Mecca today is a microcosm of its own history replayed as tragedy
Ziauddin Sardar Ziauddin Sardar | 24 Sep, 2014
Mecca today is a microcosm of its own history replayed as tragedy
I heard Mecca calling one morning in September 2010. I was performing my usual rituals of drinking coffee and reading The Guardian. As I turned the pages of the newspaper, I came across a full-page advertisement. ‘Live a few steps away from the holy heart of the universe,’ it said, underneath a large photograph of the Sacred Mosque. ‘When you look for residence in Makkah, the first thing you seek is how close you’ll be to the holy mosque,’ the advertisement said, inviting the reader to buy a property at the ‘Emaar Residences at the Fairmont Makkah’.
These residences are located within the Royal Makkah Clock Tower, which at 1,972 feet is the world’s second-tallest building after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers and includes shopping malls devoted to luxury goods and seven-star hotels catering exclusively to the obscenely rich. The Clock Tower, as the photograph accompanying the advertisement made clear, dwarfs the Kaaba and soars above the Sacred Mosque. The skyline above the =Sacred Mosque is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling mountains. It is surrounded by the brutalism of hideously ugly rectangular steel and concrete buildings, built with the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcase the Saudi vision for Mecca. They look like downtown office blocks in any mid-American city. The advertisement invites you not to live ‘a few steps’ from the Sacred Mosque but to live over and above it.
What the advertisement does not tell you is that this grotesque metropolis is built on the graves of houses and cultural sites of immense beauty and long history. An estimated 95 per cent of the city’s millennium-old buildings, consisting of over 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, were demolished to build this eruption of architectural bling. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night to demolish Ottoman-era town houses. The complex stands on top of the bulldozed al-Ayad fort, built in 1781 and no longer able to perform its function of protecting Mecca from invaders. At the opposite end of the Grand Mosque Complex, as it is now called, the house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, has been turned into a block of toilets.
The Royal Makkah Clock Tower is not the only building to hover above the Sacred Mosque. There is the Raffles Makkah Palace, a luxury hotel, with round-the-clock butler service. Add to that the Makkah Hilton, built over the house of Abu Bakr, the closest companion of the Prophet and the first caliph. Along with the Intercontinental Mecca they all vie for prominence on the skyline. There are numerous other five-star hotels and high- rise apartment blocks. Within the next decade there will be a ring of 130 skyscrapers looking down upon the Sacred Mosque.
There are spectacular plans to further redevelop the Sacred Mosque so that it can accommodate up to 5 million worshippers. With a seemingly casual disregard for history, the Saudis are rebuilding the Ottoman-era section of the Haram, the oldest surviving section of the Sacred Mosque. The interior, of exquisite beauty, with intricately carved marble columns, built by a succession of Ottoman sultans—Sultan Suleiman, Sultan Salim I, Sultan Murad III, and Sultan Murad IV—from 1553 to 1629, will give way to series of multi-storey prayer halls, eighty metres high. The columns, which are adorned with calligraphy of the names of the Prophet’s companions, will be demolished. Indeed, the whole of the old Sacred Mosque will be bulldozed. History stretching back to Umar, the second caliph of Islam, ibn Zubair, who sacrificed his life to rebuild the Kaaba, and to the Abbasid caliphs, will be replaced by an ultramodern doughnut- shaped building. The new Jamarat Bridge will ultimately be twelve storeys high, so pilgrims will be able to ‘Stone the Devils’ on even more multiple levels.
It seems only a matter of time before the house where Prophet Muhammad was born, located opposite the imposing Royal Palace, is razed to the ground, and turned, probably, into a car park. During most of the Saudi era it was used as a cattle market; the Hijazi citizens fought to turn it into a library. However, even to enter the library is apparently to commit an unpardonable sin—hence no one is allowed in. But even this is too much for the radical clerics who have repeatedly called for its demolition. Also in their sights is Jabal al-Nur, the mountain that contains the cave of Hira, where the Prophet used to retire for meditation and reflection and where he received his first revelations.
What I find particularly troubling is how few are willing to stand up and openly criticize the official policy of the Saudi government. Turkey, and the arch-enemy of the Kingdom, Iran, have raised dissenting voices about the erasure of history, but most Muslim countries are too fearful of the Saudis. There is real fear that their pilgrim quota will be cut—just as the Saudis refused to give visas to the Iranian pilgrims during the late 1980s. Popular vituperative complaint between consenting adults in private, though it is the norm in Muslim circles, is, as it always has been, inconsequential and irrelevant. Far from cautioning the Saudis, architects, including some who are Muslim, are actively colluding with the destruction of Mecca. Peace activists and archaeologists have raised concerns in newspapers and in the pages of learned journals, but the mass of believers are silent. Archaeologists fear that access to the few remaining sites open to them will be blocked. Would-be pilgrims understandably worry that they may be barred from performing a compulsory sacred ritual. Everything else for believers comes secondary to Mecca’s place as the destination for one of five ‘pillars’ of the practice of faith.
Mecca today is a microcosm of its own history replayed as tragedy. The city that has serially been remade in the image of the wealth and imperial splendour of whatever power was dominant is the plaything of its latest masters—who happen on this occasion to be lacking any aesthetic sensitivity, so that the underlying theme of naked power and wealth-driven consumer excess is brazenly exposed for all to see, devoid of saving graces.
Modern Mecca is a city of contradictions. And the contradictions start with the name itself. Mecca, the name of the Holy City, is the original transliteration of the Arabic name. But in English, Mecca is used more widely as a generic term, meaning ultimate destination; a magnet that attracts people in large numbers; or an activity centre for people with a common interest—we refer to Los Angeles, for example, as the Mecca of show business, to Paris as the Mecca of chic fashion. Saudi officials have complained at such ‘derogatory’ usage. They see the name of the Holy City in such labels as ‘Mecca Bingo’, ‘Mecca Motors’, and worse, Mecca as the name for loosely clad American girls, as sacrilegious. So, in the 1980s, the Saudi government officially changed the spelling from ‘Mecca’ to ‘Makkah’, the old spelling, to emphasize the uniqueness of its holy and traditional character. Makkah, or more fully Makkah al-Mukarramah (Mecca the Blessed), is now used by Saudi government institutions as well as international organizations such as the United Nations, the US Department of State and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
‘Makkah’ may be blessed, but the more spiritually oriented Meccans, the descendants of the old and established families of the city, find nothing particularly ‘holy’ in the recycled designation of ‘Makkah’. What is evident to them is a city of proliferating bling, a haven of consumerism and opulent tourism that have usurped spirituality as the city’s raison d’être. They call it ‘Saudi Las Vegas’.
Like the American city famed for its gambling casinos and gaudy architecture, Mecca has become a playground for the rich. For most of the year, it plays host to religious tourists who arrive partly to pray in the Sacred Mosque but also to shop in its countless opulent malls. Many have bought property around the Sacred Mosque not just as a financial investment but in the hope that it will translate into real estate in paradise. For rich Muslims the world over—most notably the Gulf, Malaysia, India, Turkey, and among the diaspora in Europe and the US—a quick visit to Mecca for Umra (the lesser pilgrimage) or ziyarat (the religious term for visit) has become routine. Indeed, for many it’s a badge of prestige: the more visits you make to Mecca the more pious and dedicated you appear. The poor arrive only during the Hajj seasons, and are packaged and processed speedily, without much dignity, from entry to exit in the space of less than two weeks. Yet even the relatively poor are incited to shop at every available moment. Wherever you look in the city, someone close is selling something. Beyond the expensive shopping malls, there are numerous markets, such as Souk Gaza or Souk al-Lail, where only one manner of existence is possible: the shopping mode. The markets are full of stalls, hawkers and street vendors selling everything from fake watches to plastic bottles of ‘holy Zamzam water’, from perfume to cheap prayer rugs and plastic trinkets. The ethos is clear: no one should leave Mecca without some memento.
Apart from the Kaaba and the Sacred Mosque, there is nothing that remains in Mecca that is unique to the city— it is a focal place with no sense of its own history or its place in the world. Nor is it any longer attuned to its own geography and ecology: it is air-conditioned and air-polluted in spite of its location in the Arabian Desert. There are no monuments, no relics, no culture, no art, and no architecture worthy of the name. In contemporary accounts of Hajj, such as Michael Muhammad Knight’s Journey to the End of Islam, there is no sense of the city of Mecca, largely because there is nothing special about the city itself. Knight, an American Muslim with a punk background who has evolved an eclectic Islamic liberation theology, found the Holy City ‘homeless’. Beyond the ‘immaculate’ Haram, the city was utterly mundane. The Moroccan anthropologist Abdellah Hammoudi, who performed the Hajj in 1999, found Mecca ‘to be hesitating between the sublime and a film set’.
The Prophet Muhammad himself knew that many of his fellow Meccans loved money above all else, as illustrated by a telling event in his life. It happened in the year 630 at the Battle of Hunayn, where the Muslims acquired considerable booty. The Prophet distributed the booty amongst his followers, who included many new converts, Meccans, who had joined the army of the Prophet after the fall of the city a month earlier. The Prophet assigned the lion’s share of the spoils, some several hundred camels among them, to the Meccans. His followers from Medina received virtually nothing. This upset the Ansar, the Helpers, as the people of Medina were known. These were the loyal supporters who had followed him unconditionally ever since he was driven out of Mecca and had to migrate to Medina to save his life. Rumours began to circulate amongst the people of Medina. Muhammad was from Mecca, and now he was back with his people; this was why he was showing clear bias towards them. ‘By God, the apostle has met his own people,’ they said. Eventually, one of them went to the Prophet to report what was being said. ‘And where do you stand on this matter?’ the Prophet asked him. ‘I stand with my people: he replied. ‘Then gather your people,’ Muhammad asked him.
When all the people from Medina had been ushered in front of him, the Prophet asked the crowd: did you not believe in me when I came to you discredited? Did you not help me when I was deserted? Did you not take me in when I was a fugitive? Did you not comfort me when I was poor? They all shook their heads in agreement. Are you upset now, the Prophet continued, because of the good things in life that I give to Meccans? ‘Are you not satisfied that [Meccan] men should take away flocks of herds while you return with the Prophet of God? By Him in whose hand is the soul of Muhammad, but for the migration I would not be one of the Ansar myself. If all men went one way, and the Ansar another, I would be with the Ansar: The gathering fell to its knees, and the ‘people wept until the tears ran down their beards’.
Whether Hijazis or Najdis, in history many of the people of Mecca have only had one true love: material wealth, the pilgrims their ‘flocks of herds’. With a few notable exceptions, the citizens of the Holy City have been greedy and money-grabbing.
In the midst of garish skyscrapers, and the manic consumption that envelops Mecca, stands the Kaaba, which is intended as a symbol of equality. But equality is conspicuously absent in the Holy City. Mecca has always been a closed city, enclosed by its own sense of historic importance—the importance of lineage and blood. It has guarded the prerogatives of this unearned inheritance down the centuries with tenacity. The aura of religiosity cannot be inherited. However, this is not an impediment to the ethos of lineage and blood, rather it is its stock in trade. In consequence, Mecca is a place riddled with racism, bigotry and xenophobia. The Najdis regard the Hijazis as inferior for their lack of ethnic purity and keep them at respectable distance. The Hijazis have compromised their cosmopolitanism and cultural openness for the sake of a stake, and status, in the power structure. The Saudis, the Najdis and Hijazis together, are a society apart from the rest of Mecca’s inhabitants—a kind of ‘no-go area’ for ordinary mortals. In Mecca, as in the rest of Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are superior to everybody; but this superiority has its own gradations.
The most ‘superior’ Saudis belong to the royal family, the rulers of a quasi-totalitarian dynastic state based on the absolute supremacy of a single clan, the Al Saud. Next in the pecking order after the royal family, and often quite indistinguishable from them, are the wealthy families such as the Bin Ladens, who are responsible for most of the construction in Mecca and elsewhere in Saudi Arabia; the al-Shaikhs, descendants of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eighteenth-century founder of Wahhabism, who dominate the religious institutions of the Kingdom; the al-Turkis, who own several investment and development companies; and the Rajhis, owners of several banks. Most wealthy families, as well as a string of billionaires, are related to the royal family through marriage or connected to it in some convoluted way involving business deals, loyalty oaths and other tribal rituals. Today, as through much of its history, status in Mecca is demonstrated by the size and location of one’s property around the Sacred Mosque. With a palace towering over the Kaaba, the king is obviously pre- eminent. The bottom layers of social strata comprise the poor Bedouins, who are travellers and refuse to settle and are denied citizenship by Saudi Arabia, and the even poorer Yemenis, who want to be Saudis.
After the Saudis, the scale of superiority moves, still in careful gradation, from Arabs to non-Arabs, taking race and wealth into full consideration. At the top, a few notches beneath the privileged Saudi families, stand European and American converts to Islam. The Saudis see them as demonstrating the innate superiority of Islam as a living and expanding faith. The next rung is Arabic-speaking Muslims. Since they speak the ‘language of the Qur’an’, the Saudis see them as superior to all other Muslims who do not have Arabic as their mother tongue. Then come the Pakistanis, Indians, Malays and Turks. If they are wealthy, they will be treated with some respect. And finally, right at the bottom of this unsubtle Meccan hierarchy, are the Africans—Sudanese, Ethiopians, Somalis—who came initially for pilgrimage and stayed, often illegally. As anyone who has been to Mecca for me Hajj can testify, black skin tone is not appreciated in the Holy City. One can see Black African men and women being treated abominably by the local citizens in front of the Sacred Mosque. The expatriate Muslims, who work and live in the city and have actually built the gigantic structures surrounding the Haram, are treated with equal contempt. Slavery may have been abolished, but in Mecca it is alive and well, although now it goes under the rubric of ‘labour laws’. These define ‘foreigners’ as intrinsically untrustworthy people who cannot be allowed to travel freely in the Kingdom, and have to be watched at all times. Thus the racial and ethnic divisions in the Holy City have remained intact since it was first visited by Naser-e-Khosraw and ibn Jubayr in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
In a city that owes its existence and survival to two women— Hagar, wife of Abraham, whose search for and eventual discovery of water first established the city in the ‘Barren Valley’; and Zubaidah, wife of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al- Rashid, who first provided the city with the supply of usable water that sustained it for centuries—women are treated as chattels. They have to be shrouded and hidden, if they go out they must be accompanied by a male guardian, and under no circumstances can they drive any of the motor vehicles to which the city and its environs have been given over. Foreign maids, from Southeast Asia, Indonesia or African countries, employed by many Meccan households are considered fair game for everything from incarceration to beatings to sex.
Mecca is about religion. One would expect a city devoted to monotheism to be free of superstition and idolatry. The Wahhabi clerics justify the demolition of historical sites and shrines because, they argue, they promote shirk—the sin of polytheism. Yet Mecca is knee-deep in shirk. It is manifest not just in the worship of money, wealth and consumerism. It can be discovered in the Sacred Mosque itself. During the late 1990s, I was in the Haram when there was a call to prayer. The evening prayer had already concluded, so I was rather surprised. Nevertheless, I joined the congregation. The imam started reading the second, and longest, chapter in the Qur’an; I soon realized that this was going to be a very long prayer. I noticed that some members of the congregation were looking towards the sky. I followed their gaze and realized there was a partial eclipse of the moon. The congregation was performing Salat-Ul-Kasuf, special prayers to diffuse the ‘darkness’ of the lunar eclipse. I was aghast—what could be closer to shirk than this? I left the prayer—which went on for over three hours—but was stopped by members of the Mutawwa, the religious police force that enforces the moral code and strict observances of rituals. I pointed out to the Mutawwa, like my predecessors Mahmoud Mobarek Churchward and Eldon Rutter, who visited the Holy City at the dawn of the twentieth century, that eclipses and other stellar events are a natural phenomenon, as it is clearly stated in the Qur’an: ‘The sun, too, runs its determined course laid down for it by the Almighty, all Knowing. We have determined phases for the moon until finally it becomes like an old date-stalk. The sun cannot overtake the moon, nor can the night outrun the day: each floats in its own orbit’ (36. 38–40). I also told them the story of the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s infant son, Ibrahim. It coincided with an eclipse of the sun. Muslims at that time took it as a miracle, a sign from God. A rumour spread throughout Medina that even the heavens were crying for the deep sorrow and loss of the Prophet. But Muhammad was not consoled; he was angry at this gossip. ‘The sun and the moon are signs of God,’ he announced. ‘They are eclipsed neither for the death nor the birth of any man.’ The Mutawwa answered by saying that the prayer was a requirement of the Shariah, Islamic law, and forced me back towards the congregation.
The Prophet, of course, removed all the idols from the Sacred Sanctuary. Today the walls of the city are full of advertisements featuring people missing an eye or a female hand or with a foot painted over. These have been disfigured by the Mutawwa to avoid adulation of the graven images. Yet Meccans venerate the wonders of technology as sacrosanct, revere opulence, and worship insatiable desire. Contemporary Mecca has reverted to its old self and become the pagan heart of Arabia.
Mecca is a city where rituals reign supreme but there are no ethics. One of the most common sights in the city is to see a Saudi man emerging from the Sacred Mosque after prayer, worry beads in hand. He is approached by takruni (black African) women, covered head to toe in a black abaya in scorching heat, who beg outside the Haram. Far from giving them charity, the Saudi tread them with utter contempt, cursing as he goes along. It is not unusual for pilgrim guides to take the money of the poor pilgrims and leave them lost and confused, without provision, to manage on their own. The Mutawwa, Mukhabarat (intelligence forces) and the Bedouins of the National Guard are often aggressive and hostile towards female worshippers, as I have observed on many occasions. And if a visitor or a foreign worker is arrested for some reason, he can easily end up being tortured—innocent or guilty. One of the noted spectacles of the city is the Friday executions, often carried out in a shroud of secrecy, where mostly poor foreign workers—marginalized labourers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Africa—are beheaded.
On the surface, Mecca is changing rapidly. But it is also frozen in a time when cultural diversity, religious pluralism, political dissent, art and music, intellectual accomplishments, academic freedom, political dissent and bridges across gender and nationalities do not exist. Visually the city looks like an amalgam of two film sets, one part ‘Arabian Nights’, the other a science-fiction saga. Minarets jostle with skyscrapers; motorways and towers align to face the Kaaba. Monorails take pilgrims from Mecca to Mina (initially only the Saudis and Gulf Arabs). But look beneath the ground and all the ultramodernity dissolves into sewage. The city has no new sewage system; dig anywhere around the Sacred Mosque, and you will hit sewage after three metres. The Saudis could demolish the Ottoman buildings and town houses, but they could not build a sewage system, which has remained much as it was described by Churchward and Rutter. And, of course, the city’s effluence— much like its affluence —is way past the carrying capacity of the old network. The famous cemetery of Al-Muala, where many members of the household of the Prophet Muhammad are buried, is drowning in sewage. On the outskirts of the town, sewage oozes from the houses.
All Muslims know that the Hajj is one of the five pillars, the central tenets, of Islam, an obligation to be undertaken once in a lifetime, if one is able. History argues that most Muslims who have ever lived have not been able. Pilgrim numbers have fluctuated wildly, reflecting the political and economic conditions of the Muslim world as sensitively as a finely tuned barometer. Even at the best of times the opportunity to complete the Hajj has been the privilege of only a small proportion, usually the most affluent and educated, of any population. The idea of Mecca, the history of its elevation and idealization in Muslim consciousness, is a function of the rarity of the experience. It was something to long for and dream about. Every other element of the five pillars could be accomplished in the comfort of one’s own home. Going to Mecca was something quite different.
Not surprisingly it is the journey, the enormous effort of getting there, that predominates in all the books written down the centuries by pilgrim travellers. When so few Muslims could ever realistically conceive of performing the Hajj it is little wonder Mecca became the concern of the dominant powers, the imperial courts, those who wished to publish and broadcast their credentials as guardians of Muslim existence. In an age of increasing case of global travel, do we not need to unpick this historic connection? When the bulk of the world’s Muslims can realistically plan for and look forward to going to Mecca not once in a lifetime but whenever they want, should the focal point of religious consciousness, the lodestone of Muslim identity, not acknowledge and be answerable to all those whose lives it informs and enriches? How would it be possible to make the transformation from beacon to the world to the place that belongs to the whole world? Could Mecca ever become truly an international city, the heart that belongs to the whole body of believers, rather than the Arabian backwater compliant with the grand imaginings of its chance rulers? I have heard people assert as much. The question is what would such a transformation consist of, and what kind of difference would it make in Mecca and throughout the Muslim world? The factionalism and dissension, the intolerance of differences, so prevalent in history, have by no means disappeared from Muslim existence. Yet to internationalize Mecca would be a grand idea. All the grander for requiring urgent and informed thought about what it means to be Muslim now and wherever one happens to live in this all too real world.
In all my travels, actual and literary, the city of my heart remains secure. Nothing could change my relationship to the Mecca I first encountered as a child. I have dreamt of Mecca, loved Mecca, longed for Mecca and found Mecca. This Mecca has always been more than a geographical location: it is a state of consciousness, the focus of prayer, the signifier of aspiration for the Divine. It is the place where I experienced the most profound moments of my life. This is not to say that my ideas have not been changed by travelling to Mecca and through the annals of its history. I have found a great deal more than I dreamed of, much of it a nightmare. I have concluded that dreams are not enough. Our dreams, like everything else, must be subject to critical scrutiny and objective judgement if they are to be worthwhile ideals to help negotiate the realities of this world. Mecca exists to shape us, not to be shaped by an unchallenged parade of human follies and foibles.
Nevertheless, my last best hope for myself and everyone is to know the timeless peace of Mecca I met in the eyes of one old man, the Pakistani peasant who had come to the Holy City to die. For believers like him, Mecca is a place of eternal harmony, something worth living for and striving to attain. It has always been. And it will always be.
(Excerpted from Mecca: The Sacred City, Bloomsbury India | Pages 408 | Rs 599)
(The author is a Pakistan-born broadcaster and cultural critic)
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