What places are important for the religion?
by John Kaltner
three most holy places in Islam are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem.
As Muhammad’s hometown and the location where
the Qur’an was first sent down to him, Mecca is the birthplace
of the faith. Muslims are constantly made aware of its importance
because they must turn toward Mecca during the five required prayer
times each day.
focal point of the city is the Sacred Mosque, which Muslims consider
to be the holiest place on the face of the earth. In the center
of the mosque is the Ka`ba, the shrine that existed during Muhammad’s
lifetime and predates Islam by centuries. According to the Qur’an
(2:122-133), the Ka`ba was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael
as a place of worship dedicated to the one true God. Over time it
was converted into a place where polytheism was practiced, and it
was restored to its original purpose only with the coming of Muhammad
and the rise of Islam.
Ka`ba was originally made of rough, uncut stones, but it has been
rebuilt and renovated over the centuries. Today it is a cube-shaped
structure about forty-five feet high made of dark-grey stones from
the surrounding hills that are usually covered by an intricately
decorated cloth covering. Despite its sacred nature, any Muslim
is allowed to approach and touch the Ka`ba. The King of Saudi Arabia
holds the title of custodian of the Ka`ba and other sacred places
in his country.
is also important because every year millions of Muslims come to
the city to participate in the pilgrimage, one of the five pillars
of Islam. Over an eleven-day period during the month of pilgrimage
they engage in a series of prescribed rituals that take place in
the Great Mosque and the area surrounding Mecca.
in Mecca many pilgrims take the opportunity to make a journey to
Medina to visit key sites in the second holiest city in Islam. Muhammad
spent the last ten years of his life there, and Muslims can still
see his house and the adjacent Mosque of the Prophet with its distinctive
green dome. Other places of interest in Medina include the Shrine
of the Prophet, containing his tomb, and Quba Mosque, Islam’s
first mosque that was built soon after Muhammad’s arrival
in the city.
sacred status can be seen in its Arabic name al-quds, which
means “the holy.” It is the location of two of the most
important Islamic buildings, the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of
the Rock. These edifices are located in what is known as the “Noble
Sanctuary” (al-haram al-sharif in Arabic), which
is the area where the Israelite temple built by King Solomon once
stood. The al-Aqsa mosque was built in 710 and is the third most
holy place in Islam.
Dome of the Rock, with its bright golden dome and octagonal shape,
is one of the most distinctive buildings in the world. It is not
a mosque but a shrine built in 690 to commemorate Muhammad’s
ascent to heaven. The large rock in the center of
the building is held by Muslims to be the place from which the Prophet
left the earth to begin the heavenly journey during which he met
other prophets from the past. Many non-Muslims visit these two buildings
every year, but that is not the case with the sites in Mecca and
Medina, cities that allow entry only to Muslims.
of the holy places in Shi`a Islam are found in modern-day Iraq,
with two of the most important being Najaf and Karbala. Najaf is
the location of the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and
the first Shi`a leader. It receives thousands of visitors every
year, and only Mecca and Medina are more popular pilgrimage destinations
in the Islamic world. Najaf, along with Qom in Iran, is also an
important center of learning that is the home to a prominent Shi`a
theological school. Karbala’s importance for Shi`a Muslims
has already been noted. As the place where Ali’s son Husayn
was martyred by Sunni forces it, too, welcomes many pilgrims every
year, particularly on the anniversary of that tragic event when
thousands of believers come to the mosque that contains his tomb.
©2006 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.