Lead book review

Mecca: from shrine to shopping mall

A review of Ziauddin Sardar’s Mecca argues that Islam’s most sacred city has been desecrated irrevocably by the Saudis

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

Mecca: The Sacred City Ziauddin Sardar

Bloom, pp.448, £25, ISBN: 9781408809204

Mecca is the greatest paradox of the Islamic world. Home to the Kaaba, a pagan-era cube of black granite said to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, it is the lodestar to which 1.6 billion Muslims direct their five daily prayers. Mecca is the single point on the planet around which Muslims revolve — quite literally for those able to perform the once gruelling, now simply expensive, pilgrimage or haj.

Yet the prodigious, world-illuminating gifts of Islamic civilisation in the arts and sciences, from architecture to astronomy, physics to philosophy, came not from Mecca but from cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul. Where those metro-polises were cosmopolitan and open, melting-pots of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, of all faiths and none, Mecca has long been insular, closed and chauvinistic. It remains to this day a bastion of purity, forbidden to the non-Muslim visitor.

If one wanted to examine what is wrong with a certain strain of Islam in the 21st century — the patterns of intolerance, attitudes towards women, dismissal of other faiths, intellectual and cultural stasis, the rejection of modernity — one could do a lot worse than begin with a long, hard look at Mecca, exporter-in-chief of the doctrinally uncompromising Wahhabi brand of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim who grew up in the Punjab, is well qualified to do this. In the 1970s he worked in Jeddah’s Haj Research Centre, unsuccessfully attempting to steer the Saudis towards a more sympathetic architectural development of Islam’s holiest city.

Much of Mecca’s distinct character, to a large extent shared by its inhabitants, derives from its uniquely harsh geography. For the early Islamic poet Al Hayqatan, not quoted in these pages, Mecca was a place where ‘Winter and summer are equally intolerable. No waters flow… not a blade of grass on which to rest the eye… Only merchants, the most despicable of professions.’ Sandwiched between two barren mountains, it sits in an inhospitable depression scorched by the Arabian sun, 45 miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Lest we be too harsh on the townsmen (the history of Mecca is largely a male preserve), this ferocious environment of desolate mountains, desert and mind-warping heat explains, and perhaps excuses, the attitude expressed in the local saying: ‘We sow not wheat or sorghum; the pilgrims are our crops.’ Visitors have always been there to be fleeced. A pilgrim today, rich or poor, will need to find £3,000–£4,000 to fund his or her haj to Mecca. Already by the ninth century the extremist Qarmatian religious sect was attacking caravans to Mecca and ‘inflicting humiliation and bloodshed’ on the holy city. ‘What is it about visions of paradise that turns minds hellish?’ Sardar wonders.

Mecca’s moment in history came in 610 with the first of a series of divine revelations of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. The subsequent birth of Islam, a radical restructuring of polytheistic life within the Arabian Peninsula, was a violent affair that set tribe against tribe, Mecca against Medina, with Mecca firmly on the (losing) anti-Muslim side. Once the Meccans had succumbed to Mohammed and converted to Islam, with the rebranded Kaaba as totem of the new Muslim faith, the city grew rich quickly. In the late eighth century it was the beneficiary of imperial largesse from visiting Abbasid caliphs from Baghdad. Tribute came from far and wide. Kings of distant Kabul and Tibet sent lavish gifts to honour Mecca.

A sacred sanctuary where feuding tribes set aside their differences long before the advent of Islam, Mecca nevertheless has been no stranger to violence over the centuries. One can only guess at what the Prophet Mohammed would have made of the extraordinary instance of cannibalistic fratricide in 1314. After the ruler Abu Nomay abdicated, his son Humaida, bent on preserving power in the teeth of rivalry from his brothers, killed one of them and invited the others to dinner. In a scene more worthy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover than a family reunion in the holy of holies, they were horrified to find the body of their brother Abul Ghaith as the pièce de résistance — cooked whole and served well done.

The Meccans are not everyone’s cup of tea. Sardar considers them ‘narrow, enclosed and indifferent to the changing realities of the wider world’. Though they pray towards Mecca, many Muslims are much more favourably inclined towards Medina, the City of the Prophet, which welcomed Mohammed after his world-changing flight, or hijra, from Mecca in 622. Had it not been for this well-timed escape, Meccans would have assassinated Mohammed, whose insistence on monotheism and criticism of their long-established idol-
worship was bad for business. As Mohammed put it, ‘O Mecca, I love thee more than the entire world, but thy sons will not let me live.’

Sceptical about the Saudi regime, Sardar is less questioning of the traditional accounts of Mecca by early Muslim historians. He refers to ‘the sanctity and centuries of deference that must accompany Muslim readings of Mecca’ when a little less deference might be in order. Important revisionist histories of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Mecca by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, among others, which cast doubt on the city’s primacy as a centre of trade and pilgrimage, deserve more engagement than an endnote.

The Saudis quite rightly get it in the neck here. One does not need to be a historian to wince at their desecration of Mecca’s built environment. Sites of immeasurable historical interest and significance, such as the Bilal mosque, which dates to the Prophet’s time, have been bulldozed in recent decades. The house belonging to Mohammed’s most revered wife Khadijah is now a public lavatory, an apt symbol of the Saudi regime. Looming 1,972 feet over the sacred shrine in an unholy cross between Big Ben and Las Vegas, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower stands on an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical importance. Saudi clerics want to demolish the Prophet’s house for fear that Muslims could start praying to Mohammed rather than Allah. Anyone looking for the house of Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s closest companion and the first caliph of the Muslim empire, will find instead the Makkah Hilton, a garish edifice that has no business overlooking the Kaaba. But then business appears to be what it is all about. If the Hilton is full, incidentally, visitors can find additional accommodation on Airbnb.

Nor does the destruction end there. The exquisite, Ottoman-era section of the mosque is the oldest surviving part of the sanctuary. Its marble columns, resplendent with carved Islamic calligraphy dating back to the 16th- and 17th-century Sultans Suleiman, Salim I and Murads III and IV, are due to give way to multi-storey prayer halls 80m high.

This is not the rebarbative carping of an infidel reviewer. Many Muslims, not least Sardar, find the architectural destruction and transformation of Mecca profoundly troubling. ‘What the Saudis have done to Mecca is completely ghastly,’ a British Muslim told me recently. ‘It’s a retail extravaganza right up to the Great Mosque. During my haj, the last things I saw before turning towards the Kaaba were a Samsonite shop and Häagen-Dazs. They’ve turned Mecca into a shopping mall.’ The charge sheet against the Saud family runs much longer than this, of course. Official custodians of Islam’s holiest places, they have hijacked and perverted the religion they purport to define.

Yet for all the Saudis’ ruinous genius for kitsch and extremism, Sarda’s Mecca at least will remain ‘a place of eternal harmony, something worth living for and striving to attain. It has always been and it will always be.’

This is a captivating history and memoir, a hymn of love to a place sacred to the world’s Muslims, soured by a family wholly corrupted by petrodollars.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Hegelman

    There seems to be a moral here. Those who wantonly destroy the monuments of others sooner or later have their own monuments destroyed.

    As a Hindu I am very sorry about what has happened to Mecca but it was not completely undeserved.

    • Ismail assenjee

      What you don’t know is the that the muslims know the kaaba will be destroyed http://www.discoveringislam.org/destruction_of_kaba.htm does that satisfy you

      • Grace Ironwood

        Destruction of archeological sites like this satisfy no one but barbarians, Ismail.

        I’m an atheist, and no fan of Islam but turning the prophets wife and companion’s houses into toilets and tourist shops is disgraceful.

        Nevertheless, one can see the irony here.

        • Ismail assenjee

          Why would it matter to atheist ? If everything is just matter then does it matter . onereason.org

          • Garry Lewis


          • Samson

            Yes, it matters very much. Twit.

          • Grace Ironwood

            Look up the difference between atheist and nihilist.

            I would say I am a Cultural Christian, since you bring it up.
            Not a moral relativist.

  • Bumble Bee

    In general Muslims have no respect for anything: other religions, ancient historical monuments, women, children, life.

    Hardly surprising.

    • Mr Grumpy

      The fact that the author of the book reviewed here is a Muslim seems to have escaped you.

      • Bumble Bee

        that does not make my previous statement less true

        In general Muslims are not about creation and/or preservation, they are about destruction

        see: world.

        • Samson

          They’re all about destruction, but waited for centuries to bulldoze a house? Even the local council are faster than that.

          • Bumble Bee

            they have been bulldozing houses for 1400 years, how else do you think suddenly 58 muslim countries came into creation?

          • Samson

            They’re all about destruction but created 58 countries?

          • William Handerson

            you’re completely stupid sir!! you should at least learn about people, before giving null judgments about them. Most people like you become a trash bin where CNN and other news agencies dispose of their baloney, and the worst that you blieve the all of it!! 14 century of civilization, is not distruction, the fake war for freedom is!!!

    • Ismail assenjee

      Ego problems ? Help is at hand onereason.org

      • Grace Ironwood

        No problems at all .
        Thanks for asking,

    • michaelj68

      The fact that one can find sites dating back to the earliest days of human civilization through out the Muslim dominated Near East seems to contradict your point. Don’t confuse the Salafists with 13 centuries of Muslim history.

      • JohnCrichton89

        I would say many of these sights ‘survived’ in spite of Islam, not because of the tolerant pluralistic nature of the religion. Likewise, many of the ‘Islamic accomplishments’ are either false claims/stolen from other cultures or came about in spite of Islam.

        Also, saying that Salafists are the problem is naïve and subversive. They are what they are because of Islam and its texts and its prophet. The fact that some Muslims interpret it differently, generally through ignorance of the text or acrobatic interpretations of vague passages, is in no way an argument against Islam being the problem.
        Nor does it absolve Muslims for teaching a religion to children that has a main stream interpretation that calls for the death and subjugation of non-Muslims.

        When little Mohammed and his two brothers, Mohammad and Muhammed, plant bombs on buses and trains. Or try to blow up a charity event in the name of Islam the problem is everyone literally tripping over one another to help all Muslim collectively wash their hands of any social responsibility.
        Every other week we have well off, well educated, adolescent Muslims running of to ISIS. To enslave other people, keep daughter/wives/mothers as sex slaves and decapitate their brother/fathers/sons.
        Their parents can’t fathom why, we know why. So do they, and so do you.

  • jjjj

    Like the Jordanians desecrated parts of the Jews’ holy wall before 1967and used the bricks for paving stones and the area for a rubbish dump. Nothing new here.

  • freddiethegreat

    Does it really matter? Consider that “Allah” was an arabian moon-god (one of many such little gods in the polytheistic Arabian culture), and was only promoted to Fat Boy of the Universe on the say-so of a man who had both fits and visions, and had to be persuaded by his wife that the visions were from God and not the devil. Maybe the shopping mall is better.

    • Ismail assenjee

      One verse is sufficient to disprove your false narrative http://quran.com/41/37 . If you still wish to pursue being a slave to your desires so be it . onereason.org

      • Fred Collier

        I have a verse for you, no less dramatic and wise in its revealed wisdom:
        Mary had a little lamb,
        She slit its throat for Allah,
        But God appeared and was very annoyed,
        She should have followed Kaballah.

    • Richard Baranov

      Actually, allah is probably a storm god. The idea that he has anything to do with the Judeo-Christian god is nonsense. All that false equivalency comes from Mohammad’s attempts to ingratiate himself with both the Jews and the Christians as the Messiah. Both communities told him to shove off and stop being silly. In revenge he murdered two tribes of Jews and rampaged through Christian lands imposing his particular brand of ignorance on them all and, as we see, keeping the Islamic world in a backward past.

      The Wahhabi’s incidentally, are illegitimate. The true guardians of the “Holy places” in Arabia are the Hashemite’s, currently in exile as the rulers of Jordan. We would all be better off if they were back as the rulers of Arabia, the world would be a considerably more peaceful place., The Hashemite’s are a considerably more civilized bunch than the half civilized contemptible creatures that currently rule.

    • William Handerson

      for some douch bag like you, who thinks using his belly… a mall is better for sure!!!!


    Whether it’s Christianity or Islam the same thing is always claimed. Some how they are responsible for great achievements in “arts and sciences” which happened during their ascendancy. This is of course nonsense, both religions basically assimilated/conquered the areas once ruled by Rome and Greece, where they spent far more time trying to destroy knowledge and progress rather than enable it. For every “invention” they claimed, usually actually created long before, there is a library burned and a thousand philosophers and scientists either silenced or killed.
    We would have progressed far quicker, and been far more enlightened without any of these middle Eastern religions. Especially Islam, which is still trying to crush the genius of man.

    • LastmaninEurope

      Well observed Mr Barrosso. I agree with your analysis, but would amplify your ‘especially Islam’ comment.

      I was also delighted to see the author qualify his use of the reflexive ‘Golden Age of Islam’ trope by acknowledging that the ‘gifts’ only came from the cities with the classical background.

      If Monty Python made a film called Life of Anbir the ‘what have the Muslims ever done for us skit would fall very flat.

    • Ismail assenjee

      lack of knowledge my sir http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qL41gX0fJng

      • BARROSO

        Well there is no way I’m watching a two hour BBC propaganda piece. Maybe you could tell me what these great Islamic inventions were. I’d bet good money I can prove the Greeks or others were there first on almost all of them

        • Suzyqpie

          I suggest that Andrew C. McCarthy clarifies Islamic achievements with this quote, “A weapon of the Islamic propaganda machine is the whitewashing of the ghastly Islamic present by creating a fictional glorious Islamic past.”

  • If Mecca was turned into a giant car park wouldn’t that be better for the rest of the world?

  • James Salvatore

    Lol – we funded all this; and the spread of their virulent strain of Islam by purchasing their oil over the decades.

    • Omar Qadri

      The British are responsible for the Saud family being in power. Watch Lawrence of Arabia…

      • Ismail assenjee

        Every man is responsible for his own downfall onereason.org

      • Samson

        The best documentary eva!!!!!

    • Ismail assenjee

      Why worship capitalism ,worship the one worthy of worship not society or your desires . onereason.org

      • James Salvatore

        buzz off.

  • Fasdunkle

    “Mecca’s moment in history came in 610 with the first of a series of divine revelations of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed”

    Is the author of this article a muslim? Only muslims believe that

    • Samson

      It’s customary to speak of things that way – whether you believe the story or not makes no difference because it’s implicit in the review that the only fact being reported is the story itself, not the truth or fiction of the story’s subject matter. If you say that come Ragnorok a giant wolf will eat the universe it doesn’t make you a Viking or a believer in giant megawolves, you’re speaking in a figurative manner.

  • Kasperlos

    What’s old is new: Throughout the ages one sees gold mingled with the gospel. Baal returns in Gucci. Who could have known. The money changers simply expanded their trade with consumers, er, pilgrims, to Euros, Dinars, Dollars and Lira. The contrast in Mecca of crass capitalist commercialism with religion is simply business as usual. While the pilgrim dreams of paradise in the netherworld, the elites are rapidly defining theirs on planet earth.

    • Ismail assenjee


      • Hey Ismail, interesting islamic website you have: I was wondering if your religion is right for me, and I could join .. As I am a homosexual man and I frequently take cock up my arse and I really enjoy it; could you enlighten me how peaceful your religion is?

        • jjjj

          Don’t arse…I mean, ask.

        • Ismail assenjee

          I don’t own the religion brother you don’t need my permission . If you believe that there is no one worthy of worship except allah not society or your bestial and carnal desires or social norms and that Muhammad is the carrier of the message from your creator who knows best about what is good for you and what is bad for you then your a muslim one who submits his will to his creator his cherisher his sustainer. Allah forgives whatsoever he wills but the sin of worshipping other things beside him he never forgives. This life is a transitory journey to something that is everlastingly pleasurable or painful ie heaven and hell why choose you desires over your creator. Please feel free to ask me for any further assistance

          • …so why are gays hung in so many Islamic countries? An epidemic of misinterpreting the Religion of Peace?

          • Ismail, would you like to join my religion? It is a lot more fun than yours, and we don’t kill anyone in the name of our religion.

            Our God is the one and only Holy Flying Spaghetti Monster
            You may drink beer, eat all animals, in Heaven we have stripclubs, strippers and pole dancers. And every Friday is a holiday! (so you’ll have a 3 day weekend).

            I am an ordained Minister of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). Let me know “brother” if you’re interested. It will take only a minute to convert.
            R’amen !!

  • Mc

    “Mecca’s moment in history came in 610 with the first of a series of divine revelations of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed.”

    Shouldn’t it read as “alleged/purported divine revelations”?

  • smg45acp

    The Saudi brand of Islam, Wahhabism, believes that no physical object should be worshipped. So they actively tear down old historical sites. There have been incidents of these people cheering as millennium old structures were bulldozed.
    Also with the old sites torn down they is no way forarcheologists to prove or disprove any of Islam’s claims.
    Jews and Christians love to pursue archeological digs, because they quite often proves things mentioned in the Bible.

  • JohnCrichton89

    We should turn it to glass, show them some western terrorism and drop a nuke. There are levels of survival we can put up with. We can extract the oil in hazmat suits and find a way to clean off the radiation.

  • jack

    There is nothing cultural in that place; where the sun sets over a muddy pool and the real star of the show , but unknown to the ‘ pilgrims’ is the moon.