The truths about God and salvation from the heavenly sanctuary can express to the Muslim soul how God has provided everything.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter
The Qur’ānic Kaaba1 is a square stone building elegantly draped in a silk and cotton veil and located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Together with its adjacent sacred tomb of the prophet Muhammad, it is the holiest shrine in Islam.
The Kaaba and the biblical heavenly sanctuary articulate respective cosmic centers with corresponding ontological and existential worldviews. Numerous parallels exist. Each cosmic center presents a paradigmatic system pointing toward an understanding of reality. Each unfolds a view of God that brings significant implications for theology and practice. Each affects worldview reflection and formation. Each indicates the direction of prayer. Each comprises the place of spiritual gathering for the believing community. And each defines the pathway to salvation, the cleansing of worshipers, the promise of divine blessing and peace, as well as oneness with God. It comes as no surprise that the Qur’ānic Kaaba and the biblical sanctuary contribute to unique worldviews.
Despite such parallels, significant dissimilarities exist between the two cosmic centers. Each has its own inner logic. Each contains a basic core of values and assumptions, notions, and beliefs that integrates all other elements into a coherent whole, and which determines their true meaning. Thus, meaning diverges in a radical difference of meanings, understandings, and implications within their respective worldviews.
Mecca literally means “the place of assembly” and Kaaba means a “cube” (in reference to the building shape) together with its corresponding heavenly Kaaba. It does so against that of the biblical worldview of Christ’s ministry as High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary as presented in the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews. These respective worldviews impact the daily lives of those who live and breathe them. Islam’s Kaaba/heavenly Kaaba system offers a Neoplatonist transcendent view of God together with a meticulous ritual regimen of achievement-based assurance of salvation, while the Book of Hebrews presents the biblical heavenly sanctuary, which unfolds a relational view of God and engenders an objective-based hope, confidence, boldness, and assurance—in which worshipers are truly cleansed from a consciousness of sin through faith alone rather than through any ritual performance.
In the process, one can imagine the existential impact that the Qur’ān’s Kaaba-engendered worldview might have on the Muslim soul. This may help Adventists to understand more deeply the inner soul need of a Muslim as nuanced by his or her belief and ritual practice in relation to the Qur’ān’s cosmic center—the Kaaba. These insights can provide a helpful starting point for mission.
Thinking Biblically About the Qur’ān’s Kaaba
The Kaaba plays a central role in Muslims’ worldview and everyday lives. So also, does the heavenly sanctuary play a central role within Adventist hermeneutics and worldview.
The doctrine of the heavenly sanctuary is unique to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the only denomination that embraces a doctrine of the sanctuary. While much has been written by Christian theologians on Scripture’s sanctuary motif, it appears that only Muslims and Adventists have developed macro-hermeneutical and theological thought on these topics in relation to their respective worldviews. Inquiry and analysis of these areas similarity offers an introductory conversation, as there is little scholarly discussion regarding either the Qur’ānic Kaaba in relation to the biblical heavenly sanctuary as respective cosmic centers, or exploration into their worldview impact—especially for Adventist gospel work in Muslim contexts.
Some orienting principles are helpful as we attempt to think biblically about the Qur’ān’s Kaaba in contrast with the heavenly sanctuary ministry of Jesus as described in the Epistle to the Hebrews: (1) the difference between a Muslim and Islam; (2) the hermeneutical priority of a biblically informed worldview with its cosmic conflict narrative; (3) the revelation of God’s character of love; and (4) the finality of God’s revelation in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Qur’ānic Cosmic Center—The Kaaba
The word Kaaba is mentioned only twice in the Qur’ān (5:95, 97), but is assumed in several other verses (2:125, 158; 3:96; 22:26). The Kaaba, literally “the cube,” is a square stone building located in the main mosque in Mecca, i.e., Masjid al-Haram. It is Islam’s Qibla, the direction of Muslim prayer. The Meccan Kaaba and its adjacent sacred tomb of the prophet Muhammad are Islam’s foremost holy sanctuaries.
The Qur’ān asserts that the Meccan mosque is God’s “sacred house,” a setting for ritual activity and a meeting place for the people (2:125; 3:96). It is venerated for its universal symbolism as the first house built on earth exclusively for the worship and praise of the One God (3:96), built after the Flood by Ibrahim and Ismail on Allah’s instructions (2:127; 22:26).
The Kaaba is revered as the House of God (Bait Allah) or sanctuary toward which Muslims turn in prayer five times a day, and around which they circulate during the pilgrimage (Hajj). It is viewed as “an earthly replica of a divine prototype in heaven called al-bayt alma’mur (literally, the Ever-inhabited House).”2 This heavenly reality is “an invisible cosmic center located above the Kaaba” where unseen entities such as angels, spirits, and divine grace are believed to exist.3 As such, the Kaaba is thought to be at the center of the world, with the Gate of Heaven directly above it.
Viewed with cosmological proportions, the Kaaba marks the spot considered to be where the Earth was created and is an earthly image of the divine throne in heaven. It marks the location where the sacred world intersects with the profane. The embedded Black Stone, either a meteorite that had fallen from the sky or been delivered by an angel, symbolizes this intersect that links heaven and earth.
As the most sacred space in the Muslim world, the Kaaba is the point to which all Muslims turn to pray, and the direction to which their heads point in burial. Muslims regard it as the spiritual center of the Earth, where actions at the Kaaba, such as its circumambulation, are duplicated in the heavens and at the throne of God. Furthermore, Muslims view the ideal of community is central to the cult of the Kaaba. All violence is forbidden in Mecca and the surrounding countryside at all times. Non-Muslims are barred from its sacred space. In relation to the Qibla, “the Kaaba itself is astronomically aligned.”4
In effect, the Kaaba is an earthly sacred space that has assumed spiritual and cosmological proportions. It is an “an inseparable component of Muslims’ ontological and existential worldviews and is a symbol of the real unity of all Muslim communities.”5 It is the focal point for Muslims dispersed all over the world. The “citadel of Tawḥīd”6 is
● where metaphysically, the Qur’ān’s monotheism further nuances the correlation between the Oneness of God and the oneness of existence;
● where the universe is perceived and experienced as a place of visible and invisible spheres;
● where the transcendent invisible bestows meaning to the visible;
● where Allah is the singular, ultimate, invisible, unseen, and unknowable divinity;
● Where reality divides into two generic realms: God and non-God in which God “remains forever transcendental Other devoid of any resemblance, similarity, partnership and association”7 and, essentially timeless.
This Oneness, this Unity of God, forms the essence of the Islamic vision of reality, to which the Kaaba and its attending rituals correspond. As such, Muslims look at the world as a “living reality or lively cosmos.”8 This insistence upon God’s absolute transcendence and perfect unity has unique implications for questions about the nature of God, free will and predestination, the relationship of good and evil, and of reason to revelation.
The foregoing vision of Tawḥīd—including visible/invisible spheres where the transcendent invisible bestows meaning to the visible and where Allah is the singular, ultimate, invisible, unseen, and unknowable divinity—implies a tacit Neoplatonism. Greek philosophical presuppositions—both Platonic and Aristotelian—have had a significant influence (directly and indirectly) on Islamic thought. In a milieu already saturated with Plotinus and Aristotelian thought, this root of monotheism occurred in Islam unintentionally, at least during its formative years, as Muhammad both engaged and absorbed Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian religious thought. The metaphysical beliefs of the Arabian pagan environment and Bedouin culture of Muhammad’s day likewise shaped philosophical and epistemological understandings in keeping with Neoplatonic thought.
Kaaba-related Rituals—The Qibla and Hajj
Two obligatory Kaaba-related rituals open a window into the Muslim’s existential worldview—daily ritual prayer facing the Qibla and the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca.
Twenty-seven elements are necessary for the validity of a ritual prayer. They are called the “stipulations of ritual prayer.” Four are regarded as pillars of a ritual prayer: standing, reading the Qur’ānic verse, bowing, and prostration. Additionally, there are five designated times of “obligatory” ritual prayer. There are 10 “praiseworthy” acts (mustaḥabb) in ritual prayer, formulaic guidance for composing a ritual prayer, formulaic praises of God after ritual prayer, and about 68 acts that corrupt ritual prayer. There are also acts “requiring” the nullification of a ritual prayer and acts “permitting” it.
As already noted, facing the direction of the Kaaba is one of the stipulations of ritual prayer: “So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque, and wheresoever you be, turn your faces towards it” (Qur’ān 2:144). Those unable to face the Kaaba or who have become uncertain of its direction can face whatever direction is possible. However, if one senses the wrongness of the decision while still engaged in ritual prayer, he or she must turn to the correct direction immediately. If one started the ritual prayer without thinking much about the direction of the Kaaba, and after completing the prayer learns that he or she faced the correct direction, his or her ritual prayer is correct. But if one knows it while he or she is still engaged in the ritual prayer, his or her prayer is corrupted.
The Hajj (“Pilgrimage”) means a visit to Mecca and the performance of a special type of devotional acts during the time of pilgrimage. It is obligatory once in a person’s life (3:91), if an individual meets eight “obligatory” pilgrimage stipulations, satisfies five “necessity of performance” of pilgrimage stipulations, and satisfies at least two stipulations for the “validity of performance” of pilgrimage. Additionally, there are 18 “required acts” in pilgrimage.
As already noted, the Kaaba is central to the Hajj experience. The Qur’ān asserts that the Kaaba is a setting for precise ritual activity and a meeting place for the people (2:125). Once in Mecca, “the first act is the tawaf, which consists of seven counterclockwise circumambulations of the Kaaba with pauses of obeisance to the Black Stone.”9 Altogether, at least three circumambulations of the Kaaba are prescribed: the circumambulation upon arrival in Mecca, the circumambulation in conjunction with the rite of running between Safa and Marwa, and the farewell circumambulation—the last of the ritual circling of the Kaaba performed just before the pilgrim’s departure for his or her homeland. When circumambulating, each pilgrim is required to be in a state of purification from both minor and major legal impurities.
One final act remains, however, before the pilgrim’s departure: the offering of a sacrifice to commemorate the lamb that Allah accepted in place of the son of Abraham. This final act of the Hajj is celebrated as the ‘Id Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) throughout the Muslim world. ‘Id Al-Adha “is supposed to be the act of giving up something one cherishes, rather than a blood sacrifice, and even money may be given to charity in lieu of a sacrifice.”10
The Qur’ān asserts: “Truly Safa and Marwah are among the rituals of God, so whoever performs the hajj to the House or makes the umrah [minor pilgrimage] there is not blame on him in going to and fro between them” (2:158). The Arabic word translated “rituals” (sha’ā’ir) is derived from the Arabic word sha ‘ar, meaning the one who preserves religious rituals. The word can refer to ritual places, symbols, or sacred actions and carries the sense of “that by which God is known.”11 One of the meanings of sha’ā’ir in the Qur’ān is its unique connection with the Meccan pilgrimage, denoting various rites and sacred places that are associated with it. In addition to the spatial sanctity of Mecca, and in particular the Kaaba and the ḥaram that surrounds it, there is also the temporal sanctity of the sacred month to which the pilgrim worshiper must relate. Formulaic guidance as to how to perform each of the activities of pilgrimage one after another is also provided.
The Hajj as a ritual of purification and sacred exchange is highly elaborate. It comprises a moral allegory in relation to its sacred pre-texts—the binding of Ishmael and the banishment of Hagar—and a series of identifications with exemplary persons (Adam, Abraham, Ishmael, Hagar, and Muhammad). The ritual counter-structure “cycle of rites achieve symbolic transformation in the person of the pilgrim through a series of significant alternations and reversals in time.”12 There is a symbolic movement from the present to the past “effecting both a metonymic and metaphoric transformation.”13 It is a process “through which the pilgrim gradually sheds her or his sins by moving backwards in time, becoming as pure and innocent (ma’sum) as a newborn infant.”14 This includes throwing stones at the devil (stone the Jamarah) whereby believers repudiate their inner devils and cast aside their own low desires and wishes: actions that bring closeness to Allah.
Together with its Kaaba circling, the Hajj is said to have “a cleansing effect on the pilgrim and brings him to the position of an innocent infant. This is to be understood in light of Islam’s not holding to the doctrine of original sin; thus, the new status is one of purity and innocence.”15 It most assuredly is “an emotional and spiritual highlight of Muslim’s lives.”16 The Hajj not only leaves the pilgrim with memories, but also the sense and testimony of personal accomplishment. “Every hajji, as the pilgrim is known, believes that his total act of dedication in pilgrimage is the supreme means of obtaining the forgiveness of sins.”17 Even the ‘Id Al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice) is an act of giving up something one cherishes, rather than a blood sacrifice with redemptive implications. Throughout, the pilgrims are on their own, never quite sure whether they have arrived or not. It is achievement-based assurance of salvation.
Biblical Cosmic Center—The Heavenly Sanctuary
Scripture presumes the existence of a heavenly sanctuary and asserts its centrality within the biblical metanarrative. So also, the heavenly sanctuary’s cosmic import. Heaven is God’s dwelling place (1 Kings 8:30). God’s throne is in His sanctuary (Jer. 17:12). God’s “splendor and majesty” and “strength and glory are in his sanctuary” on earth (Ps. 96:6, NIV). The sanctuary in heaven, however, is not simply the dwelling place of God. From the beginning, it has been the place of worship, doxology, and praising the Lord (Jer. 17:12). With the entrance of sin, it has become the great center of redemptive activity by means of Christ’s priestly ministry. As such, it is God’s “command center” of the universe and the cosmic conflict. The sanctuary message unfolds God’s works and acts, assuring His followers that God is with and for His people (Ex. 25:8). And so, they praise Him for His goodness and redemption.
As such, the sanctuary is “the oldest teaching device in Scripture,” “a visual aid to teach about the plan of salvation”18—unfolding the eternal gospel, yet not mere illustration of the gospel. Rather, the structural components of the biblical metaphysics it articulates touches cosmic, ecclesiological, and individual existential realities where atonement unfolds as a historical process (rather than an event) and in which the integration of past, present, and future concerns every soul living on earth. It provides a “hermeneutical vision” that “interprets (explains) the totality (metaphysics) of reality (ontology).”19 The heavenly sanctuary reveals the Creator God as a resident God, acting in time and space (Ex. 25:8; Ps. 20:2). He is “not the timeless God of traditional theology” (or that of Islam).20 It reveals how God treats sin and saves those who believe in Him.
“The book of Hebrews is impregnated with the language of sanctuary.”21 It asserts a real sanctuary in heaven, presenting it as a real place and not mere metaphor or abstraction (8:2; 9:24). Referencing the Israelites’ profound ritual types of sanctuary space and ritual imagery, Hebrews “addresses the very real human need for purification from sin. It does not deal with the cosmological concerns of a Philo but with the great themes of human redemption through the sacrifice and priesthood of Jesus Christ—a redemption foreshadowed, but never accomplished, in the ritual types of the earthly sanctuary.”22 To that end, the Epistle to the Hebrews “sets out a series of bases for Christian confidence—real deity, real humanity, a real priest, a real covenant, a real sacrifice, real purification, real access, and in keeping with these, a real heavenly sanctuary and ministry.”23
Thus, Hebrews confronts its readers with a world that most would consider imaginary. It asserts the heavenly sanctuary as a real place with a real God involved in real activity dealing with real cosmic conflict and soteriological issues, providing real connection between heaven and earth. It promises real hope and real help.
The Book of Hebrews offers a vision of reality, an understanding of Jesus Christ, and a sense of identity and hope in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty. Its readers are invited to see beyond the realities of this visible world and take refuge in the promised certainty of the ultimate triumph of God in Jesus Christ (chapters 1, 6, 8, 11, 12, and 13). In doing so, Hebrews posits a unique worldview. At the heart of this heavenly sanctuary worldview is Jesus, who ever intercedes for us (Heb. 7:25).
We Have Come . . .
Hebrews repeatedly invites its readers to freely come to the heavenly sanctuary:
● “Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (4:16, NLT).24
● “We who have fled to [God] for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek” (6:18–20).
● “Christ did not enter into a holy place made with human hands, which was only a copy of the true one in heaven. He entered into heaven itself to appear now before God on our behalf” (9:24).
● “We can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water” (10:19–22).
● “You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. . . . No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel” (12:18, 22–24).
This final passage (12:18–24) comprises “the rhetorical climax” of the Book of Hebrews, i.e., “You have come” (vs. 22). It casts seven images that create a vision of the spiritual realities in which we participate when we experience the gospel through the mediatorial work of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. At the center of these seven images is the phrase that underscores God as the “Judge of all” (vs. 23, NKJV). It’s as if one were standing blamelessly in the immediate presence of God as Judge. On the one side of these seven images are sacred space, festal gathering of angels, the redeemed people of God. On the other side are soteriological realities of justification, vindication, sanctification, the mediatorial work of Jesus, and the power of His applied blood (vss. 23, 24). The imagery speaks of incredible assurance. Confidence. Hope. Something absolutely unshakable. The use of “made perfect” implies the stable and definitive character of the believer’s condition.
Seven images create a vision of the spiritual realities in which we participate when we experience the gospel through the mediatorial work of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary.
These four passages contrast sharply with the Qur’ānic Kaaba as a place of pilgrimage open only to a few who meet ritual requisites. Rather, the biblical heavenly sanctuary is a place of joyful worship—which, according to Hebrews, is open to every believer at all times and wherever one finds himself or herself—amidst all of life’s vicissitudes.
Furthermore, although this heavenly city is still the goal of Christians’ pilgrimage (Heb. 13:14), those who believe have already come to this heavenly city with its grand assembly. While proleptic, it is nevertheless a contemporary and real experience: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1, NASB). God’s followers are described as “made perfect” (10:14; 12:23), which indicates that nothing is lacking in their relationship with God.
Wonderfully, God Himself is present at this festival where His presence is fully enjoyed by the people of faith. In presenting God as “Judge of all,” Hebrews asserts the surpassing importance of God’s evaluation of one’s life in this world. However, the perfect tense of the verb implies that the readers have entered a permanent place of eternal relationship with God. The phrase “sprinkled blood” refers to Jesus’ atoning blood, which established the new covenant and which is the means of salvation. The noun sprinkling indicates what was done with the blood, i.e., as in Hebrews 10:22, which speaks of “having our hearts sprinkled clean” (NASB). It also tells what the blood has accomplished: purification. Such is the transforming power of the mediatorial work of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary.
It may be asked: How does one “come” to this grand heavenly sanctuary assembly? On what basis is one cleansed, perfected, worthy? Through precise formulaic ritual regimen? On the basis of those rituals or their action? Their fulfillment? Or the precision with which it has been done or on the basis of personal human merit?
Pointed passages in Hebrews profoundly speak to the deficit of any ritual- cleansing regimen—even the possibility of inner cleansing and the assurance of salvation through ritual at all. Referring to the first covenant earthly sanctuary ritual regimen, Hebrews asserts:
● “Both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshiper perfect in conscience” (9:9, NASB).
● These meticulous rituals “are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order” (vs. 10, NIV).
● “Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins” (vss. 13, 14).
● “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:1–4).
In effect, Hebrews asserts that ritual is unable to make a worshiper perfect in conscience (9:9). Each rehearsal of a ritual brings tacit reminders of one’s sin and uncleanness (10:3). Consciousness of sin remains in spite of and no matter how often ritual is performed (vs. 2). Once a person experiences full inner cleansing, there is no longer need of ritual, nor will there be desire to perform it any longer (vs. 2). Ritual can never—will never—expiate sin (vs. 4). Human performance/rituals and devotional acts will ever be inadequate.
The existential depth to which Christ’s heavenly sanctuary ministry reaches is that of one’s thought and the intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12, 13), something no ritual can ever accomplish. The application of Christ’s blood touches the soul, “purifying our consciences from sinful deeds” so that we can truly worship the living God (9:14). There is no human way to relieve the consciousness and feelings of guilt and shame (10:1–4, 11). Such comes solely through the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus: “for by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy” (vs. 14). God’s act alone through Jesus, performed by Him and as His gracious gift to humans/believers, can cleanse the soul and remove the haunting consciousness of sin (9:14; 10:10, 14–18).
How, then, do we come to this grand heavenly sanctuary assembly—that is, into the presence of God Himself, the Judge of all—if not through precise ritual regimen? Hebrews’ answer is simple, profound, amazing: by faith alone. “My righteous ones will live by faith” (10:38), it declares. The envisioned faith “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1, NASB). In this definition of faith, there is no mention of evidence. It centers on and takes hold of the unseen, something that God alone does (6:17–20). Apart from faith, no one can be made perfect (11:40). Thus, one is encouraged to fix one’s gaze upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (12:2). The promise of grace is extended to all (13:25). Yes, we come to the grand heavenly sanctuary assembly through faith, and we can come boldly to the Judge’s throne of grace with absolute assurance (4:16).
Qur’ānic Kaaba and Biblical Sanctuary for Everyday Lives
Numerous parallels exist between the Qur’ān/Islam’s Kaaba and the Bible’s heavenly sanctuary. Each presents a paradigmatic system pointing toward an understanding of reality. Each unfolds a view of God that brings significant implications for theology and practice. Each effects worldview reflection and formation. Each indicates the direction of prayer. Each comprises the place of spiritual gathering for the believing community. And each defines the pathway to salvation, the cleansing of worshipers, the promise of divine blessing and peace, as well as oneness with God.
Despite these parallels, however, significant dissimilarities exist between the two cosmic centers. The parallels are phenomenological and present functional similarities and commonalities. Their dissimilarities are philosophical. Each has its own inner logic. Each contains a basic core of values and assumptions, notions, and beliefs that integrates all other elements into a coherent whole and that determines their true meaning. Here meaning diverges in a radical difference of meanings, understandings, and implications within their respective worldviews. As observed, the gulf between the two becomes impassable.
Three such core philosophical dissimilarities may be noted that reflect each cosmic center’s assumptions, true meaning, and foci: (1) the nature and character of God; (2) the means by which one experiences salvation and the inner cleansing/assurance it promises; and (3) the center of worldview reality—power or Person.
First, the Qur’ān’s Kaaba offers a tacit Neoplatonic view of God in which Allah is the singular, transcendent, ultimate, invisible, unseen, timeless, and unknowable divinity. While the Bible also asserts that there is only one God (Deut. 6:3–5), its revelation of God is that He is eternal rather than timeless, that God’s transcendence and immanence are balanced, and that as Holy Creator, God is in covenant relationship with His creation and human beings.
God’s existence, for the Qur’ān, is strictly functional. While intensely theocentric to the core, it is not about God per se, but rather about humanity and human behavior.
In stark contrast, the heavenly sanctuary depicted in the Book of Hebrews presents a personal, relational view of a God who loves us, speaks to us, and graciously acts in human time and history on our behalf. It does not tell us what God is, but who God is. In addition to a clear “God-with-humans” perspective, the heavenly sanctuary worldview offers a window into a clear “God-with-God” perspective as well, i.e., the triune God. Its Father-Son-Holy Spirit unity is ontological and is expressed in themes of creation, revelation, grace, atonement, judgment, and divine sanctuary activity on behalf of human beings, and its exhortation to believe and take firm hold of so great a salvation.
Second, the Kaaba’s obligatory ritual tradition—both daily ritual prayer and the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage (Hajj)—prescribe a meticulous ritual regimen that offers an achievement-based assurance of salvation or cleansing of the soul. From a Muslim perspective, salvation is limited to the acts of obedience, i.e., performing religiously Islam’s Five Pillars of which two, as noted, are Kaaba-focused. As per the foregoing, the first and foremost purpose for Muslims to do the Hajj is “individual salvation.” The Muslim’s endeavor is to purify himself or herself from sins and return after the rituals of Hajj to be saved, free of trespasses and sins (innocent as the day he or she was born), and hoping to enter Paradise and achieve deliverance from hellfire. The heavenly sanctuary, however, unfolds the once-for-all sacrifice and mediatorial work of Jesus, which brings unearned hope, confidence, boldness, and assurance—and where worshipers are cleansed from a consciousness of sin through faith rather than religiously performed ritual.
The Qur’ān teaches that the means to salvation on the human side comprise both faith and devotional acts (religious performance of Islam’s Five Pillars). While it views salvation as primarily deliverance from sin, it regards human beings as not sinful by nature and thus not needing to be redeemed. Correct performance, then, of both God-directed and human-directed acts becomes the focus—a tacit means to salvation. Muslim devotional acts facilitate intercession and divine mercy, thus making salvation possible. The Muslim’s “correct performance” is closely linked with salvation: “Meticulous, detailed formulation of methods of correct performance of ‘obligatory’ devotions is owing to the fact that without these devotions salvation, even though of the lower grade, cannot be achieved.”25
Functionally, the Muslim’s link between Kaaba-related faith and salvation simply means: (1) faith in the Qur’ānic view of reality [God, man, sin, salvation]; (2) faith in the stipulated Kaaba ritual and its efficacy as a means to salvation; (3) faith in one’s own ability to perform specified ritual in the quest for salvation; and (4) faith that one’s devotional acts in relation to the Kaaba might be enough to facilitate human intercession and divine mercy before the judgment. These existential realities exist for both Kaaba-related daily ritual prayer and the Hajj.
The Book of Hebrews, however, provides assurance that those who have believed enter the rest of salvation that the good news of the gospel promises (4:2, 3). It denies the efficacy of ritual regimen in relation to experiencing salvation and the peace of God’s intended salvation rest: “For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world” (4:10). According to Hebrews, ritual is unable to make a worshiper perfect in conscience (9:9). Each ritual rehearsal unwittingly engenders existential reminders of one’s sin and uncleanness (10:3). Such consciousness of sin remains in spite of and no matter how often the ritual is performed (vs. 2). Ritual can never, will never, bring a full inner sense and experience of cleansing where one would no longer desire to perform ritual (vss. 2, 4).
Furthermore, the Hebrews’ sanctuary-related faith-and-salvation link represents the unmerited blessings that God graciously gives through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The “faith” word-group is significant in Hebrews.26 Through Jesus Christ, God offers forgiveness, inner peace, a cleansed conscience, hope, full assurance, access to His presence, new hearts, spiritual provision and spiritual empowerment, festal gathering with the redeemed, and an eternal city. Christological, soteriological, ethical, eschatological, and ecclesiological dimensions and nuances unfold. Faith is the assurance of these hoped-for realities in our lives, the conviction that draws strength from them—though unseen—to follow God (11:1). Faith is the objective grounds upon which subjective confidence may be based. Such faith springs from a personal encounter with the living God in which one lives by faith (10:38) and ventures into the future by faith (11:8) “supported only by the word of God.”27 God alone is ultimately and ever the object of such faith (vss. 2–6). Such faith believes that God exists and that He rewards those who seek Him (vs. 6). And so, faith compels one to come in full assurance and hope believing that the God who has promised is faithful (10:23). Faith ultimately rests on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (vss.19–23).
Third, the Qur’ān’s Kaaba-related rituals and traditions are geocentric, while Hebrews’ heavenly sanctuary perspective is decidedly Christocentric. The former reflects a spatial paradigm replete with tacit spiritual power-related implications (sacramental, animistic). The later points to the person and work of Jesus, which is relational and personal: “we see Jesus” (2:9, NIV); “consider Jesus” (3:1, CSB); “Fix our eyes on Jesus” (12:2, NIV); “go out to Him” (13:13).
The Qur’ān’s spiritual cosmology envisions the Kaaba as the gateway to its heavenly counterpart—an undivided cosmic geography. Its spatial paradigm thus implies that for all Muslims, there are certain sacred and universally unifying and spiritually empowering places on earth and in the cosmos of which the Meccan Kaaba and attending rituals are central. The tacit sacramental/animistic supernatural causality implications of the Kaaba-related ritual regimen and spatial focus should not be naively dismissed, as they reflect a Muslim’s attempt to change his or her destiny. Ritual similarities between the pre-Islamic pagan—“Time of Ignorance”—the Kaaba and the Muslim Hajj regimen at the Kaaba suggest the resilience and adaptation of Bedouin animistic customs that were heathen in nature, some of which Muhammad modified or repurposed when he cleansed the Kaaba of its many idols and categorically rejected polytheism. While Muhammad may have cleansed the Kaaba of its idols, the fundamental philosophical and cultural core of Kaaba power-related worldview and ritual remains. An animistic substrate underlies most of what Muslims believe and do. Both Islam’s sacred sources (the Qur’ān and Hadith) and the Prophet Muhammad’s practice portray an animistic worldview.
The geocentric focus of the Kaaba with its meticulous ritual regimen and implied spatial power is tacitly sacramental (from a Christian perspective) and animistic (from a non-Christian perspective). Both ritual and holy space are viewed as necessary power-related vehicles for salvation—a means by which a Muslim can change his or her destiny. They are means of receiving assurance of salvation, means of receiving human intercession and divine grace, the appeasing of otherworldly powers. They assume that there are efficacious ritual acts and holy places. The Kaaba’s related rituals and its assumed strategic place in the cosmos both signify and make something that is spiritually empowering, functionally present, and experienced within a moment of time (i.e., the time of each ritual action).
With decided contrast, the Book of Hebrews directs attention toward the person and work of Jesus Christ (to God Himself), rather than to any supposed holy place or through any purifying or spiritually empowering ritual. As per the foregoing, God alone is ultimately and ever the object of faith (11:2–6). The faithfulness of Jesus Christ is in view. Faith believes that God exists and that God rewards those who seek Him (vs. 6). Faith encourages one to come in full assurance and hope, believing that through Jesus Christ, the God who has promised is faithful (10:23). There is personal encounter with a Person. Hebrews thus invites us to fix a steady gaze upon Jesus (12:2). Why? Because Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s love and mercy and is worthy of our confidence (1:1–4). Jesus alone can save completely those who come to God through Him (7:25). The heavenly sanctuary is about Jesus and what He is doing for us there, now, in the presence of God in our behalf (9:24). It is not about what we must do for Jesus or even for ourselves except to place our trust in Him. Faith holds on to the faithfulness of God through Jesus Christ. It is neither mystical or sacramental. But it is internal—transformational, assuring.
These dissimilarities—view of God, the means and assurance of salvation, and the center of worldview reality, power place and ritual or the Person of Jesus Christ—enable a clearer understanding of the Kaaba-engendered worldview. These elicit further reflection on the macro-hermeneutical level of the biblical cosmic-conflict metanarrative.
A biblically informed understanding of God, the cosmic conflict, the finality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, the heavenly sanctuary, the nature of man and sin, as well as the means of salvation are critical in engaging Islam as a historical phenomenon within the prophetic apocalyptic cosmic conflict metanarrative’s emergence of the final conflict between good and evil. More specifically, Hebrews 8:1, 2 asserts, “we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up” (NRSV).
Given the profound and exclusive Christocentric worldview as represented in the heavenly sanctuary represented in the Book of Hebrews, the Kaaba’s earthly/heavenly soteriological paradigm is unmistakably counterfeit. Its view of God, means of salvation, and spiritual empowerment philosophically cut against the grain of everything the biblical heavenly sanctuary articulates. The Kaaba’s noticeable parallels with the sanctuary in the Book of Hebrews remain merely phenomenological. Their substance and core prevent one from articulating a deep and meaningful redemptive bridge to the biblical realities, from bringing objective assurance of salvation.
These stark realities however, enable us to better intuit the existential impact that Islamic worldview has on the heart, soul, and everyday life of a Muslim.
Implications for Mission
This study has explored the ontological and existential worldview nuances of the Qur’ānic Kaaba against that of the biblical heavenly sanctuary as presented in the New Testament Book of Hebrews. It has considered the spiritual impact that these respective worldviews have on the daily lives of those who live them. It asserts that Islam’s Kaaba/heavenly Kaaba offers a Neoplatonic view of God and meticulous ritual regimen with only a self-achievement-based assurance of salvation. In contrast, it has shown how the Book of Hebrews presents the true heavenly sanctuary, which unfolds a relational view of God in which worshipers are cleansed from a consciousness of sin through faith alone and experience true assurance of salvation.
Furthermore, this study offers an introductory, comparative study of the Qur’ānic Kaaba and biblical sanctuary cosmic centers in an attempt to promote understanding of a larger set of worldview and soteriological assumptions within Islamic faith and to suggest how better to relate to Muslims as people. We can thus better imagine the existential impact that Islam’s Kaaba-engendered worldview has on the Muslim soul—not to denigrate or to engender prejudice. Rather, we will understand more deeply the inner soul need of a Muslim as nuanced by his or her belief and ritual practice in relation to the Kaaba as Islam’s spiritual and cosmic center.
The numerous phenomenological similarities and commonalities between the Kaaba and the heavenly sanctuary, as well as significant functional and philosophical dissimilarities that exist between the two cosmic centers, provide for fruitful dialogue and sensitivity to the Muslim’s soul need. This is especially so between Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists, who both have a developed sanctuary-related worldview (although the average Muslim may have only a vague understanding of his or her cosmic-center paradigm, as perhaps do some Adventists). These insights can provide a helpful starting point for mission.
The following reflections are offered as ideas for touching the souls of individual Muslims with the hope and assurance of salvation that Jesus’ heavenly sanctuary ministry brings:
1. Because numerous parallels clearly exist between the Kaaba and the biblical heavenly sanctuary, redemptive analogies can be used as bridges to present biblical faith. The phenomenological similarities and commonalities can at least provide an opportunity for increased understanding through the use of questions and the personal sharing of one’s assurance of faith. On the other hand, their significant functional and philosophical dissimilarities can enable deeper conversation, especially with respect to the three areas discussed above—one’s view of God, the means to the experience and assurance of salvation and spatial realities, and efficacious acts vs. faith in the person and work of Jesus.
2. A clear understanding of the Kaaba, the core of Islamic worship, can help us to recognize how uniquely meaningful the biblical heavenly sanctuary teaching can be in outreach to Muslims. It is, in fact, an antithesis of the biblical picture of the role of Jesus Christ in our lives. While the Kaaba is the height of engulfing, detailed works, the sanctuary teaching is a detailed portrayal of Jesus’ all-sufficient role in our salvation by faith.
3. Because the Kaaba rituals demand correct performance, they engender relentless personal striving and create a heavy existential burden. There is the need for relief and assurance, which only the full biblical truths can bring to both the devout and the secular Muslim. We must understand and react to this deep existential burden with increased compassion and the burden of our own heart to find positive, personal ways to point struggling hearts to the better biblical hope in the mediatorial work of Jesus.
4. To the same degree that the Kaaba rituals create an all-consuming focus on external behaviors, they also provide a false sense of personal achievement and credit that is distinctly different from the biblical message of grace. The biblical message of grace can be liberating. But the gospel agents who proclaim such liberating grace must have first existentially experienced in their own lives how wanting and empty external behaviors and personal achievement really are.
5. There is need to identify and develop unique Adventist teachings that can powerfully speak to a Muslim’s heart in relation to his or her experience with the Kaaba system and its ritual regimen—not by way of a denigrating contrast, but as understandable and relational paths into a burdened heart.
6. Many Muslims believe that Jesus is alive, in heaven, with Allah and will someday return. There is also a vague understanding of some form of intercession/mediation (human and angelic) relative to the eschatological Day of Judgment. Sharing truths about what Jesus is presently doing in the heavenly sanctuary—now appearing in the presence of God for us (Heb. 9:24)—could lead a Muslim to look beyond traditional Islamic theological reticence and rejection of whether Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead toward a more existential view of the coming eschatological Day of Judgment. The presentation of the work of Jesus as it is portrayed in the heavenly sanctuary can be uniquely adapted to the Muslim understanding and soul need.
7. If the Kaaba represents a counterfeit to the biblical message of the sanctuary, it is imperative that we identify the essential elements of the biblical teaching that positively supplant the rationale and “message” of the Kaaba with real hope and real assurance (i.e., salvation by faith, God’s personal presence, God’s offer of forgiveness, etc.). It rests on biblical thought leaders and theologians to carefully identify the teachings of Islam that dismantle, brick by brick, key biblical truths.
8. The sense of peace that many Muslims feel as a result of observing Kaaba-related ritual prayer or Hajj pilgrimage can be credited to the personal investment and accomplishment required in its conscientious observance. But it also speaks of the high motivation for divine approval—an assurance that only the heavenly sanctuary service provides through the priestly ministry of Jesus.
9. The truths about God and salvation from the heavenly sanctuary can express to the Muslim soul how God has provided everything possible so that Muslims can be accepted before Him without the exorbitant personal investment demanded by the prayer and Hajj rituals around the Kaaba. This includes Heaven’s acceptance of human shame. There is also the honor of God’s presence. The mercy seat of His grace. One who brings our lives into God’s presence without shame or fear or uncertainty. As Christians, we understand that it is all possible through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, high priestly ministry, and second coming. Unlike the Christian world that focuses almost exclusively on the death/Cross, the Muslim soul may be opened as much with the multiple roles of Jesus found in the sanctuary. But the first heart-need the Kaaba professes to meet—but doesn’t—is that earning Allah’s approval is met, in the sanctuary, by being given the honor of standing unashamed in God’s presence because of what He has provided in Jesus.
Larry L. Lichtenwalter, PhD, is President, Dean of Philosophy and Theology, and the Director of the Adventist Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies at Middle East University in Beirut, Lebanon.
NOTES AND REFERENCES