Isma’il their father. One disputable version of Prophet Muhammad’s genealogy thus ends with “…ibn Qedar ibn Isma’il ibn Ibrahim”. The other equally disputable version ends with “…ibn Nabut ibn Isma’il ibn Ibrahim”. The twelve sons of Isma’il were the ancestors of the twelve tribes which in terms of demography dominated the Arabian Peninsula region. As a prophet, Isma’il was sent to the tribes of ‘Amaliq and Jurhum in and around Makkah, as well as to the Yemeni tribes. A group followed him, but a majority refused to do so. Isma’il is also said to have been the first person to speak Arabic. He did so at the age of 13.

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