A Bahrain Mystery in the National Library Collection

A mysterious 80 year old document which recently surfaced in our collections emphasizes the geopolitical significance of Bahrain. But what is it doing here?

Bahrain in a First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

In October of 1940, the Italian air force launched a daring nighttime strike on the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Flying over 2500 miles from a base in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian planes dropped eighty-four bombs on the country’s important oil refinery. While the government had considered the possibility that the refinery might be attacked, the fear was sabotage, not bombardment. Brilliantly illuminated at night to deter intruders on foot, it was the perfect aerial target.

While mostly forgotten today, the bombing–Bahrain’s most direct experience of World War II– thrust the island nation into the international spotlight. With rule over the territory passing between Iran, Portugal, and various Arab dynasties for centuries, Britain formalized its control in 1892. In subsequent decades, and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the British position in Bahrain, and throughout the Gulf, seemed unshakable.

However, the Russian emigre intellectual, scholar, and political analyst Basile Nikitine saw the Italian attack as an important turning point. Sitting down at his desk in occupied Paris, Nikitine drafted an article, intended for publication in the French press, underlining Bahrain’s overlooked geopolitical significance. The islands, he wrote,

have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from grand politics, who could be interested in them, really, aside from a few rarified specialists? However, obscure though it may be, this small point on the map of the Middle East serves as an important link in the imperial system of Great Britain. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

The first oil well in Bahrain, operated by American-owned BAPCO, the Bahrain Petroleum Company, circa 1931. Photographed by members of BAPCO and the Bahraini government.

In the wake of the historic peace accord between Israel and Bahrain, the Gulf nation, and its ties to regional politics, has gained a new prominence in the minds of Israelis. Now is the perfect time to reconsider Nikitine’s essay–and to try to solve the riddles it contains. Never published, the text, three dense, loose-leaf pages written in French and accompanied by a pen and ink map, is preserved in the National Library archives. Who was Basile Nikitine? And how did this bit of Bahrain’s history make its way to Jerusalem?

Born in 1885 in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Nikitine studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in Moscow, Paris, and Saint Petersburg, practicing his language skills during frequent trips to the region. After graduation, he joined the Russian Foreign Ministry and spent the majority of his diplomatic service in Iran, traveling widely throughout the country. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Nikitine left Tehran for Paris, pursuing a career as a scholar and writer, where he would remain until his death in 1960.

A First World War era map of the Persian Gulf, produced in Belgium, from the National Library of Israel collections

Nikitine’s scholarship focused on Kurdish language, culture, and history, and he made numerous important contributions to the field. Due to his diplomatic experience, he was also intimately familiar with modern Iranian arts and letters; his memoir, The Iran that I Have Known, recounts his friendships with the country’s leading writers and thinkers.

However, along with his academic research, from 1920 on Nikitine also wrote for the popular press. His articles covered a host of topics, from Soviet spying on the Russian emigre community, Afghanistan in international politics, Japan’s economic potential, the potato in Russian folklore, and more. Employed at the Banque Nationale Francaise du Commerce Exterieur, his freelance journalism served to supplement his income, and this extra cash only became more essential after the Nazi occupation and the installment of the Vichy regime in 1940. Nikitine remained in Paris and in his job at the bank, and continued writing for now pro-German French newspapers.

The original draft of Nikitine’s article in French, preserved in the archives of the National Library of Israel

This background helps explain the character of Nikitine’s essay, written only a few months after the fall of France in June. The tone is overwhelmingly anti-British. Nikitine argued that British influence in Bahrain, and the Persian Gulf overall, was weakening and predicted the ultimate end of British supremacy in the region. The most serious challenge to the British position came in the wake of the failed Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, never ratified, which would have turned all of Iran into a British protectorate. Nikitine argued that this overreaching was instrumental in the 1921 coup d’etat that saw the downfall of the Qajar dynasty and brought the former army colonel Reza Shah Pahlavi to power in 1925. In the wake of the coup, Reza Shah pursued ties with other European powers; on the eve of World War II, Germany was the country’s biggest trading partner.

Against this backdrop, Nikitine saw Bahrain as a critical point of conflict. In 1927, Iran appealed to the League of Nations to assert its sovereignty over Bahrain, a claim that the British strongly rejected, saying that the island was under imperial protection. “It is well known that Great Britain always finds its ‘irrefutable’ arguments,” Nikitine wrote, dismissing the British arguments as cynical and guided by the narrow interests of securing its naval power, “above all if it sees salt water in abundance.”

A pen and ink map which accompanied Nikitine’s article, the National Library of Israel collections

This conflict over Bahrain, he continued, could spell the end of British dominance in the Gulf. “Politically, the position of Great Britain is no longer unassailable,” he wrote. Fascist Italy was seizing territory on the African coast of the Red Sea, leaving important British positions, like Bahrain, vulnerable. Nikitine predicts that “Arabia, which has been carefully maintained in the British orbit, could detach itself, especially if one considers the fact that Aden, the key to British strategy, is more and more exposed to Italian attacks.”

In the end, history did not align with Nikitine’s analysis: in August 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union that June, the USSR and Great Britain jointly occupied Iran, overthrew Reza Shah, and installed his son on the throne. Britain, and later America, remained overwhelmingly influential in Iran and the Gulf for decades to come.

Nikitine stayed in Paris throughout the war and until the end of his life. There seems to be no indication that he came to Israel or was involved in the National Library in any way; this is the only document written by him in the Library’s archives. The essay likely arrived at the Library in 1962 or 1963, just a few years after the author’s death. However, the precise date is a matter of guesswork; the Library’s catalogue does not record exactly when the essay entered the collection, who donated it, or under what circumstances. The mystery of how Nikitine’s work came to Jerusalem remains unsolved.


Here is the complete translation of the article:

The British Empire: Threatened in the Bahrain Islands

Without fear of exaggeration, it is fair to say that the Islands of Bahrain, the target of a recent visit by Italian bombers, have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.

First and foremost, a few words to acquaint the reader with Bahrain’s geographic and ethnic setting. One of an archipelago of islands including Bahrain, Moharraq, Omm Na’san, Sitra, and Nabi Salih, it is situated on the southwest coast of the Gulf, in the rift separating Qatar from Asia; 552 square kilometers, a hot and humid climate, with no rain. There are a 100,000 inhabitants, three-quarters of whom live in cities: Manama (25,000), Bodayya (8,000), Moharraq (20,000), and Hadd (8,000). Arabic is the only spoken and written language (L’annuaire de Monde Musalman). [The inhabitants are] pearl fishers and farmers.

Within this framework (which due to its latitudes involuntarily evokes a novel by Josef Conrad) let us see how the political events that today are worthy of having a few lines dedicated to them, have come about.

Without going too far, one can distinguish two phases in the modern history of Bahrain: undisputed British supremacy from 1900 to 1927, and its weakening after this date. This chronological division corresponds to the general evolution of British interests in the Middle East. The predominance of Great Britain, before its decline, rested on its privileged position in Persia, which, even after the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907, gave Albion influence over the entire southern zone of the country to the Gulf, since the Arabian coast, divided up into numerous small principalities, was also ruled according to a system of concessions and protectorate treaties, some more formal than others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, obtaining an oil concession in Iran depended on these links to Great Britain. This was so much the case that His Majesty’s Consul General in Bouchir was also the English Resident for the Gulf, with the status, de facto, if not de jure, of a Viceroy. As with all the consular agents in southern Iran, he was a high-ranking military officer, with links to the Crown of India rather than the Foreign Office.

As for Bahrain, the succeeding sheikh, in accordance with the treaty of 1880, put it under British protection with a political agent subject to the Resident of Bouchir, alongside himself. Since 1923, the Sheikh of Bahrain has been Hamd, the son of Isa-ben-Ali. (He visited London in 1936).

Yet, even during the time of its uncontested supremacy, British susceptibility was upset by the grand project of the German Baghdad railway that planned its terminus in Kuwait on the Gulf, an area that Great Britain had always considered its “hunting grounds.” This time it was only a warning, and Great Britain retained it position – reaffirmed after the Great War by bringing Iraq under its mandate and by the creation of an Arab kingdom in Mecca (the fruits of Lawrence’s efforts).

It should be noted however that the high point of British success, was the beginning of a succession of failures. First there was the failure in Tehran, where the treaty making Persia a thinly disguised protectorate, that was agreed upon by Sir Percy Cox (who had become a minister after having been the Resident at Bouchir, where the German consul Wassmuss had given the English a hard time) and Vossug-ed-Dowleh, could never be ratified. It is fair to assume that this attempt contributed to the polarization of patriotic sentiments and created an atmosphere, where it was enough for one coup d’etat that took place in 1921 by a military officer, to ensure that Iran, guided by the man who became its future sovereign (in 1925), would resolutely follow the path to political independence. This caused a change in the balance of power and Great Britain was obligated to abandon its positions in Iran, one after the other: the privilege of issuance [a banking term] at the Imperial Bank of Persia, the extraterritoriality of the Indo-European telegraph line; capitulations; customs facilities; etc. At the same time, the state of affairs in the Arab states was worsening: In Iraq–the mandate caused nothing but troubles and it searched for another formula; in Arabia–Ibn Saud removed the English representatives from Mecca. The latter immediately hastened to conclude a treaty with him in Jeddah, in 1926.

It is here that the question of the Bahrain islands comes back to the fore. One of the stipulations of that treaty could be understood to mean that Great Britain had some rights in Bahrain. Tehran did not accept this and lodged its protest with the League of Nations. Alas, this act, which like so many others in Geneva, only has symbolic value, was never followed up in terms of the Persian claim. This was repeated, however, in 1930, when Standard Oil was granted an oil concession in Bahrain. Persia (Iran after 1935) argued by standing up for its rights from the 18th century, when it exercised sovereignty over Bahrain. Great Britain responded that since then, the dynasty of sheikhs that were vassals of Iran was evicted by another group coming from the Arabian Peninsula, and that in general, the policing necessary for the Gulf (traffic in arms and slaves) could not be guaranteed by anyone except for His Majesty’s navy, etc. The intention here is not to judge the judicial proceedings. It is well known that Great Britain always finds its “irrefutable” arguments when the topic is a place “acquired” by it on any point on the globe, above all if it sees salt water in abundance.” [sea]…On the contrary, it should be noted that Iran did not allow itself to be rebuffed by this negative reaction and was not long in exacting its revenge. In 1931 Tehran revoked the right of British aircraft to fly over Iranian territory. Imperial Airways was thus obliged to abandon its airport in Bouchir. At the same time, Tehran revoked the contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and brokered a revised contract with much more advantageous terms. Finally, Tehran ordered warships from Italian shipyards. These warships would henceforth form the nucleus of the Iranian navy in the Gulf, where policing would be effected by the sovereign power in its territorial waters.  Is it necessary to add that that the Persian character of the Gulf is singularly reinforced by the fact that the Transiranian which starts at the north end of the Caspian Sea flows to its southern endpoint in the Gulf at the bay of Khormoussa where a port — Bandar Shapur — was built? For its part, Great Britain was forced to establish a new itinerary for Imperial Airways with a stopover at Bahrain and Sharjah. In addition, in 1935 Great Britain removed its naval stations at Basidu and Henjam near the Iranian coast. In 1938, for the first time in British maritime history, the grand naval exercises took place in the Gulf. The theme was…the defense of Bahrain.

All that remains to be said is a word about oil. In 1938, Standard Oil of California, together with Texas Oil, formed a company called Cal-Tex for exploiting the oilfields and the refinery (25,000 barrels a day). The question has always been, why the oilfields prospected by an Englishman, Major Holmes, were not made an English concession? Maybe the presence of an American company in Bahrain, whose sovereignty was under discussion, did not displease Great Britain – it was procuring Yankee complicity, and at the same time, most of the managers were English and production (from 45,000 tons in 1934 to 1,100,000 tons in 1939) was under British control. 

There is one certain thing that emerges from this most complicated affair, and it is with this that we will conclude. Politically speaking, the position of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf is no longer unassailable. This started due to the firm attitude of Iran, as we have just seen. Tomorrow, [the political status of Great Britain] could be even less stable as a result of strategic events that could unfold in the Red Sea or because of the extraordinary Italian exploit (a flight of 4500 km) that could foreshadow options that were unimaginable up till now. Arabia, which was carefully kept within the orbit of Great Britain, could detach itself, especially if one also considers the position of Aden, the key to British strategy, which is becoming more and more exposed to Italian attacks.

But, with the Persian Gulf breaking away from the English sphere of influence, it is the supply of petrol from Iraq (already threatened in Haifa) and from Iran, which would be completely disrupted. There is no need to emphasize the gravity of this hypothesis.

The Mathematics of Mecca

How advanced mathematics were used for Islamic religious purposes in the Middle Ages

Diagram of the geometrical method of determining the qibla. From an eighteenth century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa ("Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy by Mahmud al-Jaghmini"), the National Library of Israel collections

In the middle of the Grand Mosque in Mecca sits the Ka‘ba, the black-covered, square edifice that is the most sacred site in Islam. While the Ka‘ba predates the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation of the religion in the seventh century—the tradition ascribes its construction to Abraham or even Adam—it is a central symbol and a focal point of worship for Muslims around the world. This is no more apparent than during the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, when millions of believers gather in the holy city. The vast courtyard of the Grand Mosque fills with white-clad pilgrims performing tawaf, the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the House of God.

However, the Ka‘ba is central to prayer throughout the year, not only during the hajj: just as Jews face Jerusalem during their worship, the Ka‘ba marks the direction of Muslim prayer, the qibla. In fact, Jews and Muslims do not only share the idea of orienting prayer in general, but Jerusalem in particular. Before the Prophet Muhammad declared Mecca to be the direction of prayer, the early Muslim community prayed towards Jerusalem, and the city has retained its sanctity as the third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina.

Early 18th-century European map of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, including the Ka’ba, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

The qibla is built into the architecture of mosques, which include a niche, called the mihrab, in the wall facing Mecca. When praying at home or outside, individual worshipers must determine the qibla for themselves.

Today, finding the direction of the Ka‘ba from any location on the globe is a relatively easy affair: qibla compasses built into prayer rugs, smartphone apps, and Youtube guides can point the way.

But before modernity, finding the qibla was no easy matter, and precise determinations demanded serious mathematical skills.

Photograph of the mihrab prayer niche in the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria, taken in 1938 by A. Reid. From the Lenkin Family Collection of Photography, the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Magnetic compasses were first introduced in the Islamic world from China in the thirteenth century, and their use in locating the qibla was described in royal Yemenite astronomer Al-Ashraf Umar ibn Yusuf’s  (d. 1296) On the Use of the Compass Bowl (tasa) for the Determination of the Qibla, written around 1290. The text describes the making of a compass using a bowl filled with water and an iron needle magnetized with a lodestone. After locating the compass’s true north, ibn Yusuf instructs readers to count twenty-seven degrees along the rim of the compass eastward; this is the qibla for the central Yemenite cities of Aden, Ta‘izz and Zabid. As Yusuf writes:

Pray in that direction, because, when the north line is known, you know the qibla of every locality of the climates according to (its) deviation and according to all the surrounding degrees on the circle of the entire rim of the bowl that are associated with it.

Geometrical models for determining the qibla also abounded. Numerous works of scientific astronomy, which build on and refine the work of the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy (c. 100-170 CE), whose writings were first translated to Arabic in the eighth century, also contain a chapter on determining the finding the azimuth of Mecca from a given locale. Rather than an extraneous, religious curiosity, qibla calculation was a standard topic in Islamic science.

European map of the Arabian Peninsula, including an inset drawing of the Ka’ba and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the 1750s, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

An example of such a geometrical model can be found in a manuscript from the National Library of Israel’s collection, written around the same time as Ibn Yusuf’s work. Composed by Ottoman astronomer Qadizade al-Rumi (1364-1346), the book is a commentary on Mahmud al-Jaghmini’s early thirteenth century Compendium on Astronomy (mulakhkhas fi al-hay’a), which amassed over sixty commentaries and translations into Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew. The Mulakhkhas, one of the most successful astronomical textbooks of all time, was intended as an introduction to astronomy for advanced students, conveying detailed information in a concise, consistent, and comprehensive way.

Jaghmini provides instructions for locating the qibla using a sundial. Marking the points on a circle where the shadow cast by the sundial reaches just before noon and again towards evening determines the east-west line and the north-south meridian. If one knows the difference between the longitude and latitude of Mecca and one’s own location, one can then geometrically find the qibla—at least approximately.


Diagram of the “Indian circle” method for calculating the cardinal directions using a sundial. From an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa (“Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy” by Mahmud al-Jaghmini), the National Library of Israel collections

The manuscript includes two diagrams illustrating the method for the city of Samarkand, where Jaghmini lived, a major cultural center in the Middle Ages. The first diagram shows the positions of the sun (the red circles) and of the black shadows, as well as the east-west and north-south lines.

Diagram of the geometrical method of determining the qibla. From an 18th-century Ottoman Turkish copy of the sharḥ al-mulakhkhaṣ fī al-hayʾa (“Commentary on the Compendium on Astronomy” by Mahmud al-Jaghmini), the National Library of Israel collections

The second diagram shows the actual determination of the qibla. Since Samarkand is to the northeast of Mecca, one is then to indicate the respective difference with lines parallel to the east-west line and the north-south meridian. A line segment drawn from the center to the edge of the circle through the point of intersection of the two new lines indicates the direction of prayer. The diagram also shows the direction for the region of Khwarezm, another important region located in Central Asia.

Abraham the Pilgrim: An Islamic Perspective

A look at the figure of Abraham the Patriarch in the Islamic tradition, with the help of manuscripts from the National Library of Israel's Islam and Middle East Collection

A prophetic and heroic genealogy including an illustration of Abraham, from a Turkish translation of the 13th century cosmological text, the "ʿAcāʾib ül-maḫlūḳāt ü ġarāʾib ül-mevcūdāt", the National Library of Israel collections

Everyone thinks they know the story of Abraham, the biblical patriarch. The first monotheist, he left his father’s house and followed God’s command to go to the Promised Land. His wife Sarah was barren and he had a child, Ishmael, with his handmaiden Hagar; Sarah later forced the mother and son into exile. God revealed to him that he would be the forefather to a great nation, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac. God then asked the father to sacrifice his son, a ritual killing only narrowly averted by last-minute angelic intervention.

For Jewish and Christian readers of the book of Genesis—and later commentaries on those stories—Abraham is one of the best-known biblical figures. However, Abraham and his stories also have another life. In the Quran, where he is mentioned in some 245 verses, and the vast commentary literature on the pre-Islamic prophets, known as “stories of the prophets” (qissas al-anbiya), Abraham plays a central role as founding monotheist, forefather, and forerunner to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Quran calls Abraham khalil Allah, the friend of God (and the source of the Arabic name al-Khalil for the city of Hebron) and hanif, a term that distinguishes Abraham from the idol-worshipping polytheism into which he was born; Muhammad is called by the same term. Like the Bible, the Quran also relates the accounts of Abraham’s setting out for a new land, his covenant with God, the announcement of the birth of Isaac in his old age, and his attempted sacrifice of his son—though in the Quranic story it is unclear which son is the sacrifice, and later commentators disagree whether the story refers to Isaac or to Ishmael.

A folio from a 1601 Indian manuscript of the Quran showing Surat al-Baqarah, verse 257, which mentions Abraham, the National Library of Israel collections

But there is a twist: the Quran also includes tales that do not appear in the biblical tradition at all. Many of those stories are woven into one of the most important Islamic rituals: the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj.

Every year, the hajj brings millions of Muslims from across the globe to the sacred sites in Mecca, the city of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth where he received his first revelations. The order of the rituals – known as manasik and celebrated during the pilgrimage – was fixed by the prophet himself. When believers today circle the Ka‘ba, the “House of God” that is the holiest site in Islam and which Muslims face in their prayers, they are following the example of the prophet when he took part in his first and only hajj in 630 CE, just before his death.

But they are also following in the footsteps of Abraham. While stories about Abraham’s role in the hajj actually predate Islam, and were part of the pilgrimage to the Ka‘ba, an ancient site of worship, long before the Prophet Muhammad, the Quranic revelation canonized those tales as part of the new religion.

Illustration of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, including the Ka’ba and the Maqam Ibrahim, from the 1643 Turkish poem on pilgrimage rituals, the menāsik ül- ḥacc, the National Library of Israel collections

The Quran tells us that Abraham and Ishmael built the Ka‘ba and purified it. As Quran 2:125 states:


And [remember] when We made the House a place of visitation for mankind, and a sanctuary. “Take the station of Abraham as a place of prayer.” And We made a covenant with Abraham and Ishmael, “Purify My House for those who circumambulate, those who make retreat, and those who bow and prostrate.


The station or place of Abraham (maqam Ibrahim) mentioned in the verse is located inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca near the Ka‘ba. The spot, where pilgrims pray as one of the hajj rituals, is marked with a stone that tradition states bears Abraham’s footprint. Commentators have relayed a number of versions of how Abraham’s footprint became embedded in the stone: that he stood on the stone when building the upper walls of the Ka‘ba, or that he stood there when calling on all humanity to perform the pilgrimage, or that Abraham himself prayed on the stone. Some commentators, like the historian of Mecca Al-Azraqi (d. 834), say that Abraham and Ishmael did not just build the Ka‘ba but performed all the hajj rituals, just as they are done today.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael, one of the most plaintive in the Bible, is closely connected to the hajj as well. According to the eminent medieval historian al-Tabari (839-923), after Sarah forced out Hagar and Ishmael, the angel Gabriel directed Abraham to lead them to the future site of the Ka‘ba, which was then a barren hill of clay.

Illustration of the hills of Safa (top) and Marwa (bottom), from the 1643 Turkish poem on pilgrimage rituals, the menāsik ül- ḥacc, the National Library of Israel collections

After Abraham left the mother and infant son behind, Ishmael became thirsty, but there was no water to be found. Desperate, Hagar thought she heard the sound of running water on the nearby hill of Safa, but found nothing; she thought she heard a sound on the hill of Marwa, too, but found nothing. After running back and forth between the hills, located just a few hundred meters from the Ka‘ba, she came back to Ishmael and found him sitting in water that had miraculously burst forth from an underground spring.

This story, told in other versions as well, is meant to explain the hajj rituals of sa‘y, “running” back and forth seven times between the two hills—a ritual now conducted in a covered corridor with designated lanes for forward and back—and drinking the waters of the Zamzam spring.

Rooting the hajj rituals in the life of Abraham connects Muslims—historically and today—in an unbroken chain to the purest, most authentic, and ancient monotheistic traditions. That is part of the reason why the experience of the hajj is so powerful for those who take part in it. Muslim children around the world grow up with these stories, “internalizing their geography as a personal landscape whose contours and history define who they are,” as contemporary thinker Ziauddin Sardar has written (Mecca: The Sacred City, London: Bloomsbury, 2014). During the hajj the geography of those narratives transcendently comes to life.


This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.


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The Ka‘ba of the Heart: The Hajj in Islamic Mysticism

Rumi, Ibn Arabi, and the radical Sufi conception of religion

An illustration of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina (left) and the Holy Mosque in Mecca (right). From an 18th century Ottoman Turkish manuscript of the Sufi prayerbook Dalāʾil al-khayrāt, the National Library of Israel collections

Sometime in the mid-ninth century CE, a Sufi initiate named Bayazid set off by foot from his home in north-central Iran toward Mecca, aiming to complete the hajj pilgrimage to the holy city—a journey of almost 2,500 kilometers. In every town and village through which he passed along the way, he sought out local mystics and saints, hoping to find his own true master. Finally, in an unnamed town, Bayazid encountered a poor, blind Sufi hunched with age. The sage asked him of his plans, and Bayazid told him he aimed to complete the hajj.

“Just walk around me seven times instead; that’s better than the hajj,” the old sheikh replied,

Complete your hajj thus! Reach your journey’s end! You’ve run to Safa, entered purity; you’ve done the Umrah; live eternally! He judges me much loftier, I swear, than that mere house of His. Let us compare: That Ka‘ba is the home of piety, but I contain His deepest mystery; inside the Ka‘ba no one’s ever stepped and my pure heart none but God will accept; when you have seen me, you have seen God too; You’ll circle then the Ka‘ba that’s most true.


The story of the sheikh who tells Bayazid, ‘I am the Ka’ba, so circumambulate me!'” from Jalal al-Din Rumi’s Sufi poem the Masnavi-ye Man’ai. From a 17th century Ottoman manuscript, the National Library of Israel collections

This story, taken from Jalal al-Din Rumi’s mystical epic the Masnavi-ye Man’ai (meaning the “spiritual couplets,” in Jawid Mojaddedi’s award-winning English translation) seems at first confounding. Rather than complete the pilgrimage to Mecca, a ritual duty every able-bodied and financially sound Muslim is expected to perform at least once, the mysterious sheikh tells Bayazid to abandon his journey. Instead of tawaf, the circumambulation of the Ka‘ba that is a central feature of the pilgrimage, the saint says to circle him; instead of running (sa‘y) between the two hills of Safa and Marwah, likewise an ancient part of the hajj (as well as any pilgrimage, called an umrah, performed outside the month of Dhu al-Hijja) the saint says he has already completed his task.

For Muslims throughout history until today, the journey to Mecca has been a lifelong goal, the height of spiritual fulfillment, and the holy city’s transcendental geography a constant source for contemplation. Is the sheikh—and, by extension, Rumi—advocating blasphemy?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Bayazid around whom Rumi weaves this fiction—just one of the thousands of stories that make up the Masnavi, whose importance in Islam is testified to by its sobriquet, “the Quran in Persian”—is none other than Bayazid Bestami (d. 874) one of the most important figures of early Sufism. While little is known of Bayazid’s life, in part because he was a recluse who left no written work behind, his bold, ecstatic sayings have been preserved. His fame rests on those sayings, which can strike readers today, who may have preconceived notions of Islam as conservative, strict, and legalistic, as surprising as the old sheikh’s instructions in Rumi’s story. Among others, Bayazid is reported to have said “Glory be to Me! How great is My majesty!” and to have otherwise compared himself to God, to declare that the Ka‘ba circumambulates him, and to have replied to the muezzin’s call to prayer of “God is great!” with the answer “I am greater!”

An illustration of a Sufi gathering, from a 17th century Indian manuscript of the collected works of Persian poet Khaqani, the National Library of Israel collections

Bayazid’s statements are not a sign of madness or nihilistic atheism. Instead, Bayazid sought to express the experience of the individual consciousness becoming truly obliterated in the divine. The fact that Bayazid upends even the centrality of the Ka‘ba, the House of God that descended from heaven and toward which Muslims turn during prayer, makes his statement all the more powerful. Rather than transgressing Islam, Bayazid, and Rumi after him, is imagining an alternative spiritual interpretation of the religion, based on the transcendent and transformative knowledge of the unseen: that is, “the roots of the sources of the principles of the religion,” as Rumi described his Masnavi in the introduction to the work. It was not always the case, however, that such statements did not come with repercussions; Mansour Hallaj (d. 922) was executed, some scholars believe, for making just such statements.

The hajj, as well as Bayazid, plays a similarly prominent role in another central work of Islamic mysticism. Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), known as al-shaykh al-akbar, the greatest master, was born in Murcia in Muslim Al-Anadalus (modern-day Spain). A Sufi saint and prolific writer, he embarked on the hajj in 1201 and remained in Mecca for three years. While there, he began his most famous work, the Futuhat al-Makkiya (Meccan revelations). The thirty-seven volumes of the complex and deeply-layered book contain numerous ecstatic visions; in one, from chapter seventy-two, the Ka‘ba “raises its skirts” and rises up from its foundations, threatening Ibn Arabi and attempting to block his circumambulation. Just as the Ka‘ba, imagined as a young girl and addressed as “she,” is ready to jump, Ibn Arabi utters a poem of praise and the structure returns to its normal, fixed state. In thankfulness and humility at his deliverance, Ibn Arabi then composes eight love letters to the Ka‘ba, collected in the Taj al-Rasa’il wa-Minhaj al-Wasa’il (The Crown of Epistles and the Path to Intercessions).

The opening page of a late 17th century copy of Awrad al-Asbu’a, a collection of 14 devotional daily prayers authored by Sufi philosopher and mystic Ibn Arabi, the National Library of Israel collections

For Ibn Arabi as for other mystics, the Ka‘ba and the hajj are part of a symbolic system. The physical structure in Mecca represents the heart where the self and God truly reside; the journey to the true heart supersedes the journey to the physical heart, the Ka‘ba. As Ibn Arabi writes (in Stephen Hirtenstein’s translation):


When God created your body, He placed within it a Ka‘ba, which is your heart. He made this temple of the heart the noblest of houses in the person of faith. He informed us that the heavens… and the earth, in which there is the Ka‘ba, do not encompass Him and are too confined for Him, but He is encompassed by this heart in the constitution of the believing human. What is meant here by “encompassing” is knowledge of God (Futuhat ch. 355).


Nevertheless, the physical Ka‘ba demands respect—as Ibn Arabi terrifyingly learned—precisely because coming face-to-face with the Ka‘ba is coming face-to-face with the self: the most clarified self that is a locus for the manifestation of the divine. The rituals of the hajj are a tool for achieving this revelation and the geography of the sacred city is a map pointing towards it.

An illustration of the Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina (left). From an 18th century Indian manuscript of the Sufi prayerbook Dalāʾil al-khayrāt, the National Library of Israel collections

It is no wonder then that Muslims throughout the ages have made and used images of Mecca as a means of spiritual inspiration. The NLI collection contains numerous manuscript copies of a fifteenth century collection of blessings for the Prophet Muhammad known as the Dala’il al-khayrat wa-shawariq al-anwar fi dhikr salat ‘ala nabi al-mukhtar (“The Signs of Benefits and the Brilliant Bursts of Light in the Recitation of Prayers on the Chosen Prophet”). Composed by the Sufi mystic Muhammad b. Sulayman al-Jazuli (d. 1465), it was one of the most popular Muslim prayer manuals, with copies originating from Indonesia to Morocco. Many manuscripts of the text contain two illustrations: one of Mecca, including the Ka‘ba and other sacred sites, and the other of Medina, the location of the Prophet’s mosque. The images, from different times and places and composed in different styles, reflect the chronological and cultural diversity of the Muslim world. However, at the same time they speak to a shared and unifying desire: to approach the Ka‘ba in order to transcend the Ka‘ba and thereby to find one’s true self.


This article is part of the Maktoub digital Islamic manuscripts project at the National Library of Israel.  Supported by the Arcadia Fund, Maktoub will provide free, global access to more than 2,500 rare Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts and books preserved at the Library, and to the stories behind their creation.


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