What Do Cubes and Bicycle Wheels Have to Do With Islam?


In an article in the book Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning edited by Ernst J. Grube, James Dickie, Oleg Grabar, and Eleanor Sims (Oct 1995), James Dickie, a convert to Islam, describes the focus and interconnectedness of all Muslims as they face Mecca. His article is important as it stresses a vital difference in the spiritual connectedness of Muslims and Christians. We will look at Hebrews 1:3 to help make this comparison.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high … (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)

Dickie who goes by the Islamic name ‘Yacub Zaki’ describes the Islamic world in terms similar to that of a bicycle wheel or carriage wheel. That is to say, all of the spokes point towards the hub, and in this case, he describes the hub as the Ka’ba or the center of the Islamic universe. In his own words,

 [The Ka’ba is] … a building erected over an invisible axis, an axis which is none the less the principal determinant of its design. The Muslim world is spread out like a gigantic wheel with Mecca as the hub, with lines drawn from all the mosques in the world forming the spokes. These lines converge on a city and within that city on a point. The city is Mecca, and the point is the Ka’ba at its centre ... The Ka’ba, a hollow cube of stone, many times rebuilt, the original of which goes back beyond the time of Muhammad, is the axis mundi of Islamic cosmology. It is diagonally oriented, with its corners facing the cardinal points of the compass ... it is the centre of the world, because it is the primordial symbol of the intersection between the vertical axis of the spirit and the horizontal plane of phenomenal existence. ("Allah and Eternity: Mosques, madrassas, and tombs," p.16)

Comparisons and contrasts with Christianity:

Dickie sees that during their ritual prayers, every Muslim in the world is connected to a central axis, namely the Ka’ba or ‘The House of Allah.’ This cube-shaped building is said to be originally constructed by Abraham and that, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad cleansed it of idolatry. As Dickie pointed out, architecturally this building intersects with all four points of the compass, suggesting the worldwide influence of Islam. One Muslim once dubbed this as ‘theology in concrete.

  1. The center of the universe.

Hebrews 1:3 suggests that Jesus the Son of God, “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” We could say that he is both the center of the universe and the glue that holds it together. He could also be said to be the axis between earth and heaven, that is to say because of his incarnation, he knows the human condition and can act as a mediator in heaven for humanity because he is fully God, or as Hebrews 1:3 says, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature ...” It is possible to describe this as theology in Son.

  1. The union of all ‘believers’.

Dickie sees that all Muslims are interconnected through the central hub, the Ka’ba and because of its prominent place in the ‘great mosque’ of Mecca. M. Quraishy in his Textbook of Islam: “The mosque is the undying symbol of Islam. The mosque is the centre of all Muslim activities…Where there is no adhan or prayers in congregation, there can be no Islamic community.” That is to say, the activities of the mosque, all oriented towards the central hub, form a type of ‘spiritual glue’ that holds Muslims together.  

In Christianity, all believers are said to be in ‘union’ with Christ, or one could picture this as a large school of fish in an aquarium, and that Christ is the water. The water interconnects all of the fish and without it, they would cease to live. Their lives are not so much identified by what they have done, but by who Jesus is and what he has done.

  1. The ‘holy of holies.’

Architecturally, once cannot help but recognize that the Ka’ba is a cube-shaped building which is black in color. Another convert to Islam, Cyril Glassé described the Ka’ba as “both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies” and that in their daily prayers Muslims “fulfills the role that the Jewish high priest performed only on the Day of Atonement.” (From the Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1989: 216).

In Hebrews 1:3, we also read of a high priest, but one of a different genus and species than those in the Jewish temple. After making purification for sins, he [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

In the first picture, we see Muslims who daily must perform the role of a high priest, and in the second, we see Jesus who is the ultimate high priest who performed the ultimate sacrifice which allows him to sit down as a bodily expression of a finished task. He assumes his place in heaven, and Christians place their focus on him. Secondly, the book of Revelation describes a city whose architecture resembles the holy of holies, namely cubic in shape. In this case, however, light, rather than darkness is the dominant motif, and the presence of the Triune God overshadows all. 

A few observations:

  • Christians should not underestimate the Ka’ba’s spiritual influence. Mark Durie in his Liberty to the Captives underscores that Islam is much more than a set of practices and acknowledgment of a set of doctrines, but that it is energized by spiritual power. One might call the Ka’ba the ‘nuclear reactive core’ of Islam
  • The Ka’ba stands as a counter to Jesus Christ. It declares itself the center of the universe, the place of connectedness between believers, the axis between heaven and earth and the place of mediation between God and humans. All of these are found perfectly in Jesus Christ
  • The Ka’ba is earthbound and dark. The holy of holies and the New Jerusalem which consummates it are ‘from heaven.’ The presence of the Triune God in this ultimate cubic architecture makes it a place of light. 
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