In the eyes of many Muslims, and indeed of any person with minimal exposure to the region and the religion of Islam, the Holy Ka'bah is inextricably associated with the color black; that is, the black covering, or kiswah, of the Ka'bah, with its gold embroidery.
Yet, like many of the concepts in our collective consciousness, this idea masks many versions and hidden colors of the rich Islamic history.
If we look back throughout this history, we find that the Ka'bah was not always clothed in black, as it is today—a statement that could spark controversy, as this image has been firmly established in the visual perception of the place.
The kiswah came in an assortment of different colors that have since been erased from our collective memory—and along with them, the nuances of a vast body of Islamic political, philosophical and social views. Reviving these colors should be an ongoing endeavor to maintain and build on the rich legacy of diversity within Islamic history.
During the pre-Islamic jahiliyya period, when the Ka'bah was a site for pagan worship, it did not have a cover, though occasionally, some did cover it.
In the early Islamic period, the Ka'bah was not covered until the Prophet Muhammad’s conquest of Mecca in the year 8 AH (630 CE).
Though the Holy Ka'bah of Mecca is known almost exclusively as having been covered in black, history tells us a more colorful story.
During the Rashidun (the Rightly-Guided Caliphs) and Umayyad caliphates, the Ka'bah was occasionally covered in white fabric, while at the beginning of the Abbasid caliphate, the kiswah periodically alternated colors. It was during this period that scripts in calligraphy began appearing on the covering, bearing inscriptions of the names of the rulers and princes, as well as the dates of when it was produced.
During the Fatimid era, the kiswah remained white throughout the period, until the fall of the empire and the return of the Abbasid caliphate. Once again, the Ka'bah was covered in various colors, including green, which continues to bear sacred symbolism in Islam until today.
As for the black kiswah that we have grown accustomed to, this became the norm in 1225 CE, under the rule of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Nasir li-Din Allah.
The only notable exception in recent history is when the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Saud bin Abdulaziz, decided to cover the Ka'bah in red silk.
Though there are no accurate records of the color changes according to dates, there are stories of the colors it bore under different rulers. Perhaps the first to take an interest in documenting these color changes was the historian and Imam, Abu Waleed bin Abdullah bin Ahmed al-Azraqi (250 H/837 CE). In his book Kitab Akhbar Makka, he compiled stories on the color of the covering of the Ka'bah, and assembled them at the beginning of the Abbasid era.
Other historical accounts of the color of the Ka'bah are extant, including those that appear in the accounts of voyagers and orientalist travelers who visited Mecca. Further, researcher Mohamed Taher al-Kurdi al-Makki compiled the different accounts of the color of the Ka'bah in one book that was published in 2000.