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.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10